Wednesday, December 23, 2009

DC Sports In The 2000's: A Decade of Disappointment

We continue our look at the trials and tribulations, the failures and successes of DC's four pro franchises in the past decade. In Part 1, we analyzed the Redskins' performance over the last ten years. In Part 2, we broke down the Wizards' journey in the 2000s. In Part 3, we hit the ice with the Capitals, led by a dynamic owner and a two-time MVP.

Like Dan Snyder and the Redskins, the Washington Capitals began this decade with a new owner. A young former businessman and sports fan Ted Leonsis, purchased the team in 1999 from original owner Abe Pollin. Both owners have spent the first decade of this millennium learning through experience how to run a professional sports team. Both have had a mixed bag of successes and letdowns and both are still waiting to win a championship. In the past ten years Ted Leonsis and the Capitals have had considerably better regular season success than the Redskins, Wizards, and Nationals. The Caps have won four division titles this decade and finished in second place twice while neither the Redskins, Nationals, or Wizards have won their division. Shockingly, however, the Capitals have only advanced in the playoffs once in the 2000’s, equal to that of the Wizards, and less than the Redskins who did it two times.

How could it be that the Capitals have been so disappointing when it comes to winning in the playoffs? There is no clear answer but the consensus is that the Caps are on the right path and will get their fair share of chances in the next few years. Comcast SportsNet anchor Russ Thaler explains the last ten years for the Caps as the “decade that Ted Leonsis learned how to be a successful owner.” Thaler said that through trial and error Leonsis has built a “winning team from top to bottom,” eventually engineering a “Caps emergence on the D.C. sports scene.”

When Ted Leonsis took over the Capitals in 1999 the team was one season removed from a Stanley Cup appearance. The season before he bought the team was marred by injuries and they had missed the playoffs. Leonsis’ first two regular seasons as owner were out of a storybook, as the Caps twice captured the Southeast Division Title. Both years ended prematurely with playoff series defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In the offseason of 2001, Leonsis and the Capitals decided the best way to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins was to acquire their best player. The Caps traded three young prospects to the Pens for five-time Art Ross Trophy-winner Jaromir Jagr. Later that year Washington signed Jagr to a seven year, $77 million dollar contract, the highest in NHL history at the time. When Jagr came to the Caps he was arguably the best player in the National Hockey League. His acquisition brought considerable hype to a team that played in a city that had previously flown under the sport’s radar. Though Jagr and the Capitals failed to make the playoffs in his first season the team set a franchise record for home game attendance.

In the summer of 2002 the Capitals continued to aggressively build their roster, they signed Jagr’s former linemate from Pittsburgh, Robert Lang. The Caps did not make the playoffs the next year but were back in the postseason in 2003. In the 2003 playoffs they lost a devastating series to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Caps won the first two games against Tampa Bay, only to get swept in the next four. In Game Six, in D.C., the loss became especially painful as the two teams fought through overtime. The Lightning got the victory when a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty led to a Lightning power-play where Martin St. Louis scored the game-clinching goal.

Comcast SportsNet managing editor Joe Yasharoff saw Jaromir Jagr’s years in Washington as having “highlights here and there, but overall he absolutely didn’t live up to the hype.” He was brought in to make the Capitals a Stanley Cup contender but the plans just never materialized. The loss to the Lightning precipitated an effort by the Caps to scrap their roster and rebuild. In 2003, over budget and with a league lock-out looming, the Caps traded away many of their roster’s centerpieces including Steve Konawalchuk, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Jaromir Jagr. They went on to win the NHL Draft Lottery and secure the number one overall pick.

In finishing at the bottom of the league the Capitals received draft lottery odds with the third best chance to get the first pick. With extraordinary luck they drew the number one pick and were able to select Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin, a prospect that Yasharoff described as a “once-in-a-lifetime player.” Ovie’s arrival changed everything, it drastically altered the course of a franchise and forever changed the landscape of Washington, D.C. professional sports.

In that stroke of luck in landing Alex Ovechkin, the Caps curbed the trend that has plagued the district’s other franchises. The Wizards and Redskins have had terrible misfortune in drafts of late and have been adversely affected by wasted picks. The Capitals were not only fortunate enough to be able to draft Ovechkin but the pace at which he has developed is unbelievable. Alex Ovechkin came into the league as a can’t-miss prospect but was still overshadowed by the “heir apparent” to Wayne Gretzky,
Sidney Crosby. Ever since Crosby was in middle school he was tabbed as the successor to the greatest player to take the ice. Since both have entered the league, however, the “Great Eight” has shown a closer resemblance to the “Great One.”

At just 24 years old, Ovechkin has already claimed the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year and two Hart Memorial Trophies as league MVP. His emergence as a superstar and most valuable player was quicker than Lebron James and Tim Lincecum. He is the best hockey player in the world and he resides in Washington, D.C.

Russ Thaler points to Ovechkin as a rarity in the nation’s capital in the sense that he “started here, made his name here, and became a winner here.” In the last decade there have been few players that D.C. sports fans can point to with the same career path. Most of the aging stars that have come through the turnstiles -Michael Jordan, Jaromir Jagr, Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Jerry Stackhouse, Brandon Lang, Jason Taylor- failed to bring success to Washington. Any success Ovechkin has will be in Washington, the Capitals locked him up with a 13-year, $124 million contract extension in 2008.

In Ovechkin’s professional career the Capitals have certainly become winners in the regular season. However, they still have not made a deep run in the playoffs. They missed out entirely in Ovie’s first season but have made the postseason in the two seasons since, each time losing in a game seven. In Ovechkin's first playoff series, the Caps rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force a seventh game against the Philadelphia Flyers, only to lose the game (and the series) 3-2 in overtime.

That offseason, the Capitals front office made a tough decision in letting long-time goalie Olaf Kölzig go via free agency. Kölzig had played his entire career in the Capitals organization. He helped the Caps reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 and won the Vezina Trophy in 2000 for the NHL’s best goalie. The decision was unpopular but was in the team’s best interest. Kölzig had been one of the most popular players in team history but he was past his prime. The Capitals replaced him and were able to win the division once again the next year and return to the playoffs.

The playoff exit for the Capitals in 2009 was one that D.C. fans would like to forget. Dismissed a year earlier in Game Seven of the first round, Washington was triumphant in their first series in '09, defeating the 7th seeded New York Rangers. The Caps had fallen into a 0-2 series deficit before newly promoted goalie Semyon Varlamov helped them top the Rangers in seven games.

In the second round, hockey fans got their dream matchup. The Caps faced their longtime playoff nemesis and 2008 Stanley Cup runner-up, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The series showcased possibly the three best players in professional hockey: Ovechkin, Crosby, and Evgeny Malkin.

For most of the series, the showdown lived up to the hype and more. Ovechkin and Crosby dueled under the spotlight created by a personal rivalry stemming from the regular season. An exchange of words created an almost Magic and Bird-type aura around their competition. The series was highlighted by an outstanding Game Two in which both Ovechkin and Crosby scored hat tricks. By the time Game Seven got underway, even the most casual hockey fans were glued to their television set. What ensued was a Capitals letdown of epic proportions. The Penguins immediately took control, jumping out to a 4-0 lead just 2:13 into the second period. The game was capped off by two Sidney Crosby goals as Pittsburgh took the series on their way to a Stanley Cup Title.

Despite the crushing loss to Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals should have plenty of chances for playoff success ahead of them. Just because they didn’t get past the second round in this decade does not mean it won’t happen soon. The Caps are a young team with a core of legitimate star players and an excellent minor league system. They will more than likely make a deep run towards a Stanley Cup in the near future, maybe even this spring.

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