Two months ago, with the dawn of a new hockey season lighting up his face, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was asked about the job stability of general manager George McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Ive learned never to make big decisions based on emotion, Leonsis said. ... I believe in George and Bruce, but mostly because the players do.
If I have a fault it is that I m optimistic and loyal and I can live with that. Thats not to say I have unlimited patience. We know whats at stake and were very serious. We want to do better this year than last year. I cant tell you how to win a championship, but I can tell you well die trying.
Today McPhee and Boudreau find themselves at a crossroads.
After a franchise-best 7-0, the Capitals have gone 5-9-1, falling from first in the Eastern Conference to eighth. They have allowed 45 goals in their last 11 games (3-7-1) and have twice been blown out by injury-depleted teams with rosters filled with AHL players.
Their most recent defeat, Saturday nights listless 5-1 setback in Buffalo, was the kind of loss that gets players traded and coaches fired.
The question is, which will happen?
Will McPhee send a message to his team by making a major roster move? He could trade right wing Alex Semin, who has been a disappointment this season with five goals and 32 penalty minutes in 21 games. Failing that, he could simply banish Semin to the minors and erase his 6.7 million from the clubs salary cap.
McPhee could also shake things up with a goalie change, recalling brash prospect Braden Hotlby from the Hershey Bears and giving him a start over Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, each of whom has been guilty of giving up untimely goals.
Or, McPhee can do what most NHL general managers do when their teams under-perform.
He can fire the coach.
Boudreau seemed to be at a loss for answers following his teams last two losses. After Friday nights 6-3 defeat to the Rangers he said his players were feeling sorry for themselves.
His comments after Saturday nights beating were more revealing.
Sometimes were not mentally strong, Boudreau said. This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. It hasnt had a lot of adversity in the last four years unless it was in the playoffs.
The regular seasons have seemed like a walk in the park. But now weve gone 15 games with adversity and some guys are having a hard time with it.
Asked how a coach can cultivate mental toughness in his team, Boudreau shrugged his shoulders.
Its got to come from within, Ive got to believe, he said. Im hoping its got to come from within because if I have to teach them how to be tough I dont know quite how to do that.
The man most often mentioned as a possible replacement for Boudreau is Dale Hunter, a fan favorite who is now co-owner and coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
You can be sure that before McPhee makes a rash decision he will consult with several players, presumably including his captain, Alex Ovechkin, who has spent the past four years working for Boudreau.
For as long as the league has been around there are a handful of guys who can make a difference and you really have to learn how to coach them, McPhee said on the morning of the Caps regular season opener.
The rest, you open the door and they just go. Its about teaching and coaching and showing the guys who can make a difference how to make a difference.
The question facing McPhee today is whether Boudreau is the coach capable of pulling that off, or if some of the players need to change. The answer will come in the moves he makes in the coming days.
You dont listen to the outside voices, McPhee said. You trust your own opinions and your own inner voice and thats how we make decisions.