Monday, January 28, 2008

The George McPhee Watch: Day 68

It has never ended folks. We only removed the "interim" tag when General Manager George McPhee removed the interim tag from Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. While Boudreau has so far proven himself as a capable NHL Head Coach, rightly or wrongly the CW is that McPhee's fate hinges on whether or not the Caps will make the playoffs. So with a little downtime before the crunch time starts, we'll look at the Caps chances of making the playoffs this season.

Why The Caps WILL Make The Playoffs:

  • There's no arguing that the Caps have turned this season around to this point after the firing of Glen Hanlon. The team is 17-12 with 38 points since Hanlon was fired and after being four points in 30th place, are now just 1 point away from leading the Southeast Division with 2 games in hand and grabbing the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference.
  • The improved record is due entirely to the improved play. The Caps offense has come to life under Boudreau and with not just Boudreau's former Hershey players taking off. Nicklas Backstrom, who played exactly zero games for Boudreau before he took over the Caps, has set rookie records and should be a serious candidate for Rookie-of-the-Year. The increased scoring from players not named A.O. has allowed A.O. to become a bonafide M.V.P. candidate.
  • One of the most important aspects of the coaching change is the attitude of the team. Under Hanlon, the Caps would face some kind of adversity and fold. Now under Boudreau, they almost seem incapable of finding their game until they fall behind a goal or two. You don't want to leave a Caps game early now.

Why The Caps WILL NOT Make The Playoffs:

  • Standings wise, it looks as if it will be win the Southeast Division or don't make the playoffs. While an 8th seeded matchup against Ottawa is a scary proposition for Senators fans, it isn't very likely right now. The Caps are 3 points out of the 8th seed and have no games in hand. With two teams in front of the Caps for the 8th spot; it looks doable with 32 games left on the schedule. But the schedule is not in the Caps favor. They have a six game road trip at the end of March and of the 18 teams the Caps will play, all but one (the Tampa Bay Lightning) are either currently holding a playoff spot or are within 6 points of making the playoffs. That means every game is huge for both sides and the chances of the Caps catching somebody napping are slim.
  • While the scoring has increased, so has the goals against. Olie Kolzig's whining aside, you have to seriously wonder if he and Brent Johnson can get the job done for the team down the stretch. Johnny has had the hot hand lately but he's shown in recent years that he can be frustratingly inconsistent. Kolzig is slowing down and even if the team makes the playoffs, would you feel comfortable with Kolzig or Johnson between the pipes? A recommitment to defense first could very well be necessary to win enough games and that goes against what has made the team successful under Boudreau.
  • Injuries, injuries, injuries. They will eventually catch up to you. Michael Nylander is done until training camp next season and heaven only knows when Brian Pothier and Captain Chris Clark will return to action. Skating John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles on a regular shift every night and having Boyd Gordon and Brooks "and Dunn" Laich platoon as your second line center is not a recipe for long-term success. Though in fairness to McPhee, there is very little fault for him on this one. The salary cap makes it difficult for anybody to build quality depth.
  • Quite simply, the law of averages will catch up to everybody eventually. Atlanta fired Bob Hartley after an 0-6 start and are now 23-29, the same number of games under .500 they were when they made the change. The bounces, the breaks, and even the effort is going to start going against the Caps at some point. We've seen how they've faced adversity in a game under Boudreau but how will they face adversity in a stretch of games under Boudreau? Does anybody honestly think that we'll continue to "not lose consecutive games in regulation" for the rest of the season? What happens when a three game losing streak shows up?

All things considered, I'd rather be in this position, wondering if we have enough to make the playoffs at the All-Star break than wondering what are we going to get for our departing veteran players at the trading deadline. But the fact remains that we need 19 points in the last 32 games just to meet the last two season's standard of 70 points. That shouldn't be a problem with the Overtime/Gimmick loss, but we need a healthy 39 points in the last 32 games to reach the magic number of 90 which could or could not get us into the playoffs. That's a lot of work on top of the work done just to get to this point.

Will an improvement that falls short of making the playoffs be enough to keep McPhee as General Manager? I honestly don't know. It is easy to see where the Caps are going but there are there are still questions such as how does the team get from Kolzig to Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov provided that they develop into the #1 NHL netminders they are projected to be? For people who are yearning to a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the never ending questions and reasons to doubt that this improvement is real is more than enough to get rid of McPhee.

Of course, there were those who wanted McPhee gone when Bruce Cassidy (and the Sundance Kid) was fired. Nevermind that their real preferred choice, Bryan Trottier (who was hired the same summer to be the Head Coach of the New York Rangers) was an even bigger failure as a Head Coach than Cassidy (Trottier didn't even last a full season on Broadway and hasn't been heard from in coaching circles since). They then of course say that McPhee should have hired Glen Hanlon as Head Coach all along but wondered why he waited so long to fire him; jumping all over his "we're finally playing the way we expected to" statement during the Red Wings game on December 17th. Funny how these things turn out?

With any luck, McPhee's fate will be decided by what happens on the ice and not by the whims of fans who aren't satisfied with anything. But the watch continues because the Caps aren't certain of making the playoffs. Should McPhee be dismissed after this season is over, his successor could very well find himself in the same position that McPhee found himself some 11 years ago now. Just needing to make a few tweaks to get a non-playoff team into the Stanley Cup Finals in his first year as General Manager.

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