As Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan rode the elevator down to the lower level of Capital One Arena with a cluster of reporters, a small television blared in the corner of the condensed space. Recapping Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat to the Detroit Red Wings, the postgame broadcast lamented how Washington needed a hero to generate offense. MacLellan’s team had just lost a fifth-straight game in regulation — something they hadn’t done since January 2014.
That was the last year Washington missed the playoffs.
MacLellan said next-to-nothing on that brief ride, which wasn’t out of the norm for an executive who always makes his way to check on his team after a game. But the sharp tone of the postgame conversation on air was the latest indication of how the Capitals’ string of losses are piling up. And inside a near-silent locker room, the frustration on the part of players was more than apparent.
“Guys are grumpy, right?” Capitals center Nic Dowd said.
There are 23 games left in the season, but if a “must-win” game can occur in late February then Thursday’s contest against the lowly Anaheim Ducks — who have the league’s worst record at 17-34-7 — qualifies as such.
The Capitals (28-25-6, 62 points) are in the midst of a free fall — dropping from the top wild card spot in the Eastern Conference to outside the playoffs. It’s an unfamiliar position for the Capitals, one they haven’t been in since 2014. But this season has started to resemble that playoff-less campaign. Both squads got off to slow starts, made a fall surge and then hit a lull that dimmed postseason possibilities.
The last time Washington missed the playoffs, there were consequences: Owner Ted Leonsis fired coach Adam Oates and opted not to renew longtime general manager George McPhee’s contract.
“You don’t have to be that smart to see the standings and where everything sits,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said Wednesday. “And that was the same four games ago. So we haven’t improved ourselves at all and so that still holds true. … So everybody understands that we’ve got to win hockey games.”
In 2014, the Capitals were able to stay competitive until the end of the season. Though they missed the playoffs, they weren’t eliminated until Game 79. By the end of the season, Washington had 90 points — three behind the East’s two wild card teams in Columbus and Detroit.
Interestingly enough, McPhee spent that season’s trade deadline as a buyer. The Capitals not only acquired winger Dustin Penner in a trade with the Ducks — a deal that ultimately didn’t work out as Penner scored just one goal in 18 games with the Capitals — but they attempted to upgrade at goalie by trading for Jaroslav Halak, who started the majority of the team’s remaining games over Braden Holtby.
For this year’s team, it’s not clear if MacLellan will be as aggressive at next month’s deadline. The Capitals have more than a dozen players on expiring contracts, and if Washington continues to spiral, there are several veterans that the executive may look to part with to gain back future assets. Selling would still be a rarity for MacLellan, who has typically used the deadline to pursue upgrades.
Perhaps the Capitall just try to rely on their veteran experience to get them out of this current skid. Unlike the 2014 team, Washington has one of the oldest rosters in the league and many of the players have the benefit of knowing what it takes to win a championship.
By the end of the year, maybe Washington’s current dip will resemble more of its struggles from 2019 when the Capitals lost seven in a row (including overtime losses) but still finished with the Metropolitan Division’s top record. (During that 2019 skid, however, the Capitals never fell out of the playoff picture as they have now.)
In the short term, the Capitals hope that the return of Alex Ovechkin will jolt an offense that’s struggled to produce of late. Washington’s captain made his return to the facility Wednesday after missing a week because of his father’s death, though his status for Thursday’s contest remains in question.
That said, the Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018. Missing the postseason would further call into question whether this team’s core needs a reset. Laviolette is also in the final year of his contract.
“You can’t quit,” Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen said. “That’s what frustration tries to do to you. It tries to break you and make you quit, so that’s one thing we definitely can’t do.”