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Published Time: 29.04.2024 - 09:13:15 Modified Time: 29.04.2024 - 09:13:15

As disappointing as a four-game sweep may be for Washington, a Round 1 exit isn’t too surprising. So the question swirling around the Capitals isn’t how they got here — the overarching question is what this team should do next. Alex Ovechkin

The strikes against the Capitals added up before the series even started, and mounting injuries to their defense only strained the team even further.

As disappointing as a four-game sweep may be for Washington, a Round 1 exit isn’t too surprising. So the question swirling around the Capitals isn’t how they got here — the overarching question is what this team should do next.

The Capitals’ direction seemed clear at the 2023 trade deadline. Management seemed to recognize the team’s shortcomings and took a proactive approach, despite only being four points out of the second wild-card seed on March 3. Brian MacLellan got to work early, moving out pending unrestricted free agents Garnet Hathaway, Dmitry Orlov, Lars Eller, Marcus Johansson and Erik Gustafsson. In return, Washington replenished its draft capital and brought in Rasmus Sandin.

It was a quick retool on the fly that management could have furthered over the summer, with more assets and cap space at their disposal. But the offseason was relatively quiet, with the biggest change coming behind the bench with an up-and-coming coach Spencer Carbery.

The Capitals’ roster wasn’t nearly as refreshed as it could have been when the puck dropped on the 2023-24 season. But as the year went on and core veterans departed, from Nicklas Backstrom to Evgeny Kuznetsov, more meaningful minutes opened up for the likes of Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre and Aliaksei Protas.

For all their flaws, the Capitals ended the regular season higher than expected with 91 points to land 17th in the league, over a projected 81 points and 25th place finish. The Capitals beat the odds — originally a 7 percent chance — and made the playoffs. Does management try to build off that with some offseason tweaks?

Washington made it to the playoffs this year without a heavy-handed approach last summer or at the deadline. Management could feel that with the right lineup adjustments, there could be some potential around the Capitals’ aging core for one last run — especially now that their up-and-coming players have some seasoning in meaningful games under their belt.

There are two ways to chase that potential: With free agent signings or trades for young talent in need of a new opportunity (similar to that Sandin trade last spring).

The free agency route is tricky. Washington doesn’t project to have a ton of cap space next season, but there aren’t too many openings to fill (unless management moves contracts out). Having an entry-level contract like Ivan Miroshnichenko in a roster spot will buy some flexibility around those other gaps. But most UFAs tend to be toward the end of their prime or outright past it. So getting overzealous too soon can leave the Capitals with a contract that won’t line up with their post-Alex Ovechkin long-term goals. That’s why the latter approach may be the more sustainable path, even if it means spending draft picks to bring that caliber player in.

It’s a direction the Capitals could try to take after making the playoffs. Just because a team can doesn’t mean they should.

Sometimes clinching the postseason, regardless of what the team does there, gives an element of false hope on a team’s long-term trajectory. Factor in the division and conference around them, and Washington’s chances of returning without some serious work seem even more bleak. The Penguins may be a question mark in the East, but the Devils should be expected to return to the playoffs after this year’s disappointment. At least one of the Red Wings, Sabres or Senators may finally progress enough to reach the postseason as well which could mean fewer wild-card spots to go around to a team like the Capitals.

Realistically, management has to decide if a few roster tweaks via free agency will be enough to help the Capitals cook.

Or, they could just stick with the status quo and see what happens. Any lineup openings could be left for young players to earn, similar to this season. It’s a way to avoid adding any deals with term on the books when the direction of this team just isn’t clear in the long run. And it stops management from dealing future assets before they’re ready to.

The risk? Another year in limbo, potentially without the chance of a high draft pick which Washington already missed out on this year by making the playoffs.

The reward? More experience for the young talent in key roles under Carbery while chasing one goal: helping their franchise cornerstone make history.

After an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, Ovechkin finally picked up the pace in the second half and got back to his scoring ways with a 31-goal season. That brought him up to 853 career goals, 41 shy of tying Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894. It takes some pressure off the organization because the actual regular season results don’t have to make or break whether the year is a success. That can all take a back seat as long as their superstar is maximized to reach his goal.

It may be a long shot for a player who will be 39 when the next regular season starts. But it may be his last shot to make progress toward it. That path can still include a roster tweak or two to help add some oomph to the race to try to avoid a start like this season. Maybe that means adding a low-key pass-first forward to pair with Ovechkin, as long as it doesn’t require much term that slows this down from turning the corner into its next era.

Behind Door No. 3 is the most painful option of the bunch: Being realistic where this team is and where it isn’t going, and focusing on the future instead of an aging superstar who might not be able to net 42 more goals.

The Capitals have done a quick retool on the fly, but haven’t outright torn it down and moved out any veterans with value left in quite some time.

In theory, this is the best road to take to get back to contention. In reality, management has to assess what their players will even be worth at this point and whether they would get the green light to take this path with Ovechkin still vying for Gretzky’s record.

T.J. Oshie’s contract may be too hefty of a sell before the deadline rolls around with retention. Tom Wilson is the kind of player general managers may want on their roster, but not at a $6.5 million cap hit for the next seven years. John Carlson’s $8 million contract is a hard sell for another two years. Considering the two years on each of their contracts, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk may be easier sells for the deadline, selling the idea of two playoff runs at a discount. And the Darcy Kuemper contract, after this season, would have to be a pure cap dump if he doesn’t get the opportunity to show this was just a flukey season.

The Capitals are not in an enviable position right now. Young talent was a bright spot in what could have been an uninspiring season, but there isn’t any game-breaking talent to build around right now.

From here, Washington essentially has three choices: Use the playoff appearance as a launching point to build with this roster as the base, rip off the Band-Aid and try to tear it down, or celebrate and elevate Ovechkin’s legacy for one more year before making a firm decision on what direction this team needs to take.

These choices aren’t exactly unique to the Capitals. The other seven teams whose seasons will come to a close in Round 1 will also face tough decisions on their next steps. The difference is that the Capitals are the one team that may not be able to make changes to spark their turnaround.