Sunday, August 02, 2009

It's An Ovie-ful Life: Part III

As Part III of this tale opens, the Capitals have completed the 2006-2007 season in a way reminding what few fans they have left of the old saying about the Washington Senators that could be updated to reflect the Caps’ futility…

“Washington… first in war, first in peace, last in the NHL East.”

Although the Caps would tie the Flyers for the worst record in the NHL in the 2006-2007 season, the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with the fifth-worst record and had only an 8.1 percent chance of winning the lottery, did just that. The Flyers, with fewer wins than the Caps, would pick second and the Caps third. The Caps weren’t waiting around, though, as things started happening shortly after the season ended. Coach Glen Hanlon was relieved of his duties on the day after the season ended. Without a marquee player to market, without a distinctive style to galvanize fan interest, the Capitals embarked on a search for a marquee coach – one with a record of success, if possible. On Memorial Day 2007, the Caps would announce the signing of Mike Keenan as head coach, Keenan’s eighth stop in an NHL coaching career that spanned more than two decades. He would bring with him a record of six divisional championships, but none since winning the Atlantic Division title and the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994.

With once more having a high draft pick, the Caps turned their attention to their final evaluations of eligible amateur prospects, while the Ovechkin-led Penguins and Crosby-led Rangers were battling toward their first playoff meeting in the Eastern Conference final. The top three prospects in the 2007 draft were thought to be Kyle Turris (the CSB top-ranked prospect from Burnaby, BCHL), Patrick Kane (the top-ranked prospect at ISS from London, OHL), and James Van Riemsdyk (US U-18). While the anticipation on draft day centered on what the Blackhawks would do, there would be a mini-soap opera unfolding with the third pick. Rumors would swirl around the floor that the Capitals were looking to trade down from the number three spot, which raised more than a few eyebrows. As the Blackhawks and Flyers picked Kane and Van Riemsdyk promptly with their selections, the Caps used almost every second on the clock before making their pick – Kyle Turris. It didn’t look like a happy table, perhaps not for having missed a chance to trade down but rather for not agreeing on what to do with the pick.

July 1st is generally treated like Christmas Day for NHL fans – it is the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period. But when you’re a club with a lot of missing pieces, a lot of pieces that don’t quite fit yet, and an empty pocketbook, you’d be thankful for coal in your stocking if you were a Caps fan. There wasn’t even that in this summer of free agency. The Caps were managing payroll and crossing their fingers that Barker, Brule, and Johnson were ready to stick and that some other youngsters could make an impact – Eric Fehr (a 2003 draftee), Alexander Semin (a 2002 draftee), Mike Green and Jeff Schultz (these two being the other first rounders in 2004). On paper, it would be a solid nucleus of prospects. But again, the twin problems would be the growing pains one had to endure with prospects of longer lead times than those such as Crosby or Ovechkin, and patience, a commodity in diminishing supply as the Caps entered the 2007-2008 season having averaged 58 standings points over the previous three seasons.

Patience was also not often a characteristic attributed to the Caps’ new bench boss, and it was tested early in the 2007-2008 season. Brule was not ready – two points in October – and by Hallowe’en was skating on the fourth line. By Thanksgiving, he’d be in Hershey. Barker didn’t make it that far – he started the season in Hershey. Johnson was pushed into more minutes and more responsibility than he was ready for, but he Caps had little choice. Green was contributing some in the offensive end, but his defensive play was an adventure, leading him to take a room in Keenan’s Chateau Bow-Wow. The Caps couldn’t stop anyone from scoring, and teams were loading up on defending Jason Arnott, whose contract had become quite an albatross for the club, and Alexander Semin, who was finding playing for Mike Keenan difficult.

The club was a mess.

Frustration on and off the ice was one commodity that was in large supply, and even an organization not given to a lot of disclosure couldn’t hide all of it. The Caps were showing no signs of improving their standing from recent years, and the club looked disinterested on the ice, the cruelest slap in the fans’ faces. A team with a long history of being a hard-working, lunch pail sort of club was going through the motions by the time the holidays rolled around. Finally, with the Caps mired in 30th place at the All Star break with a record of 14-29-7 and rumors of front office in-fighting, Keenan abruptly resigned.

The Caps looked to Hershey, where the Bears were once more among the leaders in the AHL. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau had led the Bears to a Calder Cup in 2006 and the Calder Cup final in 2007. He was on a pace for another trip deep into the playoffs with the Bears when the Caps called. Boudreau took over a demoralized club that was far out of the playoff mix and lacked the parts to do much damage to teams that were contending. The Caps went younger, calling up Brule to join the other youngsters.

Boudreau’s style, emphasizing an attacking strategy, appealed to the younger, more offensively-oriented players. But the club still suffered from uneven effort on defense and inconsistent goaltending. The mix made for a more entertaining brand of hockey, but not enough to move the needle appreciably in terms of improvement in the standings or tickets sold. The Caps were competitive until the end of February, playing .500 hockey, but couldn’t sustain the effort. They finished 12-14-6 in Boudreau’s portion of the season to complete the 2007-2008 campaign 26-43-13. 65 points would not be enough to get the Caps out of the NHL basement. Neither would it inspire enough fans to come to the rink to lift the Caps out of 30th place in the NHL in attendance.

It was another lost season with a summer that would suggest changes. That’s where we will pick up Part IV.