Barry Trotz was tired of “When.”
Three years ago, after he was hired to coach the Capitals, Trotz found himself hearing the question every time he passed a sign posted inside the home team’s locker room at the Verizon Center. The sign read, “If not us, who?”
To Trotz, that slogan encapsulated the doubt that has plagued the Capitals in the Alex Ovechkin era. When would this team, so dominant in the regular season, finally get over the hump in the playoffs?
Every time Trotz saw the sign, he became frustrated. A year later, he’d had enough. He posted a new sign with a new slogan: “If winning is a tradition, success is limitless.”
“I can’t tell you ‘when,’” he said. “But I can tell you it will happen if you have that mindset. That was my thought process with (changing the sign). Everybody asks you, ‘When are you going to do this, when are you going to do that?’ … I can’t tell you when. But I can tell you if you have a winning culture and a winning tradition where winning is very important and it is a high standard — then you’ll break through.”
By almost any measure, the Capitals have established that culture. The arena is packed, standards are high and winning is expected.
But the breakthrough? That, in what has also become a Capitals tradition, will have to wait for next year.
After another second round exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, Trotz and the Capitals find themselves still searching for how to win in the postseason — and now face existential questions this offseason about the team’s future.
The Penguins sent the Capitals packing with a 2-0 loss in Game 7, winning the series 4-3.
The Capitals lost to the Penguins after climbing back from a 3-1 series deficit, learning a lot during that comeback about playing tight versus loose, the balance between patience and aggressive play, and how to use their speed to dominate the Penguins
But while the Penguins raised their level of play in Game 7, the Capitals didn’t.
“We went through a lot of stuff,” Trotz said of the Capitals’ 12—game stint in the playoffs this year. “We found out a lot about people in a good way. There’s been some growth there. But obviously, we still need some more growth. We’ll have to continue down that path.”
Winning on paper, losing on ice
The Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the NHL team with the best regular season record, went to to the Capitals again for the second consecutive year — something that’s happened only seven times in the history of the league. The trophy, and the home-ice advantage that comes with it, again meant little in the playoffs, as the Capitals joined the Detroit Red Wings as the only back-to-back trophy winners to not make the Stanley Cups Finals.
Statistically, the Capitals should have won the series against the Penguins. In seven games, the Capitals had 68 more shots on goal and led in shot attempts 484-318. In other words, the Capitals took 60 percent of the shot attempts in the series and still lost.
They even made adjustments throughout the second round that resulted in some success. The Capitals cut down on the number of Pittsburgh’s odd man rushes, a key element to their success, as the games went on. Alex Ovechkin moved to the third line in Game 5, which balanced out the lines. For a couple of games, the Capitals seemed to have cracked goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, at one point scoring eight consecutive goals between Games 5 and 6.
In the end, the Capitals couldn’t dig out of the 3-1 hole. Over the first four games, they shot themselves in the foot plenty of times. Sidney Crosby scored two goals in 52 seconds in Game 1. In Game 2, goaltender Braden Holtby allowed three goals on 14 shots and was benched. They committed six offensive zone penalties in Game 4.
Much of the discussion regarding the Capitals’ improvement this year centered around the ability to recognize big moments. Prior to Game 5, defenseman Matt Niskanen was asked if they had done that against Pittsburgh.
“The results wouldn’t say so,” Niskanen said. “I think we’ve had really good minutes where we’ve had the momentum and a ton of pressure, controlled the territory. But we need results.”
When it mattered most, the Capitals didn’t get them.
“I don’t know if there’s really any excuses,” T.J. Oshie said. “They had the same thing and they found a way to put the puck in the net. Those chances, those chances you get, those are the ones that haunt you all summer.”
An unsteady future
Players admitted they were tight early on in the Pittsburgh series, which cost them. Holtby said he didn’t have a magic reason why that was. But Kevin Shattenkirk said the history of the Capitals’ past playoff disappointments caused players to not make the normal plays they were capable of.
Shattenkirk, who was only with Washington since February after being traded from St. Louis, has never shied away from discussing the mental toll failure can take.
“For players, we carry a lot of our pasts with us, for sure,” Shattenkirk said. “It can be hard to overcome those past experiences. But every year we get a new opportunity to change that. All it takes is one year.”
The Capitals now have major decisions to make during this upcoming offseason. How realistically can Washington return the same core and expect different results?
The Capitals will have have 12 free agents, six of which are unrestricted. Shattenkirk was seen as an all-in rental and is unlikely to be back. Among other unrestricted free agents, Oshie, forward Justin Williams and defenseman Karl Alzner are players the Capitals will need to decide if they are worth re-signing.
On the restricted side, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Andre Burakovsky and Nate Schmidt are all young players who are in line for raises. Kuznetsov, in particular, could see a huge raise from his $3 million salary.
But of course, the issue comes down to money.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of new faces here next year,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The Capitals already have just over $50 million committed in contracts for next year and the salary cap is projected to remain the same at $73 million, per CapFriendly.com. Nearly $23 million in cap room projects to be the fourth-highest in the NHL.
The man responsible for these decisions is general manager Brian MacLellan, who said last season that the Capitals’ championship window is two years.
Those two years are up, and MacLellan will also have to evaluate what’s the ceiling for the Capitals’ core, including Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. After Game 7, Trotz didn’t want to discuss Ovechkin’s performance in the series, saying, “emotionally I don’t want to answer that question right now. We win and lose as a team.”
Will the Capitals ever reach past the second round with those two as the stars? They’ve failed the previous 10 seasons together.
“That’s just something that unfortunately, for me in my career and for a lot of these guys, you almost wonder how much disappointment you’ve got to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done,” Oshie said.