Thursday, April 17, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: Does John Feinstein Even Read His Own Paper's Caps Coverage?

The Washington Post's Katie Carrera wrote a superb piece the other day about the decline and dysfunction of the Washington Capitals organization in recent years. It covered a variety of topics, from the team's choice to abandon its run-and-gun system a few months after the 2010 playoff loss to Montreal to the coaching style of Adam Oates to the apparent disconnect between Oates and GM George McPhee -- as well as dropping some previously unknown information, such as how Oates forced out longtime Caps goalie coach Dave Prior to the fact that a number of agents don't like how they're treated by McPhee and steer their players away from the Caps. Carerra's story was the kind of conversation-starting piece that I figured would engender at least a follow-up from one of the Post's sports columnists, whether it was just by further discussing the revelations in the piece, doing some further reporting of their own or declaring that after such a story it was time for the Caps to make a management change.

And yet, after the story's posting on Friday afternoon, there was no reaction to it for days--other than Tom Boswell and Mike Wise tweeting links to the article over the weekend. And then, on Wednesday afternoon, a Post sports columnist did weigh in -- well, kind of. John Feinstein argued that Oates and McPhee should keep their jobs, but his column, stunningly, doesn't even mention Carerra's piece or any of the revelations she reported about the way the team is being run--a story that ran in his own paper! The result is a column that makes little sense.

Take Feinstein's comment in the column that the Caps' goaltending "failed for much of the season." Failed is a ridiculous overstatement --when your goalies are facing close to 40 shots a game many nights, you're not going to get many shutouts --  but if you want to say the Caps' goaltending was inconsistent this year, I'll accept that. One of the chief causes of the Caps' goalie issues, as detailed in Carrera's piece, was the effort to alter Holtby's style to a less aggressive approach. Oates' decision to implement a change led to the resignation of Prior, who didn't agree with the decision (and felt he knew more about goaltending than a guy who played center in the NHL.) Does Feinstein mention any of this in his discussion of goalies in his column? Nope.

Then there's Feinstein's odd digression arguing that if only the Caps had traded for Rick Nash two summers ago, they'd be safely in the playoffs and still a Cup contender. Feinstein assumes that the Caps had enough good players that Columbus would want in a deal (which is clear only to Feinstein), but also assumes that Nash, who had a no movement clause and could pick where he wanted to be traded, wanted to come to Washington. That's a huge assumption, considering Carrera's revelation in her piece that many agents don't like the treatment they get from McPhee (he won't talk to them, leaving them to salary cap guru Don Fishman to handle) and steer their clients away from the Caps. (Then there's Feinstein's assertion that Ted Leonsis "didn't want to spend the money" to bring Nash and his six-year, $7.8 million per year cap hit to the team. If that really was Leonsis' decision, it probably wasn't a matter of Leonsis being cheap--he's spent to the salary cap in recent year--but a defensible judgement that it wasn't a good use of limited salary cap dollars for a second-line winger. And if you want to talk about a trade the Caps could have made that might have changed the course of the team, it's not the opportunity to trade for Nash, but the 2009 possibilty of a  trade for Chris Pronger that is a much bigger "what if" for this team.)

I know Feinstein was in Augusta last weekend covering the Masters, so maybe he missed Carrera's piece. But isn't there an editor at the Post who read Feinstein's column and said, "Hey John, did you read the Carrera story? Everyone who reads your column will have read that piece--don't you think you should at least acknowledge it? Otherwise, you look kind of silly."

But the lack of any mention of the Carrera revelations is only the start of the problems with Feinstein's column. First, I've read his column multiple times and I think the only argument he offers anywhere for why Oates should be retained as coach is that he "re-started" Ovechkin -- which not only seems outdated after the Ovechkin-Jay Beagle debacle from late in the season but ignores his questionable performance coaching the other 19 guys on the team.

His passionate defense of McPhee, though, is even more problematic. Feinstein argues that McPhee has been "very good" and that most of the moves he has made "appeared to make sense at the time." Yet he acknowledges elsewhere in the column that one of the Caps' major problems was their "porous defense." That's a problem that has pretty much been an issue for McPhee's entire tenure in D.C.--the Caps' defense has ranged from porous to average-at-best for the large majority of his 17 years here. In other words, his failure here had little to do with the moves McPhee made, but the moves he didn't make--like not trading for or drafting enough quality defensemen for close to two decades.

Feinstein goes on to say that while a general manager must build a team deep enough to withstand injuries, there was no way to anticipate the rapid decline of Mike Green due to injuries. Sure, that was true in 2009 or 2010, but two years ago, when Green signed a new three-year deal with the team, he had played a total of 81 games the previous two seasons and scored just 31 points, including just seven points in 32 games in 2011-12. McPhee, along with most Caps fans, hoped Green would recover from those injuries, but it's not like he should have been surprised when he didn't. (McPhee apparently was so confident that Green, despite all evidence to the contrary, was still the same player that he offered Green a three-year deal in the summer of 2012 even though Green had only asked for two years.)

And then, of course, Feinstein provides the obligatory shots at the Caps' best player, Alex Ovechkin. He complains that Ovechkin took a "swan dive" in the two years after the 2010 Olympics when his goal scoring totals declined. (Gee, John, you think Bruce Boudreau's switch to a defensive system in late 2010 that made Ovi play more defensively and then Dale Hunter's even more defensive style and decision to not play Ovechkin when the team had a lead had anything to do with his decline in goal totals? John, do you recall that Ovi ripped off an 11 goals in 14 games streak late in 2012 that carried the Caps into the playoffs?)

He also claims that Ovechkin "simply isn't the kind of leader who can shut the door and call out his teammates" when things aren't going well--and he says the biggest problem with the team is Ovechkin's "mercurial personality." It's not clear how he knows any of this--judging by his columns, he covered a Caps-Islanders game back in November and attended a pregame skate back in December, but hasn't written anything about the team since Christmas, so one wonders how he has such a clear, detailed view of the Caps' locker room Thus, there are only two possible explanations. One is that McPhee is relaying him this information--Feinstein has made no secret in his columns and radio interviews over the years that he likes McPhee, and one person who does know Feinstein told me he and McPhee were "close." (In fact, if they are friends, perhaps a disclosure of that was in order.) Or there's the other, probably more likely, alternative--he's just making stuff up and spinning theories based on his limited knowledge of the team. But I doubt even Ovi's biggest detractors would, as Feinstein does, say the primary reason for the Caps' poor season is Ovechkin's disinterest in backchecking.

John Feinstein is a legendary college basketball writer. He wrote one of the most important sports books ever written, "A Season on the Brink." He even taught a good class on reporting back when I was a student at Duke, in which I learned a lot about journalism. But this column is an insult to his readers and to Katie Carrera's fine reporting. It's fine if Feinstein wants to argue that McPhee and Oates should stay--you'd just think that at a top newspaper like the Post, the editors would force you to actually make an argument that actually has some relationship with the reality that the paper had printed a few days earlier.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

great article

4/17/14, 10:00 AM  

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