Saturday, May 10, 2008

2007-2008 Season Wrap Up Part III: Coaching and Front Office.

Before the season even started we questioned whether or not Glen Hanlon was the coach to get the Caps into the playoffs. We got a resounding answer before we sat down to dinner on Thanksgiving Day. General Manager George McPhee pulled the trigger that morning and we all know the rest of the story.

McPhee's bashers (and there is no shortage of them) of course turned to Hanlon's firing in November and wondered why Bruce Boudreau wasn't brought in sooner. We ask, what did Hanlon do before this season that deserved being replaced? (Minor details) The McPhee bashers point out McPhee's comment during the Detroit game in December when he said on Versus "we're finally playing the way we thought we should be playing" but the Caps got off to a 3-0 start. There was talk of not just making the playoffs, but of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals. How much of chance should Hanlon have been given to turn the team around?

Beyond the coaching situation, there was also the sticky situation in goal. The McPhee bashers still have not forgiven him for passing on Ilya Bryzgalov when the Anaheim Thug Ducks waived him in November. However, they also question his acquisition of Cristobal "WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE" Huet at the deadline and creating an untenable three goaltender situation for the final month of the season, never minding that Bryzgalov would have been brought in for the same reason (taking over for Olie Kolzig) and would have created the same untenable three goaltender situation earlier in the season. Imagine what the McPhee bashers would have said he denied Kolzig a chance to get his 300th win with the Capitals?

But the CW was that the Caps had to make the playoffs this season in order for McPhee to keep his job. While by all accounts the UA trade fell into his lap, the remaining trades turned out to be shrewd gambles that paid off. The George McPhee Watch may be over for now, but it is not being forgotten. McPhee has assembled a nice core of young players and has a nice pipeline of young talent ready to come up. It was also his management of the salary cap that allowed the UA trade to fall into his lap. There weren't many contending teams that could afford to take on a large amount of salary at the deadline but the Caps were one of them and that helped to make all the difference.

We don't hide from the fact that when Bruce Boudreau was originally hired, we openly questioned the wisdom of hiring another minor league coach. It turned out to be a wise move but despite the success, there were still things that concerned us. A forward was still manning the point on the Power Play which went from merely bad to very streaky. 5 on 3 Power Plays continued to be exercises in frustration and the first Power Play unit was given almost 3/4's of the advantages to work which was too much time. With the talent on the roster, there's no reason why the Caps can't ice two potent Power Play units that don't need a forward manning the point for the entire time.

However Boudreau's biggest challenge now is what might be called the "Ron Wilson Syndrome" around here. In his first season as Head Coach, Ron Wilson got the Caps to the Stanley Cup Finals. He never got close after that season and the while Boudreau has a lower bar to clear, a pretty high standard has been set. He's been able to win at every level but at some point, he's going to have to learn that a strong defense is needed in the NHL. It was his refusal to learn that lesson when he was a player that cost him a long NHL playing career and it could be the exact same thing that costs him his NHL coaching career. He can hide behind having a young hockey team but at some point, these guys are going to be considered seasoned veterans and if their play in their own zone hasn't improved, people are going to properly question the coach for that.

And speaking of high expectations, Ted Leonsis boldly declared that "the rebuild is over" and that this team would make the playoffs. By Thanksgiving, it wasn't looking too good and a seven game winning streak to end the regular season along with some huge help from other teams made Ted good on his word. Like Boudreau, the Caps too have now set a limit. Just winning the Southeast Division and going out in the first round won't be enough next season. Some are already comparing the Caps to the Penguin Scum and by extension, predicting at minimum, an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals next season. But there's plenty of work to be done in order to make that a reality.

Finally, some of you might be a little miffed at why we're still so angry and bitter at how this season ended. You're thinking "if we told you that the Caps would win the Southeast Division, make the playoffs, force a Game 7 after going down 3 games to 1 in the first round, you would have thought we were crazy" and you're right. This was a great thrill ride and it came to an end too soon. Now it is time for you to be honest. You were looking forward to playing the Penguin Scum in the Second Round. After watching that four week stretch of hockey, you wanted to see the Caps spit in the eye of the Penguin Scum Curse. You just had a feeling that this fairy tale wasn't going to end so soon and so ugly. That there was nothing that could stop this "team of destiny." Yet, if you and the team are complacent with what happened, if you look back on this season and the way that it ended and say "those are the breaks" and "we just need tomove on," you're setting yourself up for failure.

We've never had the chance to watch the thing from the beginning but we occasionally catch the NFL's Greatest Games presentation of the 1984 NFC Championship Game when the Redskins beat the San Francisco 49ers for a trip to Super Bowl XVIII. We don't know what year the interviews with the players were done but we were amazed as how angry and bitter the 49ers were all those years later over some of the close calls that went against them in that game. As a matter of fact, some of the 49ers said that their anger and bitterness over that game fueled them during the 1984 season when they lost only once en route to winning Super Bowl XIX. They flat out felt as if they had been cheated that day and took it out on everybody else the next season. If the Caps are able to use their disappointment over the way this season ended as a motivator for the upcoming 2008-2009 season; there's no reason to think that they couldn't do some serious damage next season and prove that what happened over the last month of this season was not a fluke. But if the Caps remain complacent, they'll never fulfill the promise that exists right now. Don't get us wrong, we're not coronating the Caps Stanley Cup contenders after a first round exit, this is still a young hockey team and some of the young players who emerged this season have to continue to improve and get better. But there's no reason why we can't expect this team to become a serious Stanley Cup contender in the next few seasons.

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