- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2017

Changes are coming to the Washington Capitals.

With 11 free agents, the Capitals will have tough decisions to make this summer after their season ended with a disappointing Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The wounds from another second-round exit were still fresh at the team’s annual breakdown day Friday, but players and coach Barry Trotz acknowledged the obvious: next year’s team will look different. The self-imposed two-year window for this current crop of players to contend is over.

“The window doesn’t close. It changes a little bit,” Trotz said. “All those pieces have been here for six or seven years. … It doesn’t mean you can’t add pieces that can be even better. You see that all the time.”

But what exactly are those changes?

“That’s the million dollar question, ain’t it?” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

The Capitals don’t have an easy solution

Niskanen was one of the many players who expressed frustration over Washington’s latest failure. Niskanen was clear in assessing that the Capitals weren’t getting results and said he wasn’t sure if any small changes could fix it.

Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner agreed.

“You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed,” Alzner said.

Added Backstrom: “Obviously, it’s not working.”

There are key contributors from the Capitals who will be unrestricted free agents, namely T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. The Capitals will have nearly $23 million in cap room, but four restricted free agents — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt — will get raises that takes away the majority of that room.

Trotz was more measured in his approach, giving a five-minute response on what changes were needed. He stressed the expectation for still competing for a championship and maintaining the culture he’s set.

“This league is so unpredictable and sometimes so random that it’s hard to grasp … how close you are from winning and how close you are from losing,” Trotz said. “We talk about inches, it might be millimeters.”

The direction the franchise wants to go could become clearer once general manager Brian MacLellan addresses the media, which will happen after he finishes conducting interviews with players and staff.

The Capitals feel like they blew it

Kuznetsov is a largely positive person, even joking with reporters that they looked like someone had died. But the 24-year-old admitted he didn’t want to talk about Game 7 because of how much the loss stung.

“For me, I feel like it’s totally different team played that game,” Kuznetsov said. “I don’t want to lie. … We’ve been better like every game, we’ve been like execute every passes, every shot, we could create so many chances.

“I feel not they beat us. We lost that game.”

Defenseman Brooks Orpik noted how compared to 2016, the Penguins felt vulnerable.

“You saw the way they went through San Jose in the finals,” Orpik said. “I don’t think it mattered who they played last year. i think they were by far the best team. This year I think guys felt that we were the better team, so I think that’s probably why it stings a little bit more.”

There’s a mental aspect to overcome

Trotz said players have been able to joke about the narrative of not being able to get past the second round throughout the year because of how often it’s brought up.

Trotz, though, disclosed the Penguins hold a mental edge over the Capitals.

“When everything is on the line, they believe they’re going to get maybe that break where a team like us who haven’t broken through maybe we don’t believe we’re going to get that break,” Trotz said. “So if they get that break, it can’t affect us.”

Oshie said the Capitals didn’t mentally find a way to win.

“I think once we got down 1-0, you kind of almost felt it,” Oshie said. “The building kind of got quiet, we kind of got quiet. We didn’t find a way to regroup and respond in time to win the game.”

“I think lot of it’s mental,” Niskanen said.

Ovechkin wasn’t the only player hurt

Alex Ovechkin disclosed he suffered injuries to his hamstring and knee in the playoffs, but he wasn’t the only one hurting. Alzner suffered a broken bone in his hand in Game 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Marcus Johansson suffered a fracture to his finger in Game 1 against Pittsburgh, saying it made it difficult for him to shoot.

Ovechkin occasionally took injections to help manage the pain for his hamstring, which he hurt at the end of Game 3 against Pittsburgh. He does not need surgery.

Alzner doesn’t like uncertainty

Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk admitted they were curious to find out their value as unrestricted free agents. Alzner, who has spent his entire career with the Capitals, said he didn’t like the feeling of not having a contract.

Alzner, 28, said he considers Washington home. Both of his kids were born in the area and he bought a house with his wife. Alzner wasn’t sure if he’d be back and needed to talk to management first.

“It’s my first real taste of what the NHL is like, so we’ll see how it happens,” Alzner said.

Alzner, Oshie, Shattenkirk, Williams and Daniel Winnik are the Capitals’ unrestricted free agents.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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