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So here we go again, another disappointing start to the summer. The Capitals were eliminated in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs once again by their rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s a stinging feeling that never goes away, no matter how many times it happens. According to Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan, this is the end of the Capitals’ two-year window to capture Lord Stanley’s mug, so changes could be coming. In fact, no matter how one looks at it, changes were and are inevitably coming, no matter what. The Caps have 11 free agents (both unrestricted and restricted) this summer and there’s about a zero percent chance they all return. The question is how big will these changes be?
As has become all too common, when the Caps are bounced from the playoffs, many people want the big changes; in other words, trading away superstar captain Alex Ovechkin or overhauling the roster. This time the term “mental toughness” is being thrown around instead of lack of skill.
Matt Niskanen, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby all mentioned the possibility of mental hurdles that the Caps don’t have answers for or the ability to overcome. Some fans certainly think the answer is trading Backstrom and/or Ovechkin. They may think this because those two are the common denominators in the lack of playoff success in the last 10 years of the so-called “Ovechkin Era”, so moving them will get them over this mental hurdle. This is where I have a problem.
The Capitals have been a terrible playoff team (success-wise) since Capitals time began 42 years ago. They’ve made it out of the second round once in that time (1998 when they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final). They’ve had two owners (Abe Pollin and Ted Leonsis), six General Managers, 17 coaches, 14 captains, and hundreds of players. So why would a sweeping change like trading away two elite players make any difference?
My question to people who want to trade Ovechkin and/or Backstrom is this: Imagine the Capitals get to Game 7 of the second round once again, what would the Capitals players say? Does one really think they will say, “We don’t have Ovechkin or Backstrom anymore, so we’ll win this game”? I highly doubt it. Perhaps what they will say is, “We’re the Washington Capitals, we always lose in the second round”. See the difference between those two? Making big changes like trading Ovechkin or Backstrom won’t all of a sudden make the Caps get past the second round. It won’t change the mentality of the team, because it’s the whole franchise that can’t get past the second round.
So the Capitals have decisions to make if they want to get past the mental hurdles of advancing to the second round. Either move the core of the franchise (rebuild) or add pieces and get back after it.
RE-WRITE THE SCRIPT?
Maybe try something new in the playoffs like staying at a hotel like the Los Angeles Kings did years ago or try new lines, or practice schedules, or group therapy, or literally anything else.
If this is all mental, there are a million small ways to fix it – they don’t have to throw out a 40-plus goal scorer or a Top 10 center to do that. When they have a top-six forward group consisting of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Marcus Johansson, with a defensive Top 4 of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt, flanked by Holtby in goal, they give themselves a chance to win every night. That core can win a Stanley Cup. It’s young, quick, skilled, can outscore other teams with ease, and can stifle opposing teams’ chances. No reason to blow it up.
With all of that said, it’s also not a bad idea to make big changes. If a team can ever make themselves better by making a trade or hire, they should do it. If they can get two players that are 75% Ovechkin or 75% Backstrom, they should do it, that makes their team better. Both Darryl Sutter and Marc Crawford are available and some could make the argument they are better coaches than Barry Trotz, so they can bring them in. But a team should never make a change to just make a change, because that can lead to some bad decisions that can affect the organization long-term; looking at the Vancouver Canucks is a good example.
Over the last three years, the Caps have been ever-so close to moving on to the third round. They were victims of a really bad no-goal call (2015), some fluky bounces (2016), and a goalie playing above his skill level (2017). The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win and sometimes teams lose when they didn’t deserve to. It doesn’t mean they should throw away a really good team because they didn’t win the Cup. About 25 other teams would love to be in the Capitals’ shoes heading into next season, because the Caps can make a really good team, maybe even better than the last two with some tweaks. So maybe the best option for the Caps is sticking with it and finding their own way to jump the mental hurdles.
By Luke Adomanis