The Capitals as an Optical Illusion

Posted March 13, 2013

Photo by Clyde Caplan

I am a federal employee by day, so naturally things have been a bit hectic for me with the whole sequester issue. My wife also works for a defense contractor, so it’s a double whammy, but I digress.

We had an agency-wide meeting yesterday on the effects of the sequester. They couldn’t really tell us anything, but one of the buzzwords used when telling us to really cool it on travel and other expenses, was “optics.” What the public sees, and what really goes on can, and sometimes are, two completely different things. All of a sudden something relatively trivial like how much gas Air Force One uses becomes a huge story, or a Congressman goes on USAJobs and sees a whole bunch of job openings at the same time the federal work force is complaining about budget cuts. The public doesn’t see details. It sees what it perceives to be a reckless use of public monies at a time where everyone has to cut back some.

I think the “optics” on the Caps were skewed from the get-go. This was a team that needed a massive amount of help just to make the playoffs last season (which is why I will always be a fan of Matt Read), and didn’t really do anything drastic to improve itself, outside of signing bargain based free agents like Wojtek Wolski and Eric Fehr (both of whom have worked out well) and Joey Crabb (who has not). The defense has been a mess of spare parts and young guys. They have maybe one and a half good scoring lines, and the “main” scoring line of Ovechkin/Ribeiro/Wing of the Week is such a black hole of possession that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is working on new theories about it. Still I (and many others) had the idea that this was a team that was not only ready to compete for a Stanley Cup, but still could actually win one. Maybe it’s something as simple as wishful thinking or overzealous optimism, or at its worst, actually seeing the team headed into the abyss this season and refusing to admit it was happening despite all contrary evidence.

The most important day of this season in my eyes (after the trade deadline) will be the exit interview George McPhee gives to the press, because I’m eager to know so many things. Did he honestly think the team, constructed in its current format with a significant lack of talent in its top 6 forward group and with two legit top 4 defensemen could compete with the rest of the league? Did he, as some have postulated, think there was going to be no season, and built his team that way? Did he think that because his division is so terrible, that they could go super cheap and still contend for a division title? Is he saving up all his bullets for when realignment comes next year? Are the Capitals ever going to sign another significant big name free agent ever again (the last one I can think of is Jagr)?

People don’t see the various machinations that go into running a team and a franchise. Maybe all of this has a purpose somehow. But all they see is that the Capitals, who have been among the league’s best the last few seasons, are slowly turning into an also-ran franchise. They play boring, lifeless hockey and openly admit problems with their compete level. Something needs to change soon, or people will start getting surprised when they manage to win instead of lose, and that isn’t a good situation for anybody.