The Washington Capitals just pissed off their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Florida Panthers. The winners of the President’s Trophy were on the ropes in three games in a row. And the Panthers won all three postseason contests in succession, two in overtime and one after losing 3-0, to be the only team from 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 game during that stretch after being swept by the Islanders in 2020 and win a playoff. game last year, in overtime, in a 4-1 blowout of Boston.
This playoff exit for the Capitals is unique in a post-Stanley Cup universe. It wasn’t a total surprise (Carolina in 2019) or outclassed in every way, as it was in the previous two seasons. Washington had all the tools to take down the best team of the regular season and likely cause more damage, as neither the Rangers nor the Penguins have looked impressive and are prone to second-round postseason exits.
Was it the lack of fighting the Capitals showed 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 of players from the 2018 Stanley Cup race are under contract next season and, barring a blockbuster trade, won’t be leaving the nation’s capital.
In addition to the Capitals roster finding more gray hair, fresh young pups who could become the stars of the next generation have not been brought in. Many promising prospects have been traded 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 older than Forsberg, hasn’t played in the NHL since 2015. That’s the biggest of several puzzling decisions by former general manager George McPhee that are playing out now.
Current general manager Brian MacLellan hasn’t done much to prevent Capital One Arena from becoming the NHL’s premier senior center. Washington’s indispensable six of Alex Ovechkin (more on him in a bit), Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, Wilson and John Carlson have an average age of more than 32. That comes to nearly 34 without Wilson with nearly six evidence games. as to how that looks in this series.
The Capitals have 15 players under professional contracts who are free agents this summer, with six unrestricted. The only one the team needs to give up is Justin Schultz. Yes, he is 31 years old and only one year younger than the aged core. He didn’t show it at all this year and may be part of Washington’s best D pair 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, some should be back with Washington, the biggest being llya Samsonov. He was ranked No. 1 on the network heading into the upcoming 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. He blames the lack of effort of the guys in front of him, and Florida being an all-time tough team. Capitals should bring back Vitek Vanacek, as well as Samsonov’s backup. Neither of them is the permanent solution in goal if they don’t improve but keeping them together is the best option in the short term.
The most relevant of the Capitals is (and has been since 2004) Alex Ovechkin. The greatest goal scorer in hockey history he’ll chase Gordie Howe for second all-time on the NHL’s all-time target list early next season, then start the long road to Wayne Gretzky. The Great 8 will be 37 years old the next time he plays in an NHL game. He you see the gray beard. He still hasn’t missed a step. And this playoff exit doesn’t rest on his shoulders any more than anyone else on the team, and it doesn’t define his legacy.
It may be true that it’s a disservice to Ovechkin that the Capitals have managed a run past the second round so far in his tenure with the team, while at the same time it’s correct that Ovechkin doesn’t have the playoff disappointment trait with the. These exits would hurt Ovechkin a lot more without that 2018 Cup. He was spectacular in that postseason. He proves that he can do it.
The troubling trend for Ovechkin and the core of the Washington team around him is that the next man is not in his place. Worse still, who is the candidate to be the next commercial star of 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, he only got his spot due to Wilson’s injury and was nearly invisible. Perhaps Hendrix Lapierre? He needs a development world before being the center of attention.
Without that established 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 to do so. 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 is no longer so pristine. And it puts capitals in a difficult situation without a clear safety net.
The answer is not to blow up the core of this team. Ovechkin and Backstrom have clearly stated that they want to retire in DC before going to 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 right price — meaning a proven superstar in his prime, MacLellan would be a fool if he didn’t listen. The only problem is, which team would be willing to make that trade? Good luck finding that business partner.