WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals' players apparently have five games in which to show whether they want Bryan Murray to continue as their coach.
General Manager David Poile has scheduled a "re-evaluation" following the game against Philadelphia Dec. 26. By that time, unless there is a reversal of form, the Capitals will be resting in the Patrick Division cellar. They have lost four of five and lack both intensity and aggressiveness, not to mention scoring punch.
Poile insists he has provided Murray with the players to produce a winner. Although Poile talks of changing that cast if it becomes necessary, it is unrealistic to contemplate major changes in the team, in large part because of a dearth of talent in the farm system.
Since it is impossible to fire the team, the only viable alternative, and one that has been employed with frequency in the NHL, would appear to be getting rid of the coach. It is a very real possibility here--unless the players turn it around.
A year ago, Poile backed Murray to the hilt during the Bob Carpenter turmoil, in effect firing the player. Thursday, Poile reiterated, "As I've said before when we've gone through hard times, I am not considering a coaching change at this time. Right now, I'm interested in winning games, and the coaches are working hard to right the ship."
Murray, however, is realistic enough to know that the current situation cannot continue. Asked whether he expected the coaching staff to be part of the re-evaluation, he said, "I'm sure we all will be. When a team performs the way we've performed, the whole situation has to be looked at. The way we're going, playing with such inconsistency, you have to wonder why the work level at least isn't where it should be.
"We keep hearing, and I heard it again in Detroit, that we're rated as one of the top teams in the league. But I look at our lineup and we're certainly not playing like one of the top teams. We haven't played that way in more than one or two games, although we've had occasional periods of high-level performance."
Murray has done virtually everything at his command to wake up his team, without noticeable effect. Wednesday in Detroit, he allowed his frustrations to reach the stage where he kept the team in the dressing room beyond the scheduled start of the third period, drawing a minor penalty, to "get their attention."
Thursday, Murray took one more step. Angered by a lackadaisical practice session, he ordered the players to attend a 7 p.m. meeting at Capital Centre.
"I wanted to show them that things are not cut and dried," Murray said. "They're not going to come and play and lose, come and play and lose, and then just go home and forget about it. There's a major difference between winning and losing and part of it is inconvenience."
Only four players can reasonably be evaluated as playing up to their capabilities--defenseman Scott Stevens, center Dale Hunter and wingers Mike Gartner and Kelly Miller. Beyond them, the Capitals have displayed shocking weaknesses in the areas of physical play, scoring and handling the puck in their end.
Both Toronto and Detroit dominated the Capitals earlier this week by manhandling them physically, the Red Wings with such ease that Coach Jacques Demers said he felt "Washington looked tired."
Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson were particular targets of big, strong forwards who were willing to throw their bodies around. The Capitals' big hits this season would not fill a 30-second commercial break.
"There is no willingness to get involved physically," Murray said. "Teams have come after us and we haven't responded. Guys at a high level are taken out of their games and we don't do anything about it.
"Everybody wants to be a player and it appears that most guys don't want to play a role. I won't name names, but five or six guys have a role to show up physically every night. They're not doing it, because they want to be players."