On Thursday night in Raleigh, for the first time since April 7, 2007, the Washington Capitals will play regular season game where they have no chance of reaching the playoffs.
After coming seemingly so close to Stanley Cup contention over the last six years, dating back to Alex Ovechkin's sophomore NHL season in 2006-07, the Capitals are heading home to an early summer, and many questions linger about where the team goes from here.
While the Capitals certainly weren't widely seen to be a Stanley Cup contender this season, the reduced salary cap made the East a wide-open affair with numerous teams dealing with holes in their lineup.
Even with that, the 2013-14 Capitals were exposed as thin in numerous areas, and in the end, those problems ran deep -- not something a simple trade deadline deal could fix, nor could general manager George McPhee or coach Adam Oates find a solution for.
The attention of the national media has certainly been on the play of Ovechkin down the stretch and his plus-minus rating, and certainly the strong start that helped Washington hold a playoff spot into January was negated by a slower finish by the Russian star.
But the root of Washington's problem wasn't just in the captain; it was in a complex failure of systems and personnel of a Capitals core that had been deteriorating since the team's Presidents' Trophy season four years ago, one rooted in a flawed roster and the way personnel were used and handled by the coaching staff.
A flawed defense
Washington's thin and young defensive corps proved to be their Achilles heel, along with Oates' insistence on using blueliners almost exclusively on their shooting sides and having to rely on players either over-the-hill or too green for the NHL.
Throughout the season, Washington used 14 different defensemen, and beyond Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green, the rest were a revolving door of older or inexperienced blueliners that the Capitals' opponents could exploit with a strong forecheck. Only 4 Washington defensemen -- Alzner, Carlson, Green and Dmitri Orlov -- played more than half of the team's games, and the team regularly was shuttling blueliners to a from its AHL affiliate in Hershey, to the point where there was little cohesion beyond the team's top pairing.
Karl Alzner and John Carlson defending the Capitals' zone/Photo credit: Patrick Smith
The Capitals allowed 33.5 shots per game -- fourth-worst in the NHL -- only above fellow non-playoff participants Toronto, Ottawa and Buffalo. Oates would sometimes dismiss the shot differential deficit as simply limiting chances from the perimeter, but it became patently clear down the stretch the team was allowing prime scoring chances several times per game, forcing the goaltenders to have to be stellar to keep the team from falling behind too far for the offense to make up ground. The team seemingly gave up a goal or two per night as a result of a poor turnover or coverage, and it became increasingly difficult to earn wins that way.
Of course, while the Capitals already were short at least two NHL-ready defensemen at the deadline, instead of addressing this need -- trading the only defenseman, they acquired at the deadline, Rostislav Klesla, to Buffalo within 24 hours - they elected to try and upgrade the goaltending instead.
The goalie carousel that never stopped
The netminding had been another particularly thorny issue for McPhee & Co., and the trouble began innocently enough when backup Michal Neuvirth stepped on a puck in a game against Montreal in November. The injury forced the recall of the team's apparent goaltender of the future Phillipp Grubauer, and the 22-year-old played well, posting a .925 save percentage.
However when Neuvirth returned healthy in mid-December, the team took on the unusual role of carrying three goaltenders for nearly a month.
Washington had re-signed Braden Holtby and Neuvirth over the past summer as restricted free agents with two-year deals, despite Grubauer's apparent readiness for the NHL. Instead of moving one of the two over the summer to address a more pressing need, the Capitals elected to sign the two and carry three goaltenders who were going ready for the NHL sooner than later.
And with only two spots available to dress each night, Neuvirth became unhappy being a regular scratch and his agent demanded he be traded once it became apparent Grubauer wasn't going back to the minors soon. Washington had a 18-13-3 mark when Neuvirth ended his rehab assignment in the AHL in December; the team went just 18-17-10 since as Oates regularly played one goalie for long stretches, leaving the backup idle.
Although Grubauer was eventually sent back to alleviate the logjam, the damage was done. Neuvirth's trade demand was met in March as he was finally dealt to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak at the deadline, a goaltending rental that was a small upgrade over what they had, although one that is a pending UFA and very unlikely to return.
Of course, Halak's chance to return became even slimmer in a bizarre twist on Tuesday, when Oates said the veteran Halak didn't want to face his former team in St. Louis - but that was a claim that the goalie's agent said was untrue, and also upset an assertion was made public.
While McPhee had floated the idea before the trade deadline the goaltending was a problem, the team's real problem was having a surplus of NHL-ready goaltenders and not able to capitalize on their value to get what the team truly needed, waiting until he had to settle to ship off a 26-year-old netminder under contract for one more year for an expiring contract from a team heading to the draft lottery.
No bite in the offensive attack
Ovechkin's fast start helped mask the Capitals' lack of depth up front, but the forwards corps had their own issues. Martin Erat, acquired to fill a top-6 role last season largely left vacant when top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov decided to remain in the KHL for the lockout-shortened season, never was utilized as either party envisioned.
Erat, unhappy with the way he was used by Oates, demanded a trade early in the season, but with his second trade demand in as many years, the return for the player they had shipped off touted prospect Filip Forsberg for was going to be very limited. With the drama and a lack of depth up front, the Caps largely struggled to spread the offense around, with just three players -- Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward -- netting more than 15 goals.
Captain Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals for the fifth time in his career, but still faces questions about his ability to lead a team/Photo credit: Patrick Smith
While Washington was near the middle of the pack in offense overall this season with 216 goals, without Ovechkin's 50 goals, the other Caps' total would be second-to-last in goals scored in the entire league this season, only ahead of Buffalo.
The result of this disparity was an unbalanced attack that depended too much on the Russian star to produce, as well as the team's power play. At even strength, Washington was in the bottom five in the league with 131 goals -- just ahead of Los Angeles, Edmonton, New Jersey and Buffalo -- and simply struggled at times.
How to fix it?
So, how do the Capitals fix the myriad of problems to ensure the team isn't returning to its second rebuilding mode in a decade?
In previous years, the team's roster was easier to fix, simply by adding a center or a winger. But now the defense needs an complete overhaul. While McPhee has acquired a stable of puck-moving defensemen over the years, they weren't used to their strength in the current system, encouraged to outlet pass rather than carry the puck. Clearly either the system has to change or the personnel has to change to those who better fit the goal to move the puck out via pass than rush.
Too many goals allowed this year were the result of poor turnovers in the neutral zone, as the defensemen didn't look comfortable with their instruction to look to pass out of the zone, and as a result, the team allowed plenty of unnecessary goals.
Offensively, while the full-season addition of Kuznetsov will help Washington's forward depth, the team clearly needs to get another top-6 forward. The fact that the team's second and third leading goal scorers in Brouwer and Ward were third-line players on career years and not expected to produce offense isn't encouraging. Their top two centers, Nicklas Backstrom and Mikhail Grabovski, combined for just 30 goals, which doesn't exactly take the pressure off Ovechkin.
Goaltending-wise, the situation seems a bit more settled, as Holtby and Grubauer likely will go forward as the team's tandem, with both being young and relatively inexpensive of a cap hit, while Halak, who was decent in Washington but didn't make a difference in the team's playoff push, will likely sign elsewhere as a UFA -- particularly after the strange non-start in St. Louis.
Regime change at the top?
Outside the personnel, the larger question also will be if Oates and McPhee will return next season.
Oates seems to be a very long-shot to return behind the bench, as the system he implemented in Washington doesn't seem to gel with the personnel provided to him, and the player utilization seems to not be making the most of the roster he has. Players picked up over the past two seasons for him by McPhee, Erat and Penner were not used heavily, and certainly Oates' lineup decisions grated on certain players.
Line and defensive combinations at times this year could only be described as strange, and regularly scratching or sitting players led to three trade demands over the course of the season, hardly an ideal situation.
And Oates certainly didn't endear himself to the players in the past week, saying Ovechkin "quit" on a play against Dallas and the assertion that Halak didn't want to face his former team in a must-win for the Capitals.
McPhee built the roster with growing holes in various key aspects, and asset management has come into question. McPhee over the last two seasons ended up trading one of the team's top prospects for Erat, who was essentially turned into AHL player Chris Brown in the course of the year, along with Neuvirth coverted into a expiring asset in Halak. That, even with the add of Kuznetsov and some future Capitals personnel such as Patrick Wey, still makes it tough to see how the team coming out of the lockout is any better than the team currently assembled.
But despite that, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been reluctant to fire a general manager, never changing one with either the Capitals or Wizards. McPhee has held the job since 1997, two years before Leonsis purchased the club, and certainly McPhee has been allowed to keep his job through rough stages during that time frame.
While McPhee's contract is up at the end of the season, it seems McPhee is on more tenous ground than he has at any point of his time in Washington, it's not a given that he isn't back next season.
Time might have run out for manager George McPhee/Photo: Patrick McDermott
However, there was a report from Yahoo! that Bob Nicholson was offered a position in the Capitals before he turned it down, although it's unclear if it would be for the general manager role or a higher hockey operations position, and certainly points to a shift in Washington's thinking.
Unlike the previous years where the Capitals had hopes of capturing the Stanley Cup this time of year, instead, the team's fans are left wondering just where this team is going next to fix what went terribly wrong this season. And the decisions that have to be made will begin next week once the team goes forth with its decisions on what to do with Oates and McPhee.