NEW YORK — By the time Coach Barry Trotz entered the Madison Square Garden media room late Wednesday night, the last solemn voice to wrap a bow on the Washington Capitals’ season, his mind had already begun pivoting toward summer. Last May, Trotz was a hot commodity, planning his next move after Nashville dismissed him. Now, as he stared into his first full offseason helming the Capitals, a disappointing Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers in their wake, he envisioned nothing but progress.
“You’re going to see the Washington Capitals back here again,” he said. “We talk about trying to change our past, trying to create our own future, and that’s what we plan to do.”
The plan, Trotz continued, would begin the very next morning, when the pain of another second-round exit still stung and the memory of Derek Stepan’s overtime strike still burned.
Forward Alex Ovechkin will jet to the Czech Republic to join Team Russia at the world championships. Without their captain, the Capitals will gather Friday for breakdown day, conducting exit meetings and revealing hidden injuries before bidding each other farewell.
Then they will scatter for vacation and rest after a taxing postseason of consecutive seven-game series. Soon after, the dominoes of free agency will begin to fall.
The tone of this summer will differ from last year, when the Capitals missed the postseason for the first time since 2006-07 and subsequently fired their general manager and coach, paving the way for Brian MacLellan’s promotion and Trotz’s arrival.
Instead of slinking from their facility and staring into an uncertain future, the Capitals scrounged pride from their Game 7 effort, from battling the Presidents’ Trophy winners until the bitter end and, in both the final installment (2-1) and the entire Eastern Conference semifinals (13-12), trailing by only one goal.
“I think we have a great group of guys in here,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who like Ovechkin has never advanced beyond the second round. “The difference from last year, I think we play the right way. I would say it’s two times in the playoffs we’ve been playing the right way. That was this and the time we had Dale Hunter [in 2011-12]. I mean, it’s something we’ve got to build on, but it’s going to be . . . we’re going to have to think about that.”
But there will be change just the same. Forwards Jay Beagle, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward will take their two-way versatility and 87 combined points into unrestricted free agency. So will Curtis Glencross and Tim Gleason, trade deadline additions who, respectively, were scratched and logged less than nine minutes in Game 7.
And if defenseman Mike Green, among the longest-tenured members of Washington’s core, indeed chooses a larger payday elsewhere over a team-friendly deal with the only club he’s ever known, the organizational depth chart is at least stocked with blue-liners, including Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov, who could form the third pair next season.
Braden Holtby led the NHL in appearances during the regular season and posted the fifth-best postseason save percentage ever among goaltenders with at least 10 games.
He will enter restricted free agency alongside young forwards Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov, both mainstays on the top two lines. Already tight against the salary cap, with a struggling Canadian dollar expected to keep the ceiling around its current spot and raises already slated for those three pending restricted free agents, the Capitals will still have spare cash to tweak the roster and add secondary parts.
“We made giant strides in our group, in this series,” Trotz said. “I kept saying to the guys, all year long, you learn different things from defeat and you learn different things from winning. And in this situation, you guys will talk history all you want. This is a new group, a new team, our organization’s changing.
“I look forward to being back with this group. We’re going to have some unfinished business.”
High above the rink at press level Wednesday night, as the postgame handshake line finished and the Rangers continued celebrating, MacLellan waited for his last elevator ride of the season. Hands in his pockets, he turned around and glanced back toward the stands, where the blue-clad fans hollered and waved their white towels. He checked his phone. He tightened his jacket. He looked at the ground. Then the elevator doors opened and he boarded, bound for summer.
Note: The Capitals re-assigned Schmidt to Hershey, where the Bears are still alive in the American Hockey League playoffs.