- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2016

Brian MacLellan maintained throughout the regular season that the Washington Capitals had a two-year window in which he believed they could capture the Stanley Cup.

He just didn’t expect it to begin with yet another second-round playoff loss.

“With me, I’m as frustrated or as agitated as the players and the coaches that we didn’t accomplish more,” MacLellan said on Monday, nearly a week after the Capitals were knocked out of the postseason by the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I don’t know what you have, maybe five or six teams that should contend for the Cup, and we were one of them.”

With the first pursuit over, MacLellan faces a number of tough questions — though not as many as he did entering the season. A year ago, he was faced with the task of shaping the team’s future, which included saying goodbye to three popular players in free agents Mike Green, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr while trying to lock up two budding talents in Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

This year, MacLellan will do more tinkering than overhauling. Only seven contracts are set to expire in July, with four belonging to players who remain under team control as restricted free agents. Of the three whose futures are uncertain — Jason Chimera, Mike Richards and Mike Weber — only Chimera opened the season in Washington.

“As far as going forward, I think it needs to be tweaked a little bit,” MacLellan said, referring to the roster. “I think our bottom six needs a little work and I think that’s going to be the main focus for us. The other focus is development. We’ll continue to develop our players.”

MacLellan, diplomatically, said he was interested in having all seven players return, though he said he’d prioritize deals with Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and Michael Latta — the four restricted free agents. If all four players are given a rewarding bump in their salaries on their next contract, that could preclude any of the other three from making a return.

“I don’t want to put words in Mac’s mouth or anything like that, [but] Mac’s got a priority and the priority are going to be the restricted free agents,” coach Barry Trotz said last week. “That’s just because of you look at a guy like Marcus, [his] age and production and all that — you’ve got to take care of that.”

The biggest changes will likely be among the bottom six forwards, MacLellan said, as the Capitals are still looking for players to reliably hold down the third line.

That includes a hole in the center, where the Capitals tried Jay Beagle for the first half of the year and then plugged in Richards and Johansson, a converted left wing, when Beagle was injured.

Those bottom-six players have often also been the Capitals‘ penalty killers, and the incorporations of Richards and Daniel Winnik, a trade deadline acquisition, helped get top-liners Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie out of those roles and fortify those spots.

Third-liners need to be more than penalty killers, MacLellan said, given the fact that so many teams now rely upon that line for scoring and not just defense.
“I don’t know that we had a pure top nine,” MacLellan said. “Maybe we had a top eight or a top seven and a half or however you want to value that, but I think we were a little short on the top nine. I think you need two-way guys, guys who can play both ways. Ideally for us, I think we need some offense out of it.”

Generating offense, though, doesn’t just mean incorporating speedy players, MacLellan cautioned. Trotz mentioned on Thursday, when players adjourned for the summer, that the Penguins‘ style of play — and that of others still in the playoffs — may trend the league toward a quicker pace.

“I think sometimes, I see it more as we don’t enforce our style of play on the speed team,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s on us to impose our will, the style we want to play, upon the speed teams. So, while [improving] speed is a factor, I think we need to enforce the way we want to play on teams and more consistently.”

Part of that is also a need for the Capitals to recognize the moment. After winning Game 1 against Pittsburgh, the second game was “a big chance for us to make a statement and we didn’t.” He was especially perturbed by an inability to take advantage of the Penguins‘ loss of defenseman Kris Letang to a suspension in Game 4 and the lack of finish on the power play in Game 6.

“We probably got too far ahead and there wasn’t that, ‘We need to do this, we need to do that,’” MacLellan said. “It was more, ‘How do we get to the playoffs playing the right way?’ which is hard to manufacture. [It needed to be], ‘We need to be at our highest level right now when we’re No. 1 in the league.’”

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