Reporting David Elfin
The Caps have gone their separate ways for the offseason, extending their lamentable playoff record to six consecutive seasons and nine straight postseason appearances without getting beyond the second round. And five Game 7 defeats, three at home, is just inexplicable.
“Game 6 needs to be our new Game 7,” winger Eric Fehr declared.
But unlike last May when coach Dale Hunter surprised Washington with his resignation after less than six months on the job, it figures to be a pretty quiet next few weeks for the Caps. The lockout even pushed the NHL draft back to June 28 so any wheeling and dealing that general manager George McPhee will do likely won’t happen before then.
However, that’s not to say that the Caps – whom I believe should have beaten the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and could have beaten the Boston Bruins in the Eastern semis – have no question marks.
The biggest is what to do about Mike Ribeiro? Washington got the sweet-passing center for a song – borderline forward Cody Eakin and a second-round pick – from Dallas last June and Ribeiro delivered 36 assists (fifth in the league), an NHL-most 21 to help establish the game’s best power play.
However, Ribeiro made $5 million this season and, at 33, is looking for a long-term deal that could be very tough for the Caps to accommodate under their tight salary cap, especially after top defensive defenseman Karl Alzner ($1.285 million this year) and top-line left wing Marcus Johansson ($900,000) are signed to restricted free agent deals. McPhee would also surely like to re-sign feisty fourth line forward Matt Hendricks ($825,000), a popular player with a knack for shootout goals.
As the Caps said their goodbyes two days after the Game 7 loss to the Rangers, Ribeiro, while saying he wants to stay put, added, “I don’t think I should have [a contract for] less than four or five years. It’s going to be the best decision for my family. That’s what I’m looking for.”
McPhee said that Ribeiro “played his guts out,” but let’s assume that No. 9 is skating elsewhere next year. Brooks Laich, a Caps mainstay the previous seven seasons, is the obvious choice to replace Ribeiro on the second line with Troy Brouwer and March acquisition Martin Erat. Laich, who’ll be 30 next month, was limited to just nine games in 2013 because of a sports hernia and a groin injury.
Adam Oates, who did well in his first year as a head coach, will also need to find a place for 19-year-old right wing Tom Wilson, its top selection in the 2012 draft, who made his NHL debut in Game 5 against the Rangers because Erat dislocated an elbow in Game 4.
And although the Caps’ power play clicked at a ridiculous 26.8 percent efficiency during the season, the Rangers showed how to shut it down: focus on Ovechkin and leave the pass-first duo of Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom alone. Washington needs someone else on the first power play with a shoot-first mentality like ex-Caps sniper Alexander Semin but with more of a two-way game. Maybe it’s Brouwer. Maybe it’s third line center Mathieu Perreault. Maybe it’s Laich. Maybe it’s a prospect.
Just don’t count on a draft day deal. McPhee’s deals for Ribeiro and Brouwer (in 2011) were his only June trades since 2006. And the GM hasn’t signed a true free agent scorer in his prime forever. Washington’s offseason pickups over the last decade include Keith Aucoin, Donald Brashear, Joey Crabb, Jeff Halpern, Mike Knuble (turning 37), Viktor Kozlov, Brendan Morrison (turning 34), Michael Nylander (turning 35), Joel Ward and Wojtek Wolski, none of whom made goalies quake as they approached the blue line with the puck.
On Washington’s blue line, John Erskine had a career year but reverted to his lumbering form as the Rangers’ series continued. He probably belongs on the third pairing, not the second with John Carlson. Dmitry Orlov, who missed most of the season with a groin injury, should get the first shot as Erskine’s replacement. Nate Schmidt, who, like Orlov, turns 22 this summer, and Cam Schilling, who’ll be 25 in October, should be given long look-sees in training camp since Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy might have been one-year wonders.
The Caps are set in goal with Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth although Phillip Grubauer is sure to push them come September, two months before he turns 22.
So although the Caps are the only one of the five teams to make the playoffs five years running and not even reach a conference final (San Jose), let alone win a Stanley Cup (Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit), don’t expect many changes.
McPhee was very happy with the job that Oates did in his debut behind the bench after having virtually no training camp because of the lockout. Washington closed with a rush, going 18-4-1 to win the Southeast Division and grab the third seed in the East and then led New York 2-0 and 3-2 before succumbing to its Collapsitals character (thanks to reader Phil Cefaratti for that description).
“I thought it was a really good season,” McPhee said. “We improved in a lot of ways. … I’d go to war with these guys.”
Of the Caps under contract, only Laich and wingers Jason Chimera (34), Erat (32) and Ward (32) will be 30 when the season starts.
“The window hasn’t closed,” Laich maintained. “There’s very bright days ahead.”
Owner Ted Leonsis is a patient man. Figure Oates gets a full training camp and season to show what he can truly do. But if Washington doesn’t go further in 2014 or even misses the playoffs after the move to a much tougher division (Columbus, New Jersey, the Islanders, the Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh plus holdover Carolina), then McPhee and much of his roster could be on the way out of town.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin