Tuesday, December 25, 2007

We Need A Real Leader

Two summers ago now, Dave Fay wrote in the Washington Times that the Caps needed a leader, a run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player who should not only show the Caps how to win, but how to win in the playoffs. Dave Fay suggested Micheal Peca as that type of player and strongly encouraged the Caps to sign the then Free Agent (who instead went to Toronto and spent most of the year on IR, he's now in Columbus the last time I checked and has had about as much of an impact there as he did in Toronto).

I disagreed to Fay to a certain point. Before last season even started, I felt there was no way the Caps were going to make the playoffs. I believed that the "fearless leader" type could wait another year with little damage. I also objected to the idea of Michael Peca being that type of leader for this team. He's never won anything in his career and IMHO, is one of the most overrated players in the history of the game.

But as this season as gone on, Fay's call two years ago now for a leader becomes more and more true. No offense to Captain Chris Clark who took a puck in the mouth, finished his shift, and then had to be threatened by management because he wanted to return right away. But Captain Clark is not a fearless leader run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player, at least not right now. He could become that type of guy but isn't there yet. The closest the Caps have to that is A.O., but A.O. is a superstar type of player and those types of player often have a hard time relating to the players who are not as supremely talented as they are. Besides, A.O. tends to try to do everything himself way too much instead of leading the rest of the team in that kind of charge. What I'm thinking is another Dale Hunter type of player. A guy who has enough talent to play in the NHL but isn't a superstar and just refuses to ever lose.

Of course, you can't discuss leadership on the Caps and not mention Olie Kolzig. Kolzig has by far the longest tenure of any player on the team (He's in his 16th season, take a guess as to who is second in tenure behind Olie? It's this guy who is in his 6th season with the team.) and has long been considered the "Unofficial Captain" of the team.

Yet even before Kolzig was dubbed "Unofficial Captain," national NHL Talking Heads alluded to leadership issues in the Washington Dressing Room. Guys like Bill Clementhead and Mullet Melrose would often flat out say that there were leadership problems on the Caps and this was before Jagr was ever added to the Caps volatile locker room which clearly didn't help matters.

Now in the defense of Kolzig, there's a reason why goaltenders are not allowed to be named team captain. First of all they can't conduct business between team and the officials on the ice, especially in games when they are the backup goaltender. It is also isn't a good idea because that's the only time they're ever on the bench, when they're the backup and not playing in the game. They can't "rally the troops" on the bench and then go out and set an example on their next shift, because they're hardly ever on the bench during a game in which they are playing. The goaltender has a single job which is to stop pucks. They aren't responsible for things like clearing the zone, finding the open space on the ice, and scoring goals.

However, this Caps season has already seen a coaching change. Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon a little over a month ago now but can we honestly say that things have changed every much? The team has played roughly .500 hockey which is a bit of an improvement but not very much. Boudreau has brought an aggressive style back to the Caps and is a lot more willing to rip the players who are underperforming than Hanlon ever was. But so far a Boudreau tongue lashing has a positive effect on the team for only a week. That's great when the Caps have four home games and end up winning three of them but when there's only two games in the one week span, the results tend not to be as positive. Furthermore, by being a bit of a taskmaster Boudreau is going to wear out his welcome with the team quicker than any other type of coach. I really think that the Caps had tuned out Hanlon and that a change of voice is what was needed for the Caps.

But since Boudreau was hired, it has become apparent to me that the real problem is a lack of leadership from the players themselves. This has been a problem since end of Dale Hunter's captaincy and the only constant through this entire time is Olie Kolzig. Again, while goaltenders are not allowed to be named captain, Kolzig looks to me to be more of the problem with leadership than the cure. First of all Kolzig's apology to Hanlon after Hanlon was fired seemed kind of odd to me. But when you read what he said about Hanlon's dismissal don't you really wish you were in on that conversation? Then take his comments from this past Saturday:

"Numbers don't always tell the true story ... We're playing a system now where you don't get a lot of comfort shots, a lot of perimeter shots. You've got to be ready. We're not allowing teams to come right through, but when they do, it's on a breakdown or a power-play shot.

"We're more aggressive in the defensive zone; we're pressuring. But if one guy isn't doing his job, that leaves another guy wide open. That's what I'm facing. I've come to grips with that. My philosophy is to make the key save at the right time."

Now unless Tarik El-Bashir is taking Kolzig's comments out of context (and I don't think he is) Kolzig is basically saying, "yeah, I'm not coming up with the big saves as much as I used to, but my team mates are hanging me out to dry because of the new system our new coach has installed"

Now, who wants to count the number of players and coaches Kolzig just threw under the bus with that one? Now keep that in mind and go back and look at what he said when Hanlon was fired:

[It] has nothing to do with coaching, and has everything to do with individuals not listening and being on their own program.

While I'm in no place to argue otherwise, who's fault is that? What does it say about the leadership on the team when the players hold a meeting, discuss their mistakes, and then go right back out there and make the same mistakes again?

It's pretty clear to me that Kolzig isn't getting the job done as a leader. Maybe much like coaches in the NHL, the locker room leaders wear out their welcome as well and get tuned out by the rest of the team. Kolzig's play this season hasn't given him much credibility either. After flubbing a clearing attempt against the Buffaslugs that turned into a shorthanded layup, Kolzig gave up another soft goal later in the game. Kolzig played well in regulation in Detroit but was then beaten badly on the exact same move three times in a row in the gimmick.

Kolzig couldn't throw anybody under the bus for that one.

Now I am NOT saying that the Caps need to trade Kolzig. Kolzig's contract is up at the end of the season and he'll be a UFA. As a matter of fact, his next contract is going to stick with the Caps for its entire term unless Kolzig is traded or goes to another team. My plea to Henrik Lundqvist was part joke, part serious. The Caps have Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov in the pipeline who are highly regarded prospects but unproven at the NHL level. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the Caps to go out and get that fearless leader run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player in the off season and nudge Kolzig into retirement this summer.

Everybody in these parts is (rightly) concerned about the contract negotiations between the Caps and A.O., but Kolzig is in a contract year himself and we've heard even less speculation about that one. While the blueline certainly needs to improve, goaltending is always the key to winning, especially come playoff time. Even with Kolzig, I don't think we have the goaltending we need to make a run in the playoffs. A.O.'s contract will get done on its own time and he'll remain with the Caps. Kolzig however, may be playing his last season in Washington.

Because folks, let's face facts here, this season is lost. The Caps are not making the playoffs this year. They would need Kolzig to play like he did ten years ago in the playoffs for them to even have a chance. Kolzig shows no signs of returning to that form and because his play is slipping, he won't be able to rally the rest of the team behind himself. That's why this team needs a real leader.

A perfect example of a young team being turned around by a leader is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dave Andreychuk was a but good but hardly a great player. He came on board in Tampa in 2001-2002. In second season was named Captain and he got the Ning back into the playoffs and in his third, he helped them get their wired Stanley Cup. There are other examples out there, but this is only the most recent one.

And just exactly who could/should this leader be? That's a good question because I don't have the answer myself. As shown above, it doesn't need to be a household name, just somebody who refuses to let his team lose. We may already have that player in Captain Clark, but he's not having the chance to be that guy out of deference to Olie. But this is why guys like George McPhee are paid the big bucks that they are and I'm just some idiot blogger who has to pay his way into the Phone Booth. McPhee or whoever takes his place as General Manager, should the Caps decide to fire McPhee, are the ones who need find the leader that the Caps need and bring him to the Caps.



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