In the hours and days after any playoff exit, especially one in the first round, changes are often the first thing brought up. Who will stay? Who will go?
Because the Washington Capitals were done before the final horn in Game 7 on Monday, those watching had some extra time to contemplate general manager George McPhee’s work this offseason. But after the Caps became the only NHL team to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the past six years and not reach at least the conference finals, don’t expect much to look different when they open the 2013-14 season.
“Not a whole lot,” McPhee said of how much the roster needs to change. “We played really well. I liked the way we were playing. … We’ve been pretty solid in all areas.”
Like it or not based on the first-round exit, that’s the reality of the salary cap going down and an established roster. McPhee doesn’t like spending in free agency, pointing out that it’s far from “free.”
Center Mike Ribeiro and forward Matt Hendricks are the most prominent Caps players set to become unrestricted free agents July 5. Defenseman Tom Poti won’t be back, he said Thursday.
But the rest of the roster, save for a few tweaks, seems destined to resemble the same group that lost to the New York Rangers, with forwards Brooks Laich and Martin Erat back from injury.
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“We’ve got a lot of good young players and we’ll keep going to war with them,” McPhee said. “I mean, they’ve made the playoffs six years in a row. How many teams have done that? It’s not easy to do that in this league anymore.”
Four other teams have: the San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins. All but the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final in that time.
Not making it past the second round has become the norm for this group, featuring Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Laich and Mike Green. But those core stars don’t feel like the Caps must experience an overhaul to get over the hump.
“Already really looking forward to next season just because we know that we have a great team,” said Green, who led NHL defensemen in goals during the regular season with 12. “Everything is in place and I think we’re going to be good, really good, for a long time. … We’re going to win a Cup here.”
From Bruce Boudreau’s hiring on Thanksgiving Day 2007 through the Presidents’ Trophy season of 2009-10 and the Adam Oates era, the Caps have added pieces they believe get them closer to winning the franchise’s first championship.
Goaltender Braden Holtby, Game 7 struggles aside, showed he could carry a team in the playoffs, Erat and Troy Brouwer brought a combination of skill and grit, and the value of young defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson cannot be overlooked.
Ribeiro filled the second-line center vacuum that had been a question mark for years, but the 33-year-old could be gone after just one season.
“[Considering] how valuable he was to our team, hopefully the parties will work it out, because we love him,” Oates said.
Teammates love Hendricks, too, for his penalty-killing prowess and hard work on the ice and leadership off it. But given that Alzner and top-line left wing Marcus Johansson need new deals in unrestricted free agency and the salary cap dropping to $64.3 million from $70.2, McPhee’s tough task is figuring out how to make it all work.
“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
D Karl Alzner, 24: This is expected to be the defensive defenseman’s first big payday, his second time as a restricted free agent.
F Marcus Johansson, 22: After showing he can play top-line minutes, the 2009 first-round pick is in line for a substantial raise.