When looking back on days in Washington Capitals history and
if they might have happened differently had certain things happened or not, it
is not just a matter of looking back at a game or a player acquisition. Sometimes, it is a matter of management.
The Capitals have a long and winding history with their
coaches and general managers.
the first pair of front office leaders, general manager Milt Schmidt and head coach
Schmidt, the first
Capitals GM, built an impressive resume as a player (part of the “Kraut Line”
for the Boston Bruins that won two Stanley Cups), coach (760 regular and
postseason games with the Bruins), and GM (architect of two Bruin championship
teams in the 1970’s).
With the Caps,
things were a bit different.
their way to a season of historic futility in their inaugural campaign as an
expansion team, Schmidt was reduced to pleading for help
to improve the talent
level on the ice.
Meanwhile, behind the bench, Anderson was struggling to make
the Capitals something other than a punch line.
It was a losing battle. Anderson
lasted 54 games, compiling a record of 4-45-5.
On the road, his team went 0-28-0.
That is not a misprint. The Caps
allowed more than six goals per game on the road and were shutout four times in
those 28 road games. Only two of the
losses were of the one-goal variety. Not
once in the 28 road games did they take a lead into the third period. They sucked.
Anderson would be succeeded by Red Sullivan, himself a
veteran of six seasons as a head coach (four with the New York Rangers, two
with the Pittsburgh Penguins).
little better than Anderson, going 2-16-0, and had some interesting experiences
in his brief tenure.
Seeing the wreckage strewn across the landscape under Anderson an Sullivan,
Schmidt took over the team as head coach for the team’s last eight games and
scraped together a 2-6-0 record.
returned to the front office after that first season, but he was let go the
It was, all things
considered, not a happy memory
It would be the creaky, brittle foundation of Capitals on
and off ice management that plagued the team in those early years. The Caps were relatively settled in the front
office with Max McNab succeeding Schmidt as GM, but the Caps went through seven
head coaches over 574 games with a combined record of 138-347-89 before
bringing in Bryan Murray in November 1981.
Murray spent eight and a half seasons behind the Capitals’ bench,
posting a regular season record of 343-246-83, his win total still most by a
head coach in team history. And, he was
the first jack Adams Award winner in team history as the league’s top coach
(1983-1984). But Murray could not get
the Caps over the hump in the postseason, posting a disappointing 24-29 record
in seven trips to the playoffs. Only
three times in those seven postseasons did the Caps advance as far as the
second round, and never further.
Murray’s frustration, and by extension that of Roger Crozier
and David Poile, who were general managers during the period, would be a common
thread for the Caps for more than three decades.
Starting with Murray, the Caps would employ
nine head coaches who combined for a regular season record of 1232-969, with
323 ties and overtime losses.
But it is
also a group than combined for a lackluster 96-116 record in 212 postseason
games, only twice (to the third round under Terry Murray in 1990 and to the
Stanley Cup final in 1998 under Ron Wilson) advancing past the second round.
Neither David Poile, nor his successor George
McPhee, could find the formula as general manager to put the players on the ice
to replicate the success in the postseason that Caps teams had on a more consistent
basis in the regular season.
were perpetually the club that could do well, occasionally very well, in the
regular season, but always came up short in the spring.
And that brings us to May 26, 2014.
The Capitals had just completed a disappointing 2013-2014 season,
failing to make the playoffs for the first time (and still only time) since
They finished fifth in the
Metropolitan Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference, three points short
of a wild-card berth in the postseason.
It cost general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates their
jobs in late April
A month to the day after the departures of McPhee and Oates,
the Caps named their replacements
– Brian MacLellan to take over as GM and
Barry Trotz as the new bench boss.
The hiring of MacLellan might have seemed a surprise to those who expected a
more thorough house-cleaning.
just completed his 13th
season in the organization as a pro scout,
director of player personnel, and assistant general manager under McPhee.
The Trotz hiring might have been something of
a surprise as well.
dismissed head coach Ron Wilson at the end of the 2001-2002 season, he embarked
on a journey that saw him hire five head coaches over the next ten seasons, all
of them in their first NHL posting as a head coach (Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon,
Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Oates).
Barry Trotz was the opposite of that in terms of experience, having
spent 15 seasons as the only head coach in Nashville Predators history.
But he was dismissed after the 2013-2014
season, having missed the playoffs for a second straight year and, like the
Capitals, finding it difficult to advance deep in the playoffs when he had the
Only twice in seven playoff
years did his teams advance to a second round, and never further.
Over the next four weeks, MacLellan and Trotz filled out the
management roster, naming Ross Mahoney assistant general manager, Todd Reirden
and Lane Lambert as assistant coaches, and Mitch Korn as goaltending coach. And then, MacLellan went to work on retooling
the roster. In the space of 25 days to
start July 2014, he signed 12 players to contracts, among them free agents
Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen from Pittsburgh, and Caps 2014 first round draft
pick Jakub Vrana.
Not all of MacLellan’s moves bore fruit. Signing Justin Peters as a backup to Braden
Holtby in July 2014 did not work out as planned, nor did his trading for Tim
Gleason and Curtis Glencross in the stretch run of the 2014-2015 season, or his
trading for Kevin Shattenkirk in what was hoped for as the last piece needed
for a championship in 2017 (the Caps were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins
in the second round). But he did pull
the trigger on trades bringing T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller to Washington, and he
re-upped players such as Braden Holtby, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre
Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer and Dmitry Orlov.
He brought in free agents Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson. When he traded a third round draft pick to
Chicago for defenseman Michal Kempny in February 2018, it was viewed at the
time as a relatively minor deal.
However, it might have been the “last piece” the Caps have long tried to
find, Kempny doing much to settle the defensive pairings as the Caps marched to
the Stanley Cup later that spring.
Meanwhile, Barry Trotz was trying to shed his history of
early playoff failure, and he was having a rough time doing it. He won his first postseason series as a
Capitals head coach, beating the New York Islanders in a seven-game opening
round series. However, Trotz and the
Caps were eliminated by the New York Rangers in a seven-game second round
series, touching off a string of three straight seasons in which the Caps would
be eliminated in the second round, twice by the eventual Stanley Cup champion
The third time was not the charm for Trotz or the Caps, but
the fourth time was. In his fourth trip
to the postseason with Washington, Trotz managed the players largely assembled
by MacLellan, was assisted by Lambert, Reirden, and Korn (and holdover Blaine
Forsythe), and the organization won the Stanley Cup it was long denied, going
through the hated Penguins on the way.
Of the 20 players to dress for the Capitals in their Stanley
Cup-clinching game against the Vegas Golden Knights on June 7, 2018, all but five
(Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Chandler Stephenson, John Carlson, and Jay
Beagle) were personnel decisions taken by MacLellan:
- Unrestricted free agents (4): Brett Connolly, Devante
Smith-Pelly, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen
- Trades (3): Michal Kempny, Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie
- Re-signings (7): Dmitry Orlov, Christian Djoos, Tom Wilson,
Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer
- Entry-level contract (1): Jakub Vrana
Each of the other five skaters to appear in the postseason
for the Caps were MacLellan personnel actions as well (Jakub Jerabek, Nathan
Walker, Shane Gersich, Travis Boyd, Alex Chiasson).
It took four years and change, but the seeds planted on May
26, 2014 did, finally, bear fruit.
Ponder what might have happened if the Caps went in a different