- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2021

The players milled about the ice, raising their sticks into the air, saluting the limited crowd at Capital One Arena there to witness another first-round disappointment. Then those Capitals skated toward the bench, hopped off the ice and walked down the tunnel into the offseason.

The Capitals flamed out of the postseason Wednesday in the first round for the third straight year, this time losing to the Boston Bruins in five games. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington has remained a regular-season power before dulling in the playoffs. 

And now the Capitals will enter an offseason of intrigue, full of unknowns and potential player movement. The futures of individual stars are uncertain and the direction of the team as a whole remains unclear. Much of that hinges on Alex Ovechkin, who will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

But there are other considerations, too, spanning from possible trades to the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft. There’s another element, too. For an aging core group of players who looked gassed by the end of the series, there’s wonder if Washington’s playoff window is sliding shut — or if it has already slammed closed.

With Ovechkin on the ice, there is a star to build the team around. But will he be on the ice in Washington next season?

“Well, I’d like to think he’s going to be back,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “This is his team. That’s business that gets taken care of on a different day.”

The chances Ovechkin departs for another NHL team appear slim. His 13-year deal is coming to an end, but he and general manager Brian MacLellan have said discussions have taken place. And in a Russian-language interview in November, Ovechkin said he’d like to finish his NHL career with the Capitals before returning to Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. 

But Ovechkin was less outwardly certain last time he publicly commented on his contract, appearing on 106.7 The Fan in April. When asked if he saw his future in Washington, Ovechkin said: “We’ll see, yeah. We’ll see.”

Ovechkin again dodged the topic Sunday night after the 3-1 loss to the Bruins in Game 5. 

“We just lost in a playoff series,” Ovechkin said. “Let’s talk about my contract and all those stuff later on.”

Ovechkin is the critical piece in the puzzle for Washington this offseason, but there are other considerations as well. With another inconsistent season from center Evgeny Kuznetsov — he had 29 points in the regular season and was a nonfactor in three playoff games — the Capitals could aim to trade the 29-year-old.

Kuznetsov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov were suspended earlier this season one game for being late to a team meeting, and the pair landed on the coronavirus protocol list twice — forcing them to miss the series’ opening two games.

Kuznetsov still has four years left on an eight-year, $62.4-million deal, and TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported earlier this month that Kuznetsov began to “irritate” some members of the organization. His potential departure could open a place for a younger prospect, such as Connor McMichael, at center.

Washington must also commit to a goaltender again this offseason. After allowing Braden Holtby to depart in free agency last summer, the Capitals planned for Samsonov and veteran Henrik Lundqvist to split time. That’s not how it worked out; Lundqvist missed the season because of a heart condition, leaving Samsonov and rookie Vitek Vanecek as the two primary netminders.

The duo performed about as expected, with as many ups as downs in their first years of concentrated NHL action. But Samsonov is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Capitals must commit to him or move for an external option.

And in the expansion draft, Washington can only protect one netminder. That likely leaves Vanecek — who posted a .908 save percentage and 2.69 goals against average — available for the Kraken. Washington seems primed for another season of uncertainty in net.

Beyond Vanecek, winger T.J. Oshie could be another option for Seattle to select in the expansion draft. The 34-year-old has four years remaining on his deal, which is valued at $5.75 million a year. The Kraken might not be willing to take on a contract of that size for a player of Oshie’s age.

Washington is the oldest team in the NHL, with an average age of 30.26. The New York Islanders, at 28.77, are the next oldest squad. The Capitals started 12 players aged 30 or over on Sunday, and just two were under 25: Daniel Sprong and Samsonov.

The Capitals seemed to run out of gas by the end of Game 3, facing double overtime after two overtime games to begin the series. Boston has its fair share of veterans, but several younger stars stand out, such as 24-year-old David Pastrnak.

By Game 5, Washington peppered the cage with shots but couldn’t break through. Ovechkin recorded four points in the series, but many of the other stars were transparent in the postseason.

“I can tell you this: the guys that were here, the core guys that you’re talking about, are a big reason we had success in the regular season that we did,” Laviolette said. “They’re terrific players; they’ve been terrific players here. … They’ve been the cornerstone of this team for a long time, and they were of this team for the regular season.”

After a strong regular season, though, Washington fell flat for the third straight playoff series. The Capitals have won five of the 17 playoff games they’ve competed in since winning the Cup in 2018.

That leaves a long offseason to wonder if the window is closing on this Capitals team — and for its aging stars — to hoist the Stanley Cup together again.

“Every year you have a chance of winning and it’s just it’s a matter of how we play out there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “That’s pretty much the answer to that. Every time you’re lacing up the skates when the season starts, you’ve got a chance of it. That’s what we believe.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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