Monday, May 25, 2020

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- May 26

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.  Consider the first pair of front office leaders, general manager Milt Schmidt and head coach Jimmy Anderson.  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.  Well on 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).  He fared 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.  He returned to the front office after that first season, but he was let go the following season.  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.  The Caps 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 2008.  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.  He had 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.  After McPhee 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 opportunity.  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 Penguins. 

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 direction.