With the Washington Capitals coming off their second straight defeat at the hands of an Atlantic Division foe, it's become increasingly obvious that this team is not equipped to make a serious playoff run, assuming they even qualify for the postseason.
From top-to-bottom there are a number of changes that need to be made in preparation for next season, especially considering the nine regulars on the team that are up for either restricted or unrestricted free agency on July 1st.
In previous years, it seemed that the general consensus was that the Caps were one or two roster tweaks away from being a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but that no longer appears to be the case as Washington is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.
When a team underachieves as badly as the Caps have, heads roll, people are shipped out of town and new faces are brought in. Here's a look at who will be back, and whose days are numbered amongst the current members of the Caps.
Of the Capitals' top 12 forwards, there are likely six whose jobs are genuinely safe this offseason. Not coincidentally, three of them are players with no-movement clauses in their contracts.
Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are the three clear-cut untouchable forwards on the roster, but given the play of Troy Brouwer this season, one would have to assume that his future with the Caps is all but guaranteed.
Outside of those four, 21-year-old centerman Marcus Johansson will be back, as the second-year pivot is well on his way to a 40-point season. Speed demon Jason Chimera should return as well, as the big man has played hard all year and is just goal away from his career high of 17.
Beyond those six, who else has done enough this season for George McPhee to believe that they're part of a winning formula in Washington? Joel Ward has underachieved since signing a four-year $12 million deal in July, notching just six goals through his first 64 games, but it won't be easy to move a player of his caliber who comes with a annual cap hit of $3 million.
After being a feel good story for hockey fans everywhere last year, Matt Hendricks has fallen back to earth statistically, posting just three goals and seven points, despite receiving more ice time due to injuries to key players.
Considering those two are both under contract for another season, there's a reasonable chance they'll be back, but there are a couple of unrestricted free agents that will all but assuredly be wearing different jerseys by next September such as Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble.
Knuble has persevered through easily the worst season of his career, but one has to think that despite his numbers, he'll at least garner some tryout offers this summer.
With regards to Semin, though his play has improved, the Capitals have a younger, more complete prospect with offensive skills close to Semin's caliber in Evgeny Kuznetsov, and there's no reason to believe the Caps want more than two enigmatic forwards on their roster.
Locks: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson, Laich, Brouwer, Chimera
Possibilities: Halpern, Perreault, Beagle, Ward, Hendricks
Pack your bags: Semin, Knuble
Last season, the Capitals had supposedly turned a corner defensively and adopted a game plan that would make them a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. That notion held true for exactly five games, because after Washington dispatched the Rangers in the first round, they were thoroughly dominated and ultimately swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
This year, the Caps looked to be a much improved group on the back end as they added Roman Hamrlik and expected a healthy Dennis Wideman to man the second power-play unit, but little has gone to according to plan for Washington in 2011-12.
Hamrlik has been a colossal disappointment, and has often found himself watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. Though Hamrlik still has a year at $3.5 million left on his contract, there's very little chance he'll be in a Washington uniform by training camp, and that seems to be fine by him.
Beyond Hamrlik, the Capitals have some interesting choices to make, as Mike Green, Dennis Wideman and John Carlson are all in need of new deals. But it's difficult to see how the Caps can re-sign all three, as all will be due for contracts upwards of $3-4 million a season.
Green and Carlson are both restricted free agents, so they'll be easier to retain, but Wideman, coming off the best season of his career, will likely be receiving some rich offers on the free agent market. He may be well on his way out after just one full season.
If the Caps can keep Green and Carlson, they'll still be in need of a top-four defenseman as Hamrlik didn't turn out to be the perfect partner for Green that McPhee had hoped he would be. While Dmitri Orlov is ready for more minutes, and both Jeff Schultz and John Erskine are capable of playing third-pairing duties, the top priority has to be finding a defenseman capable of playing a role similar to that of Karl Alzner's on the team's top defensive unit. If they can unload Hamrlik, the Caps might be able to keep Wideman and pick up the shutdown defenseman they so desperately need.
Locks: Green, Carlson, Alzner, Orlov
Possibilities: Schultz, Erskine, Wideman
Pack your bags: Hamrlik, Poti (due to injury)
The Caps entered the 2011-12 season with one of the strongest goaltending tandems in the Eastern Conference, at least on paper.
George McPhee's biggest offseason coup was inking two-time All-Star Tomas Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5 million deal, while managing to get a first-round selection in return for disgruntled and oft-injured Semyon Varlamov. Washington's net was supposed to be better protected than ever before.
Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, as Vokoun and second-year goaltender Michal Neuvirth have each been average at best this season, though they haven't received much help from their teammates in front of them.
Vokoun's goals against average and save percentage are both outside of of the league's top 15, and though he's notched 22 of the Caps' 32 wins, he hasn't been nearly as good as he was in Florida or Nashville. It's difficult to see how McPhee would bring him back next year, unless he came at a similar price tag to this season.
Despite Neuvirth's shaky performance, he remains the Caps' goaltender of the future. With that being said, McPhee has to be on the lookout for a goaltender who can take the reins now, because the Capitals have gone without elite level goaltending since Olie Kolzig's heyday in the late 1990's and early 2000's.
Locks: Neuvirth, Holtby
Pack your bags: None
After Bruce Boudreau was fired on November 28th, former Capitals captain and legend Dale Hunter was brought in to instill a game plan that featured defensive awareness and a disciplined style of play intended to help the team get out of what was then thought to be a temporary yet inexplicable rut.
However, Hunter's tenure in Washington has been rocky to say the least, as the Capitals have continued to play mediocre hockey with only brief spurts of brilliance and are on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time since Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were first united in 2007-08.
Simply put, missing the playoffs with a roster this talented is unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. If the Caps do indeed fail to qualify for the postseason, Hunter's position could be in question, but it seems unlikely that McPhee would fire a coach who has meant so much to the organization over the course of the last 20 years.
If Hunter is back next season, he'll have roughly 30-40 games to demonstrate that he has the ability to get this talented yet inconsistent group to gel and play as a unit. Otherwise, McPhee and Leonsis will begin their second search for a new head coach in just 12 months, which certainly isn't an option they would like to explore further.
Locks: Dale Hunter, Jim Johnson (for the time being)
Possibilities: Dean Evason, Olie Kolzig
Pack your bags: None as of yet