Sometimes the doors shut on the outside world and struggling teams find clarity inside the sanctuary of a locker room. Sometimes they do not.
The Nationals experienced the downside of a players’ only meeting this week when a clear-the-air session on Wednesday at Citi Field in New York was followed by two horrifying losses to the NL East rival Mets.
Now 12 games under .500, the season slipping away, their manager facing daily questions about his job security, the hardest part is here: Where do the Nationals go after a team meeting doesn’t solve the problem?
Washington doesn’t need to go too far back into the history books to see that team meetings are often just exercises in frustration, They held one after a 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox last July 4. It capped a 9-20 stretch where they were shut out eight times in 34 days.
You know what happened next. The Nationals drifted through an 82-80 season and failed to reach any of their preseason goals. A team 10 games over .500 and tied for first place in the NL East on May 31 was a game under .500 (42-43), seven games out and never got closer than five again.
Of course, if there were no problems there would be no meetings. But sometimes players can root out issues by shutting out everyone, including the coaches. The Capitals did it each of the past two seasons.
It’s easy to forget in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title in 2019 that the Capitals had plenty of problems to work through. Former coach Barry Trotz blistered his team after a 6-2 loss at Colorado on Nov. 16, 2017 and left his players to sort things out. Washington was floundering at 10-9-1.
The message got through. They won 12 of their next 15 games and finished the rest of the season 39-17-6. They went on to win the Cup – though there were a few more bumps in the road and a defensive overhaul following another team meeting in March.
This year an embarrassing 8-5 loss at Chicago left the Capitals in third place in the Metro at 27-16-5. Maybe that doesn’t seem too bad, but they were in the midst of what would become a seven-game losing streak. They were teetering. Again the brutally honest talk after the loss to the Blackhawks eventually helped turn the tide.
“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said after that Jan. 22 game. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page.
But it took two more losses – one a brutal 7-6 overtime defeat at home to San Jose where they coughed up a two-goal lead twice, gave up the game-tying goal with one second to go and lost in overtime. Even productive team meetings rarely have linear results.
But they can also make things worse. The Wizards had a team meeting in January 2018 and soon after got destroyed by Charlotte 133-109. They rallied and beat Detroit two days later and their record was 26-20.
But the fruitless meeting couldn’t solve Washington’s underlying issues. And while injuries played a factor, the Wizards only made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and lost to Toronto in the first round in six games.
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