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May 15, 2017 | 10:54pm ET
The End of an Era in the Capital?

BY PATRICK GREISSING | TheFourthPeriod.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sit back, read, and then hate the realization that a decade has been wasted.

The feeling of dejection and disappointment sometimes just leaves you frozen, which was not only the case for many Washington Capitals fans after Game 7, but for the players as well as they spoke to the media at breakdown day. Rather than having home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference Final, here we are again in the middle of May, trying to figure out how and why the Capitals are heading to the golf course and beaches.

There have been lofty expectations for the Capitals over the last decade of the Alex Ovechkin era, and the team has failed to live up to those expectations every year when the playoffs roll around. The Caps have not made it beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1998 and they are now at a true inflection point as an organization for the first time since 2002 when they went through a complete rebuild.

There are many questions that need answering beyond the how and why. Ownership and management will sit down over the next three to five days and analyze the situation and attempt to come up with answers. The key is will they ask the right questions? The questions don’t just need to cover the last two seasons but rather the last ten seasons. If they don’t ask questions that span the course of a decade the Capitals organization won’t put itself in a position to progress moving forward.

HISTORY LESSON

Before we get into the player’s feelings at breakdown day, I think it is important to examine the last decade and provide some highlights or lowlights depending on your feelings.

As you read, ask yourself what else could have been done in the Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom era to help the team get beyond the second round?

1. The Young Guns of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green led the Caps team on an epic run during the 2007-08 season once Bruce Boudreau was hired as head coach around Thanksgiving. George McPhee realizing they needed a veteran boost for the playoffs acquired Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke, and Cristobal Huet. The Caps lost in the first round.

2. The next season the Capitals returned with a similar roster and were eliminated in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

3. Over the next few seasons, the Capitals recognized a need to bring in some more veteran experience. McPhee brought in the likes of Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, Roman Hamrlik, Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman and some others. From 2009-2012 under Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter the team would reach the second round two more times before being eliminated from the playoffs.

4. Following the 2011-12 season, Hunter decided not to return as head coach and McPhee hired Adam Oates. The two years under Oates were not good. The team traded prospects Cody Eakin and Filip Forsberg for two players, Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat, who did not last long in D.C. as the Capitals tried to achieve their goals. A number of players quietly questioned Oates’ ability to lead as a head coach and manage players. The results showed with a first round playoff loss in the lockout shortened season followed by a season where the Capitals missed the playoffs for the only time in the Ovechkin/Backstrom era.

5. Ted Leonsis decided it was time for a change after missing the playoffs and losing the revenue that comes up with playoff appearances. He relieved McPhee and Oates of their duties and turned the franchise over to then Assistant General Manager Brian MacLellan and hired Barry Trotz, who had been fired in Nashville. Trotz, who is a great teacher of the game, is a coach that had never been beyond the second round of the playoffs. Quite the curious hire, a coach who hadn’t gotten beyond the same point the organization was having problems with.

6. The three years under MacLellan and Trotz have been successful in the regular season. In an effort to provide the Ovechkin/Backstrom teams with everything possible, MacLellan upgraded the blueline with the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. He traded Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie. He signed Justin Williams as a FA. He traded for Lars Eller to be 3C. He attempted to go all in at the trade deadline this year adding Kevin Shattenkirk. Two Presidents Trophies later, the same postseason results happened. Eliminated by the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins twice in Round 2 of the playoffs.

So there you have it. Everything has been attempted. Some very good players have come through D.C. in an effort to provide that boost. A number of FA signings and trades have been made and they just haven’t achieved the goal. Were the moves the right ones or wrong ones? Everyone has their opinion on each and every move. The fair assessment is that MacLellan has had a mixed bag of moves like every general manager, some successful and some not so much. Two general managers, four head coaches (five if you count Glenn Hanlon who began the first season of the run), and many, many, many players later, here we stand.

The Ovechkin/Backstrom Capitals over the last 10 seasons, have qualified for the playoffs nine times. They are 0 for 9 in getting beyond the second round, with six second round playoff appearances. Since the 2007-08 season, the Capitals are one of five Eastern Conference teams to not make the Conference Finals -- Florida, Toronto, Columbus, and New York Islanders are the others. Detroit made it when in the Western Conference.

Trotz, the current head coach of the Capitals, has led the Nashville Predators and the Capitals to the playoffs a combined ten times. He is 0 for 10 in making it beyond the second round, and 0-5 in second round appearances.

Let me be clear, I am not blaming Ovechkin or Backstrom for the failure to get beyond round two. It is a team game. The blame falls on the owner, the general manager, the coaching staff, and all of the players. Everyone failed to a degree, but when you decide what is next for a team you have to look at the leadership.

The current head coach and the two core players for the Capitals are a combined 0 for 19 in their attempts to get beyond the second round of the playoffs. That is the reality and the reason the end of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era should occur this offseason. More on this in a bit.

BREAKDOWN DAY

The Capitals conducted their breakdown day for media on Friday morning and as you’d suspect following yet another disappointing end there were a number of interesting takes. Before breakdown day began, owner Ted Leonsis made sure to get his views out there.

He began, “This loss hurts. I thought we had the pieces to win the Cup.” He added later, “But the playoffs, while incredibly exciting, have been heartbreaking. We have been a good team for a number of years, but everyone knows we ultimately are judged on our playoff performance, and anything less than a Cup is a disappointment.”

Whether Ted actually knows what to do or if he has the testicular fortitude to do what needs to be done is a completely different story. It’s easy to admit failure, but much more difficult to do something about it.

Not only did Leonsis feel the failure but a number of players were in shock that it occurred and some believe there are fundamental flaws within the locker room. Backstrom was very emotional and concise to reporters. When asked if he felt it’s not working he said, “Obviously it’s not working.”

As I listened to his interview, I could feel his anger. It is apparent Backstrom wants some changes. My interpretation, and it may be wrong, is he is ready to be “the guy” on the Capitals roster and he is done playing second fiddle to Alex Ovechkin.

Niskanen also seems to feel a major change may be necessary but he stopped short of saying exactly what it should be. He said, “I don’t know if minor cosmetic changes are gonna change anything, really.”

Niskanen went on to be effusive in his praise of Backstrom, and well not as effusive when asked about Ovechkin.

On Ovi, he said “I thought Ovi played hard. He played hard. And like all of us had some really good moments and then we had some blunders, you know. . . I think he did everything he could to try to make a difference.”

Kevin Shattenkirk, who has only been with the team since the end of February, said even he felt that past playoff history of the organization impacts the team. “You can feel it, of course you can feel it. It’s everywhere surrounding this team. You know, it’s media, it’s fans, it’s the players.”

Then there is Trotz, who somehow seems to be disconnected from the team and everything that is going on. Or he is just so blind and stubborn he won’t admit it. Either way something is wrong. He suggested that previous failures have become something the players joke about inside the locker room.

He said, “Playoffs haven’t been fun here and maybe having some fun and laughing at the past a little bit and looking in the face is probably something that might ease us in the future.” Sorry, Barry. Everyone else, including the players you are around every day disagrees with you.

WHAT NEXT?

The Capitals enter the offseason with a number of roster decisions ahead of them.

Evgeni Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer are all RFAs. Oshie, Williams, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk are all UFAs. The Capitals have 11 players signed at a salary cap hit of just above $50 million, with an anticipated salary cap of around $75-76 million -- if the players use the 5% escalator clause, which is no guarantee at this point. The expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights will also be a factor as the Capitals will lose one player to the expansion team.

All of the Capitals RFAs, but Connolly, who may not receive a QO from the team, are due for some significant raises. If the Capitals want to bring back Oshie they will have to be willing to give him $5.75M - $6.25M per year for 6 years and Alzner will be looking at a contract likely in the $5.5M per year for 5 years range. The Capitals will likely have enough salary cap space to keep one of them and maybe both depending on how the contracts play out for the RFAs, but the question is will they meet the term that the players want.

These are the basic issues that MacLellan has to sort through in the coming months.

The two bigger issues that the organization faces are surrounding Ovechkin and Barry Trotz.

While trading Ovechkin, who has a $9.5 million cap hit for the next four seasons, will be difficult, it is something the organization needs to explore. I am sure I will take a lot of heat for suggesting this, but every era comes to an end.

Ovechkin has done a ton for the city of D.C. in establishing it as a hockey city and brought life to an organization that desperately needed it. I wanted Ovechkin to win a Stanley Cup in D.C. and I still want him to be able to hoist it, but the reality of the situation is he has been given enough chances to get it done here and it just hasn’t happened. Some of the greatest players in NHL history failed to win a Stanley Cup with one organization but went on to win it with another including -- Ray Bourque, Brett Hull, and Chris Pronger.

Trading Ovechkin won’t be easy. MacLellan would have to find a partner who is willing to take on the salary for the next four years. Leonsis would have to sign off on a trade and come to grips that he would be losing money that he currently makes off of marketing his star sniper. If they are able to find a trade partner and the return is reasonable, they should pull the trigger on such a deal and change the identity of the organization before it is too late.

Some may ask why trade Ovechkin and not Backstrom? You don’t trade No.1 centers in the NHL unless you are getting a No.1 center in return. You build teams through your centers, defense, and goalies. You can find wingers that can score 25-30 goals a season much easier than you can find quality centers.

The second issue is moving on from Trotz, a great teacher of the game. On that you get no argument from me. As far as making the proper adjustments in the playoffs and being able to outcoach some of the League’s best, it just doesn’t seem like he is able to do it and that is part of the reason his teams have never made it beyond Round 2. Maybe he has attempted to make these adjustments and the roster just hasn’t implemented them properly, but for that to happen consistently I would be shocked -- though anything is possible. But given his breakdown day comments and the disconnect that appears to be there between he and some of his players the time is now to move on despite his regular season success.

There is one very good option to replace Trotz and he is behind the bench with the Ottawa Senators. Marc Crawford, the current associate head coach in Ottawa, has won a Stanley Cup and multiple titles in Europe. He has a winning pedigree and a winning attitude. He has coached some of the NHL’s great players and is poised to be given another opportunity as a head man in the NHL.

Regardless of what happens with the roster, Crawford will give me much more confidence in the Capitals chances moving forward in the coming years as they attempt to get to the promised-land.

If you are one that reads this and completely disagrees with me, that is fine, I respect your opinion to disagree. But I will repeat the current leaders of this team are 0 for 19 trying to get beyond Round 2 while plenty of the league has done so. How do you like them apples?

Patrick Greissing is the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.

 
 
 

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