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.
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 na├»ve 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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