- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Ted Leonsis, ever the romantic, has been trying to paint the Sistine Chapel. He doesn’t just want the Washington Capitals to be successful in the business sense, he wants them to be a club that contends for the Stanley Cup year after year — and is always part of the hockey conversation. Can’t fault a guy for that. What Caps fan, after nearly four decades of Cup-lessness, doesn’t yearn for the same thing?

But building a dynasty — like applying a brush to a ceiling — can be a messy business. And as the trade deadline approaches, Leonsis and general manager George McPhee have a tough decision to make: Do they continue down the same path, which right now has them on the verge of missing the playoffs, or do they try another color scheme and begin a radical reshuffling of the roster?

I’m kind of partial to the latter option. The question, to me isn’t whether the Capitals should be buyers or sellers at the deadline, it’s: How many players should they put in the store window? And that includes their captain, Alex Ovechkin, the guy Leonsis has built the franchise around. If the Caps can get a reasonable return for Ovie, should they deal him? Put it this way: I’d be stunned if they did, but only because the team has so much invested in him.

As each month passes, I’m more and more convinced that only a change of scenery — if that — will ever bring back the Ovechkin of three years ago. If he stays in D.C., “wrapped up” in his “rock star status” (in Olie Kolzig’s words), he’ll go right on scoring 30 to 35 goals a season, and the club will go right on being a disappointment.

File that last paragraph, by the way, under: Words I Never Imagined Writing. But after watching the Capitals come apart against Tampa Bay in last year’s playoffs — and after seeing too many no-shows this season (like the 5-0 abomination Monday night in Carolina) — it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that something is rotten at the Caps’ core.

Kolzig’s comments last week were fascinating on a couple of levels — first, because Ovechkin has tended to be an untouchable in the organization but also because McPhee did nothing to refute them. It was as if Olie had been designated to fire a shot across Ovie’s bow, just to see how the captain would respond (or maybe how the fan base would react to the suggestion that No. 8 might be a little too caught up in his own celebrity).

Whatever the case, it’s never good when a beloved former Capital such as Kolzig calls out the team’s leader, wonders about his “work ethic” and why he’s gotten away from playing “hard, no-nonsense, honesty type of hockey.” It also raises the possibility that, hey, maybe the front office is getting a little tired of Ovechkin’s act, too. Perhaps they would consider trading him if the right offer came along — if not now, under the gun, then in the less-hurried offseason.

This much is clear: The Caps should be past the point where McPhee is acquiring veterans such as Sergei Fedorov and Jason Arnott at the deadline to serve as models for the younger players and show them how It’s done. Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Mike Green — to name three — have been here seven seasons. If they haven’t figured it out by now, they probably never will.

Sure, GMGM could try to put a few Band-Aids on the club’s problems, make a couple of deals in the days ahead, and see if that might help the Capitals sneak into the playoffs. (Where, based on past performance and the general vibe of the season, they’d likely go nowhere.) But he also could acknowledge the growing evidence that the Caps are seriously flawed and move some bodies around with an eye toward the future.

Would it be such a cockamamie idea to bring in Evgeny Kuznetsov, the talented young Russian winger, next season and see if, over time, he might be able to lead the Capitals to the Cup? Or would you rather hang on to Ovechkin so he could teach the kid how to be a “rock star”?

Harsh words, to be sure. But Leonsis has waited long enough for this pot to boil. Yes, the prolonged absences of Green and Nicklas Backstrom have contributed to the situation, but the sorry effort in the “must-win” game against the Hurricanes fairly screamed: Something is wrong with this team. The Caps just aren’t a very good hockey club, and that’s difficult to fathom after so many years of tweaking and tinkering. The coaching change in November — from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter — solved nothing. Time to break out the jackhammer.

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