Three years and four days after taking over as general manager of the Washington Capitals, Brian MacLellan sat in a conference room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday and fielded questions from a dozen or so media types. MacLellan’s informal press conference lasted nearly 40 minutes, and it came almost three weeks after his team exited the Stanley Cup playoffs after a 2-0 Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This marks the third straight spring that the Caps have been ousted in the second round of the playoffs; they’ve moved beyond that barrier only twice in their 42-season history in the NHL, and they’ve not done so since 1998.
While Caps coach Barry Trotz and all of the Caps players spoke to the media back on May 12, MacLellan opted to wait a bit longer. He waited for the dust to settle and for emotions to simmer down in the wake of yet another frustrating and disappointing postseason that followed yet another brilliant regular season performance. In the interim, MacLellan conducted one-on-one interviews with every player and coach, and he also spoke with majority owner and CEO Ted Leonsis and team president and COO Dick Patrick.
“I don’t know that I have conclusions,” says MacLellan, in the wake of those interviews. “I spent a lot of time interviewing players, coaches; and then I talked to Dick and Ted a lot. I don’t have any obvious conclusions or specific issues to address. Some internal stuff that we probably need to address going forward to make things better has come up, but I think it was important for us – especially on the players and the coaches’ side – to have a venue for them to express their anger, frustration and disappointment. And guys were pretty open and honest about it, so it was good from that perspective.
“For me, trying to address issues or problems that we might have, I don’t know if any one thing stood out to be the thing that we need to fix right now to get to that next level. I couldn’t identify anything within all of those interviews that I could focus on specifically.”
The Caps were the best regular season team in the league in each of the last two seasons, piling up 238 standings points and winning 111 games. But in the postseason, the Capitals went just 13-12. They’ve been unable to translate regular season domination into postseason success, and it’s been an ongoing issue for decades, longer than any players or coaches have been on the scene.
In 10 playoff series against the Penguins, the Caps have prevailed just once. That was in 1994.
“I think that plays a big part in the pressure on our team,” says MacLellan of his team’s checkered postseason past. “Your history is your history. Whether you come in here at the [trade] deadline, you’re going to feel it. I can feel it up in the [press] box.
“Past pressure manifests itself in the present day. To ignore it I think is a mistake. I think you’ve got to acknowledge it, and then you’ve got to work through it. Because it pops up, and if you’re not acknowledging it, you’re not going to be able to get through it because you’re ignoring it. So I would say all the past history matters to us.
“You can feel it in the building; you can feel it in the crowd. It’s in there. You tell me in that Game 7 that you couldn’t feel it. It felt good and then we didn’t score in the first part of that first period, and then you could just feel it coming. And that’s the history in there. That’s in the fans; that’s in the past players. Even if you were there just for that game, you could feel it. So I think we have to acknowledge it. It would be different if we came in and said, ‘This is what it is, and just go out and play. Don’t worry about it. If we lose, we lose. But put your best game out there.’ As soon as they score that first goal, you feel a little bit of the air come out of that building. And the second one, it’s done.”
Because this was the year the outcome was supposed to be different for the Capitals, this spring’s early exit left more of a mark on the players, coaches, members of the organization and especially on the team’s fan base. Many Caps followers have been on board since well before Alex Ovechkin arrived on the scene more than a decade ago, and some of the old-timers are left wondering whether they’ll ever see their favorite hockey team hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
“This one is a lot more frustrating,” said Caps goalie Braden Holtby earlier this month. “I think it was more disappointing because we left something out there. We didn’t put our best performances out every game, all of us. It was one of those years where it was as close. We were as close as we’ve ever been, but we just didn’t get it done.”
It’s painful but necessary to look back, to conduct a thorough autopsy and to try to determine what’s missing here, what’s making this team go from swagger to shrinkage every May.
“For me, we spent three years building up to that Game 7 and you lose it,” laments MacLellan. “And you don’t put your best foot forward in that game. So it is frustrating. We traded a first-round pick, we traded [Zach] Sanford and we traded a couple of seconds for [Lars] Eller. We did everything we can do to get our team to the point where we think we should win that game. And it’s disappointing when you don’t.”
All MacLellan can do now is to pick up the remaining pieces and reassemble the Caps for the start of the 2017-18 season, which is still four months away. A handful of key veterans – forwards Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and Daniel Winnik and defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk – will be unrestricted free agents a month from now, and those players figure to be among the most sought after skaters of all in a rather mediocre free agent market.
Complicating matters is a group of up-and-coming restricted free agents who will also have their hands out come summer. That group includes goaltender Philipp Grubauer, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt and forwards Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Washington will also lose a player to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, and the Caps already have a bit over $50 million committed toward 11 players for next season. That means MacLellan will have around $25-27 million with which to sign those RFAs and flesh out the remainder of his roster.
Expect some players to matriculate from AHL Hershey to Washington to fill in for some of the departing free agents, and you’ve got a vague idea of how the Caps might look on opening night in October.
“I don’t know that we’ll be at this level,” says MacLellan, looking ahead to ’17-18. “We’ll be competitive. It sure looks like Burakovsky is ready to get to the next level. You put him in a top six role, I would assume he is going to be successful. How do our bottom fourth-line guys pan out, the Hershey guys? I’m not sure. But I think we’re going to be a good team still. We’re going to have a good top six forwards. We’re going to have good goaltending. Schmitty and Orlov and [Matt Niskanen] and [John] Carlson should be a good top four.”
Ovechkin dipped from 50 to 33 goals last season, and he will turn 32 prior to the start of next season. The team’s captain since 2009, Ovechkin is also Washington’s all-time leading goal scorer and one of just five active players with more than 500 career goals.
“I think he had a down year,” says MacLellan of Ovechkin. “I know that less ice time would correlate with less production. Talking to him at the end, he is disappointed in the playoff performance, in the results he had and the results our team had. He is frustrated as much as we all are.
“For him moving forward, he is getting into the low thirties and he is going to have to look for ways that he can evolve into a player who can still have a major impact on the game. The game is getting faster. He is going to have to train in a different way, more a speed way than a power way. He is going to have to make adjustments to stay relative in the game.”
Ovechkin no longer possesses separation speed, but with an adjustment to his conditioning regimen he may be able to remain a relevant offensive force in the league for years to come.
“Hundred percent,” says Ovechkin. “I was talking with my strength coach who I work with in the summer, and we’re going to try to do some different things because at this level of hockey, you have to be fast, you have to be strong. And conditioning-wise, you have to be very, very good. Of course you don’t want to start it right away, but you have to realize you don’t get younger, you only get older. So you have to think and you have to feel when it’s time to start training again. And don’t take long rests.”
Whether Ovechkin’s decline in production is a one-year anomaly or the beginning of the backside of his career arc remains to be seen.
“He has the potential [to score more than 33],” says MacLellan. “Like I said before, he needs to make adjustments. He is always going to have potential on the power play because he has a great shot and he is a good fit on our power play, the way it is set up. Five-on-five goals are going to be the key for him; how much he can create at five-on-five. And he is going to have to make some adjustments in the way he approaches the game in the offseason to get to the point where he can score some five-on-five goals.”
Once July 1 rolls around and the contracts of the Caps’ current group of UFAs expire, Ovechkin will become the oldest forward on the Washington roster, and the second-oldest player on the team behind blueliner Brooks Orpik, who turns 37 in September. Ovechkin is under contract for four more seasons at a salary cap hit of just over $9.5 million.
While there will always be a faction of the fan base that would advocate for blowing up the roster and starting over in the wake of another early postseason exit, it doesn’t make sense for the Caps to do so given the pieces they have remaining and the ages of those players.
“People are looking for a major solution to what we have going on,” acknowledges MacLellan. “And part of it is they watch certain things in [Ovechkin’s] game and it shows up and they say, ‘That’s not acceptable.’ But he is a big part of our franchise, a big part of our history. He has been a big part of where we’re at as an organization, and just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him;’ for what? For who? I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view. Maybe at some point if there was a legitimate hockey deal that became available, but I don’t know that that’s where we’re at right now. I just think he’s got a history here, he’s a big part of this franchise, and he will continue to be going forward.”
MacLellan is hopeful of having enough cap space remaining to perhaps return Oshie to the fold for next season, but the GM’s priority is getting the RFAs signed. A possible Oshie encore in the District will likely hinge upon the winger’s salary requirements and where the 2017-18 salary cap figure comes in; the cap threshold should be set a day or so ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft, which will be held in Chicago on June 23-24.
“I think we’ll get younger here,” says MacLellan. “For me, the RFAs will be our priority: Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Orlov, Schmidt, Grubauer. I think all of these guys are getting better and will have a bigger role on our team, and they’ll be the priority for us to sign going forward.
“I like Oshie. I think of the UFAs, he is a good fit for us. But again, it’s going to depend on what the salary cap number is and what he is looking for as a salary.”
June and July will be busy months for MacLellan and the Caps, as they deal with expansion, free agency, development camp, qualifying offers and potential arbitration cases. All of that goes into the making of the 2017-18 Washington Capitals.
In the wake of another disappointing playoff exit, there is a great deal of frustration in the ranks to be sure.
“We are such a good team,” says Caps forward Marcus Johansson. “We just can’t find a way to do it when it comes down to it, which sucks. It’s getting old, sitting here and talking about this every year. I’m sick of losing. We all do this for one reason, and it’s to win. We have to figure out a way to do that when it comes down to it.”
That frustration is tempered by the hope of yet another season on the horizon, some four months away now.
“The good news is, we have some pieces already,” says Niskanen. “We’ve got some high-end players. We’ve got a stud goalie. We’ve got some depth at the defense position, and that’s what every team seeks. Potentially, we’ve got some forwards who can put the puck in the net.
“How we piece it together is going to be up to the organization, and some individuals getting better. But we’ve got a lot of pieces. Obviously for us, looking forward to next year, it’s going to be a little bit different group. But it’s going to be mental. Enough words, we’ve just got to do it.”