The end of the road for this year’s Capitals team was all too familiar, a crushing loss in Game 7 to the rival Penguins at home. The idea that this was the Capitals’ best chance to win a Stanley Cup with Alex Ovechkin, which players and management openly acknowledged, only added to the disappointment.
The looming offseason will be anything but familiar. Unlike previous summers, which mostly involved tinkering and adding pieces around Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have a number of young players due pay raises and key veterans who will become unrestricted free agents, including Kevin Shattenkirk, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Decisions about whom to retain and who to let go won’t be easy for General Manager Brian MacLellan, but after Washington failed to reach the third round of the playoffs for the ninth time in nine postseason appearances during the Ovechkin era, some pundits seem to think that major changes are needed.
“What do you do?” ESPN’s Barry Melrose said. “This team can’t win, they’ve just proven it over and over and over again. Something’s wrong, something’s lacking in that dressing room. The thing is it’s so hard to make a major deal in the NHL right now with salary cap, a lot of these guys have no movement clauses in the contracts … that almost makes a deal impossible. How do you trade Ovechkin? You’re going to trade him to another team? What do you do if you’re the ownership of the Washington Capitals? Do you just fine tune the outside, bring in some young guys, two or three guys? That’s a question that’s gotta be answered by Washington this summer. Obviously there is something lacking in that dressing room because they’ve been so close, so many times, so talented, final game in your building two years in a row and you still can’t get the job done. They’ve gotta look seriously at making some major overhauls to that lineup.”
Later, Melrose made the case for trading Ovechkin.
“The bottom line is Alex Ovechkin’s the best player on the team, the highest-paid player on the team, he’s the captain of the team, and Alex isn’t getting the job done,” he told Scott Van Pelt. “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I like Alex, he’s great when I’m around him and deal with me and stuff like that, but I really think it’s time for the Washington Capitals to look at moving Alex Ovechkin. I think it’s to that point, and for his sake. Not for the Washington Capitals’ sake, for his sake. Look at what we’re talking about now, everyone’s just ‘Alex Ovechkin let the team down, Alex Ovechkin let the team down.’ He can’t win in Washington right now. Theoretically, it would be good for him to move on to another team with a fresh start also. This team, 10, 11 years, they don’t win. They don’t get to the third round. They’re always winning the Presidents’ Trophy, they’re always one of the best teams in the NHL, they’re always one of the most exciting teams in the NHL, they spend as much money as any team in the NHL, but they never get to the third round. It’s time to do something if you’re a Washington Capitals fan.”
All of this opining, of course, came before Thursday’s news that Ovechkin has an undisclosed lower-body injury that will prevent him from playing for Russia in the World Championships this summer. It’s unclear how long the 31-year-old Ovechkin had been playing with the injury, but he had to be helped off the ice in Game 5 of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Maple Leafs after taking a hip check from Nazem Kadri.
NBC Sports Network’s Mike Milbury, who has been among Ovechkin’s most vocal critics throughout his career, but has seemed to praise the Capitals’ captain more in recent years, agreed that it’s time for Washington to go back to the drawing board.
“I mean, they have to rethink their whole philosophy, their future,” Milbury said Wednesday night. “What to do with Ovechkin, what to do with Backstrom, what to do with everybody on that roster? Big decisions on Williams and Oshie. If they can’t do it now, were they ever gonna do it?”
“This was the year,” fellow analyst Keith Jones said. “This was the year. I mean, they had their opportunity. When they lost it was the game that [Sidney] Crosby wasn’t available for Pittsburgh. They didn’t get past them in that game, it ended up haunting them. The Penguins once again found a way to beat them. Star players [are] not enough for the Capitals. Stars for Pittsburgh got the job done.”
Milbury singled out Ovechkin’s performance on Wednesday, in which he ranked seventh among the Capitals’ forwards in ice time.
“He was on the ice for both goals against, one of them very directly involved and the first one I thought he had a decent chance to get it out, looked a little lazy on it,” he said. “I think the Ovechkin experiment has to be reviewed. Lots of decisions to make. He tries hard, I just don’t think he’s a heady enough hockey player to get it done in key moments.”
Ovechkin didn’t score in Games 6 or 7, but in 21 career playoff games facing elimination, he has 10 goals and 10 assists.
On CSN’s postgame show, Capitals play-by-play man Joe Beninati quashed the idea that the Capitals will completely overhaul the roster, including the Ovechkin-Backstrom core.
“I completely understand why fans, at this moment, less than an hour after their team has been eliminated in this way, again, by this darn rival and nemesis, are going to scream blow it up,” he said. “If you want to scream blow it up, then you’re going to be perfectly fine with blowing it up and coming back with a team next year that’s .500? No, you’re not going to do that, and the businessmen and women who own the team are not going to do that. They’re going to let time heal. They’re going to allow their vice president and general manager to make assessments, to make considerations, to make advisory comments to him about what he wants to bring back and what he wants to let go.
“But blow it up is too severe. But I understand why they’re saying blow it up, because you’re quickly becoming a fable. You’re becoming the boy who cried wolf. Every year. Every year Joe Beninati comes on the air and tells me it’s different. I wish it was. I wish it was. I keep thinking it is. I’m trying to be objective about this. This team was good enough to win a darn Stanley Cup, but they can’t get past Pittsburgh, and they can’t seem to do it in a Game 7 at home, which to me is mind-numbing and I understand why you are disturbed the way you are. I understand why you’re screaming blow it up. I truly do. It’s hard to do that from a business standpoint, so let’s wait, let’s see how it plays out.”