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Update: The Waning Inevitability of a Caps Stanley Cup

After the team makes another early playoff exit, fans wonder if their long-presumed championship will ever come.

Game 6 of the 2012 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals. Photograph by Flickr user clydeorama.

UPDATE: This column was updated at 2:15 PM to reflect coach Dale Hunter’s resignation.

There comes a moment when every young team, once said to be oozing with potential, makes the silent transition to a not-so-young group at risk of squandering its presumptive greatness. We may have witnessed the Capitals cross that chasm Saturday night.

Washington’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Rangers in game seven of the NHL’s Eastern Conference semifinals marked the fifth consecutive year the Caps have been eliminated in either the first or second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For many franchises, a run of five consecutive playoff appearances—regardless of their outcome—would be an achievement on which they could hang their collective hats, but when you’ve been earmarked as the league’s most talented young organization, projected to hoist not one, but multiple cups—as the Caps have—this represents a shortfall.

The window to win a championship is hardly closed for the Capitals, but nor is it as gaping as it once was. When Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington in 2004, followed shortly by Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the organization promised greatness but preached patience. We were told how this franchise would be built for the long haul, and that meant developing organically around the young stars. They would not, as they had in the past (see Jaromir Jagr), succumb to the impulse to cut corners by adding add pricey free agents before the nucleus was ripe. I think it’s safe to say the ripeness is officially upon us—but the results haven’t changed.

The young guns aren’t quite as young as they once were. Ovechkin and Green are 26; Backstrom is 24. All three have long stretches of viability in front of them, but at the same time, each has shown signs that warrant concern. Ovechkin, who was a reliable 50-goal scorer his first five years in the league, has regressed since 2010. He has tallied just 70 goals over the past two seasons and is not nearly the feared offensive force he was when he entered the league. Likewise, Green, once lauded as the NHL’s top attacking defenseman, is no longer a regular scoring threat, and at times during these playoffs was an outright defensive liability. Backstrom has remained the steadiest member of the Caps’ core, but a serious head injury this season took him out of the lineup for three months and has given Caps fans pause about his future.

General manager George McPhee, who has a track record of aggressiveness when it comes to late-season trades, decided to stand pat at the deadline this year. Most expected McPhee would unload enigmatic winger Alexander Semin, who was due to become a free agent at the end of the season. But McPhee never pulled the trigger. He opted to keep Semin for the rest of the campaign, hoping the talented but erratic Russian could help the Caps make a deep playoff run. The gamble backfired. Semin managed just four points in the playoffs, and now the 28-year-old, who is rated as the third most coveted free agent in the league this offseason, is likely to head elsewhere while the Caps get nothing in return.

The Caps’ coaching situation is equally uncertain. Dale Hunter stepped in for Bruce Boudreau in November, and today he shocked many in Washington by stepping down. Hunter, whose number 32 hangs retired in the Verizon Center rafters from his days as a player with the organization, had undertaken the arduous task of remaking the way the Capitals approach the game—and the players were buying in. But the coach won’t be around to see how the story turns out. Hunter owns and operates a successful junior hockey team in London, Ontario. Even as he took over for Boudreau, Hunter expressed his desire to return to Canada at some point in the near future to tend to those interests. Apparently that point is now.

It’s a shame. Hunter replaced Boudreau’s freewheeling offensive style with a more disciplined, defensive-oriented system, and despite initial growing pains, it started to take hold toward the end of the season. During the playoffs, Hunter went so far as to limit Ovechkin’s ice time in an effort to exploit what he felt were more favorable matchups. Outwardly, Ovechkin went along with the decision, but it is unclear how fully the team captain bought into Hunter’s theory and whether that played into the coach’s decision to step away.

The bottom line is that something fundamental needs to change in order for the Caps to evolve into a cup contender. It’s just that there is no consensus on what that something needs to be. Some believe the team needs another reliable forward, to take the scoring pressure off Ovechkin and Backstrom. Others insist they need bolstering on the blue line—a need that could be sated by pursuing Nashville free agent Ryan Suter in the offseason. If the Caps let Semin leave, it would free up more than $6 million in salary cap space—McPhee could do wonders with that kind of disposable cash.

The question is: Do the Caps have a nucleus that is Stanley Cup viable—one that simply needs tweaking and minor additions to shore up its flanks? Or is the composition of the team fatally flawed? Were we naïve to assume Ovechkin’s skill and charisma would be enough to will this franchise to a championship? Does the team require steadier leadership than he provides? For better or worse, the organization is “all in” when it comes to Ovechkin. He’s just four years into his 13-year, $124 million contract. It’s a deal that had to be made, but one that also created inherent financial limitations for the Caps in terms of their leeway to acquire and keep ancillary parts.

Potential for potential’s sake is useless. If the Capitals don’t at some point realize their potential and harvest a meaningful crop from the seeds they’ve sewn over the past eight years, this exercise will have been rendered much ado about nothing. They’re still a talented team, and the possibility of their winning a championship is still significant. It just no longer seems inevitable.

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