- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Looking back, George McPhee wonders if the turning point for Bruce Cassidy, the Capitals’ latest ex-coach, wasn’t the third playoff game against Tampa Bay last season. There the Caps were in overtime, a goal away from taking a lights-out 3-0 series lead, when “the officials put us in a 5-on-3 [bind],” the soft-spoken general manager said, all but wincing at the thought. We all know what happened next: The Lightning scored, ran off four straight wins … and yesterday assistant Glen Hanlon was introduced as Cassidy’s successor.

“We completely lost our momentum and couldn’t get it back,” McPhee went on. “And I don’t know that we’ve gotten it back this year. In training camp, there was the sense that we’d all failed. We have not rebounded from that at all.”

Contributing to the situation, no doubt, was that the owner took the playoff fold-up as hard as anyone — and made no attempt to hide it. In the locker room after the series-ending loss, Ted Leonsis looked not just depressed (a perfectly understandable reaction) but rejected. Utterly. The reason for the latter was all the empty seats at the game, thousands of them. This, after he had spared no expense to build a winner.

What that told him, he said, was that Washington simply wasn’t buying what he was selling. And then he spoke these memorable words, words that still hover over the franchise:

“The market has spoken.”

In the days that followed, Leonsis regained his senses and backtracked a bit. No, he assured the fans, he wasn’t going to blow up the team. But a certain amount of damage had been already done. If the owner is even thinking about packing it in, well, there can’t help but be a trickle-down effect within the organization.

And that’s pretty much how the Capitals have played all season, isn’t it? They seem aimless, uncertain, lost on the ice, as if they’re not sure what direction the franchise is heading in. The boss wants to win, sure. The boss always wants to win. But he also wants to do it more economically, having lost tens of millions on the club, and that means shedding salaries — and players. This is why Ken Klee wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, why Steve Konowalchuk was traded to Colorado and why a few more longtime Caps could go at the trading deadline if Hanlon doesn’t turn things around.

Bruce Cassidy got caught up in all that, caught up in the mixed message of Winning While Downsizing. And for whatever reasons, he wasn’t able to push the right buttons to get the team out of its rut. The way McPhee sees it, there are “four or five or six [players] who aren’t playing anywhere near their capability.”

Certainly Konowalchuk fell into that category — before he was dealt. Jeff Halpern and Mike Grier are two others whose performance hasn’t measured up to past standards. What really kills the club, though, is that these are, as McPhee put it, “heart and soul guys.” They’re fan favorites, and in many ways they are the Caps, embody the organization’s hard-working, blue-collar image. Leonsis has tried to add some glitz by bringing in Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, but the shoe has never really fit.

So Cassidy isn’t entirely to blame for the Capitals being 10 games under .500 for the first time since the Dark Ages of ‘81-82. Still, it’s reasonable to ask how he could possibly have “lost” players like Konowalchuk, Halpern and Grier, grinders who would take a Zamboni into the boards if it would give their team a better chance to win. And let’s not forget Cassidy’s benching of Calle Johansson for much of the series finale against Tampa Bay — Johansson’s last game as a Cap, as it turned out. After 14 seasons of meritorious service (including solid play last season), Calle deserved better.

Then there was Cassidy’s recent complaint to his players that they were allowing themselves to be too distracted by their families. A coach who says something like that is clearly grasping at straws, totally at a loss for how to straighten his team out. It’s interesting to note that the first thing Hanlon did after being introduced as the new coach was thank his wife and son — without whom, he said, he never would have gotten where he is.

As a goalie for 14 seasons and a member of the Vancouver coaching staff for eight more, Hanlon is probably wiser in the ways of the NHL than the boyish Cassidy. He’s also quite familiar with the players, having coached a number of them in Portland before becoming a Capitals assistant. But he’s going to have to be a miracle worker to steer the club into the playoffs after an 8-18-1-1 start.

And next year, with all the talk of the league shutting down … I mean, who knows if there’ll even be a next year?

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