What Next for the Maple Leafs and Capitals?

Ousted in disappointing fashion from the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals face their respective off-seasons with different questions to address.

For the Leafs, it’s how to build upon this season’s improvement. For the Capitals, how to overcome an ongoing tradition of playoff disappointment.

The Leafs returned to the postseason for the first time in nine years, led by many of the players acquired by deposed GM Brian Burke – notably Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Reimsdyk, Dion Phaneuf, Nazem Kadri, and Jake Gardiner.

Still, the Leafs stunning last-minute collapse in Game Seven of their conference semifinal against the Boston Bruins – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – was what hockey humorist and long-suffering Leafs fan Sean (Down Goes Brown) McIndoe called a gut punch to Leafs Nation, which could affect the off-season decisions of Burke’s successor, Dave Nonis.

Among the questions is if young goalie James Reimer has finally proven himself as a starter for Nonis to stop searching for an experienced netminder. Without Reimer, the Leafs don’t make the playoffs, let alone rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the Bruins to force a seventh and deciding game.

Reimer’s critics point out his rebound control needs work, but that should improve as the 25-year-old grows more comfortable in the starter’s role. Adding an affordable,experienced backup would be a better idea. Reimer’s earned the right to be the Leafs starter next year. Chasing Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller or Jaroslav Halak would be a waste of assets best used to address more pressing needs.

Those, of course, would be a first-line center and a physical shutdown defenseman, both of which won’t be easy to find, but could be had if Nonis is willing to shop some young assets not named Gardiner, Kadri or Morgan Rielly.

Otherwise, he may have to re-sign pending UFA Tyler Bozak, hope Mikhail Grabovski regains his offensive form and shop for affordable short-term blueline grit.

Some Leafs fans are salivating at the possibility of landing Toronto-born New Jersey Devils winger David Clarkson if he hits this summer’s free agent market, but he won’t address the Leafs need for a first-line center.

Despite the heartbreaking loss to the Bruins, Leafs Nation appears optimistic over their club’s future.

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The same cannot be said for Capitals fans, where the constant disappointment of early playoff exits are becoming an expectation for an increasingly apathetic frustrated fan base.

It wasn’t always like this. In the era of the dazzling Alexander Ovechkin (notably 2008 to 2011), Capitals fans had reason to believe their club, powered by their high-wattage superstar forward, was on the brink of championship contention.

And for a while, they were. Sure, the early exits continued at the height of the Ovechkin era, but Caps fans were willing to endure them as necessary growing pains on the road to the Stanley Cup.

But the breakthrough has yet to happen. It may never happen. The bloom is coming off the rose.

When the Capitals were upset in the first round of the 2010 playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, the problem was seen as not playing well enough defensively, so they changed their style. That didn’t work. They fired head coach Bruce Boudreau, replacing him with the more defensive-minded Dale Hunter, but the results didn’t change.

Hunter stepped down, Adam Oates took over, and after early struggles this season, the Capitals entered the playoffs atop the Southeast Division and among the hottest teams in the league. Everything seemed to be coming together again.

And then they ran into the stifling defense of the New York Rangers and the brick wall in goal named Henrik Lundqvist, which they also met last season. The one similar to the 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning and Dwayne Roloson, and to the 2010 Canadiens and Jaroslav Halak.

It’s the same tired story; the Capitals founder against a defensive-minded, shot-blocking club backstopped by a hot goaltender.

At least the Maple Leafs bowed out in overtime in Game Seven against the Bruins. The Capitals were blown out 5-0 against the Blueshirts.

So what’s to be done? Another coaching change? Perhaps an overdue management change? Trade Ovechkin? Blow up the roster and start again? Make only minor tweaks and chalk up this season’s woes to a shortened season?

The goaltending won’t change, as they’ve invested in Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Holtby had an inconsistent rookie campaign (yes, this was actually his first “full” NHL season) but still finished with solid regular season numbers (23-12-1, 2.58 GAA, .920 SP, 4 shutouts), and apart from the Game Seven disaster against the Rangers, had a good playoff (3-4, 2.22 GAA, .922 SP). The 23-year-old Holtby seems destined for a long career with the Capitals.

Defensively, though, the Capitals still need work. During the regular season they gave up third-most shots-per-game and had the fourth-worst penalty-kill. Granted, those numbers were skewed by their poor start to the season, but there’s room for improvement. Like the Leafs, they could benefit from an experienced shutdown presence on their blueline.

Offensively, the Capitals still rely upon Ovechkin and whoever his linemates are. Shut them down, as the Rangers did, and you shut down the Capitals, especially if you can keep the penalties to a minimum, negating their league-leading power-play. Once again, the search will be on for second-line scoring.

It could require bold moves by the Capitals front office to addressing their pressing needs and get this ship back on its Cup contention course. It remains to be seen, however, if such moves are in the works.

13 Comments

  1. I’ve liked the idea of trading Ovechkin since last season.

    Prior to his resurgence this season, he all but fell off the charts in terms of talk surrounding him in the same breath as Crosby and Stamkos. I got the feeling that the best thing for his career would be a change of scenery.

    Of course, he found it within him to rise to the top again, which is an testament to his superstar pedigree.

    That said, the results are the same. I think George McPhee’s days are numbered more so than Adam Oates.

    The Forsberg for Erat trade could severely mar McPhee’s legacy.

    I think Ovechkin’s resurgence has put at least a temporary road block on any path that would lead to #8 being traded. But in the long term best interests of the team, perhaps a re-imagining of the team without Ovechkin is the way to go.

    After all, the goal is to win the Cup, and playoff success is truly what builds passionate and loyal fans. The Caps need to be more than “The Ovechkin Show”.

  2. Re the Capitals’ “increasingly apathetic fan base.”??

    WTH are you talking about?

    • I’m referring to the ongoing acceptance by a growing number of Capitals fans over their club’s early postseason exits.

      • So they should riot in downtown DC and burn down the Verizon Center? What do you expect them to do to show “non-acceptance”…cancel their season tickets? Seems like that would result in empty seats and subsequent accusations of apathy, right?

        • Don’t be ridiculous, you’re being overly defensive.

          • Apathetic: Showing or feeling no interest, enthusiasm, or concern.

            To the contrary, Caps fans are pixxed off to the max. You need to have a basis for such statements.

  3. Upon reflection, perhaps “apathetic” was too severe an assessment. I’ve amended it accordingly. However, I will suggest the reaction will move toward apathetic if the fan base gets the sense this team is making no real effort toward improvement.

    • Apathetic was totally the wrong word. This fan base is actually very passionate. Frustration is much better. We see an owner unwilling to make any changes to mgmt despite repeated similar results. McPhee has been around for 16+ years and accomplished nothing yet the owner continues to accept mediocrity…and the fans, despite yelling for change, see no change in sight. You could put McPhee’s season-ending comments on tape and play them year after year after year after…well you get the point. Every year he says, “I like this team. I don’t think any major changes need to be made. I’d go to war with this team. I just think we need some lucky bounces in the playoffs.” It’s the same old shtick every year…and the owner does nothing. The fan base is frustrated.

      McPhee is mediocre at best as a GM so we end up with a mediocre team year after year after year. Many fans have been saying for at least 5 years this team needs a tough crease-clearing d-man and a 2c with secondary scoring. McPhee finally picked up Rebeiro but didn’t augment secondary scoring – he still thinks Marcus Johannson is the answer – and then he trades Filip Forsberg for a higher end version of Marcus Johannson. Too many similar type players on this team, and still no tough d-man. He is not proactive in getting pieces to fill out a team and I don’t think he actually knows how to build a team.

      McPhee is mediocre, the owner appears impotent, and the fan base grows weary…and yet there is absolutely no change in sight.

      So yeah, frustrated!

    • With “frustrated”, you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for acknowledging my frustration!

  4. I read that David Poile of Nashville said it would take a mega deal to get the Predators to part with their 1st round pick, 4th overall.
    How about Bozak, Kessel, Phaneuf, our 2013, 1st round pick and our 2015, 1st round pick for Nashville’s 1st ( Sasha Barkov) and Shea Weber.
    That solves our 1st line center problem for the next decade. Barkov won’t be ready this year or maybe next so we go after free agent Patrick Elias and offer him 2 years at 5 million a year until Barkov is ready.
    We would have to make the deal in 2 parts as I believe Weber can not be trade until July 5th or vicinity.
    To sweeten the deal we eat 1.4 million of Phaneufs salary this year and reimburse Nashvville the up front millions they had to give Weber due to the Flyer offer sheet he signed.
    I also like the idea of persuing David Clarkson. Make him an offer he can’t refuse and put him on a line with Lupul and Kadri.
    Another free agent who may come available is Nathan Horton. He would look good on a line with JVR and Patrick Elias.
    For our 3rd line I believe we should give Joe Colburn a full opportunity to prove himself and put him on a line with Matt Fratin and another free agent who may come available due to Minnisota’s cap constraints and that is Cal Clutterbuck.
    We trade JML and buy out Komisarik.

    • No offence, Hugh, but I’d file that under “Wishful Thinking”.

      • Agreed Lyle. A lot of people always suggest these types of “mega trades”. Over the last, probably 10+ years, how often have we seen the 3 or4 players for 3 or 4 player type swaps? Not very much. It seems that single players are traded for maybe a roster player plus picks/prospects. It’s the salary cap era and I believe those days of these types of suggested trades are gone. Besides, you then need to fill the gaps for those roster players you parted with.

  5. Would Alzner be availble? Seems like he would be a type of shut down DMan the Leafs need. Im sure the Caps would not part with him so easy though!