As the Washington Capitals enter another offseason that arrived too soon, ownership and management must confront a number of difficult decisions that could determine the future of a franchise that hasn’t advanced beyond the conference semifinals in 13 years, despite possessing one of the game’s most talented rosters the past four.
Among the decisions, three are paramount: the need to alter the team’s makeup with a significant trade, filling the leadership void with a long-term solution and settling on a goaltending tandem.
Assuming there isn’t a change made behind the bench — General Manager George McPhee has said Bruce Boudreau’s job is safe, but he used the word “expect” when asked if the coach would return — the first move should be to subtract at least one of the “Young Guns” from the equation. Such a move would let the others know that the status quo won’t be tolerated while also stirring the mix of core players that has grown complacent.
Despite the individual struggles of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom during the regular season and playoffs, it’s unfathomable to think McPhee would even field a phone call regarding either of them.
Ovechkin is under contract through 2020-21 season and Backstrom is signed through 2019-20, and for better or worse, they figure to be mainstays in Washington until then.
It would make sense if the possibility of trading Mike Green is discussed, however. He gets an “incomplete” on his 2010-11 report card after missing all but 49 regular season games with a pair of concussions and Game 4 of the Tampa Bay series with a leg injury. His susceptibility to injury is concerning, as are his postseason struggles and the precipitous drop off in goals and assists for a player who was once considered one of the world’s premier offensive defensemen. Green has one more season remaining on his contract at $5.25 million, and the expected return of Dennis Wideman from a leg hematoma could make him expendable.
Alexander Semin, too, would seem to be a candidate to be dealt. The 27-year-old veteran of six NHL seasons was assessed 71 minutes in penalties, the most on the team among non-fighters. He’s averaged 65.8 games in the regular season over the past four campaigns. And, for the second straight postseason, he disappeared when his team needed him most, finishing the Tampa Bay series with a goal and an assist as the Capitals were swept.
The most stinging indictment of Semin’s play came courtesy of Vyacheslav Bykov, the coach of the Russian national team. Bykov invited Ovechkin to Slovakia for the world championships; an invitation for Semin was never sent out.
He could be an attractive option for a team looking for offense and a box-office draw for a club struggling to fill seats. That said, his $6.7 million salary next season, and impending free agency the following summer, figures to make him a tough sell.
The Capitals also must address the lack of leadership and accountability in the dressing room. In two of the past three seasons, McPhee added a veteran in his mid- to late 30s with a Stanley Cup on his resume at the deadline. In 2008, it was Sergei Fedorov. In February, it was Jason Arnott.
Arnott quickly identified the players who needed guidance — Semin and Ovechkin, to name a couple — and mentored them. Within hours of his arrival, he boldly delivered a swift kick to the team’s collective rear end when its effort and discipline was lacking.
But Arnott is a unrestricted free agent, and given his age and declining productivity, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be brought back. If he’s not, it’s critical that McPhee doesn’t wait until the trade deadline. A player who can command the respect and attention of a room and instill a measure of discipline, both on and off the ice, must be acquired this summer.
The third issue might be the toughest one of them all.
Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby all want to be the Capitals’ No. 1 goaltender. Each of them, to varying degrees, has shown the ability to thrive in the NHL. But now it’s time to pick two and deal the odd man out for assets that can help elsewhere.
Neuvirth, 23, went 27-12-4 and posted a 2.45 goals against average, a .914 save percentage and four shutouts and started all nine playoff games. He’s also under contract for the next two seasons for the salary-cap friendly price of $1.15 million.
Varlamov, in the eyes of some talent evaluators, has the highest upside of the three. He has the higher risk quotient, too. The 23-year-old posted a record 11-9-5, ranked among the NHL’s top 13 netminders in goals against (2.23) and save percentage (.924), and delivered a 32-save victory against rival Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic. But just as in previous years, his season was derailed by a litany of leg ailments, including a knee sprain that required minor surgery, raising serious questions about his durability. Unlike Neuvirth, however, Varlamov is set to become a restricted free agent and his representative recently floated the possibility of him listening to offers to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, which irked McPhee.
Complicating the Capitals’ conundrum in net has been the unexpected emergence of 21-year-old Holtby. Age and experience would seem to suggest he’s not ready. His stats, as small a sample as they are, tell another story, though. As an injury replacement, he posted a 10-2-2 record, a 1.79 goals against average and a .934 save percentage in Washington. Holtby is also under contract, with two years remaining at $637,777 per season.
Neuvirth and Holtby. Varlamov and Holtby. Neuvirth and Varlamov. It’s time for McPhee to make his choice.
There are roughly 130 days until the Capitals reconvene for training camp. Between now and then, the team’s executives must make dozens of decisions relating to personnel. But if they get these three right, the others could fall into place.