THE aftermath of the Washington Capitals’ all-too-familiar early playoff exit has an unfamiliar feeling this time.
No longer could players fall back on learning from the latest loss, in seven games in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, because some if not many of them won’t be back next season. With forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams and defenseman Karl Alzner among the unrestricted free agents and several players set to eat up bigger chunks of the salary cap, changes are coming to Washington after back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and a decade of playoff failures.
Led by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have made nine playoff appearances in the past 10 seasons and haven’t made it past the second round once.
“Obviously, it’s not working,” Backstrom said Friday on another sombre exit day. “I’m sure the organisation will figure that out and try again.” How much needs to be different is a matter of opinion, and really owner majority owner Ted Leonsis, general manager Brian MacLellan and others in the organisation are the only ones whose thoughts matter. Because of the impending salary-cap crunch and new contracts needed for centre Evgeny Kuznetsov, winger Andre Burakovsky and defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, MacLellan made it no secret before the 2015-16 season he saw this as a two-year window. Now it’s over.
“This is a pretty good window that we had here, and unfortunately it’s not there anymore,” said Alzner, who played with a broken bone in his hand and faces his own uncertain future. “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed.”
Coach Barry Trotz said the window hasn’t closed on the Capitals after three consecutive second-round exits. He said similar teams have added pieces and allowed for the possibility that Washington is even better next year. That’s difficult to imagine unless MacLellan can work some magic. He went all out in signing Williams and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and acquiring Oshie two years ago, centre Lars Eller last summer and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline to solve all of the Capitals’ apparent woes to go for a Stanley Cup now.
With that mission unaccomplished, what MacLellan does next — especially with top players — is anyone’s guess.
“The question is what do you do with your core and do you decide you want to take it one more time,” former GM and current NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury said. “The goal being the Stanley Cup, you have to ask questions about your core players and whether they can get you to the promised land.” No option, from firing Trotz to trading stars to blowing it all up, is entirely off the table. Leonsis wrote on his blog that the goal is to make the playoffs and compete for a Cup again in 2018, so that limits the possibilities. But how to the Capitals fix what has ailed them?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Niskanen said. “I don’t know if minor cosmetic changes are going to change anything, really. It’s pretty clear that this group didn’t get it done, so what changes and how many or what level of changes, I don’t know what the answer is. Talent-wise and our potential is clearly there. That’s all fluff now. We need results.” Laying an egg in a 2-0 Game 7 home loss and the urgency of the situation made this the most difficult ouster to take for more than a few players. They used words like “terrible” and “awful” to describe another sour ending and the prospect of several teammates leaving.
But they knew changes were coming.
“The writing was on the wall,” said Williams, a three-time Cup-winner and 2014 playoff MVP. “It was evident what was about to happen, win or lose. … We’re in the business of winning and this team, albeit very successful, hasn’t been successful in the right way.” Trotz said the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs can be millimetres, but the Capitals somehow ended up on the wrong end of it again. This time, Ovechkin was hampered by hamstring and knee injuries, Marcus Johansson had a broken finger and several others were dealing with injuries. Mentally, they’re also dealing with the way it went down and the difficult transition to a summer of changes.
“After two days when you lose, it’s hard to say what to expect and what we should do,” Ovechkin said. “I think we have to take a deep breath and maybe in two weeks or three weeks just see what happened. Because right now it’s just a situation where you’re frustrated, you’re angry, you still think about the Game 7. And it’s hard. It needs time and we’ll see what happens out there.”