Emerging Storylines for Washington Capitals' 2014 Offseason
For the Washington Capitals, this has to feel like rock bottom.
That's what happens when a team that's earned postseason berths in six straight seasons, including five with divisional crowns, has effectively played its way into lottery contention during the most critical portion of the schedule.
And more importantly, unlike in recent years in which the Capitals staged gripping comebacks to punch postseason tickets during the final days of the regular season, this 2013-14 squad has produced embarrassingly poor efforts when it mattered most.
None have been more humbling than the 5-0 thumping Adam Oates' boys took from Dallas on Tuesday at home, and though this team's still technically in the mix, the playoffs seem further than ever since Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon in November of 2007.
That being said, there is still a lot to like about the pieces in place in D.C., and it'd be premature to say it's time to blow things up and start over.
Heading into what may be the most important offseason since Alex Ovechkin arrived in 2005, here are the biggest storylines surrounding the team.
The Future of GMGM
Since taking over for David Poile as general manager of the Capitals in 1997, George McPhee has likely never faced as much heat as he is entering the offseason.
On paper, McPhee has consistently assembled talented rosters, and there's something worth considering there before calling for his firing after an uncharacteristically bad season.
He put together an Eastern Conference Champion roster on a tighter budget in 1998, and though it took a painful rebuild to acquire the star-caliber pieces the Caps have today, any executive who is the mastermind behind a perennial playoff team deserves his due.
Washington has the game's best scorer, a true No. 1 center in Nicklas Backstrom and a core that features a number of high-end players such as John Carlson, Mike Green and Karl Alzner, and that is a reflection of McPhee's work.
He's drafted well, as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Mike Green, Braden Holtby, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov were all picks outside of the top 20, and has often pulled the trigger on big deadline deals to provide valuable reinforcements late in the season.
Nonetheless, this team's inability to reach its potential over the last seven seasons is obvious, and while the early postseason exits were gut-wrenching, missing the dance altogether is simply unacceptable.
The Martin Erat experiment will always be a stain on McPhee's legacy in D.C., but ultimately, can one really place the blame on him for this squad's shortcomings?
In short, no. McPhee and his staff clearly have what it takes to identify talent, and he must realize that for this team to turn it around, he'd have to be ready to make some significant personnel changes assuming he's able to keep his job past June.
The Impending Free Agents
In comparison to previous years, the Caps don't have many players set to become unrestricted free agents, but McPhee may find it difficult to replace the majority of them.
According to CapGeek.com, Washington should have roughly $14 million to work with when Mikhail Grabovski, Dustin Penner, Jaroslav Halak and a pair of depth rearguards in Julien Brouillette and Tyson Strachan hit the open market.
Among this group of potential departures, Grabovski and Halak will create the largest voids, and filling them won't be easy.
Despite his injury concerns, Grabovski is a proven top-six forward, and when healthy, was a solid contributor at both ends of the rink for Oates. Yet CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley says his return to D.C. remains in doubt.
If he leaves, that will probably force Washington to either slot Kuznetsov or the oft-injured Brooks Laich at center on the second line, which doesn't figure to be a recipe for success.
And in goal, Halak was brought in because of Holtby's continued struggles in 2013-14, so if the Slovak stopper leaves in July, is it really the best course of action to assume that the goalie he replaced will rebound accordingly?
Ovechkin in His Own Zone
Right or wrong, it's hard not to first look at Alex Ovechkin when examining why this Capitals team has failed to meet expectations, but unfortunately that's just part of the package that comes with being a superstar in the NHL.
As expected, his detractors will immediately point to his league-worst plus-minus rating and say that he's the primary culprit responsible the team's performance. In fact, Sports Illustrated's Allan Muir even suggested that Ovechkin should lose his captaincy less than a year after winning his third Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player:
There is one very compelling reason why the Capitals have to do it anyway. For all his charisma and once-in-a-generation scoring touch, Ovechkin has shown time and again that he’s just not cut out for the role of team leader.
There's some merit to what Muir says here, but if one looks at the whole picture, it's actually scary to think of where this team would be without the Russian sniper.
So far, Ovechkin's scored a whopping 22 percent of the Caps' goals in 2013-14, while his three closest competitors in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy (Corey Perry, Joe Pavelski and Sidney Crosby) have all contributed 16 percent or less of their respective teams' total goals.
For all of his flaws (and they've been obvious as of late), Ovechkin remains one of the most talented offensive players in NHL history, and to simply give up on him as a centerpiece seems premature if he's still producing at this rate.
In his nine NHL seasons, Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals three times and hasn't had a negative plus-minus rating on any of those occasions, so it's not unreasonable to think that this is an aberration.
Ultimately, this will undoubtedly be the captain's worst plus-minus performance of his career, but if he's still on his way to another goal crown, is it really the time to assume he's incapable of leading the Capitals?
He's a sniper by nature, and unlike past pure scorers like Brett Hull, Mike Bossy, Teemu Selanne or Pavel Bure, he's been saddled with the responsibility on not only finding the back of the net, but being a consummate team player in all areas of the game.
And as we're now finding out, maybe that isn't realistic.
Will Oates Be Back?
For the third time in three years, the Capitals may be searching for a new face behind the bench.
And for a team that has been relatively competitive (at least in the regular season) for the majority of the last decade, that really isn't normal.
But as was the case with Boudreau in 2007, Oates may pay the price for the Caps not looking like a unit that gets enough out of what looks to be a talented group.
There have obviously been some bright spots to reflect on during Oates' reign, as he managed to coax Ovechkin to shift to the right wing, which helped the captain get back to being the game's most dominant sniper.
In addition, Oates has once again demonstrated an innate ability to construct a productive power play, which is generally a key to success in the NHL.
However, the Caps have been far too porous defensively for Oates to be considered safe at this point, and there's been little tangible evidence to suggest improvement in this regard over the last 16 months.
Perhaps most of all, Oates has mishandled more than one of McPhee's acquisitions, as he first alienated Martin Erat to the point that the longtime Predators standout requested a trade and has failed to properly integrate Dustin Penner into his lineup.
Oates may be one of the smartest men in hockey, but whether he's the right guy for this job is more unclear than ever.
If McPhee makes it through the summer, maybe Oates will too, and for Caps fans, the hope has to be that he's able to learn from his team's struggles over the last year and change.
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