“When you’re in a cap world, sometimes you just don’t have choices,” McPhee said. “This is what you have to work with, and if it doesn’t fit for them you move on, you get someone else and that’s the world we live in now.”
Part of why the Caps have experienced so much sustained success is the organization’s ability to replace departed players with prospects ready to contribute at the NHL level. Right wing Tom Wilson could be that player next season, and perhaps center Evgeny Kuznetsov the next.
But improvement isn’t as simple as expecting those young players to have immediate impacts.
“We got to try to improve, get better as a group, as a team, and I’m sure the management will look at all the players, what kind of things we did,” Backstrom said. “If they’re happy with it and they believe in us, they’re going to stick with it. Otherwise, there might be changes. I don’t know. That’s how it works in this business; you’ve just got to face reality.”
Reality isn’t black and white, though. Asked about the core group getting stale, McPhee said: “I don’t think that ever playing in the playoffs gets stale. Winning hockey games never gets stale. Winning never got stale.”
His and owner Ted Leonsis’ philosophy is to build a team that can contend every year. Realignment into a division with the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets could make it more difficult to make the playoffs, but McPhee said, “It’s always difficult.”
It’s also hard to pinpoint what has to be different for the Caps to get to the Eastern Conference finals or beyond. Oates knows from his time as an assistant with the Devils that “that’s no magic formula” to building a title team.
“I think it’s very close,” he said. “Every team needs their core guys. Ours are fantastic. I really think it’s just going to be a matter of time. We have to keep growing as an organization, and keep improving, and hopefully one day it’ll happen.”
Unrestricted free agents
C Mike Ribeiro, 33: Ribeiro, who made $5 million this past season, said Wednesday he wants a four- or five-year deal.
F Matt Hendricks, 31: As a penalty-killer who can win faceoffs and play top-six minutes, Hendricks could command $1.5-2 million.
D Tom Poti, 36: Poti won’t be back with the Caps, saying Thursday in a phone interview “it’s time to move on.” He wants to keep playing.
RW Joey Crabb, 30: Sent to the Hershey Bears in March, Crabb is an NHL/AHL tweener, whether he returns or signs elsewhere.
Restricted free agents