The Washington Capitals just pissed theirs off Eastern Conference Series First Round against the Florida Panthers. The President’s Trophy winners have been on the ropes in three straight games. And the Panthers won all three of those postseason contests back-to-back, two in overtime and one from a 3-0 deficit to be the only East team to advance without a Game 7.
It’s the fourth straight first-round elimination for the Caps since the team’s Stanley Cup triumph in 2018. It took Washington nearly three years to win a regular playoff game at the stretch after being eliminated by the 2020 Islanders and won a playoff in overtime last year in a 4-1 win over Boston.
This playoff end for the Capitals is unique in a post-Stanley Cup universe. It wasn’t a total surprise (Carolina in 2019) or being outplayed in every way like it had been the previous two seasons. Washington had all the tools to take down the regular-season best team and likely do more damage as neither the Rangers nor the Penguins looked impressive and are vulnerable to post-season second-round elimination.
Did the Capitals’ lack of a fight show what the team is capable of without Tom Wilson, who was injured early in Game 1 and didn’t play in the rest of the series? Or is it an indication of a much larger problem? I’m afraid it’s the latter. Washington is not getting any younger. The core of the 2018 Stanley Cup run’s players are tied to contracts next season and, save for one blockbuster trade, will not leave the nation’s capital.
Aside from finding more gray hairs in the Capitals’ roster, fresh young puppies who could become the stars of the next generation have not been included. Many promising prospects have been traded for players who want to chase a Stanley Cup now, mismanaged or published all together. Where would Washington be with Filip Forsberg? The veteran he was traded for, 40-year-old Martin Erat, 13 years older than Forsberg, has not played in the NHL since 2015. That’s the biggest of several baffling decisions made by former general manager George McPhee that are now manifesting themselves.
Current GM Brian MacLellan hasn’t done much to prevent Capital One Arena from turning into the NHL’s senior center. The must-have Washington Six of Alex Ovechkin (more on him in a moment), Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, Wilson and John Carlson has an average age of over 32. That almost reaches 34 without Wilson with almost six proof games as it stands in this series.
The Capitals have 15 players under professional contracts this summer who are free agents, six of whom are unrestricted. The only one the team has to resign is Justin Schultz. Yes, he’s 31 and just a year younger than the aging core. He hasn’t shown it at all this year and can be part of Washington’s top D pairing with Carlson. As nice as it was to see Marcus Johansson again, the team could easily get a younger, cheaper and better player.
Of the nine restricted free agents, a few should be back with Washington, the biggest being Ilya Samsonov. He’s earned first place on the net for next season. Was he phenomenal in the playoffs? Absolutely not. Was the 25-year-old Russian the reason the Capitals lost the series? Again absolutely not. Blame the lack of effort from the guys in front of him and Florida is a resilient team at all times. The Capitals should bring back Vitek Vanacek and Samsonov’s backup. Neither is the permanent solution in goal unless they improve, but keeping them together is the best short-term option.
The main thing about the capitals is (and has been since 2004) Alex Ovechkin. That tallest goalscorer in hockey history With Gordie Howe chasing for second all-time on the NHL’s all-time goals list early next season, his long road to Wayne Gretzky begins. The Great 8 will be 37 when he next plays in an NHL game. You see the gray beard. He still hasn’t lost a step. And that playoff exit rests no more on his shoulders than anyone else on the team and doesn’t define his legacy.
It may be true that it’s a disservice to Ovechkin that the Capitals have managed one run past the second round in his tenure with the team, while it’s true that Ovechkin doesn’t have the trait of playoff disappointment with him carries. Those departures would hurt Ovechkin a lot more without this 2018 Cup. He’s been spectacular this postseason. That shows he can do it.
The worrying trend for Ovechkin and the core of Washington’s team that surrounds him is that the next man isn’t there. Worse yet, who is the candidate to become the next marketable star for the franchise? There isn’t a good one. Connor McMichael was the only forward under 27 to play for the Capitals in the series, only getting his spot due to Wilson’s injury and being all but invisible. Maybe Hendrix Lapierre? He needs a world of development before he takes that limelight.
Without this group of superstars or all-star caliber players in the organization, the Capitals’ relevance in the NHL will fade, if not already begun. One of the most consistent teams in the league since the turn of the century, Washington is an ideal destination for free agents to sign and try to win a championship. That clear path is no longer so pristine. And it puts capitals in a difficult position without a clear safety net.
The answer is not to blast the core of this team. Ovechkin and Backstrom have clearly stated that they intend to retire in DC before going into the Hall of Fame. Getting rid of Wilson or Oshie would be just as big a mistake as trading Forsberg. The answer isn’t ridding the team of Carlson or Kuznetsov, but for the right price, which is a provable Best Superstar, MacLellan would be foolish not to listen. The only question is which team would be willing to make that trade? Good luck finding that trading partner.