I read with interest both On Frozen Blog's piece "Renewed Questions of Leadership" and Ed Frankovic's "Caps Off-season Focus Should Be on Leadership". I know both these guys very well from our time in the press box together, not to mention an episode or two of working out with 12 ounce curls, and have the utmost respect for both. Please take a moment or two to read their opinions if you haven't already.
They know my way of thought as well, so I think they will understand my position when I say, respectfully, that I disagree with them and think they are both over-simplifying the point and romanticising a notion that is not quantifiable. And they are doing it, maybe even subconsciously, because the real answer is too tough to take.
They both go to great extents to quote executives and others in the game about the importance of "Leadership". It's a concept that is as deeply rooted in hockey as the mythical "playoff hockey." (I guess Vancouver didn't play "playoff hockey" last night since they won 7-3.) Hockey is the only sport that bestows a decoration on the uniform of one of its players signifying he is the captain. But for the most part, it's just that: a decoration.
Leadership isn't taught. It isn't acquired. It isn't tangible. If George McPhee, or any executive, could identify it or train someone to do it, they already would. Leaders aren't made, they are born. You can train people to manage others, to teach others, to instruct others, to discipline others. But only Leaders know how to lead.
It has to be self-motivated.
McPhee has gone out the last couple of seasons to acquire several veterans that were supposed to bring "leadership." Jason Chimera. Mike Knuble. Scott Hannan. Jason Arnott. Dennis Wideman. He had a pretty good one in the room already in Brooks Laich. All are tremendously hard workers, experienced, talented, sacrificing; honorable. Knuble and Arnott have rings; Arnott a former captain. Are these not the requirements that John and Ed spoke about in their posts? Is the fact that the Caps flamed out in the second round this season evidence these men are not leaders?
Were these players leaders during the regular season, when the Caps came back from an eight-game losing streak in December to capture the Eastern Conference regular season title? Were they leaders in the first round when the Capitals stymied the New York Rangers in five games? Are we to believe then that they simply forgot to lead in the second round? I hardly think so.
And how about the captain, the man on this team that wears the decorative "C' on his sweater? There's not a man in that room that doesn't have the utmost respect for Alex Ovechkin. There's also not a man in that room that wants to win more than he does. Isn't that where respect -- leadership -- comes from?
The problem with the Capitals isn't a lack of leadership, on the ice, in the room, or in the organization. If anything, the problem is with some of the individuals in the room and their lack of clarity of purpose. There are several on this team that are "happy to be here." They may be extremely talented players, and at times say the right things, but repeatedly cower when faced with hardship and sacrifice.
These players are not capable of being led, not at this time anyway. At some point in their careers they may realize that all the money, fame and notoriety is meaningless without achieving the ultimate goal. But for now, they are too self-centered to concentrate, really seriously concentrate, on the matter at hand and sacrifice personal gains for the team's greater pursuit. No less an expert on leadership than Gen. George S. Patton alluded to this concept in his speech to the Third Army in 1944.
"Each man must not think only of himself, but also of his buddy fighting beside him. We don't want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats. If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards. The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the... cowards and we will have a nation of brave men."
Now I'm not comparing the game of ice hockey to the rigors of World War II, but the concept of leadership is the same regardless. No, the problem with this team isn't the lack of leaders, its that it has a lack of followers. Cull the cowards from the program as Patton suggests and watch how effective the leaders that are already assembled can be.
Ultimately though, and this is the point that no one wants to address: you have to have the players. For all the fawning media coverage of this team locally, the real truth is that this team is still significantly flawed in several areas and honestly, just isn't good enough to compete past the level they have achieved the last few seasons. They aren't advancing because of lack of leadership, it's because they aren't good enough yet.
Again, from Patton:
"The publicity I have been getting, a good deal of which is untrue, and the rest of it ill considered, has done me more harm than good. The only way you get on in this profession is to have the reputation of doing what you are told as thoroughly as possible."
Aynyway, here are the points I consider to be this teams biggest weaknesses.
- This team is weak physically down the middle. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson are both extremely talented players and supreme skaters, but lack the physicality necessary to compete with stronger players. It's no secret that if you put a body on these guys they aren't going to answer the bell, and it's more glaring in the playoffs when the sheet gets shorter. None of the Capitals centers in the playoffs except for Boyd Gordon on the fourth line had a faceoff percentage higher than 50 percent. That's unacceptable.
- There's not nearly enough toughness on this team. Matt Hendricks and Matt Bradley were both willing during the regular season to drop the gloves when they had to, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about players willing to get into the corners, dig pucks out, stand in the crease and deliver a pounding. Not take it, but deliver it. The Capitals lose more one-on-one puck battles than any other team in the league. This team is in need of a couple of rugged wingers (and probably a defenseman as well) willing to get their noses dirty and push people around. They don't need fighters, they need physically stronger players to give their supremely talented players more room to skate.
- There's no offensive contribution from the third and fourth lines at all. 17-of-21 goals scored by forwards in the playoffs by the Capitals were by just six players. Look at Tampa Bay, their third line of Bergenheim, Downie and Moore have combined for 13 goals and 19 assists in 13 games. Boston has 12 players with more than one goal in the playoffs. You don't need a 30-goal scorer on the third line, but you need contribution. Bergenheim has made himself a LOT of money this post-season as he becomes a UFA.
- I've said this before, but I also think Bruce Boudreau needs to go back to what got him here. He doesn't like playing the trap. He's never implemented it before and has never taught it. His players are ill-fitted for it and don't like it. The lack of conviction from his players was evident because of the lack of conviction in the system by the coach. Live by the sword or die by it. I maintain that Boudreau allowed the Canadian media to alter his judgment on the heels of the loss to Montreal last year and the pain of the eight-game losing streak. Another thing Patton said in his address to the Third Army in 1944 applies here (forgive the rough language):
"I don't want to get any messages saying, "I am holding my position." We are not holding a thing... We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy's balls. We are going to twist his balls and kick the living shit out of him all of the time. Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy."
- Lastly, Alex Ovechkin needs to elevate his game. The league has "figured him out." If he wants to lead this team and become one of the greats of all-time, he's going to have to elevate his game past what it is now. He's going to have to learn when to try to carry the puck and when to give it up. He's going to have to dump to the opposite corner and crash the goal. He's going to have to reign in his emotion and channel it rather than let it get the best of him. And he needs to be in supreme shape at the beginning, middle and end of the season.
Lastly, and I know this is the hardest part of all, but I implore all Caps fans to continue exercising patience.
There are a lot of Caps fans that have no idea how it was back in the dark days, when this team was a laughingstock or worse, an afterthought. The Washington Capitals franchise is enjoying an unprecedented run of success and with the two best players signed long-term, there's little reason to think that run won't be continued. This team is young, talented and managed by dedicated and knowledgeable executives. They just have some issues that still need to be addressed.
There is no reason to blow this thing up and start over. Bringing in new coaches or executives would only delay the process, not speed it up. At least in my opinion.
The window isn't closing, as some folks would lead you to believe, it's barely been opened. They just have to fix the cracks.