Washington Capitals Playoff Failure Means They Will Make Changes
After winning the Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team in 2009-10, the Capitals lost a first round matchup against the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens.
The seven game series raised a number of eyebrows both in the dressing room and with the Caps upper management—both of which demanded change for the upcoming 2010-11 season.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau did his best to change the culture and the way his troops approached the game this season by asking them to play a tighter, more defensive minded style of play, which, in the minds of many, would help the Caps become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
As a result of the changes, the Capitals found themselves in a lot more one goal games and watched their powerful offense drop from 318 goals (first overall) in 2009-10 to 224 goals in 2010-11 (19th overall).
Of course, the Capitals defense benefitted from the added attention to the backend, as the Caps went from allowing 233 goals in 2009-10 (16th overall) to just 197 in 2010-11 (fourth overall).
The Capitals newly found balanced attack was supposed to help catapult them into Stanley Cup contention, not simply allow them to make the playoffs.
The Caps had their fair share of ups and downs, but in the end they emerged from the 2010-11 season as the top regular season team in the Eastern Conference, finishing with a 48-23-11 record for 107 points (second best only to the Western Conference’s Vancouver Canucks, who earned 117 points as the NHL’s President Trophy winners).
Needless to say, fresh off an impressive season and with the team going 7-2-1 down the stretch, the Capitals entered the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the favorites to win the Cup.
Late season additions such as veteran forward Jason Arnott and offensive defenseman Dennis Wideman looked to be the final pieces to an already impressive lineup that already featured the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and three capable goaltenders in Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and rookie Braden Holtby.
Forwards Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, and defensemen John Carlson, Tom Poti, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz round out what was perceived to be one of the deepest lineups the NHL has to offer—a lineup that was supposed to have what it takes to win it all.
With so much going for them, it was hard to envision the Capitals repeating their disappointing performance of 2009-10.
The Caps started the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoffs with an easy first round series victory over the New York Rangers.
With the Caps making quick work of the Rangers there was every reason to believe that a well-rested Washington team would bring their “A” game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
Instead, the Capitals dropped their second round series to the Lightning in four straight games, looking every bit the lesser team in every game, which brought back a lot of painful memories of last seasons early playoff exit for Washington fans and with them, many questions regarding the future of this franchise and its roster.
When you look towards the 2011-12 season a couple of things become painfully obvious for the Capitals. First, change is needed. Second, given their lack of salary cap room, change will be difficult.
The Capitals currently have a total of $50,896,795 allocated to 18 players. Of those players, Ovechkin ($9,538,462), Backstrom ($6,700,000) and Alexander Semin ($6,700,000) all carry huge cap hits, which limits what the Caps can do to strengthen their club via free agency.
On the backend the Capitals also carry trio of high priced defensemen, including Green ($5,250,000), Wideman ($3,937,500) and Tom Poti ($2,875,000)—all of whom are under contract for the 2011-12 season or beyond.
The Caps have a number of unrestricted free agents to consider this summer, including but not limited to, defensemen Scott Hannan (UFA—current cap hit of $4,500,000) and Karl Alzner (RFA—current cap hit of $1,675,000), Goaltender Semyon Varlamov (RFA—current cap hit of $821,667) and forwards Jason Arnott (UFA—current cap hit of $4,500,000), Marco Strum (UFA—current cap hit of $3,500,000) and Brooks Laich (UFA—current cap hit of $2,066,667).
Other free agents include forwards Boyd Gordon (UFA) and Matt Bradley (UFA) and defenseman Sean Collins (UFA). All three of these players may be deemed as replaceable, as may UFA forward Marco Sturm who registered a disappointing ten points in 27 games with the Caps (Playoffs and regular season).
Defenseman Karl Alzner is an emerging star. As such, Alzner is a lock to get a raise and should be back in a Capitals uniform next season and beyond. Veteran defenseman Scott Hannan could be back, but look for the Caps to ask him to take a slight pay-cut. Veteran forward Jason Arnott is a bit of a quagmire as, while good down the stretch and into the playoffs, his price-tag may be too much for the Caps to absorb.
Utility forward Brooks Laich would look to be a priority for the Caps. His ability to play five-on-five, power play and penalty kill minutes makes him a useful soldier who will be hard to replace if he bolts for greener pastures.
The solid play of rookie goaltender Brayden Holtby down the stretch could make RFA Semyon Varlamov expendable, but with questions surrounding all three of the Capitals netminders Varlamov’s status is up in the air.
Given the Capitals commitment of just under $51 million to 18 roster players next season, it appears as if the Capitals will have to let a number of free agents move on.
Therefore, with little in the way of cap room with which to sign their own free agents and little funds to add players via free agency, it appears as if the Capitals will have to make a trade or two in order to facilitate any significant changes to their roster.
Several players may emerge as trade bait, including Alexander Semin, Nik Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov and perhaps even the likes of Mike Knuble.
Semin does not have a no-trade clause, which means the Caps can trade Semin without prejudice. While Semin is a veryb talented player, his $6 million cap hit through 2011-12 will be hard to move, especially when you take into account his paltry 54 point season with the Capitals this season.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Semin did net 54 points in just 65 games, that said, he has only played more than 70 regular season games twice in his career (2006-07, 2009-10) and has never played a full 82-game season, which speaks to his fragile nature.
A reputation for being fragile and coming up small in the playoffs will not be missed by rival general managers looking to acquire Semin. In fact, both factors may lead to Washington having to settle for a lesser return than many fans may expect George McPhee to get in return for the talented Russian forward.
Nik Backstrom has a modified no trade clause which allows for no restrictions until July 1, 2016. For 2016-17 and beyond, Semin can designate seven teams he will not accept a trade to and modify that list each September beginning in 2017.
Therefore, the Caps could trade Backstrom, but when you consider the amount of his cap hit and term of his contract, its unlikely the Capitals will find a buyer.
That leaves the likes of Knuble and Varlamov with which to trade for new talent.
At 32 years of age, Mike Knuble appears to be at the end of his rope. That said, his $2.8 million salary may be affordable to some NHL teams, especially when you take into account the intangibles he brings to the table (leadership, experience, goal scoring), which may help Knuble fit into a team on the verge of a playoff birth or a team looking for depth.
But, how do you replace what Knuble brings night-in, night-out?
Well, at just $2.8 million, you probably don’t replace what Knuble brings, therefore, it says here the Caps keep him in the fold.
Which leaves us with Varlamov.
Let’s face it, while Varlamov has huge upside, he’s not the kind of player that will bring you a big return.
Which brings us back to Backstrom and Semin.
As mentioned, given their cap hits, both players will be tough to move. That said, if Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee wants to see a sizable difference to the culture of his organization he will have to find a way to move one or both of those players.
One team that may be looking to make significant roster changes this summer is the Ottawa Senators. Might the Capitals and Senators be able to hook up for a blockbuster deal that could see the likes of Nik Backstrom on the move for the underperforming Jason Spezza?
Would Spezza be a good fit in Washington? Could he raise his game and fit in alongside a player of Alexander Ovechkin’s calibre?
And, what about a team like the Phoenix Coyotes? With the future of the franchise in jeopardy, could the Coyotes convince the likes of Shane Doan to waive his no movement clause in order to pick up a Alexander Semin?
Of course, it would take more than Doan straight up to acquire Semin, but if the two sides could come to an agreement Doan would be a tremendous fit in Washington, wouldn’t he?
The Colorado Avalanche have long been rumored to be shopping Paul Stastny.
Stastny’s contract carries a cap hit of $6.6 million through 2013-14, which would help take away the sting of acquiring a player with Backstrom’s lofty contract. The question is—would Statsny fit into the Caps plans? Would he fair any better than Backstrom?
There are lot’s of possibilities out there. One wonders if McPhee will look to pull the trigger on a deal or stand pat, confident that his players will eventually find their way in the playoffs?
The fact is, regardless of Semin and Backstrom’s struggles of late, both of these players will garner plenty of interest from rival general managers should they be made available, despite their considerable contracts.
Making changes to the coaching staff is not the answer in Washington. Switching general managers makes little sense.
What does make sense is splitting up the Capitals big three of Backstrom, Semin and Ovechkin. And, since Ovechkin isn’t going anywhere, look for Semin, Backstrom or both players to be moved this summer.
Until next time,