In March 2010, the Washington Capitals were enjoying their best season in franchise history. They were on their way to a team-record 121-point campaign, winning their first-ever President’s Trophy with a record of 54-15-13.
The Capitals were an offensive powerhouse, their league-leading 318 goals putting them well ahead of the Vancouver Canucks’ second-best total of 272 goals. Seven players – Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr – scored 20-or-more goals. Defenseman Mike Green led all NHL blueliners in scoring with 76 points in 75 games.
Entering the 2010 playoffs, many observers considered the Capitals a serious Stanley Cup contender, believing they would be in that position for several seasons.
Four years later, the Capitals bear little resemblance to the dominant club they once were. As of March 15, they had 72 points in 68 games and found themselves jockeying for one of the wild card berths in the Eastern Conference.
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Laich and Fehr remain in the lineup, but their offensive numbers are well below what they were in 2010. Ovechkin is still a dominant offensive force. His 45-goals as of March 15 has him on pace to win yet another Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer, but his projected point total (83) is nowhere near his 109 points in 2009-10.
The Capitals never really recovered from their seven-game opening round upset at the hands of the lowly Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinal. Their point total for 2010-11 dropped to 107, though they still led the Eastern Conference and finished second overall to the Canucks. The following season they fell to 92 points, barely squeaking into the playoffs. During last season’s lockout-shortened schedule they finished with 57 points, good for fourth overall in the Conference. In the playoffs over that period they never progressed further than the second round.
It’s clear the Capitals days as a dominant team are over. Beyond Ovechkin and Backstrom, the Caps’ offense significantly declines. Years of injuries have seriously hampered Green’s production. Laich and Fehr never came close to matching their career-best numbers from ’09-’10. Semin, Fleischmann and Knuble are long gone. Promising Evgeny Kuznetsov could bolster their scoring in the coming years but only time will tell how effective he can be.
The Capitals also have other issues throughout their lineup. Goaltending’s been a weak point for some time. Since giving up too soon on Semyon Varlamov (who’s now starring with the Colorado Avalanche), they’ve gone through Michal Neuvirth (now playing in Buffalo), Tomas Vokoun (now with Pittsburgh) and Braden Holtby in the starter’s role. Holtby’s struggles this season saw him supplanted for a time by call-up Philipp Grubauer and trade deadline-addition Jaroslav Halak, the very goalie who upset the Caps in the 2010 playoffs.
Defensive depth is another weak area. The Capitals lack a true shut-down defenseman. Young blueliners John Carlson and Karl Alzner have yet to blossom into the dominant d-men they were projected to become. There’s also a lack of skilled depth on their checking lines.
Their ongoing struggles this season prompted media speculation over the future of George McPhee as the Capitals general manager, which in turn also casts Adams Oates’ tenure as head coach into doubt.
Should the Capitals continue to struggle beyond this season, it could raise questions about Ovechkin’s future in Washington. He’s currently 27 and signed through 2020-21 at an annual cap hit of over $9.538 million. He’s still a long way from eligibility for unrestricted free agency, by which time he’ll be in his mid-thirties with his best seasons behind him.
If the Capitals remain a marginal playoff club or miss the playoffs over the next two, three or four seasons, could that prompt Ovechkin to rethink his future in Washington? Could the Capitals’ front office decide to use their best player as a bargaining chip to jump-start a rebuild?
This isn’t about questioning Ovechkin’s character or loyalty, or that of Capitals management toward their captain. It’s merely speculation over what might be best for both sides.
Ovechkin is undoubtedly the greatest player in Capitals history, responsible for significantly bolstering their fan base and improving the team’s visibility around the league. Moving him at this time seems unthinkable.
Still, other great players throughout NHL history who meant a lot to their respective franchises have been traded. As the old saying goes, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can. Ovechkin may seem untouchable for Capitals fans now, but circumstances could arise over the next few years to change his status.
In his nine NHL seasons Ovechkin has established himself among the game’s greatest players. He’s on pace this season to win his fourth Richard Trophy. He’s won three Hart Trophies, two Pearson Awards and a Lindsay Award, the Art Ross as the league’s leading scorer and the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He’s on pace for his fifth 50-goal season. He’s eclipsed the 400-goal mark and the 800-point plateau. Ovechkin is without question a future first-ballot Hockey Hall of Fame inductee.
He’s earned plenty of individual awards. All he now needs to secure his NHL legacy is the Stanley Cup. Sadly, it doesn’t appear the Capitals will become Cup contenders anytime soon.
For now it appears the Capitals remain intent on building around Ovechkin. Trading him will have to be by his request. Starting this summer, he can submit a list of ten teams to which he won’t accept a trade, modifying it if he wishes every September of the remainder of his contract.
If the Capitals shop Ovechkin a number of clubs could come calling for his services. Some could be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, others will be those believing they’re a superstar away from a championship.
Ovechkin’s given no indication of unhappiness as a Capital. He’s undoubtedly not pleased with the club’s direction this season but that doesn’t mean he wants out of Washington. At least, not yet. The Capitals’ performance over the next three seasons could determine if he plays out the remainder of his contract in Washington.