Since the Washington Capitals ran aground in the second round of the playoffs, their front office has had meetings with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Laich — the core Caps, in other words. The subject of the sit-downs? Leadership.
Jason Arnott, after all, is gone now. So is Sergei Fedorov, the Jason Arnott of 2008 and 2009. So, come to think of it, are Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr and Matt Bradley — all Capitals of fairly long standing.
“The whole discussion was: It’s time for you guys to take over,” general manager George McPhee said Monday at the Caps’ development camp at Kettler Iceplex.
Or to put it another way: You’re not kids anymore.
“That’s right. They’re some of our top players, and they need to be top players if we’re going to have success. It’s about coming to camp in the best shape of their lives …”
(Feel free to read between the lines here.)
“… It’s about taking care of themselves during the season …”
(Feel free to read between the lines here, too.)
“- It’s about being coachable. It’s about talking to the other players if they’re not doing the right things and straightening them out.”
In recent years, that job might have fallen more to Fedorov, Arnott, Mike Knuble or some other veteran whose name is chiseled on the Stanley Cup. No longer. Captain Ovie and the others are the stage of their careers where they must become the keepers of the flame.
But are they up to the task? Do they have the personality, the makeup to rattle the occasional cage if the situation calls for it? Let’s face it, not every player is wired that way.
In fact, it raises an interesting question: Are leaders born, or can they also be made?
McPhee is convinced the exposure to Fedorov and Arnott — and their “different styles, different ways of getting the message across” — will help his still-young veterans assert themselves. (Laich is the oldest at 28.) What you have to remember, he said, is that “this happened fast for a lot of our young guys. We went on that terrific run [in 2008] to make the playoffs, and suddenly we were a very good team. But they were puppies. They were little kids. And now they’re four- or five-year veterans, and it’s time for them to lead.”
And how does a leader get the message across?
“By example, initially. By doing things right. But there are things that need to be said to other players, and the players we’ve identified should be comfortable doing that. They’ve been around long enough. They’ve seen some of these veteran leaders that we’ve brought in.”
That’s really the story of this coming season for the Capitals: Are Ovechkin and the rest ready to take control of the team, hold everybody accountable, or are they content merely to be good-to-great players, without shouldering much additional responsibility?
As we’ve seen time and again, winning a Stanley Cup is as much alchemy as science. When the Caps went to the finals in 1998, Olie Kolzig, their new associate goalie coach, said, “we thought we were going to be back there soon, because we had a pretty good team and a pretty good organization. But we never got out of the first round again.
“Sometimes being favored doesn’t always work to your favor. There’s a lot of pressure that you have to live up to. Some guys can play with that, some guys can’t.”
The Capitals, of course, have been the top seed in the East the past two years and have only one series victory to show for it (offset by a horrific four-game sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay this past spring). Yes, there’s plenty of youth on the roster, and the future would appear to be bright, but “that window is going to start closing here,” Kolzig said, “especially with the collective bargaining agreement now and the salary cap.
“You can’t keep the team together for that long. But these guys, I think they’ve made some great moves in the offseason [e.g. Troy Brouwer, Tomas Vokoun, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik]. … They’re changing the makeup of the dressing room, and hopefully that’s going to be enough to put ‘em over the top.”
Olie has his own ideas about the nature/nurture, born-to-lead/raised-to-lead issue. During his playing days, you see, he roomed with Adam Oates and then Halpern — both of whom wore the “C” in Washington — and saw first-hand “the impact that Oatsy had on Halpy,” he said. “But Halpy always had that ability to be a leader. He was just one of those people. Other guys, meanwhile, are capable of learning from older players, but they aren’t necessarily going to be the leaders in the [dressing] room. They’re going to be better pros - lead by example on the ice, maybe, and in how they prepare for the game - but they might not be the vocal guy in the room.
“I was always a guy who wore his emotions on his sleeve and was never shy about letting people know how I felt. Sometimes I took it too far, but I always felt that was a trait that was beneficial for me. But, yeah, I think you’re just born with it. You might be able to learn to be a proper leader, but I think, deep down inside, you have to have that ability. You just need to learn how to do it.”
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Laich have spent the past few seasons in the classroom, studying under Professors Fedorov and Arnott. Now it’s time for their final exam. Are they leaders, or are they just really talented followers? There isn’t much riding on it. Only everything.