Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has often said that he wanted to build a team with sustained success, a club that was competitive and made the playoffs for 10 straight years. Since tearing down and rebuilding the team from the ground up beginning in the 2003-04 season, Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee have seen the Capitals steadily rise in prominence.
While regular-season success has been established since Coach Bruce Boudreau arrived in the middle of the 2007-08 campaign, the Capitals have yet to assert themselves in the postseason. In the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs, Washington lost in seven games to Philadelphia in the first round. In 2009, they fell short in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, again in seven games but this time to Pittsburgh. Last year came the greatest disappointment of all, when the Capitals were knocked out by eighth-seeded Montreal in a seven-game, first round series.
With 11 games left in the regular season, what kind of success in the playoffs would Leonsis consider to be adequate, now seven seasons removed from starting from scratch?
“I think that’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room and I empathize with how everyone feels with that,” Leonsis said. “I haven’t put Stanley Cup or bust on this year. I don’t think that is an honest way to look at the team, because anything can happen in the playoffs – health, luck, officiating, how you play.
“Certainly everyone internally knows, though, if we don’t do better than we did last year it would be a failure,” Leonsis continued. “Having playoff success is important for the franchise, but it’s not a Sword of Damocles where this is the year or we’re blowing the team up.”
The Capitals have learned how different the playoffs are from any other achievements they could obtain throughout the course of the season, Leonsis said, whether a Presidents’ Trophy, sellouts, television ratings or other indications of popularity and regular-season triumphs. Part of that learning curve included the switch to a more defensive mindset in the middle of this year, Leonsis said, which was “specifically designed to get us ready for the playoffs.”
Although Leonsis said he believes the team is engineered for the rapidly-approaching postseason, he also noted the number of young players who will be tested for the first time as key contributors.
“The team is at that point where it wants and needs playoff success, but at the same time, we made the team younger by design this year,” Leonsis said. “It was a conscious decision and sincerely, we all knew we had the risk of taking a step back because they’re young players and they’ve never played through an 82-game season, been through the emotional ups and downs, the scrutiny and then the playoffs. So I think we’re a little bit of an unknown as we go into the playoffs.
“The team still has upside; it still hasn’t peaked. We have three or four prospects in the pipeline who are going to push people, too, next year. After that happens, then the team will kind of be steady, with a good mix of youth and experience, but right now we have a lot of young players and they have to be tested in the playoffs.”