Ovechkin the coach killer

It’s been a while since the LD, Bobbert and I had a full on email round table. A few quick quips about the status of the LD’s Wings and Bobby’s Flyers, particularly the lack of production of some of their big-name acquisitions, eventually led to Bobby offering a bag of pucks for Alex Ovechkin with the promise he would kill the Flyers coach… It brought a giggle and this response crafted on the train (so forgive lacking some research and all typos)

What killed all of the coaches during the Ovechkin-era wasn’t Alex. At least not in the terms everyone says. It wasn’t Alex alone, to be sure.

When GMGM came to run the franchise after Dave Pollie retired he had Ron Wilson as a coach. Ron was previously Anaheim’s head coach and an assistant in Vancouver but also like much of the team itself essentially a holdover from the Polie era.

Immediately before the Young Guns era began the team was completely blown up by GMGM and he hired the following coaches. Note that there’s some interesting consistencies about them:

Bruce Cassidy – career minor league head coach, who had good regular seasons but never won a minor league title. Had no NHL level experience before taking over the Caps and only lasted like a season and a half.

Glen Hanlon – took over partway through the season and lasted about four years before being sacked part way through a season. His only NHL-experience was as an assistant coach with the Caps, and he’d been in the Caps system as a minors coach previously.

Bruce Boudreau – took over part way through the season and lasted about four years before being sacked part way through the season. He was the minor head league coach in the Caps system previously and had no previous NHL level experience, although he lead the Bears to a couple of titles.

Dale Hunter – took over part way through the season and lasted only through that season before stepping down. He was a mostly successful minor league head coach with no NHL level experience as well as being a former Cap.

Adam Oates – took over during a truncated season and only lasted through the next season before being sacked. He was an NHL assistant coach previously, but no minor league head coaching experience, as well as being a former Cap.

Each coach took over part way through the previous coaches tenure (except Oates who had a similarly shortened opening season to his tenure due to the lockout)

Each coach lacked NHL Head Coaching experience. None of them had much of a resume which meant they lacked minor league head coaching AND any NHL-level coaching experience, it was usually one or the other.

Essentially, each came from the Caps system in some way as well, a couple by way of the Caps minors and a couple by way of being Caps former players.

And each tried to instill their own unique system, in most cases vastly different from the one the team was previously playing, while doing this on the fly.

You can find the same kind of pattern in the assistant couches through this whole cycle as well. Most had limited previous experience as NHL level assistants before taking over with the Caps and there are a lot of former Caps players and minor league affiliates coaches within the history.

Perhaps, the problem wasn’t Ovi, perhaps the problem lies with GMGM’s selection process for coaches in his years. Or maybe, the coaches struggled no only because they lacked experience but for something else too…

Let’s consider the makeup of the team during the last just about decade plus of GMGM’s tenure (since the first couple of years before he dismantled the team before the last lockout it was still essentially the work of DP)

Here’s just the first round picks:

2002: Steve Eminger (12th overall), Alexander Semin (13th overall), and Boyd Gordon (17th overall)
2003: Eric Fehr (18th overall)
2004: Alexander Ovechkin (1st overall), Jeff Schultz (27th overall), and Mike Green (29th overall)
2006: Nicklas Backstrom (4th overall) and Semyon Varlamov (23rd overall)
2007: Karl Alzner (5th overall)
2008: Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) and John Carlson (27th overall)
2009: Marcus Johansson (24th overall)
2010: Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th overall)
2012: Filip Forsberg (11th overall) and Tom Wilson (16th overall)
2013: Andre Burakovsky (23rd overall)

Eminger, Semin, Gordon, Schultz, Varly and Forsberg are no longer with the organization. Semin & Schultz were part of the core for a long time before they moved on and Varly played several years in goal. Gustafsson & Burakovsky haven’t experienced the big club yet. Kuzy only just came up but he’s not going anywhere and that essentially leaves 8 of 17 active on the team right now. Compare that to any other club when you get a chance. Intuitively, you’re probably thinking, there can’t be many, if any, skating more. Your intuition is correct.

The Caps current top line (MarJo-Backy-Ovi) and top defensive (Carlzner) pairing are first round products who came up entirely through the Caps system. They are the only team in the league built that way. You won’t find another team whose top five are completely home grown first round picks – all under 28 still, mind you, making it among the youngest as well. This year was extreme, to be sure, but so then was last year, and the year before, and before that removing MarJo from the top line and reconfiguring the defense it’s still stacked very heavy both on youth and on Caps 1st round products and you end up with Varly in goal.

Furthermore, when you include the rest of their draftees from later rounds who receive regular ice time over the last ten years, they skate no less than 50% of their roster as a rule coming out of their system (this year at numerous points nearly 75% of the guys dressed were). They are the only team in the entire league built top-down AND bottom-up out of the draft in this way including on this year’s team the likes of Holtby, Grabauer, Laich, Orlov and Carrick as regulars plus a lot of use of Wey, Schmidt, Strachan, Olesky, Wellman and so on… It doesn’t get much prettier when you roll the clock back either.

They skated only two members this season with Stanely Cup finals experience (Brower & Penner, who really only had the very end of the season) which is the tied for lowest in the league. If you look back at any given Caps team over the last ten years the number of Cup-experienced players on the team in total during that time can still be counted with only a few fingers and rarely do they stick around long (they’re brought in more-or-less as rentals like Penner was).

Their oldest aged veteran right now is Big John Erskine, who at age 33 spent the vast majority of his defensive career on the Caps (as a second pairing guy too, not as some kind of mentor-dominator).

Then, let’s talk about the rotating opposite winger for the majority of Ovi’s career, the lack of consistency in even having a qualified second line center, the goalie merry-go-round and the overwhelming holes on defense (not lack of depth, they’ve always got lots of bodies) that were the hallmarks of the post-lockout Caps. Apart from Philly’s & the Isles goalie situation and the age of the Detroit franchise is there any team that has gone on longer NOT addressing key personnel issues? Sorry, Philly did try to solve the goalie one and the Isles put in some decent stop gaps too, and as for Detroit by reason of having no other choice they’ve been consistently bringing up kids to back up their ailing health elders and translating those broken teams into the last few years of their 24 year trek to the playoffs.

It’s like a giant echo-chamber of inexperience in player makeup on top of a lack of head coaching experience. And through all of this it’s Ovi’s fault alone the coaches are failing?

I don’t think so.

There’s no way this is one player’s doing no matter how great of a headline it might make. No disrespect to any player pulling on a Caps sweater or any bench boss or anyone in management, but, if anything they are all contributing to Ovi’s development problems way more than Alex himself is – at least, again as much as Alex could be by himself.

For comparison: Sid & Malkin began their careers on a team that had several times more veterans with Cup-level experience than Ovi (and Backstrom) did and Pittsburgh continues to skate more guys with Cup-level experience (outside of their core that already won it together) than the Caps skate so the culture is completely different between the franchises. They swapped head coaches, but Therrien who engineered the early Malkin-Crosby success had head coached in Montreal and Blysma was both minor league head coach and a NHL-level assistant before taking over. Definitely a different kind of situation than the Caps.

Despite both Boston and Chicago touting their home grown talent they do consistently skate more veterans with big game experience too and have a much more experienced coaching staff which is part of how they were able to translate their youth movements to the successes they achieved.

This Caps almost has more in common with the Oilers and Islanders in terms of makeup than it does in some ways to even the mid-level teams like the Rags, Sharks and Canucks who offer similar talent to that of the Caps.

Think on that for a moment and then tell me that Ovi is the coach killer…

Since he signed his huge contract and took over as Captain he’s won four Rocket Richard trophies for best goal-scorer, three Hart trophies for most valuable player, one Art Ross trophy for most points, three Ted Lindsay awards for most outstanding player, and has been sent to represent the Nation’s Capital at seven NHL All-Star Games. He is leading in overall goal scoring and points over that period and by a substantial amount, in no small part because he also ranks at the tail end of the top ten for assists as well. Moving away from typical boxcars leads in SOG, Shot Attempts, Power Play Goals, Game Winning Goals and more over that time as well as putting up substantial numbers for hits and blocked shots.

He was asked to be a run-and-gun shoot producing machine under Boudreau and he did it. Then Boudreau changed it up and told him to bring more physicality in his game as well as taking it to the net harder more, and he did. As Boudreau moved into a defensive turtle shell, he was asked to change again and he tried to make the adjustments. He was asked by Hunter to drop back and play a trap style in the neutral zone and drop down to block shots more on D, and he did it. Under Oates he was asked to play the opposite wing and change his position on the power play, and he did.

In 33 of his 58 career playoff games he’s faced down a Venzia/Smyth goalie and still managed to put up top ten numbers among all players over that same span in goals and points, top five numbers for power play goals. When you adjust the numbers for points per game it’s even more robust. He personally has adjusted not only to coaching variations but different kinds of pressure throughout and excelled.

That’s not to say Ovie cannot do more, but expecting him to under these circumstances is asinine. In isolation he’s carried the team when little else around him was, which beckons the real question, was it the roster construction or the coaching decisions or bad luck that resulted in the losses and subsequently the dismissal of players, coaches (and a general manager?) Likely, it’s much more to do with the latter than it has to do with Ovi as a player or a Captain.


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny: https://thedmouse.wordpress.com/about-thedmouse/
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One Response to Ovechkin the coach killer

  1. Pingback: Not quite Crapitals | doormouse's declarations & personal musings

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