For the third time in four years, the Washington Capitals reached the Conference semifinal and failed to advance.
Given the Capitals barely qualified for this year’s playoffs, expectations were low when they faced off against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins in Round 1.
Playing a low-scoring, defensive system and backstopped by superb goaltending from rookie Braden Holtby, the Capitals upset the Bruins in seven games, then pushed the New York Rangers to the limit in the next round.
Despite yet another year of playoff disappointment, Capitals supporters for the most part saw their team’s performance as a positive sign, changing from an undisciplined, unfocused offensive club into a more disciplined, hard-working defensive team.
However, where they go from here dogs the Capitals.
Most Washington fans would’ve preferred coach Dale Hunter return, but he’s stepping down and returning to the Ontario League’s London Knights, though he’ll remain on the sidelines as brother Mark continues to fill in as coach through the Memorial Cup.
GM George McPhee will now seek a new bench boss, perhaps one who can strike a balance between the club’s newfound defensive discipline and its offensive talent.
Roster-wise, the Capitals have a little more than $45 million committed to 17 players next season.
Their notable unrestricted free agents include forwards Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern, defenseman Dennis Wideman and goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Their restricted free agents include forwards Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle, along with blueliners Mike Green and John Carlson.
Semin has already signalled his intentions via agent Mark Gandler, who Monday told ESPN Magazine his client wasn’t comfortable playing under the Capitals’ new defensive style.
That was apparent to Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons prior to Gandler’s statement. Simmons suggested Semin’s declining numbers, poor playoff effort and seemingly indifferent attitude would have other NHL teams questioning his worth.
McPhee will have to find a suitable right winger to replace Semin on the top line, but there’s not much to choose from in this summer’s free agent market, which could push the Capitals GM into the trade market.
Knuble, who struggled throughout the regular season, but enjoyed a resurgence in his offensive production during the post-season, also isn’t expected to return. Neither will Vokoun, as Holtby’s playoff performance ensured he and Michal Neuvirth will be the Capitals tandem next season.
Wideman had a strong start to this season, but his performance declined down the stretch and he was a team-worst minus-7 in the playoffs.
Coming off a season where he earned more than $3.9 million and entering a UFA market thin on talented blueliners, Wideman could earn himself a significant raise elsewhere in July.
Due to a variety of injuries, Green was limited to 81 games over the past two seasons. When healthy, he’s among the best puck-moving blueliners in the league and under Hunter his defensive play improved.
Having earned $5.3 million per season on his previous deal, Green will have a difficult time getting a significant raise. McPhee could try to get him inked to a one-year extension, but that would make the 26-year-old eligible for UFA status next summer.
Green could also file for arbitration and if he winds up with an arbiter-awarded contract, it would pave the way for his departure next July via free agency.
If not for Green’s injury history, McPhee would try to lock him up long-term. He still might, but it could prove an expensive gamble.
Carlson, 22, is coming off his entry level deal, which paid him just $845,000 per season. He’ll seek a substantial raise.
He’s had consecutive 30-plus point seasons, but his minus-15 this season was the worst among Capitals defensemen and tied for the team low with forwards Knuble and Troy Brouwer.
Beagle and Perreault both earned less than $530,000 this season and should be affordable to re-sign.
In addition to finding a new coach and first-line right winger, McPhee also has to locate a good second-line center. Brooks Laich was employed in that role, but he’s better off on the third line.
John Feinstein of the Washington Post suggested if McPhee wanted to make a really important move this summer, he would attempt to acquire Columbus Blue Jackets right winger Rick Nash.
The Capitals could afford Nash’s $7.8 million cap hit and he’d be a good fit on their first line.
They could offer up the two first round picks they have in this year’s draft and also have a few promising prospects the Blue Jackets would be interested in. However, Washington lacks depth in good young forwards, plus the Jackets might also want one of their good young defensemen (Carlson or Karl Alzner) as part of a return.
McPhee could try to shop Semin’s rights in a package offer for Nash, but the Jackets might not be willing to take the risk Semin doesn’t sign or bolts for the Kontinental League.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.