The Washington Capitals have had early locker clean-out days before, featuring players with glum expressions trying to make sense of a season that was stopped short of its goal. But this one came a year after winning the Stanley Cup, and while the mood was still one of disappointment, there wasn’t quite the same devastation as in the seasons the Capitals couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs and wondered whether they ever would.
Now they know they can, but that also made the first-round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes feel like even more of a missed opportunity.
“When you’ve been through it, I feel like you know it’s possible and you know it’s right there, and the margins are so small from losing in the first round to going all the way," center Nicklas Backstrom said. “So, yeah, even if it sucks right now, I feel like we’re going to come back stronger and more prepared. That’s our goal, and we’ve got a good team.”
Where that team fell short against the Hurricanes was in its depth, namely a middle-six forward corps that didn’t perform to expectations. And that’s where Washington might see the most substantial changes this summer. The roster going into this year was nearly identical to the previous season’s, a product of winning, but the Capitals have four unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents. Roughly half are expected to be back. But perhaps more so than in past years, the organization is reassured that its superstar core can contend for a championship again next year; captain Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom were Washington’s best players in the postseason, combining for nine goals and eight assists in the seven-game series.
“It have to be everybody — everybody on the same page," Ovechkin said. "You can’t win with only like half the team or two players. You have to compete. If you don’t score goals, you have to do some different job, different work. It’s good lessons for us. For me, personally, I have to be better. If you don’t win, you don’t play well.”
Said center Lars Eller: “That’s the best I’ve seen [Ovechkin] play in my three years here. He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there, and when he decides to do that, he’s almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see. But that’s also why it hurts. When guys show that kind of performance, it’s tough to see it wasted and not be able to play on."
Other players pointed to how a path had seemingly cleared for them to return to the Stanley Cup finals. Washington wasn’t the only favorite to lose in the first round; all four division winners were ousted in an NHL first. On the one hand, the Capitals’ early exit doesn’t look quite as bad in that context, but on the other, it’s even more regrettable.
“With all due respect to the teams that advanced, seeing Tampa get knocked out and Pittsburgh get knocked out, I think you just look at it as a real missed opportunity,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
Orpik is one of the players who is unlikely to be back next season; at 38, he is contemplating whether he’ll want to play at all, especially after dealing with a knee injury this season. Middle-six wingers Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin are pending unrestricted free agents who expressed a desire to re-sign, but the Capitals might only be able to afford one of them by the time 23-year-old forward Jakub Vrana gets a significant raise in restricted free agency. Vrana had a career season with 24 goals and 23 assists, but he didn’t tally a point in seven playoff games, perhaps because he was nursing an injury. Similarly disappointing was second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington’s leading scorer in the postseason a year ago, who finished with one goal and five assists.
“We were spoiled last year with how [Kuznetsov] played in the playoffs, and that’s the standard that he showed us and the standard that he’s going to be held to now,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “That’s part of growing as a player and understanding what’s expected of you. ... He didn’t feel that he met that and he didn’t, but that’s what we now are accustomed to and now we believe is the standard for Kuznetsov, and it’s up to himself and it’s up to us as coaches to push him back to that level.”
Restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky had what General Manager Brian MacLellan called a “frustrating” year, finishing with 12 goals and 13 assists for a second straight season despite playing in 20 more games. Though Burakovsky played better in the second half of the season, MacLellan didn’t commit to extending Burakovsky a qualifying offer, which would be worth $3.25 million.
“At the end, he kind of found it," MacLellan said. “We’re going to have to talk about how we want to allocate that money and what role he would play on our team going forward.”
Forwards Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin and defenseman Christian Djoos are also restricted free agents, while forward Devante Smith-Pelly is the team’s other unrestricted free agent.
“I think the margins are where you’re trying to add value as a manager," MacLellan said. "Can we get a little more offense here? Can we get a little deeper? How do we maintain our depth? I think because every team is so close — any team can beat any team — it’s important, every personnel decision, how you spend your money. How did you buy the sixth forward? How about your fifth, sixth, seventh defenseman? Can you add value there? And does that translate to wins in the playoffs and in your standings?”
Past losses like this one wouldn’t raise questions about the margins but about the core and whether there was something rotten with it. The Capitals won’t be repeating as champions this season, but last year’s Stanley Cup win still gives them reassurance that they’re not that far off.
“Before you win, it’s kind of like, ‘What do you need?’” Backstrom said. “You don’t know the answer to that. You’re just guessing and going on your instinct. But now I feel like we’ve been through it and it is possible.”