Four years, four first-round exits. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Washington Capitals have failed to advance in the playoffs. But days after losing to the Florida Panthers in six games, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin sounded like a man who wanted to run it back. So too did coach Peter Laviolette, who insisted Washington’s aging core could still be successful.
The man tasked with making the decisions, however, didn’t seem nearly as convinced.
“We’ve lost in the first round the last four years,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We’re going to explore changes. I don’t think anything is off the table.”
MacLellan said the Capitals would “look at everything” after another disappointing postseason. On the outside, it looks like Washington has hit a wall. Though the Panthers may have been heavy favorites, the fact that the Capitals ultimately blew leads in three straight games to close out the series only further highlighted the perception.
Among MacLellan’s to-do list: Sort out the team’s goalie situation, figure out the health of key players, survey the trade market and identify free agents the team wants to pursue. According to Cap Friendly, Washington is projected to have almost $9 million in cap space this offseason — a decent amount to work with, though goaltenders Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek will be restricted free agents.
But broadly speaking, MacLellan will have to determine just how far he wants to go in shaking up Washington’s core.
“We did a lot of positive things to put ourselves in a position to beat the No. 1 team in the East, and maybe in the league, and we didn’t get it done,” MacLellan said. “We didn’t finish games. Games 4, 5, 6, we probably should have won all of them. Given we have a lot of experience, we’re a veteran team … and we didn’t close them out.
“So it’s disappointing in that aspect.”
The Capitals have only nine players left from their 2018 Stanley Cup roster: Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Lars Eller and Michal Kempny. Outside of Kempny, a reserve defenseman, the rest remain important contributors for Washington and the majority of them had strong seasons. Ovechkin, for instance, is coming off a 50-goal season, while Carlson and Wilson topped career highs in goals.
Questions, though, persist about how much Washington can count on them in the future. Wilson and Backstrom, in particular, have major injury concerns. Wilson, who missed the team’s last five games after getting hurt in Game 1 against Florida, revealed Sunday he has a “pretty significant” knee injury and could need surgery.
Backstrom, on the other hand, is still dealing with the nagging left hip injury that caused him to miss the first two months of the season. The 34-year-old previously had hip surgery in 2015 and though he opted not to get another procedure this past season, MacLellan said he doesn’t think it’s sustainable for Backstrom to keep things the status quo. “It’s hard for him to play,” MacLellan said.
Backstrom told reporters he would look at “all options,” though wasn’t sure if he’ll need another surgery. The Swede was impactful in the playoffs with two goals and two assists, but in the regular season, he scored only six goals in 47 games — both career lows.
“The best thing I want to do is play hockey, and that’s my life,” Backstrom said. “Obviously I want to be back. I want to be back to normal, not worrying about this. We’ll see what’s going to happen. Nothing is finalized yet.”
Asked if Backstrom’s injury could force the center into retirement, MacLellan only reiterated that Backstrom was evaluating his options. The executive was also noncommittal to Backstrom being available for the start of the season, though was more optimistic regarding Wilson.
By relying on many players into their 30s, MacLellan acknowledged that older players are more likely to get injured. The Capitals are already coming off a difficult season in which veterans like Oshie (35) and Backstrom were in and out of the lineup. As a result, Washington relied on prospects to fill in when necessary, but those younger players saw minimized roles or failed to crack the lineup in the postseason.
The health problems are why MacLellan said Washington needs a “youth injection” next season. He mentioned that he’d like to see center Connor McMichael’s role expand, adding that the Capitals have other prospects like Joe Snively, Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas who could warrant more of an NHL opportunity.
Still, against Florida, Washington had mostly a full roster — with the notable exception of Wilson. The Capitals just ran out of gas, failing to close out games. MacLellan attributed the fade to mistakes “from our key guys,” which he said made the playoff exit even more frustrating.
The Panthers, meanwhile, moved on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning. By eliminating Washington on Friday, Florida got a few days of rest heading into the second round.
The Capitals? They were just one of three teams in these playoffs that failed to force a Game 7, joining the Minnesota Wild (eliminated in six games by the St. Louis Blues) and the Nashville Predators (swept in four by the Colorado Avalance).
Over the weekend, there were five Game 7s. The Capitals were left to watch from home.
“We want this core to stay together forever,” Oshie said. ‘I hope we do for a couple more years. It’s tough to not be going on to the second round with these guys and still going to work every day.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the result of the Wild-Blues series.