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

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

Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals went out early once again.
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The Washington Capitals just pissed away their first round Eastern Conference series against the Florida Panthers. The President’s Trophy winners were on the ropes in three straight games. And the Panthers won all three of those postseason contests in succession, two in overtime and one after trailing 3-0, to be the only team from the east to advance without a Game 7.

It’s the fourth straight first-round exit for the Caps, all coming since the team’s Stanley Cup triumph in 2018. It took Washington nearly three years to win a regulation playoff game during that stretch after getting swept by the Islanders in 2020 and winning one playoff game last year, in overtime, in a 4-1 drubbing from Boston.

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

Was the lack of fight shown by the Capitals what the team is capable of without Tom Wilson, who was hurt early in Game 1 and didn’t play in the rest of the series? Or is it an indication of a much bigger problem? I’m afraid it’s the latter. Washington isn’t getting any younger. The core of players from the 2018 Stanley Cup run are locked into contracts next season and, barring a blockbuster trade, won’t be leaving the nation’s capital.

Alongside the Capitals’ roster finding more gray hair, fresh young pups that can become the next generation’s stars haven’t been brought in. Many promising prospects have been traded away for players who want to chase a Stanley Cup now, mismanaged or released all together. Where would Washington be with Filip Forsberg? The veteran he was traded for, 40-year-old Martin Erat, 13 years Forsberg’s elder, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015. That’s the biggest of several perplexing decisions by former general manager George McPhee, which are manifesting now.

Current GM Brian MacLellan hasn’t done much to prevent Capital One Arena from turning into the NHL’s senior center. The indispensable Washington six of Alex Ovechkin (more of him in a moment), Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, Wilson and John Carlson has an average age of older than 32. That reaches nearly 34 without Wilson with nearly six games of evidence as to what that looks like in this series.

The Capitals have 15 players under professional contracts that are free agents this summer, with six being unrestricted. The only one the team needs to resign is Justin Schultz. Yes, he’s 31, and only a year younger than the aging core. He didn’t show it at all this year and can be part of Washington’s top D pairing with Carlson. As nice as the reunion with Marcus Johansson was, the team could get a younger, cheaper and better player easily.

Of the nine restricted free agents, a few should be back with Washington, the biggest being llya Samsonov. He earned the No. 1 spot in just going into 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 being an all-time resilient team† The Capitals should bring back Vitek Vanacek as well as Samsonov’s backup. Neither one is the permanent solution in goal 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 greatest goal scorer in the history of hockey will chase down Gordie Howe for second all-time on the NHL’s all-time goals list early next season, then he starts the long road to Wayne Gretzky. The Great 8 will be 37 the next time he plays in an NHL game. You see the gray beard. He still hasn’t lost a step. And this playoff exit doesn’t sit on his shoulders more than anyone else on the team, and doesn’t define his legacy.

It can be true that it’s a disservice to Ovechkin that the Capitals made one run past the second round thus far in his tenure with the team, while concurrently correct that Ovechkin doesn’t carry the trait of playoff disappointment with him. These exits would hurt Ovechkin way more without that 2018 Cup. He was spectacular in that postseason. It shows he can do it.

The concerning trend for Ovechkin and the core of Washington’s team that surrounds him is how the next man up isn’t in place. Even worse, who is the candidate to be the next marketable star for the franchise? There isn’t a good one. Connor McMichael was the only forward under the age of 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? He needs a world of development before taking on that spotlight.

Without that set superstar or set of All-Star-caliber players in the organization, the Capitals relevancy in the NHL will fade, if it hasn’t started to do so already. 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. That clear path isn’t so pristine anymore. And it puts the Capitals in a tough spot with no clear safety net.

The answer isn’t to blow out the core of this team. Ovechkin and Backstrom have clearly stated they want to retire in DC before going to the Hall of Fame. Getting rid of Wilson or Oshie would be mistakes just as big as trading away Forsberg. The answer isn’t to rid the team of Carlson or Kuznetsov, but for the right price, namely a proven in-their-prime superstar, MacLellan would be dumb not to listen. The only issue is, what team would be willing to make that trade? Good luck finding that trade partner.

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