There were always explanations for why things went wrong in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Maybe the Capitals ran into a hot opposing goalie (Montreal, 2010), or a referee’s call went the wrong way (Philadelphia, 2008). A few ill-timed injuries always hurt (Tampa Bay, 2011) or its young goalie struggled at the worst time (Pittsburgh, 2009 and New York, 2013). Sometimes, they played well and just found themselves on the wrong end of a coin flip (New York, 2012).
When an organization comes so close, so many times – four Game 7 losses at home in six years and another on the road - it’s easy to pin the blame on small things. The Caps can’t do that this time. For the first time since 2007, Washington won’t even be a part of the NHL’s postseason party.
That failure is not so easy to rationalize.
While fans wait to see if owner Ted Leonsis will retain general manager George McPhee, whose contract is expiring, or coach Adam Oates and his staff, the question festers: Why is a once-elite team out of the playoffs entirely?
“When you don’t have success, the first thing you do, is analyze everything,” said winger Brooks Laich, a franchise mainstay since 2005 who has missed much of the past two seasons with groin and abdominal injuries.
That starts with McPhee’s roster management. The Caps entered the season with three experienced NHL defensemen in Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Mike Green and a pair of journeymen veterans in Jack Hillen and John Erskine, who has spent eight years with Washington but played in just 95 games total the last three seasons.
The rest of the blueline was composed of question marks and its depth was exposed when Hillen broke his right leg in an Oct. 3 game and Erskine struggled to recover from off-season surgery on his left knee.
That left Green (nine goals, 29 assists) to share 60 percent of his even-strength ice time with developing players like Dmitry Orlov, 22, and minor-league recall Nate Schmidt, 22. Washington used 14 defensemen total and four of them had never appeared in an NHL game before, including 19-year-old rookie Connor Carrick.
The rest were journeymen, career minor leaguers or marginal prospects. Orlov was the only defenseman besides Green, Carlson and Alzner to appear in more than 37 games. He played in 54, showing flashes of potential to go with some spectacular mistakes.
“We need to get help on the blueline,” Oates said. “We do.”
With his team up against the NHL’s $64.3 million salary cap, McPhee chose to prioritize his forward group ahead of the defense. He signed forward Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year, $3 million contract last summer to solidify the second-line center role.
Grabovski had a strong start with 12 goals and 16 assists through 44 games. But his production began to dry up in January just before a left ankle injury knocked him from the lineup. He played in one game between Jan. 24 and March 30.
That was a loss. And yet Washington stayed relatively healthy all season. Only Hillen (13 games played) and winger Brooks Laich (51 games played) also missed significant time among expected top-nine forwards or top-four defensemen. Otherwise, seven players appeared in all 82 games, including Alzner and Carlson. Green hit 70, by far the most he’s played since 2009-10.
Offensively, Washington was far too one-dimensional. It became reliant on its power play, tied for first in the league at 23.4 percent. Star winger Alex Ovechkin scored 51 goals to lead the NHL and the Caps received career years from second-line right wing Troy Brouwer (25 goals) and third liners Joel Ward (24 goals) and Jason Chimera (42 points). But they still finished with just 139 even-strength goals, which ranked 21st in the league.
“We weren’t quite there to be a high-powered offense team,” Alzner said. “We weren’t quite there to be a strictly defense, shut-‘em-down team,” We weren’t quite there to be a grind-it-out-and-make-‘em-really-work-for-it team. We were bits and pieces of everything.”
Washington also finished 21st in goals allowed per game thanks to that thin, inexperienced defense and shaky play in goal. Braden Holtby, the No. 1 goalie coming into the season, struggled to adjust to the less aggressive style the coaches asked for and became part of an awkward three-goalie rotation.
Holtby still started 48 games to lead the team, but his .915 save percentage ranked 26th in the league. Like everything else with the Caps this season, that wasn’t good enough. They’ll now wait with everyone else to find out what changes Leonsis and his management team, new or old, has in store. The remaining core of star players still believes in itself, but that faith is being severely tested now.
“The commitment to wanting to win a championship here has never changed,” Green said. “Has it passed? I don’t think so. We still have unfinished business here, and as long as we’re all here together, we’ll make sure we get this done.”