The Biggest 'What-Ifs' from Washington Capitals' 2013-14 Season
No one could've predicted how far the Washington Capitals would fall in 2013-14. Once viewed as a perennial Stanley Cup contender, the Capitals failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08.
As a result, changes abound in D.C. There will be a new general manager and head coach in place by next season. In addition, as CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley points out, the futures of longtime franchise cornerstones, such as Alex Ovechkin, aren't necessarily as certain as they once where.
In hindsight, there were a lot of small factors and pivotal moments that added up to the Caps' collapse down the stretch and ultimately led to them missing the postseason by a measly three points.
With what will be a long offseason for Capitals fans underway, here's a look back at the biggest what-ifs from Washington's 2013-14 campaign.
What If Adam Oates Had Used McPhee's Acquisitions Properly?
At each of the last two NHL trade deadlines, general manager George McPhee provided head coach Adam Oates with big-name reinforcements for the final stretch of the regular season. In 2013, he brought in Martin Erat. In 2014, both Dusin Penner and Jaroslav Halak arrived.
But Oates failed to integrate Erat into the lineup effectively, and a proven two-way winger with seven straight seasons of at least 49 points was marginalized to the point that the Czech Olympian requested, and was subsequently granted, a trade.
This year, Oates couldn't find a place for Penner, a battle-tested power forward with two Stanley Cups and four 20-goal seasons to his name. Penner came to Washington with 32 points in 49 games with Anaheim, spending much of the year riding shotgun to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on one of the game's best lines. But somehow he couldn't mesh with the Caps, managing just a goal and two assists in 18 games.
Fellow deadline acquisition Halak wasn't much better in his short time in D.C.
Halak arrived as a quality goaltender with a history of getting hot at the right times. But Oates mismanaged his relationship with Halak so badly that The Washington Post's Katie Carrera reported that his agent believed the trust had been broken between the coach and his new stopper.
If Oates had done a better job of getting value out of McPhee's big splashes on the trade market, wouldn't this team have made the playoffs this season?
What If Nicklas Backstrom Had Scored Against Nashville?
In the Caps' final game of March, the team found itself deadlocked with the struggling Predators heading into a critical shootout on the road.
With an extremely valuable point on the line, the Capitals needed to put an end to the misery of losing six of their previous seven shootouts. But the misfortunes continued for Nicklas Backstrom and his mates.
In need of a goal to tie the shootout in the third round, Backstrom made a nice move to his forehand to create an opening behind Nashville's Carter Hutton, but he simply couldn't elevate the puck enough to find the net. Hutton got enough of the shot with his right pad to preserve the win.
The loss was the third straight for Washington, and the team dropped its next two after returning home. This five-game stretch was the final nail in the coffin on the season.
If Backstrom had scored, and Washington had been able to squeak out a victory, the postseason streak might have continued.
What If Mikhail Grabovski Hadn't Gotten Hurt?
When Mikhail Grabovski arrived in Washington, the slick two-way pivot was supposed to end the team's search for a serviceable No. 2 center behind Backstrom.
And for a time, the former Maple Leafs standout provided the team with consistent production at both ends of the rink. But after sustaining a lower-body injury in late January, Grabovski would play just nine more games the rest of the way.
Returning for the final eight games of the season, Grabovski was limited by the injury and managed just one goal and two points over this span.
The absence of the 30-year-old meant that others, such as Marcus Johansson and Jay Beagle, were forced into roles they weren't best suited to fill. As a result, the team's offense struggled at even strength.
If Grabovski had been in the lineup and at his best, this team's chances at claiming one of the final playoff spots in the East would've been much better.
What If Evgeny Kuznetsov Had Come to Washington Earlier?
Since Alexander Semin left via free-agency in 2012, the Caps have been in search of a sniper capable of providing scoring punch when Alex Ovechkin is shut down.
This year, Washington enjoyed big seasons out of Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, who buried a combined 49 goals. But there's no question that Evgeny Kuznetsov would've helped the team score more, particularly when Grabovski was sidelined.
With nine points in 17 games, the Kuznetsov clearly needed time to adjust to the NHL's more physical style after spending five seasons in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Had the 21-year-old been afforded a full season to do so, it's not unreasonable to think that he could have scored 50-55 points as a rookie.
He's got great speed and agility, and combined with a pair of silky hands and a deceptive shot, Kuznetsov has all the tools to be a dangerous scorer in the NHL.
While he showed the offensive talent that has made him one of the sport's most coveted prospects of the last couple of years, Oates didn't give the forward much of an opportunity to prove himself. Kuznetsov never saw more than 14:15 of ice time during the final eight games of the season.
If he'd arrived earlier, couldn't we imagine Kuznetsov gaining confidence and securing a top-six role? In addition, with three goals on six attempts, his 50 percent success rate ranked first among Capitals with at least three shootout chances, so there's reason to believe his presence would've helped this team win more than 10 out of 21 shootouts.
What If the Caps Had One More Defenseman?
Washington's most glaring weakness was a lack of depth on the back end, as the team's thin defensive corps cost the Caps on a consistent basis in 2013-14.
While sitting in the top half of the league in goals per game, led by Ovechkin's NHL-high 51, the Caps had one of the most porous defensive units in the league. The 33.5 shots allowed per game was fourth-most among NHL teams.
Beyond Mike Green (who has defensive struggles of his own), Karl Alzner and John Carlson, Washington's top-six was as thin as it gets. John Erskine, Dmitry Orlov, Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Tyson Strachan, Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen are some of the names that occupied regular spots at times this season.
Without an overly physical presence in the top-four, the Caps got pushed around by grittier opponents. Against much tougher opponents in their first year in the Metropolitan Division, that was a recipe for disaster.
Looking ahead, Washington needs to add a proven veteran on the back end. With so much youth on the way up—in addition to the 24-year-old Carlson and 25-year-old Alzner, to a certain degree—the Capitals need someone to show them the way at the NHL level.
Carrick, Orlov and Schmidt all have the tools to be quality NHL rearguards, but how much steadier would Washington's defense have been with one more legitimate top-four defender in the mix?