- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2011

“The wheels fell off for us,” Ted Leonsis blogged, incredulously, the day after his Washington Capitals had the broom taken to them by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So now Papa Ted is mulling it over: Does he merely reattach the wheels, or does he find some new ones — and how many?

Whatever decision Leonsis comes to, rest assured there will be nothing knee-jerk about it. Ted doesn’t do knee-jerk. He lets the emotion subside — and there’s plenty of it after this latest playoff failure — and goes about his deliberations in a “very analytic” way, as he puts it. You don’t get to where he’s gotten in life by throwing the baby (or in this case, a potential Stanley Cup) out with the bath water.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Leonsis was a list maker. I can see him sitting down in his grief and despair and thinking: How bad is it, really? How many teams have done what we’ve done the past four seasons? How many teams, for instance, have made the playoffs all four years?

And he might have scribbled down this list: Bruins, Red Wings, Canadiens, Flyers, Penguins, Sharks, Capitals.

That would have made him feel a little bit better, maybe a whole lot better. Imagine: Only 7 clubs out of 30 have even given themselves a chance to win the Cup the past four seasons.

But then he might have wondered: How many teams have gone further in the playoffs in those years than we have?

And he might have scribbled down this list: Bruins, Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Stars, Red Wings, Canadiens, Flyers, Penguins, Sharks, Lightning and the winner of the Canucks-Predators series.

That list, 11 clubs, wouldn’t have made him feel so good. It says, after all, that in terms of recent playoff accomplishment, the Caps — despite two first-place finishes in the East and four straight Southeast Division titles — aren’t even in the top third of the league.

And, not to be too analytic about it, but what about those four division titles? Some might find it interesting that only twice in those years has a second Southeast team qualified for the playoffs, and both times — Carolina in ‘09, Tampa Bay this season — the other team advanced further than the Capitals did.

For Leonsis, it’s the age-old question: How much of the Caps’ postseason problems should be attributed to the coach — and by extension, general manager George McPhee — and how much should be attributed to the players? And let’s face it, it’s a tough one to answer. You can look at the club’s power play issues and difficulty dealing with the Lightning’s 1-3-1 defense and reasonably conclude: That’s an X’s-and-O’s thing. But being swept by a lower-seeded team isn’t an X’s-and-O’s thing; it’s a Something Else thing — heart, pride, hockey intelligence, whatever you want to call it.

The Capitals are still young, yes, but they’ve been together too long, many of them, to go into this kind of freefall — or the one last year, when Montreal rallied from a 3-1 deficit to knock them out in the first round. Something is definitely missing, and it’s delusional to think it’s going to magically appear next season or the season after, when the players have had more schooling. Or to put it another way: If left wing Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Mike Green can be swept in their sixth year in the league, they certainly can be swept in their seventh or eighth year.

That’s why, if Leonsis is totally honest with himself, he’ll make some major moves this offseason. He’ll find himself a new coach, and he’ll get himself more than a few new players. At this point, he has to.

You can understand the loyalty he and McPhee feel toward Bruce Boudreau, who basically rescued the franchise — and the owner and GM’s credibility — when he arrived from Hershey in November 2007.

The Caps’ rebuilding plan was going nowhere under Glen Hanlon, and Boudreau instantly turned the club around, made it high-scoring and high-achieving with one wave of his grease pen.

What makes it doubly hard to replace Boudreau, aside from his sheer likability, is that he’s become such a big part of the team’s persona — its brand. His cherubic face is all over the television, hawking this product and that.

The Capitals might be able to find a better coach, but they won’t find a better spokesman.

But winning the Stanley Cup isn’t about marketing.

There are times when the Caps seem more like a Disney attraction than an NHL club because Leonsis and his staff do such a great job of selling them. Maybe that has something to do with their string of playoff disappointments, too.

They’ve been oversold, overcelebrated — relative to their exploits, that is. This is still, remember, a team that hasn’t advanced past the second round.

But back to Boudreau. It’s not like successful clubs haven’t fired coaches — good ones — and gone on to even more success.

Detroit’s did it in the late ‘90s when it swapped Bryan Murray, whose teams struggled in the playoffs, for Scotty Bowman. Two years later, the Red Wings were in the Stanley Cup Final. Two years after that, they won the first of back-to-back Cups.

We might be seeing the same thing now in San Jose. Under Ron Wilson, the Sharks kept flaming out in the second round; so Todd McClellan was brought in, and he led them to the conference finals last season. This year, they might make an even deeper run.

Sometimes a coach can take you only so far. The players get tired of listening to him, his own limitations become more apparent — there can be all kinds of scenarios.

But sometimes players can take you only so far, too. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom aren’t going anywhere because their contracts are so humongous, but everybody else is certainly tradable — hypothetically, at least.

Granted, kids like John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson are pretty much untouchable, but you can’t say that about Green, Alexander Semin or any number of others, including the trio of young goalies. (Three is definitely a crowd there.)

After four years of falling short, it’s time for the Capitals to tinker with the ingredients of this expensive stew. Leonsis‘ “problem” — note the quotation marks — is that he wants to win with humanity.

How could he consider trading a guy (e.g. Green) who’s just taken a puck in the head for him? But nobody ever said being an owner was easy.

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