This was the year things were going to be different for the Washington Capitals. They entered the postseason as the Presidents' Trophy winners and the favorites to capture the first Stanley Cup in their franchise history. They were deep, well-coached and highly motivated.
And then their season ended as it always seems to, with a crushing loss in the second round. This time, at the hands of their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Objectively, this failure is tougher to swallow than any that came before it. And it was a failure. No way around that.
But that doesn't wash away the successes of a regular season that featured a franchise-best 56 wins, a league record-tying 48 victories from netminder Braden Holtby, and Alexander Ovechkin's seventh 50-goal season, including the milestone 500th of his career.
Or that there was real progress made this season. Because even in defeat, these Caps were different. This group showed a mental toughness that was missing from so many Washington teams before them. They persevered through a challenging first-round series against the Flyers. Then they gave an outstanding Penguins team everything it could handle in Game 6 on Tuesday night, storming back from an early 3–0 deficit to force overtime before finally falling on Nick Bonino's goal.
“You look at our resiliency. You look at the heart of the team. That’s your progress,” coach Barry Trotz said.
And he's right. The Caps took a step forwards in 2016. And even after failing short of a goal as modest as the conference finals, Washington remains an elite squad. One that, with a few minor tweaks, will again be a favorite to win the Stanley Cup in 2017.
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After a busy summer of 2016, minor moves are all that's expected from GM Brian MacLellan. His team is set on the back end. It has a Vezina Trophy finalist (and, likely, winner) in Holtby and the rapidly improving Philipp Grubauer as his backup. Together, they posted the league's second-best goals-against average (2.33) and backstopped the NHL's second-best penalty kill (85.2%).
They'll also return an above-average top-four of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik next fall. Orpik may have cost his team the Pittsburgh series, missing three games due to a suspension and then taking the careless double minor in Game 6 that led to a pair of power play goals for the Pens. Still, he's a menacing presence on the ice and a leader in the room. He can play a key role while this window is open.
Dimitry Orlov is a work-in-progress at 24, but has shown enough potential to deserve a raise as an RFA this summer. He'll compete for a bottom pair job with Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt. Top prospect Madison Bowey could make the jump from the AHL at some point next season. There's also a chance that another veteran could be added, although it seems more likely that they'll look to upgrade closer to the trade deadline when cap space will be a less pressing issue rather than make a splash in free agency this summer.
There'll be questions asked about the forward group. None of those should be directed at the captain. There was reason in the past to doubt Ovechkin's ability to lead this team to a championship. Not anymore. Already the premier goal scorer of his generation, he enhanced his game in all the right ways in 2015-16. In particular, he was a more diligent player away from the puck, setting the tone needed for success under Trotz's system. And he upped his intensity while under intense scrutiny in the postseason. Anyone who pins this team's failure on him clearly wasn't watching.
He has a solid support group. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are a fearsome 1-1A punch at center ice. Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie lived up to expectations after being acquired in the off-season. Both were excellent during the playoffs (although Williams's penalty totals were an issue). Marcus Johansson, who as an RFA will soak up a good amount of the cap space cleared by the deadline trade of Brooks Laich, rounds out a formidable top six.
Beyond that group, there's some tinkering to do up front. Where they struggled, both during the regular season and the playoffs, was getting production from forwards in their bottom six. They only needed to look across the ice as they were being eliminated to see how critical that is.
And it's not just skill that's lacking. They need an infusion of speed as well.
There are some useful players already in the mix. Andre Burakovsky is a solid third-line option, but he needs to get much stronger to become a reliable offensive option. Jay Beagle is a dogged player who will help them win a championship, but he's better cast as fourth liner alongside fellow penalty killing ace Daniel Winnik. RFA Tom Wilson is a boom-or-bust power forward who is entering a critical phase of his development. He needs to start using that big body as more than just a battering ram.
Right wings Jakub Vrana (13th, 2014) and Stanislav Galiev (86th, 2010) are close to NHL-ready but neither fill the team's most pressing need: a legit third-line center. Finding that player should be MacLellan's top priority this summer.
The Caps can clear roster spots for those players by walking away from their two most noteworthy UFAs. Jason Chimera scored 20 goals during a productive regular season, but his skating was exposed in the Pens series. At 37, it's time to move on. Mike Richards was a risk worth taking at midseason, but his legs and hands have deserted him.
The window is still open in Washington. Maybe next year these Capitals will finally climb through.