Heading into last night, it felt like something might have finally changed for the Washington Capitals. After three decades of increasingly devastating playoff debacles, this time felt like it might be different. After falling behind 3–1 in their series with the Penguins, they’d fought back to force a seventh game. You could feel the narrative rewriting itself — the notorious choke artists were finally going to flip the script on their arch-rival, the sort of dramatic turnaround that sends a franchise on the way to its first championship.
And then it all happened again.
Last night’s 2–0 loss didn’t just end the Capitals’ season. It was the worst-case scenario — one that saw yet another promising Washington season end with a whimper. It wasn’t their best game. It wasn’t even close. And they know it.
And now they’re left wondering what’s next. How do you fix this? Can you fix this?
This the part where I’m supposed to lay out what the Capitals’ ideal off-season plan should be. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure there is one. There are several different routes the Caps could go here, and each one has some serious flaws.
So today, let’s work through the possibilities facing the Capitals’ organization right now, from owner Ted Leonsis on down. They’ll need to pick one (or more) as their plan of attack, so let’s make the case for as many as we can.
Option #1: Blow it all up
The approach: Sometimes when you're holding a losing hand, the smart thing to do is to keep playing until your luck turns around. And sometimes, the right move is to fold your cards, walk away from the table and cut your losses.
The Alex Ovechkin-era Capitals have been trying to win a Cup for a dozen years now, and the core of this year's edition has been together for the last five. That's a long time in the salary-cap world. The list of NHL teams that have been contenders that long without ever getting close, only to finally break through years down the line, is an awfully short one. It might even be empty.
Something's rotten in the foundation. Bulldoze the whole thing and rebuild.
The problem: Let's start with the obvious: This is a really good team. They've put up 238 points over the last two seasons, which is ridiculous in the NHL's age of parity.
So why haven't they won a championship? Well, as unsatisfying as the answer might be, maybe they're just unlucky. The league's playoff format means they have to get past a tough Penguins team to escape the second round, and they've come within a bounce or two of doing it. An 82-game season should tell us a lot more than a seven-game series, and in the Capitals' case, it's telling us that this is an excellent team. Blowing them up because they lost a Game 7 seems foolish.
But let's say you don't buy any of that, and you really think this team needs to start over. How do you do it? The team's four highest-paid players in terms of cap hit are all signed through at least 2020, and as you may have heard, trading big contracts isn't easy these days. You can let UFAs like Karl Azner or T.J. Oshie walk, but breaking up the core might be just about impossible. And if you do manage to trade some of your bigger names, you won't be getting anywhere near fair value.
Option #2: Trade Alex Ovechkin
The approach: OK, so making a bunch of trades will be tough. So instead, make one. There's no bigger move the Capitals could make, and no cleaner break from the identity they've built, than pulling the trigger on an Ovechkin deal.
It's been called "unthinkable", and yet you can bet a lot of Capitals fans are thinking it right now. Ovechkin is a great player who'll be an easy Hall of Fame pick some day. Heck, he might go down in history as the greatest goal-scorer of all-time.
But between the playoffs and the Olympics, he's come up small when his team needed him most time and again. At some point, that becomes a pattern. And with four years left on his deal, there's only one realistic way for Washington to break out of it.
The problem: Like with the point above, we could wonder whether this sort of move wouldn't be a massive overreaction to a small-sample-size problem. In a league where goals are hard to come by, parting with a guy who produces more of them than any other player seems like a strange choice.
But again, let's ignore that and assume the Caps do decide that they want to move on from their franchise player. Who are you trading him to? Ovechkin will be 32 by opening night and carries the fourth-highest cap hit in the league. Not many teams could trade for him even if they wanted to.
Granted, we could have said similar things this time last year about someone like Shea Weber, and we know how that worked out. We've seen some big one-for-one deals in recent years, so maybe some other team that wants a big shakeup would be willing to roll the dice. But it seems extremely unlikely, and again, that's ignoring the fact that it doesn't necessarily seem like a great idea.
Option #3: Fire Barry Trotz
The approach: Cashing out the head coach is the easiest move to make when things go bad, but sometimes it's the right one. Trotz has been one of the league's better coaches for a long time, and it's not his fault that the Capitals lost to the Penguins again. But results matter, and Trotz has never made it out of the second round in his 18 years behind an NHL bench.
Would it be fair to make him walk the plank after back-to-back Presidents' Trophy seasons? No, but this isn't about being fair. Maybe there's just something about Trotz that makes his team less likely to succeed in the post-season, and, if so, a coaching change addresses that. And even if there's not, it would at least send a message to the rest of the organization that this year's early exit wasn't acceptable.
The problem: Beyond the obvious — that you'd be taking the easy way out by scapegoating a very good coach — who are you going to hire that's going to be any better? There are Cup-winning coaches out there, like Dan Bylsma and Darryl Sutter, but both are coming off rough years and wouldn't represent clear upgrades.
Beyond that, the Capitals have already played this card. A new coach would be their fourth since firing Bruce Boudreau in 2011 — none of whom would have lasted more than two seasons. At some point, enough is enough, and the blame needs to land somewhere else.
Option #4: Tinker
The approach: Maybe instead of trading Ovechkin, you move some lesser pieces. Maybe you keep Trotz, but pink slip an assistant or two. The point here isn't to gut the whole operation, but at least you'd be doing something. Done right, this option could see the Caps straddle the line between overreacting and accepting the status quo.
The problem: Putting aside whether it would actually be the right move, this one would be an awfully tough sell for long-suffering Capitals supporters, many of whom are irate. Fans know half-measures when they see them, and they know when changes are more about public relations than actually fixing a problem. Moving out a handful of lesser parts and then hanging a "Mission Accomplished" sign seems like a recipe for a fan revolt.
Option #5: Change the philosophy
The approach: Instead of changing the roster or the coaches, you change the approach. We always hear about teams needing to learn how to win. You'd think the lesson would have sunk in on the Capitals by now, but if not, force the issue. Whether it's a more defensive system, a more physical style or something else, figure out what this team needs to do differently and then make sure they do it.
The problem: The Capitals have been down this road before. It didn't go well. In fact, there's a good case to be made that trying to change their style cost them one of the best coaches in the league and a few years of Ovechkin's prime.
Option#6: Bring in reinforcements
The approach: Instead of breaking up the core, supplement it. Find some players who can make you better, and who also know how to win. The 1980s Islanders weren't the Islanders until Butch Goring showed up. Go find a Butch Goring, or two, or more.
The problem: They kind of already tried this one too. Two years ago, they went out and got an Olympic hero and Mr. Game Seven for pretty much exactly this reason. And ultimately, Oshie and Justin Williams didn't get them over the hump.
So maybe you try again. But that's easier said than done, because the Capitals finished this year up tight against the salary cap. They have a few UFAs, so there will be some room to work with, but not much.
At the end of the day, this isn't 1996, when the Red Wings can go out and snatch a Hall of Famer like Brendan Shanahan away from a dying franchise. The Capitals can probably find some depth pieces who might help refocus the room. But if you feel like this team needs major help to get to the next level, depth pieces won't cut it.
Option #7: Stay the course
The approach: Ignore the backlash. Trust the process. Take a deep breath, shrug off the sting of a tough loss, then bring back as much of the team as you can and give them one more shot.
The problem: Good luck selling this to your fans. Fair or not, there sure seems to be an appetite for change in Washington, and coming back with essentially the same roster and staff would be viewed as accepting defeat.
Maybe it would be the right move. But at least some of your fans would be furious, and there's a good chance you find yourself right back in this same spot a year from now. Plus, how does it play in the dressing room, where several players were clearly at a loss last night?
Option #8: Double down
The approach: The same idea as the last option, except you steer into the backlash. Have Ted Leonsis, Brian MacLellan and whoever else sit down in front of the cameras as soon as possible and make it clear that they believe in this team and aren't going to overreact. Have them do the same behind closed doors with players, coaches and everyone else.
Basically, you burn the boats. If it works, you revive the organization's confidence, buy some time with your fans, and (most importantly) keep a good team together long enough to finally win it all. If it works.
The problem: If it were handled right, the Caps could probably get at least a decent segment of their fans on board... at least for a while. But it had better work. Because at the first slump or other sign of trouble, the second-guessing starts, and it will be ugly.
This really is the all-or-nothing option. If you try it and you win the Cup, you're a legend. But just about any other result leaves you right back where you are now, only worse. And at that point, big changes start to feel inevitable.
It's not often that doing as little as possible becomes the high-risk, high-reward strategy, but that may be where the Capitals find themselves.
So where does that leave us?
Like I said at the outset, if there's a good option here, I'm not seeing it. The Capitals have been a great team, and there's a non-zero chance that there's nothing wrong with them that a good bounce or two wouldn't cure. But with both the fan base and the players sounding like they're on the verge of giving up, how patient can you be?
On the other hand, if you smash it all to pieces now, you may find yourself a few seasons down the road wondering what you were thinking.
If I had to guess, I'd say we don't see the sort of major changes we listed in the first few options; today's NHL just isn't set up for those sorts of moves. But it's fair to say that everything is on the table. And it should be.
If there's any consolation for Capitals fans, at least they should be getting used to all of this by now.