The Capitals were the pre-season Stanley Cup favorite, and justified it by starting the season with seven consecutive wins. The rest of the season was the definition of a roller coaster; as a result they entered the postseason, as the No. 7 seed, with their lowest expectations in recent memory.
Alex Ovechkin and company surprised hockey pundits by advancing to the second round. It was an unexpected playoff run that they can draw more positives from than other recent playoff failures.
But like those exits, there are plenty of question marks heading into the Capitals’ off-season.
George McPhee practically won the GM of the Year Award last summer with an array of moves that were expected to put the Capitals over the top. However, the Capitals failed to live up to lofty expectations, and McPhee’s moves didn’t quite work out as he hoped. Also: McPhee is not a finalist for the GM of the Year.
The bargain of the 2011 off-season, Tomas Vokoun, was a disappointment. So was Troy Brouwer, whom McPhee acquired from Chicago for a first-round pick in last summer’s draft. Likewise, Joel Ward, whose shining moment was scoring the Game 7 overtime winner in Round 1, failed to justify the four-year, $12 million contract he signed.
This off-season, McPhee has a different approach. He won’t be looking to add smaller pieces around a Cup contender. Instead, big changes could be in store for the Capitals.
For starters, the ever-prolific, enigmatic Alexander Semin is an unrestricted free agent. The 28-year-old Russian, drafted 13th overall by the Capitals in 2002, has seen his offensive totals drop since his career year in 2009-10 in which he tallied 84 points. Semin has had back-to-back 54-point campaigns, and has scored 28 and 21 goals in the last two seasons respectively.
How much of Semin’s inconsistencies are a product of playing in a mostly defensive-minded system over the last two years? Or, are all the critics pointing towards his night-to-night effort right in their assessment? That’s something opposing GM’s will have to weigh, assuming Semin tests free agency on July 1st.
And according to ESPN.com’s Craig Custance, Semin is ready to move on from Washington:
Considering his reduced ice time and production, it’s no surprise that Semin and the Capitals are headed in different directions this summer. “The way things stand now, this role at 28 [years old] is unacceptable,” his agent, Mark Gandler, said when we chatted Monday.
Semin shot down those rumors on Monday. If the two sides go their different ways, it will open up cap room for the Capitals to address other needs.
Another big question mark this summer surrounds RFA defenseman Mike Green.
The two-time Norris Trophy finalist, more known for his offense than defense, has seen his production fall off drastically between injury woes and the team’s change of philosophy. In the last two years combined, Green has just 31 points in 81 games – a long way off from his 76-point season in 2009-10, 31-goal output in 2008-09.
Will Green’s inability to stay healthy (or consistent when healthy) cause McPhee to have second thoughts about re-signing the blue-liner? A short-term contract to allow Green the opportunity to bounce back seems plausible, especially with his trade value at an all-time low.
The only Capitals defenseman to see more power play ice time than Green in the playoffs was Dennis Wideman. The All-Star rearguard is an unrestricted free agent and could opt to test free agency to see what his stellar season (46 points in 82 games) could fetch, dollars wise.
You could make an argument that Semin and Green were by-products of Bruce Boudreau’s run-and-gun system from a couple years back. As the team’s identity changed, Semin’s and Green’s production slipped – as did Ovechkin’s and others on the roster.
With that in mind, it’s tough to judge what Semin’s and Green’s respective market value truly is. At the same time, it’s proof that the looming decision of who will be the Capitals’ next coach is all the more important.
Dale Hunter, hired on November 28th to replace the fired Boudreau, stepped down on Monday, a decision that he says was a tough one. The Capitals went through growing pains under Hunter all year, but jelled in the playoffs.
McPhee said he will take time to find the team’s next coach:
“I don’t know whether it will be by the draft or sometime in August, like New Jersey did,” he added. “We’re going to take our time and get the right person.”
It’s an important decision for McPhee and company because of the multitude of changes this same core has gone through in the last two seasons. Boudreau changed the team’s mindset in the middle of last season. A year later, the Capitals had to adjust to Hunter and his unique way of distributing ice time.
Whoever McPhee tabs as the next bench boss, I’m sure the GM wants to find someone that will stay consistent in their coaching approach.
Between Semin, Green and a new coach, there are question marks all over the place. The one area that is a certainty is between the pipes. You can bet Braden Holtby will enter next season as the Capitals’ starter after a remarkable postseason performance. (On the same token, Vokoun’s short stay in D.C. is all but over.)
What kind of team is placed in front of Holtby by the time next September rolls around is a different issue. Will Semin and/or Green be re-signed? Will McPhee attempt to sign one of the top free agents, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise? Who will be coaching the Capitals come fall?
There aren’t a slew of free agents on the roster, but there a lot of big decisions that McPhee will have to make. The Capitals could look a whole lot different after this off-season that doesn’t lack any intrigue in the nation’s capital.
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