The Next Steps for the Washington Capitals

Scott ZweibelContributor IMay 19, 2009

WASHINGTON - MAY 13: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals leaves the ice following a 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinal  Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 13, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The dust has settled, and the seventh-game loss versus the Pittsburgh Penguins is now just hockey history. Another heartbreak has been dealt to the Washington Capitals faithful at the hands of a playoff nemesis.

And while the summer begins (albeit too early) for the Capitals, the opportunity to re-tool and fix the mistakes of the past is upon us again.

So what do the Capitals need? What direction can the fans expect them to take? And finally, what happens to the current personnel? All important questions, and each will draw a much different answer (depending on whom you ask).

The Capitals for all of their high-octane exuberance actually lack leadership. Captain Chris Clark, who is a fine grind-line center, has not been healthy for the better parts of two seasons. He needs to be a strong-hitting, and strong-willed exemplar for the young and offensively gifted forwards. So far he has not been healthy enough to fill that role.

The Capitals have pinned the next 10 (plus) years on the chest of Alexander Ovechkin, and should not feel compelled to make him hold the captain's "C" as well.

Ovechkin leads by providing offense, flair, and strength. If he were tasked with captaincy as well, I don't think it would benefit the Capitals.

If the Capitals were to move away from Clark as captain, I would suggest another gritty player. Someone like Matt Bradley or Brooks Laich. Both of those players go into high-traffic zones, work the corners, score ugly goals, and show a lot of heart.

It takes a great deal of heart to be an NHL captain, and a little less flash. I love Ovie and all his talents but he has too much flash for a locker room leaders role.

Aside from leadership, the Capitals need more mental edge. This has been a team that makes too many mistakes, and takes way too many penalties.

Being able to retain the proficient mind of Sergei Fedorov for one more season would be worth the investment to further the collective genius of the team. Also, trying to secure one more short-term veteran (preferably a defenseman) would be the key move to make.

The Capitals need to find balance. There are top-notch scoring threats, a wealth of pass-happy, creative centermen, and very little defensive zone capability.

The past season saw the Capitals winning a lot of high-scoring games; mainly because they could. Defense was not a priority and neither was goaltending.

The playoff emergence of Semyon Varlamov (the correct spelling mind you), signalled a changing of the guard. Does this mean the Caps can or will buy out veteran Jose Theodore? I think not.

For as much as I think Theodore is well past his prime, he may be a motivated and serviceable backup. Especially as next year will be a contract year for him, and he will be seeking a final team to backstop before he hangs up the goalie skates.

Having a great deal of goaltending depth is never a bad thing, either. The Caps should lean on Varlamov for at least 45 starts next season, either veteran Brent Johnson (who would have to be resigned) or veteran Theodore for 20 starts, and begin to season Michael Neuvirth for 15 or so starts.Β 

This approach will groom two very athletic and competitive goalies for the next two to three years, and as both will be mostly entry level contract players; will free up salary space to keep some veterans around.

As for defensemen, there are lots of questions for the Capitals. Most of the current blueliners are RFA or UFA status now, meaning the Capitals have some re-signing or free agent signing to do.

Milan Jurcina, Jeff Schultz, and Shaone Morrissonn are all possible departures. For Schultz and Morrisson, please do not let the locker room door hit your asses on the way out.

They've both been busts in Washington, and served little more than red jersey clad traffic cones. I honestly believe that Schultz and Morrissonn scored more "own-goals" than actual goals during their Washington careers.Β 

As for Jurcina, I think he still has maturing to do. He has the size and skating prowess to succeed. He just requires the will to hit guys, work the corner with more authority, and clean out the crease.

His shot is hard, but needs to become accurate. I think he has some potential and could be a cheap alternative to bringing up a prospect too quickly.

Now, who to keep, and who to trade? At this point, the Capitals have Alexander Ovechkin for the better part of his life. He should be a life-long Capital, enough said.

However, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, the other two talented young forwards will both be due RFA raises after next year.

Restricted Free Agent status allows the Capitals first rights, draft pick compensation, and matching rights should a player receive an offer sheet from another team.

However, it also allows other clubs to set the market for the player, much like Edmonton and the Dustin Penner ordeal.

So George McPhee has a lot to consider in how much cash he decides to invest in the long-term. Both Backstrom and Semin would require a longer commitment, and a deep pocket.

I think both will consider that they are increasingly more marketable (and wealthy) because they have Alexander Ovechkin on their team. Though money drives men and who is to say that Semin (who has spurned the Caps before) won't bolt for a payday?

I certainly hope not as he (Semin) is seriously talented, and helps balance the Caps attack. Though Semin lacks some common sense (he takes dumb penalties), and he needs to toughen up.

With the eventual shedding of Fedorov's salary (if he is retained one more year), a buy-out or trade of Michael Nylander, the probable walking of Donald Brashear and Viktor Kozlov, and next year's shedding of Jose Theodore, that adds up to over $16 million in salary relief to keep both Backstrom and Semin.

Considering Semin already makes over $5 million per season, and with bonus Backstrom's cap hit is over $2 million; an investment of another $5 million-$7 million between those two would still leave $8 million or more per season to retain one of the young goalies, or sign a veteran blueliner.

The Capitals are only going to go up from here. For as disappointed as I was that the season ended on such a sour note, I know there is a lot to cheer about in the future.

The core is there, the fans are there, the ownership team is great, and the GM is patient and prudent. All signs point to the Capitals making the leap over the next few years.Β 

Have a great summer Caps fans, see you in just a few months.


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