“It’s the same ol’, same ol’ situation.”
-Motley Crue, “Same Old Situation”
The Washington Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and it is time for their third coach since then.
Head coach Todd Reirden was fired Sunday after his second consecutive season being ousted from the playoffs by a lower seed. After inheriting a Stanley Cup roster, he went 5-10 in playoff games—including this year’s variant round robin—with no series wins.
Though Reirden posted a .642 regular-season win percentage and earned two division crowns, this still wasn’t a rash decision by Captials GM Brain MacLellan because plenty of other NHL coaches had quick tenures for lesser forms of disappointment. As a recent example, Gerrard Gallant coached the Vegas Golden Knights to said 2018 Stanley Cup Final during the franchise’s inaugural season, and also made the playoffs his second year to prove 2018 wasn’t a fluke. He was fired in January 2020 after his playoff-bound Knights suffered a four-game losing streak. What’s he doing now, anyway?
Also, Capitals fans have earned the right to be impatient. From 1983-1996, the Capitals never missed the playoffs, but only once made the conference finals in 1990. It wasn’t until 1998 the franchise returned to the Eastern Conference Finals and eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final only to be swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
After a rebuild and landing a once-in-a-lifetime talent, more of the same followed:
From 2008-2017, the Capitals only missed the playoffs once, earning two Presidents’ Trophies, but again failed to advance beyond the second round. Of the coaches during that span, Bruce Boudreau won two playoff series in four years, Dale Hunter one in his relief stint at the helm, and Barry Trotz seven in four seasons—four of which came when he led the franchise to their first and only Stanley Cup title.
Speaking of Trotz, he has gone on to win three playoff series as head coach of the New York Islanders—the same Islanders that forced the Capitals right out of the bubble last Thursday night. What about the key players who have moved on from that 2018 team? During the 2020 playoffs, Jay Beagle advanced to the second round with the Vancouver Canucks, Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer advanced with a dominant Colorado Avalanche team, Matt Niskanen advanced with the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, and Chandler Stephenson advanced with the Knights–who seem to be heading in the opposite direction of the Capitals since their 2018 championship bout.
Everyone listed has one commonality: more playoff series wins than Reirden.
Capitals fans are left with confusing and empty familiarity once more. The easy reaction is to vet for excuses of why they yet again left the playoffs early. There were botched breakaways and shots fired wide of open nets, Nicklas Backstrom missed most of the series against the Islanders, John Carlson wasn’t completely healthy, Lars Eller wasn’t in a hockey-state-of-mind, Ilya Samsonov’s injury left Braden Holtby without a solid backup solution in net or perhaps the team was just tired of living in a quarantined bubble with friendly foes off-ice. They’re better than that, though, and fans are aware of the fact.
From their overused non-bubble living rooms, supporters watched the team fail to construct and capitalize on enough even-strength chances. They were outshot by the Islanders 110-95 in four losses. This problem goes back to last season’s early exit against the Carolina Hurricanes, however. In their four losses in that series, the Capitals were out-shot 147-111. Another noticeable element to their underachievement was the lack of inspiration and urgency. They appeared dilapidated with misplaced passion, but that also isn’t an excuse because all teams were in the same situation entering the qualifiers and round robin. They looked decrepit if exaggerated.
The window is closing faster this time because the stars are aging, and not only do they need solid blue line depth, the lines need to get younger on the offensive side of the puck. Jakub Vrána, the team’s heralded youth, had zero points and a -6 rating in the series, and since his goal in Game 5 of the 2018 Final, he has recorded no points and has a -8 rating in 15 playoff games. The average age for the Capitals front line skaters is 29.4, and as the Flyers, Hurricanes and Islanders continue to get stronger, the Capitals may be fighting for a wild card spot next season rather than another division title if changes aren’t made.
It starts with the captain and coach, and fans know Alexander Ovechkin doesn’t lack drive or intensity or leadership, but it was apparent he lacked adaptation, direction and support from the bench during the 2020 playoffs–and the front office made the right choice in firing Reirden.
Whether it’s a subtle rebuild, rediscovery or reinvention, the Capitals need to start acting like they care again. With one year left on Ovechkin’s contract and more uncertainty looming, Fans would rather have a second cup with a shortened-season asterisk than the team’s only title being an anomaly.