Whither the Washington Capitals?
I intended to write a postmortem today for the four teams eliminated from the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, the fate of the Washington Capitals overshadows – for me, at least – the fates of the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues.
Not that what happened to those clubs isn’t noteworthy. By upsetting the San Jose Sharks and pushing the Anaheim Ducks to seven games, the Oilers served notice they’re a force to be reckoned with after a decade in the wilderness. The Rangers must address an aging core and a defense that needs retooling. The Blues need depth at center and perhaps another scoring winger.
But the Capitals. Oh, the Capitals. Their latest failure to get past the second round is a raw wound for their long-suffering fans.
Despite winning the President’s Trophy for the second straight season as the NHL’s top regular-season team (their third since 2010), the Capitals simply couldn’t translate that success into a championship run.
Since joining the NHL in 1974-75, the Capitals have advanced to the Conference Finals only twice. They were swept by the Boston Bruins in 1990 and defeated the Buffalo Sabres in 1998 to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where they were swiftly dispatched in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.
Those 1998 Capitals were underdogs riding the hot goaltending of Olaf Kolzig. With all due respect to that roster, they weren’t as talented as this year’s version.
All the pieces were supposedly in place this season. Left wing and captain Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby are among the league’s elite stars. Defensemen John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen formed the basis of a solid blueline corps. Winger Evgeny Kuznetsov is a rising star in his own right. They also had a decent supporting cast, including skilled depth players Marcus Johansson and Andre Burakovsky.
In recent years, the Capitals made a series of notable moves in the right direction.They hired the well-respected Barry Trotz as head coach in 2014. A year later, they brought in T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to boost their scoring punch at right wing. Last summer, they added depth at center by acquiring Lars Eller. At this year’s trade deadline they dealt for puck-moving blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk.
Entering the 2017 playoff, it seemed the Capitals were poised to exorcise the demons of playoff futility. And yet, once again, they fell short. Despite everything, the song remains the same.
In the aftermath of their Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins (their long-time postseason nemesis), fans and pundits are again left searching for answers. Excuses vary, from Trotz’s coaching to a lack of offensive support for Ovechkin to less-than-stellar goaltending by Holtby to just bad luck. There’s also dark mutterings questioning Ovechkin’s leadership, suggesting there’s a lack of heart among the core players or some other weird mojo that determines the Capitals can’t have nice things.
The more impatient are calling for big changes.
Fire the management and head coach. Except that was done in the not too distant past and there’s nothing to indicate a change now will improve things.
Blow up the roster and start over, except doing so means parting with superstars still in their playing prime who could be part of the solution.
Sure, the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs did it and now they have bright futures, whereas the Capitals are no longer as shiny and new and pretty as they were a decade ago when everyone fell in love with them. Blow it up, endure the pain and better days will surely come.
Except the Oilers and Leafs endured a decade’s worth of mismanagement and mediocrity before they finally got it together. To go from Presidents’ Trophy winners to draft lottery candidates in a season simply isn’t an option.
Trade Ovechkin? Not without owner Ted Leonsis’ blessing. Even then, they won’t get a return that significantly improves their championship dreams. Ship out Backstrom and you blow a king-sized hole at center that could take years to fill. Deal away Holtby? Good luck finding a suitable replacement for a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate.
The Capitals still have some key ingredients that could form a championship roster in the near term. The problem, of course, is figuring out how to tweak the mixture to find the right ingredients.
Washington’s woes are somewhat comparable to those of the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Like today’s Capitals, those Red Wings were built for success but kept coming up short in the playoffs.The ’95-’96 Wings set an NHL record for most victories in a season but were bounced from the Western Conference Final by the Colorado Avalanche.
Disgruntled Wings followers were calling for changes. Long-time captain Steve Yzerman, by that point 31 years old and in his thirteenth NHL season, had his leadership questioned. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was thought by some too soft for the rough-and-tumble of the playoffs. Russian stars Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov were believed to lack the resolve to win the Stanley Cup. The roster supposedly lacked grit, toughness and character.
Rather the blow things up, however, the Wings instead addressed their issues by adding Brendan Shanahan, Larry Murphy and Mike Vernon. A year later, they finally won the Cup. All of those players are now revered Hall of Famers, their exploits fondly recalled by Wings fans.
Of course, the NHL has changed since then. Wings management didn’t have to operate under the constraints of a salary cap. There’s no one comparable to Shanahan, Murphy or Vernon available in this summer’s free agent and trade markets. As talented as the Capitals are, their depth in talent pales in comparison to the 1996-97 Detroit roster.
But the Capitals didn’t just stumble into consecutive Presidents’ Trophy seasons. Despite this year’s disappointment, they remain a very good hockey team, one that with subtle adjustments could find that championship formula.
Perhaps the pressure of facing heightened expectations took an unexpected mental toll upon the Capitals. If those are lowered next season, maybe that’ll relieve the pressure and they can relax and just play.
I expect changes will be coming. Shattenkirk will certainly depart via free agency. Williams, Alzner and perhaps Oshie will join him. They’ll lose a player to the expansion draft, such as goalie Philipp Grubauer or defenseman Nate Schmidt. Shopping for championship depth could cost them future assets.
Between now and next year’s trade deadline, the Capitals can still find the pieces of the championship puzzle. It remains to be seen, however, if management can pull it off.