Washington Capitals at the crossroads (Trending Topics)

Well here it is, another “What should the Capitals do here?” column.

Add it to the pile.

But for the first time in this run of near-indescribable futility, it’s actually an interesting question.

Before, you would say, “Well look, they lost a Game 7, again, in the second round, again, against a team that’s notably worse, again.”  The good advice was to play the odds and stay the course. Odds were a team with this much talent at every position would break through. Odds were a team with coaching that good (well, the less said about the post-Boudreau-pre-Trotz era, the better) would break through. Odds were that just once, a Game 7 wouldn’t see them totally pee their pants and get smoked.

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However, now the evidence is getting insurmountable. The Caps are 4-11 in all-time Game-7 situations, and while that number obviously includes pre-Ovechkin performances, in the salary cap era they’re still just 3-6. That’s six Game-7 losses to eliminate them in either the first or second round. And they’ve been outscored 13-25 in those nine games. Pretty rotten.

Unfortunately, with teams this good, hey, that can happen. It’s one game, nine times. You can flip a coin nine times and have it come up tails six of those times. It’s rare but it happens (mathematically, about 1 in every 6 series of nine flips). Of course, these games aren’t pure coin flips, but you’re still just dealing in probabilities. And at the end of the day, the team with the best record since the salary cap was introduced is one you have to keep together.

Now, though, I wonder.

Alex Ovechkin finished the season with almost 70 points, which is a lot. But is he Alex Ovechkin any more, The Alex Ovechkin of myth? The goal total might be a one-time worry, or would be if the shot total hadn’t declined as well. But the shot total did decline, by about 16 percent per 60 minutes. And that decline wasn’t commensurate with how much his minutes were cut. And for the first time in years, he wasn’t a play driver either, relative to what his teammates did when he was off the ice.

The third-line demotion in these playoffs, Barry Trotz’s postgame non-answer about his play in this Penguins series, that Game 7 specifically is telling. Ovechkin is 31 now. The days of his delivering 50-plus goals like clockwork now seem over, and his coach (perhaps a little unfairly) doesn’t see him as being more than a third-line contributor.

(Although, in fairness, the injury news on Friday does add context to the demotion.)

That’s not to put this all on Ovechkin, by the way. Holtby was pretty rotten against the Pens (.887 in the series). No one seems too willing to bring that up. Kuznetsov and Backstrom were basically the only really good Caps in the series, in terms of point production. TJ Oshie was basically a no-show for half the series and still only finished it with a single goal. Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams had no goals and only three assists.

Maybe you also say Trotz mismanaged the bench. John Carlson as the No. 1 defender over someone like Matt Niskanen or Kevin Shattenkirk is a dicey move. Tom Wilson played more per game than Lars Eller or Daniel Winnik. Maybe you also say that while the top end of this lineup is very good, the bottom leaves a lot to be desired, and maybe you say that’s on the GM.

And maybe, honestly, you say it’s another coin that flipped over tails and boy doesn’t that suck? But because this feels a lot more like a last straw than previous playoff flameouts, you have to imagine changes are coming.

The Caps already have $50.2 million committed for next season, and to just 11 players. This Washington club is likely to look very different indeed. They will of course re-sign all their restricted free agents, but that includes Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Dmitry Orlov. Philipp Grubauer, Brett Connolly, and Nate Schmidt are the other three, but they shouldn’t be too expensive.

Let’s say you get all seven of those guys at a combined $15 million, which might be a little optimistic. That gives you about $10 million more to play with, and you need to add six guys with that money. It’s always hard to get a read on how strongly teams feel about their prospects but one can’t imagine the Caps see any of them as reasonable replacements for the vets they’re about to lose to free agency: Oshie, Williams, Winnik, Shattenkirk, and Alzner.

Someone’s going to dramatically overpay for Oshie and Alzner, guaranteed, and the Caps are lucky it can’t be them. At least insofar as they won’t tie themselves down to another Brooks Orpik-type anchor contract. Orpik has two more seasons and he’s already 36, having been mostly bad for pretty much the entirety of the contract; Alzner’s getting at least six years this summer and he’s likewise not as good as people think. That the Caps will see him go is good, but it leaves them with a gaping hole in the blue line that’s made worse by Shattenkirk’s departure. Based on how they were used, that’s two middle-pairing defensemen the Caps have to replace. As well as two top-six forwards in Oshie and Williams. Where does that money come from?

This is, in a lot of ways, a kind of situation like what Chicago faces now: They paid the guys who got them the really good results (in the regular season only ha ha ha), upgraded here and there with big-money contracts for free agents they thought would help (who ended up not-doing that at all) and now face a situation where they just can’t afford to keep everyone.

It will be interesting indeed to see who gets exposed for the expansion draft. That roster is a little weird when it comes to guessing who they’d want to keep protected.

But to circle back to the big question, the one we circle back to every year, the real issue is what the Capitals do with Alex Ovechkin, their captain, their biggest star, their best play in franchise history by a mile. He has no-trade protection, but only to 10 teams. And while I certainly wouldn’t advocate getting out from under his contract (nearly $9.54 million through 2021, when he will be nearly 36) at this point, this is the first time I would see such a move as understandable.

You can’t trade Holtby, who just had a bad series. Can’t trade Backstrom, who led the team in scoring in both the regular season and playoffs. Can’t trade Niskanen, your last truly dynamic defender. And if you need to free up money, getting rid of one of the biggest AAVs in the league finally looks sensible.

The market for Ovechkin? I don’t know; who’s going to have the cap space and the pieces to put together a trade that works for Washington if they have real designs on competing? Hell, who’s going to want that last four years of a contract that big on a player who’s turning 32 in September and already in decline and, fair or not, largely branded a big ol’ loser-choker?

I just don’t see a need anywhere in the league for a borderline-elite team to get into the Cup conversation by adding a $9.54-million second-line 30-goal-scorer.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit the unfortunate truth: That group might include the Capitals next season.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.

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