Ranking the 5 Worst Offseasons in Washington Capitals History

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIISeptember 14, 2013

Ranking the 5 Worst Offseasons in Washington Capitals History

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    The 2013 offseason has been—and continues to be—an adventure for the Washington Capitals.

    Free agency was not kind to the Caps, at least not initially. Gone from the team, via free agency, are Mike Ribeiro and longtime fan favorite Matt Hendricks.

    Just when things seemed rather grim, the Caps made a potentially season-saving free-agency move of their own when they added Mikhail Grabovski, a man many believe can be even better than Ribeiro was a season ago.

    Just before training camp began, as reported by The Washington Post,  the Caps filled out their roster when they finally re-signed Marcus Johansson to a two-year, $4 million deal.

    Just when it looked like things might calm down, there was more drama to be had.

    As reported by The Washington Post, Brooks Laich lasted all of 10 minutes of the first practice before leaving the ice with a hip flexor injury re-igniting doubt about Laich's health for the coming season.

    Then as reported by NHL.com, Grabovski—the presumed second line center—got stuck in Toronto and did not report to training camp on time as he had to sort out Visa issues.

    Without question, it has been a strange offseason. Still, it is too early to classify it as a bad offseason.

    Like all NHL teams, some offseasons have been worse than others for the Caps.

    Let's take a look at some of the worst ones so far.

5. 1984

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    The 1983-84 season had been the best one yet for the Washington Capitals.

    The team had finished with a record of 48-27-5 and cracked the 100-point barrier for the first time in team history.

    They had made the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Better than that, they had won their first-ever playoff series with a convincing three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division Semifinals.

    But the Caps were dispatched, for the second consecutive season, by the New York Islanders, in the division final. The Islanders were a bona fide dynasty at this time, and they marched on to their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup appearance.

    But the dynasty was about to crumble. The Isles had been overwhelmed by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final and, by all accounts, the Caps looked to be the heir apparent to the Isles in the Prince of Wales Conference.

    It never happened. The 1984 offseason was not bad because of roster moves or anything like that. In reality, the 1984-85 version of the Caps looked very much like the 1983-84 version.

    No, the reason why the 1984 offseason makes this list is because of the complete failure on the part of then general manager David Poile and head coach Bryan Murray to prepare the Caps to take that next step.

    The Caps could not even win their division that year, and it was not the Islanders who beat them out for it—it was pretty much the same Flyers team the Caps had so thoroughly dominated in the playoffs a season earlier.

    The Caps could not beat the Flyers during the 1984-85 season, winning only once in seven games against Philly. The Caps would have a solid season again, but they, again, finished with 101 points. The Flyers, meanwhile, stunned everyone by winning the division with 113 points.

    Then came the playoffs, and the Caps would get the Islanders in the opening round. This was the time for the Caps to finally get by the team that had been their undoing the past two seasons. The Caps had finished 15 points better than the Isles and were favored to win the series.

    When the Caps won the first two games, the fat lady began to warm up for her solo performance. No team had ever lost a best-of-five series after going up 2-0 in the series.

    As anyone who has been a Caps fan for any period of time can tell you, however, the Caps frequently like to mock history and they did so in the 1985 playoffs as the Isles won the next three games and eliminated the Capitals for the third year in a row.

    The failure of management and the coaching staff to adequately prepare the Caps for the task at hand during the 1984 offseason had a dramatic ripple effect that would undermine the teams efforts during the 1984-85 season.

    For those reasons, the 1984 offseason ranks as one of the worst in franchise history.

4. 2006

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    The 2006 offseason is one of those odd offseasons that is hard to place.

    By the end of the 2005-06 season, the Caps had seen the future—and his name was Alex Ovechkin. Ovi had smashed all expectations in his rookie season by leading all rookies in goals, power-play goals, points and shots.

    From a team standpoint, though the Caps, again, finished dead last in the Southeast Division, but they did have 12 more points than the previous season.

    So, on many levels, the Caps looked poised to climb back into contention after having been doormats the past few seasons.

    The moves the Caps made in the offseason; however, did very little to help them accomplish this goal.

    The first issue arose in free agency when captain Jeff Halpern left the team to go to the Dallas Stars. Halpern was a good captain and a hometown boy. His leaving the team had a definite impact on the Caps' chemistry for the coming season.

    The Caps also needed to bring in some other scorers to complement what Ovechkin was doing. So it was a bit curious that the team decided to trade for Richard Zednick in July of 2006.

    Zednick had been a fairly productive player for the Caps a decade earlier. But he had just come off a season with the Montreal Canadiens where he only had 16 goals and 14 assists. Acquiring Zednick, however, only cost the Caps a third-round pick in the 2007 draft so the investment was not too steep.

    Another curious move was obtaining Donald Brashear in free agency. Brashear would certainly add an element of toughness to the Caps. But the move seemed somewhat counterproductive to the direction the Caps seemed to be heading at the time.

    The results of these moves was a very disappointing 2006-07 season.

    Zednick struggled with injuries and had only six goals in 32 games. He was traded to the New York Islanders for a second round pick in the 2007 draft before the season ended.

    The team struggled with chemistry, and Ovi struggled with his game a bit. He had 46 goals as opposed to 52 the year previously.

    Brashear served his role well, but the Caps were clearly evolving into a finesse team, making Brashear somewhat of a mismatch for the team.

    Even though we saw the emergence of Alexander Semin during the 2006-07 season, the Caps again finished with 70 points, and their win total went down by one.

    The 2006-07 season can only be considered as a step back for the team at the time, and much of that had to do with the 2006 offseason.

3. 2003

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    The 2003 offseason was, in many respects, the end of an era for the Washington Capitals.

    The 2002-03 season had been a real eye-opener for owner Ted Leonsis. The Caps had gone and acquired Jaromir Jagr in free agency the season before, and during the 2002 offseason, the Caps had acquired Robert Lang.

    At the time, Leonsis seemed convinced that the route to the Stanley Cup would involve getting veterans on the team who had shown immense talent in the past.

    During the 2003 playoffs, though, it became apparent that this theory was very flawed. The Caps fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games, despite winning the first two games of the series. Included in the playoff defeat was a triple-overtime loss in Game 6, in D.C., when the Lightning scored a power-play goal.

    There were many moments in that series where the younger and faster Lightning just outmaneuvered the older, but more experienced, Capitals.

    After the season was over, though, Lenosis spoke like a man who had already thrown in the towel. The Caps were losing money at an alarming rate.

    Despite going after players like Jagr and Lang, attendance was down quite a bit during the 2002-03 season. During the playoff series against the Lightning, the Caps failed to sell out any of the three home games it had.

    After the caps had been eliminated by the Lighting, Leonis told the Associated Press that the Caps would have a quiet offseason. As he said to the Associated Press via ESPN:

    I don't think you'll see us being active in the free-agent market this summer. Our payroll is high enough. We're certainly not to going to increase our payroll because there doesn't seem to be a correlation between wins and losses and attendance.

    True to his word, the Caps did next to nothing during the 2003 offseason. Leonsis already seemed resigned to the fact that the only way to make the Caps better was to blow up what they had and try and build a contender through youth, the draft and a different free-agency strategy.

    This, of course, set the stage for what happened during the 2003-04 season. The Caps dumped everyone. They were able to, almost miraculously, trade Jagr to the New York Rangers.

    Peter Bondra was traded to the Ottawa Senators severing one of the only remaining links to the 1997-98 Eastern Conference championship squad.

    Even though he was leading the league in scoring, Lang was traded to the Detroit Red Wings.

    Sergei Gonchar, one of the better Caps' defenders, was dealt to the Boston Bruins.

    When the fire sale was done, the Caps were one of the worst teams in hockey, and they finished with the second-worst record in the NHL.

    While the dismal performance would enable the Caps to draft Alex Ovechkin, the 2003 offseason was the calm before the storm.

    Or, in this case, the calm before the fire storm.

2. 1998

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    The 1998 offseason has to be considered one of the worst ever for the Washington Capitals.

    The team should have been feeling pretty good about itself. They were the Eastern Conference champions for the first time in their history. They had played in the Stanley Cup Final for the first—and to date only—time. Though they had been swept by the Detroit Red Wings, the first three games were decided by just one goal.

    There was a great deal to be optimistic about and it certainly seemed there was much the Caps could build on to get back to the Stanley Cup Final and, perhaps, do even better.

    Similar to what happened in 1984, though, the Caps did not take that next step forward. In fact, they took many steps back.

    The Caps did not gain much in the way of talent prior to the start of the 1998-99 season. They picked up Dmitri Mironov. At the time, it seemed like a great acquisition. Mironov was a former All-Star and was part of the Red Wings team that had swept the Caps in the Stanley Cup Final just a few months earlier.

    Mironov never did much for the Caps. For the 1998-99 season, Mironov played in just 46 games and had a minus-five rating.

    The players the Caps lost, however, were a bigger issue.

    A key loss was Phil Housley. Housley was one of the best defenders the Caps had during the 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Final. He played in 18 playoff games and had four assists. He solidified the Caps blue line and added a level of physicality, intelligence and toughness that the Caps had to have to go as far as they did.

    Yet, the Caps inexplicably waived Housley during the offseason, and he was picked up by the Calgary Flames. Housley would go on to play in 79 games for the Flames during the 1998-99 season, scoring 11 goals and adding on 43 assists.

    Another loss the Caps suffered was in the form of Esa Tikkanen. Everyone only seems to remember Tikkanen for his missing the open net in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. To be sure, it was and is a dreadfully painful memory for Caps fans.

    What should be recalled though is that up to that moment, Tikkanen had been a big reason why the Caps were playing for the Cup in the first place. Tikkanen had been acquired by the Caps in a trade with the Florida Panthers in March 1998.

    In the playoffs, Tikkanen played in 21 playoff games and had three goals and three assists. He played a huge role in getting the Caps to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. Still, it was the goal he did not score that defined him and he was allowed to go to free agency by the Caps in the offseason.

    In retrospect, that might have been a good move, as Tikkanen was picked up by the New York Rangers, but only played in 32 games before an injury effectively ended his career.

    The Caps lost some other role players during the offseason, such as Andrew Brunette and Sylvain Cote. The sum total of all of this had a devastating impact on the Caps team chemistry, and the results spoke for themselves.

    The defending Eastern Conference champions finished with a record of 31-45-6 for just 68 points, 24 points worse than the previous season. The Caps missed the playoffs entirely, and by the end of the season, team captain and fan favorite Dale Hunter had been traded to the Colorado Avalanche.

    There is no other way to classify the 1998-99 season as anything but an utter disaster, and it all began with one of the worst offseasons in Washington Capitals' history.

1. 2001

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    The 2001 offseason took the Caps in the wrong direction. In so many ways, the events of the summer of 2001 made the Caps a lot like a car going the wrong way on a one-way street.

    The Caps had just come off a fairly successful 2000-01 season. The team won the Southeast Division for the second consecutive season. Unfortunately, for the second consecutive season, they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Desperate to get his team over the hump, owner Ted Leonsis went for broke. Leonsis took an "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude and was able to execute a trade with the Pens for Jaromir Jagr. The Caps traded three prospects to the Pens in order to land Jagr.

    At the time, this seemed to be the move that would finally bring the Stanley Cup to Washington. One of the two men most directly responsible for the Pens playoff dominance of the Caps would now be a member of the team he had victimized so often.

    After all, Jagr was a five-time winner of the Art Ross trophy. In the 2001 playoffs against the Caps, he had scored a goal and added five assists. By most accounts, Jagr was still a prolific goal scorer who would help the Caps immensely.

    Statistically, Jagr had one of his best seasons ever in 2000-01. He scored 52 goals, added 69 assists and his 121 points were the fourth-highest total of what will eventually be a Hall of Fame career.

    But there was dissension in the ranks in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux had come out of retirement, and there was resentment from the fans that Jagr was the captain of the team, even though Lemieux was considered a deity of sorts by Penguins fans.

    To that extent, it made sense to move Jagr, and from the Caps' perspective, there was nothing to indicate Jagr's production would decline as quickly and as sharply as it did.

    If the situation in Pittsburgh was somewhat tense, then Jagr's arrival in D.C. did nothing to make the Caps own internal turmoil any more pleasant.

    Captain Adam Oates had demanded a trade from the team during the 2001 offseason. This was rejected by the Caps management. To take things one step further, Oates was stripped of his captaincy, and it was given to Steve Konowalchuk and Brendan Witt as co-captains.

    The move was rather mind-boggling, considering that Oates had led the Caps to back-to-back Southeast Division crowns in the two years he had been captain.

    Once Jagr was traded, the Caps then signed him to the largest contract in NHL history, a seven-year, $77 million deal. If the pressure on Jagr was not immense before, it sure escalated after he signed that sort of a deal.

    With team chemistry splintered, team morale rather low and the team moving in the direction of overpaying for talented players who might have been past their prime, what happened next can hardly be considered a surprise.

    Jagr's production plummeted. He scored just 31 goals and added 48 assists for 79 points.

    Having co-captains was an abject failure. The Caps struggled far too much, and they finished with a record of 36-33-11. While that could not be considered bad, it was still an 11-point decline from the previous season, and the Caps fell two points shy of making the playoffs.

    What was supposed to be the Caps breakthrough season had turned into just another disappointment. Leonsis would continue with his strategy of buying veteran talent, and the next season, he acquired another member of the Pens in Robert Lang.

    With Jagr reunited with Lang, the Caps made the playoffs in 2002-03, but were sent packing in six games of the opening round by the Tampa Bay Lighting.

    That set on course some of the events discussed in the slide regarding 2003.

    But make no mistake about it. The offseason of 2001 set the stage for so many things that went wrong for the Caps over the next few years.

    Jagr's contract was a disaster to try and get out of. Attendance was never where it should have been. The team still could not win in the playoffs. To top it off, the Caps lost millions of dollars.

    At the end of the day, the experiment Leonsis had begun with the acquisition of Jagr in 2001 directly led to the implosion of the team just two years later.

    It would take the Caps seven years to recover from the worst offseason in franchise history.