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Trying to Take a Step Forward... Without Taking Two Steps Back

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The Washington Capitals did some amazing things this season.  Fifty-four wins.  More than 120 points.  Seven twenty goal scorers.  The top five players in League plus-minus. Far and away the best offense in the league, one of the NHL's better defensive squads, and a scoring differential of more than a goal a game.  And yet the season, by the team's own standard, was a failure.

The obvious question is: Where does the team go from here?

To start, there needs to be complete acceptance of the reality that this postseason (and, by extension, this season) was a failure - and that that responsibility for that failure lies with the Capitals and the Capitals alone.  At this point, there shouldn't be any excuses.  No shrugging the shoulders and claiming the Capitals were the victim of a hot goaltender.  No saying that the powerplay, two of the team's four top offensive players, and too many of the secondary players slumped at the same time.  No blaming it on Tom Poti's injury (awful timing notwithstanding) or whatever other injuries come to light in tomorrow's breakdown day.  No blaming it on bad bounces, bad ice, bad calls, or bad luck.  The team isn't making any of these excuses, and as fans we shouldn't be making them on their behalf.

That's not to deny the challenges were there: Jaroslav Halak did play very well, there were the annual Verizon Center spring bounces to deal with, and slumps happen, often inexplicably.  Rather, it's to say that using the challenges as excuses for the loss, and as rationale for going forward without making any significant chances is a strategy that would most likely land this team a similar situation next spring.

If that seems like a drastic conclusion to draw from one playoff series, it's because it's not a conclusion drawn from one playoff series - it's a conclusion drawn from watching this team play night in and night out for the past eighteen months, encompassing more than 180 regular season and playoff games.  And while a matter of inches could mean the Capitals were gearing up for a second-round series with the Flyers, it wouldn't change some uncomfortable realities about this team.

This year's Capitals were taken to seven games in their opening series by an unquestionably less-talented team, just like last year's team.  Bruce Boudreau kept giving significant ice time to favored, yet ineffective forwards, just he did last year.  The penalty kill looked tentative and inept, just as it did last year; just as it did all season long.  The Capitals failed to come out strong in their first game of the postseason, just as they did against New York last year, and failed to show the "killer instinct" needed to finish off an opponent they'd taken a significant series lead over, just as they did against Pittsburgh last spring.  The team failed to initially adapt - to even make any effort to initially adapt - to their opponents defensive style of play, just as they did last year against New York.  Mike Green looked worn out, just like he did last year, and after playing more than 25 minutes in six of his last ten regular season games (and going over 24 in the other two).  Alex Ovechkin said he didn't "feel that power" in Game One, after getting big minutes and long shifts in unimportant games, just like last year.

Ultimately the only somewhat surprising problem the Capitals encountered in their first round series was their ineffective powerplay.  Everything else astute fans could have seen - and did see - coming.

Plainly, some things are going to need to change if the Capitals are ever going to live up to their potential and seriously challenge for the Cup.  The key is in not going overboard.

I'm sure many of our readers can share stories about ideas for extreme roster changes; overheard comments about how a half dozen of the team's better players need, need to be traded, demoted, waived, released, just replaced somehow, friends or family members insisting the Capitals pick up three or four high-priced free agents without regards to the team's depth chart, salary cap situation, or prospect pool, or that the Capitals need to swing trades that even an Xbox general manager would reject.  Typically the conversations will include copious use of the phrase "crease-clearing defenseman."

The reality, however, is that the Capitals already have excellent personnel, perhaps the best in the NHL.  Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin constitute a core any general manager would be happy to have.  Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, Boyd Gordon, and David Steckel are all effective role players.  John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Mathieu Perreault, and the rest of the Caps' prospect pool hold tons of untapped potential and give reason to believe the Caps will not only continue to be one of the NHL's best teams, but could be even better in coming years.  That doesn't mean all of those players should be locks to be with the team next year (in fact, you could probably count the untouchable guys on one hand right now), but it does make it awfully hard to imagine the Capitals being better off for dealing guys out of frustration.

Thus, as usual, the most logical route lies somewhere between the rationale spouted by opposing sides who yell the loudest.  To look at the Capitals - not just their results, but they way they've played; not just this season, but over the past couple of years - and claim they should be able to come back next year and be legitimate Cup contenders without any changes to personnel, behind the bench, or strategy is to delude yourself.  At the same time, to look at the team and conclude that they're in need of a radical makeover - and that undertaking one is going to yield the kind of result the team wants, both short- and long-term - is just as delusional.  The bad was painfully exposed in this series, but what was good before last night is still good.  The Capitals still have everything they had going for them two weeks ago.

This team needs change, there's no doubt about that. But it's the kind that needs to be executed with a scalpel, not with a hacksaw.