Thursday, May 14, 2015

What's Next?

100 seconds. That's how far away the Caps were from extending their season into the third week of May for the first time since 1998.

100 seconds and 5 days later, the season is over after what may be the worst of the numerous collapses in Caps history. We all know what happened yesterday, and I see no reason to harp upon it. What I do want to do, however, is examine where the Caps are and what happens next.

First, though, let's get one thing straight: the Caps did not choke.

The Caps choked against Montreal in 2010. They choked in 2012 against the Rangers. They choked again against the Rangers in 2013. In all of those series, the Caps were overachievers who had gotten to where they were in spite of themselves, not because of themselves.

This year was not those years, and this team was not those teams.

Oh, the media will definitely add this to the narrative about OV and the Caps being chokers. And lets be honest, the Caps deserve it, having been so close to the next round and watching it slip away.

But we, the Caps fans, should know better, as we always do. This team, our team, went toe-to-toe with the heavily favored defending Eastern Conference champs and Presidents Trophy winners in easily the best series of the playoffs so far. It hurts now, but we fans should realize how well this team played and we should be proud of the strides they have taken since missing the playoffs last year.

Let's start with OV. He will undoubtedly be the most scrutinized player in the aftermath of this loss. After Game 6, OV made his 'guarantee' that the Caps would come out strong and win Game 7. Well, OV and the Caps definitely came out strong. OV made his presence felt early and often. He was third on the team in individual even strength Corsi-for behind only Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle, both of whom were on another level yesterday. When you add in the power play, which was absolutely abysmal again, OV is tied with Kuzya for first on the team. OV definitely backed up his words yesterday, and he is not to blame for this loss.

Let's be honest, however, the Caps are still responsible for their own loss. Yes, the bounces stopped going their way. Yes, they played very well at the end of Game 6 and in Game 7. But no team that blows a 3 games to 1 series lead can only blame luck. There were definitely other factors at play.

For one, the production from the Caps was consistently inconsistent in the series. OV led the Caps with 3 goals, two of them in Games 1 and 2. After him, three players (Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andre Burakovsky) had 2 goals, and 3 players (Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Curtis Glencross) had 1 goal. The Caps only scored 12 goals in the series, 3 of which were in the Game 6 loss. If the Caps had gotten one more goal somewhere in Games 5-7, the series would have gone the other way.

Building off of that, the power play was absolutely horrendous. The Caps had the best power play in the regular season, but was only able to score once in the Rangers series, the first goal of the entire series. Considering that we blew three power plays in Game 7, that hurts, to say the least.

Building off of that, the penalty kill had to spend way too much time on the ice. Don't get me wrong, the penalty kill was phenomenal; however, the Caps were shorthanded way too many times, especially in Game 7 when it mattered most, with Mike Green sent to the box twice in a row thanks to dumb penalties, allowing the Rags to capitalize on the second one.

And that brings me to the last point about why the Caps lost: the defense. The Caps have one of the strongest defenses in team history, but when it mattered most, it faltered. John Carlson was not good yesterday, Tim Gleason was slow, and Mike Green was absolutely abysmal. It would be a real shame if this was Green's last game in a Caps sweater.

That's a perfect way to transition into the next part of this post: what should the Caps do moving forward?

It's clear that the Caps are still a piece or two away from being a legit Stanley Cup contender. However, the huge strides the Caps made this year compared to the previous season's disOatester are a source of pride and hope for next year.

I'm going to start with the back end for the Caps. Goaltending? Caps are sitting pretty with top-10 goalie Braden Holtby who I hope will sign a long-term deal in the 6 x 6 range.

Next, the defense. The Top 4 is all but set in stone, with Brooks Orpik, Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner anchoring a very talented, physical and dangerous D corps. That leaves two everyday playing spots and a plethora of options to choose from. With Tim Gleason obviously gone, the only thing left is to address the elephant in the room.

Should the Caps re-sign Mike Green? I'm going to say no, and it's not just a knee-jerk reaction to his horrible performance yesterday. The Caps have a plethora of talented defensemen in Hershey to choose from, with Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Connor Carrick and soon Madison Bowey ready to claim their spot with the big club. I love Green and he has been awesome with the Caps for nearly a decade. Still, I don't think the Caps are willing to shell out $5 mil + for a 5D especially with so much talent waiting in the wings.

That leaves the following as our defense entering next year:
Orpik - Carlson
Alzner - Niskanen
Schmidt - Orlov

That is a very talented group capable of rolling three solid lines with enough depth to withstand the inevitable injuries we'll suffer next year.

And now, the forwards.

It's clear that the Caps do not have enough Top 6 talent to compete with the best of the NHL. The top priority for the Caps this offseason should be to find a first line Right Wing capable of playing a Mike Knuble role. The first line was best when OV and Backstrom were playing with Joel Ward who fits into that hard-nosed go-to-the-net role but does not have top-line talent. In my opinion, the best option there would be Tom Wilson. There is nobody in free agency who is capable of playing that role effectively. I truly believe he will thrive on the top line, and I was extremely impressed with how well he played in the regular season.

Here's how the Top 6 should look next year:
Ovechkin - Backstrom - Wilson
Burakovsky - Kuznetsov - Johansson

That leaves the bottom six, where the Caps need more depth. If there is one player the Caps have to re-sign this year, it's Eric Fehr, who was awesome last year. I also can't see Jay Beagle going anywhere, and Joel Ward has the Barry Trotz connection, and I'm OK with the Caps re-signing him as long as it's not 3 mil a year.

That leaves Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Michael Latta and Brooks Laich fighting for the fourth line spot. Personally, I would like to trade away two or three of the guys not named Latta in that list, possibly for a better player or first round pick.

Here is how the bottom 6 could look next year:
Beagle - Fehr - Ward
xxx - Latta - xxx
*xxx is Brouwer, Chimera, Laich, someone from Hersey, or someone acquired from a trade

Hopefully, this will allow the Caps to build more forward depth.

Overall, the Caps are in a much better shape entering this offseason than they were entering last offseason, and once we fans get over our disappointment, I think we will all see that as well. I have been a Caps fan for all my life, but I must say that I have never been prouder of this team, to the point where I am willing to say the following:

The Washington Capitals will win the Stanley Cup in 2016.

I know we Caps fans say this every year, but I honestly feel that this is the best Caps team since the 80's. Better than any OV team, and better than any team in the 90's glory days.

Before I sign off, I just want to thank you, the people who read my rants and views over the course of this season. From the Winter Classic to an amazing playoff run, this was one of my most enjoyable seasons as a Caps fan, and I look forward to sharing the ride with you guys when next October rolls around.

Enjoy the offseason. Let's Go Caps.

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