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.
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.