Washington Capitals face big questions after fourth straight first-round outing

Washington Capitals face big questions after fourth straight first-round outing

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals came out early once again.

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals came out early once again.
Picture: Getty Images

The Washington Capitals just pissed off their Eastern Conference Series first round against the Florida Panthers. The President’s Trophy winners were on the ropes in three straight games. And the Panthers won those three postseason games in succession, two in overtime and one after leading 3-0, to be the only team in the East to advance without a Game 7.

It’s the fourth straight first-round outing for the Caps, all since the team’s Stanley Cup triumph in 2018. It took Washington nearly three years to win a regulation playoff during that streak. after being swept by the Islanders in 2020 and winning a playoff. game last year, in overtime, in a 4-1 beating of Boston.

This playoff exit for the Capitals is unique in a post-Stanley Cup universe. It wasn’t a complete upset (Caroline in 2019) or being outplayed in every way, like what happened the previous two seasons. Washington had all the tools to knock out the best team of the regular season and likely do more damage, as neither the Rangers nor the Penguins looked impressive and are prone to second-round playoff exits.

Was the Capitals’ lack of a fight what the team is capable of without Tom Wilson, who was injured early in Game 1 and didn’t play the rest of the series? Or is it an indication of a much bigger problem? I’m afraid it’s the latter. Washington is not getting any younger. The core 2018 Stanley Cup players are bound by contracts next season and, barring a successful trade, will not leave the nation’s capital.

Along with the Capitals roster finding more gray hair, fresh young puppies who can become the stars of the next generation weren’t brought in. Many promising prospects have been traded for players who want to chase a Stanley Cup now, mishandled or released all together. Where would Washington be with Filip Forsberg? The veteran he was traded for, Martin Erat, 40, 13 years older than Forsberg, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015. It’s the biggest of several puzzling moves by the former general manager. George McPhee, who are coming forward now.

Current general manager Brian MacLellan has done little to stop Capital One Arena from becoming the NHL’s senior center. The indispensable 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 reaches nearly 34 years without Wilson with nearly six games of proof. what it looks like in this series.

The Capitals have 15 players under professional contract who are free agents this summer, including six unrestricted. The only one the team needs to quit is Justin Schultz. Yes, he is 31 and only a year younger than the aging core. He hasn’t shown it at all this year and can be in Washington’s top D with Carlson. As nice as the reunion with Marcus Johansson was, the team could easily get a younger, cheaper and better player.

Of the nine restricted free agents, a few are expected to return to Washington, the most important being Ilya Samsonov. He clinched the No. 1 spot in net ahead of next season. Was he phenomenal in the playoffs? Absolutely not. Is the 25-year-old Russian the reason the Capitals lost the series? Again, absolutely not. Blame the lack of effort of the guys in front of him, and Florida is an all-time resilient team. The Capitals are expected to bring back Vitek Vanacek as well as Samsonov’s replacement. Neither is the permanent solution for the purpose if they don’t improve, but keeping them together is the best short-term option.

The most relevant thing about the Capitals is (and has been since 2004) Alex Ovechkin. the top scorer in hockey history will chase Gordie Howe for second all-time on the NHL’s all-time goalscoring list early next season, and then he’ll begin the long road to Wayne Gretzky. The Great 8 will be 37 the next time they play in an NHL game. You see the gray beard. He still hasn’t lost a step. And that exit from the playoffs doesn’t rest on his shoulders more than anyone else on the team and define his legacy.

Admittedly, it’s a disservice to Ovechkin that the Capitals have gone past the second round so far in his tenure with the team, while being okay that Ovechkin doesn’t carry the playoff disappointment trait with him. These outings would hurt Ovechkin a lot more without this 2018 Cup. He was spectacular in this playoff. It shows he can do it.

The worrying trend for Ovechkin and the core of the Washington team around him is how the next man is out of place. Worse still, who is the candidate to be the franchise’s next marketable star? There is no good. Connor McMichael was the only forward under 27 to play for the Capitals in the series, only got his spot due to Wilson’s injury, and was nearly invisible. Maybe Hendrix Lapierre? It needs a development world before it takes that spotlight.

Without this superstar or set of All-Star caliber players in the organization, the Capitals’ relevance in the NHL will fade, if it hasn’t already begun. Washington has been one of the most consistent teams in the league since the turn of the century and has been an ideal destination for free agents to sign and try to win a championship. This clear path is no longer so pristine. And that puts the Capitals in a tough spot with no clear backstop.

The answer is not to blow up the core of this team. Ovechkin and Backstrom have made it clear that they want to retire in DC before entering the Hall of Fame. Getting rid of Wilson or Oshie would be as big a mistake as trading Forsberg. The answer isn’t to rid the team of Carlson or Kuznetsov, but for the fair price of a proven superstar, MacLellan would be foolish not to listen. The only problem is which team would be willing to make this trade? Good luck finding that business partner.

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