5 Takeaways From Capitals’ Post-Season Media Availability

For the Washington Capitals, 2021-22 is over and the post-mortem has already begun. The club from D.C. crashed out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last week, falling in Game 6 to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.

However, the season, which hinged on the team’s shaky goaltending, perhaps shouldn’t have ended in the first round. Washington blew leads in each of the final three contests of the series, leaving a dark cloud of “what if?” hanging over the squad this offseason.

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While there’s no shame in losing to Andrew Brunette’s electric Panthers, defeat in Round 1 reopens a nasty can of worms: has the window to win shut on the Capitals – and, if so, what should happen next?

On Sunday (May 15), general manager (GM) Brian MacLellan, head coach Peter Laviolette, and a string of key players sat down with reporters to discuss exactly that. Here are five takeaways from the Capitals’ post-season media availability:

MacLellan: Capitals Will ‘Explore Changes’ to Roster

Following the Capitals’ latest playoff exit, plenty of unresolved questions about MacLellan’s roster hang in the air at Capital One Arena. His stars aren’t getting any younger, there are issues to address in the crease, and the club’s progression has stalled since hoisting Lord Stanley back in 2018.

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“We’ve lost in the first round [for] the last four years: we’re going to explore changes,” MacLellan told reporters. “I don’t think anything is off the table. We’re going to talk to different teams and monitor the trade market. We have to identify free agents.”

Handily, MacLellan has cap space to weaponize this offseason. The 63-year-old will have at least $6.5 million to play with once Justin Shultz and Michal Kempny shuffle towards unrestricted free agency.

Also of note: Washington’s GM was relatively wishy-washy when it came to discussing the future of Laviolette, whose three-year contract expires next summer.

“I think we’re going to keep that between management and the coaching staff,” MacLellan said coyly. “I thought [Laviolette] did a good job, he managed a difficult situation with the number of injuries we had to our forwards.”

In the immediate future, though, MacLellan’s biggest headscratcher occupies the blue paint, not the bench.

Washington’s Goaltending Options: Stick or Twist?

By now, you probably don’t need me to recount the story of Washington’s flimsy netminding double-act: it was a major source of contention throughout the regular season and bubbled over in the playoffs.

“We’ve got to make a decision on what to do and [how to] fit it under the cap,” MacLellan said of his situation in goal.

Quizzed on whether he’d like to acquire an experienced netminder to replace Vitek Vanecek and/or Ilya Samsonov, both restricted free agents this summer, he added: “We’re going to explore it. I don’t know if it’s a deep market, we’ll talk to other teams and evaluate.”

Ultimately, MacLellan has three debates to settle ahead of the draft:

  • Should he extend Vanecek, who is slightly more consistent, or Samsonov, who is younger and has a higher ceiling?
  • Assuming he’ll trade the surplus netminder, what assets will he seek in return?
  • Will he complete his tandem (probably with an out-and-out starter) via trade or free agency?

Settling the Capitals’ goalie controversy is priority No. 1 for MacLellan this offseason. He can’t afford another “pretty good but not great” campaign from his puck-stoppers. Change is coming.

Tom Wilson’s ‘Significant’ Knee Injury

If not for Tom Wilson’s injury in Game 1, would the Capitals have seen off the Panthers in the first round? We’ll never know, but it’s one of the “what ifs?” that will sting supporters of the D.C. franchise until the puck drops for 2022-23.

Despite suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign, the Canadian enjoyed a career year in 2021-22. He registered 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists) in 78 regular-season appearances, and later added a playoff goal to his tally as well.

“I was trying to get back and trying everything I could,” Wilson said of his injury. “Every person you walk by was like, ‘When are you back? We need you back.’ That was tough: I wanted to be out there. So, you feel like you let people down and that sucks.”

Tom Wilson Washington Capitals
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The 28-year-old, who opted not to disclose specific details about his “significant” knee injury, added: “It’s going to be a grind for me [because] I’ve got to start my recovery. It’s always nice to have goals and a clear mindset of what you need to do as an athlete. We’re getting with the doctors and we’ll go from there.”

There is, however, some positive news for Capitals fans: Wilson’s injury shouldn’t keep him out next season, per MacLellan.

Nicklas Backstrom’s Long-Term Fitness

As reported by THW’s Ted Starkey, Nicklas Backstrom’s health is a major source of concern for the Capitals this offseason. The 34-year-old told reporters that his hip will “never be 100 percent again,” adding that he has decisions to make regarding his future.

Related: Capitals’ Offseason May Be Altered by Backstrom’s Decision on Future

“Obviously we’ll see what’s going to happen,” Backstrom said. “We have some decisions to make. Those decisions aren’t finalized yet, so we’ll take it day by day.

“The best thing I want to do is play hockey, and that’s my life Obviously, I want to be back. I want to be back to normal, not worrying about this. We’ll see what’s going to happen. Nothing is finalized yet.”

When asked if the Swede could be facing a career-ending injury, MacLellan kept his cards close to his chest.

Nicklas Backstrom Washington Capitals
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“I think he’s going to explore all options here,” he explained. “He wants it to be better. He wants to be more physically comfortable when he plays, so he’s going to explore it.”

Backstrom registered 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 47 regular-season outings in 2021-22, taking maintenance days throughout the year to rest the hip he underwent surgery on in 2015.

Alex Ovechkin offered the most optimism about Backstrom’s future of those speaking at Washington’s post-season media availability: “He’s a tough man, I’m pretty sure he’s going to be better next year. He’s a leader and I hope he’s going to be better.”

Ovechkin’s comments aside, the situation is relatively bleak. Backstrom has three years left on his $9.2 million contract: it isn’t unreasonable to be concerned about how his health will impact Washington moving forward.

Carl Hagelin’s Eyesight Update

Since taking a stick blade to the eye in practice on March 1, Carl Hagelin has stayed away from reporters. He broke his silence on Sunday, acknowledging that his future was unclear.

“It’s not going to be 100 percent,” the 33-year-old said of his eyesight. “We’ll see where it ends up, but the rupture of the choroid is the main issue.”

Hagelin has returned to the ice since undergoing two operations on his eye and has relied on former teammate Marc Staal, who suffered a similar injury in 2013, for inspiration.

Washington Capitals Carl Hagelin
Carl Hagelin, Washington Capitals (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

“Every time, after I talk to him, it’s been great for the mental aspect of it,” he explained. “It’s always put me in a good mood; it’s always been positive. He said it, ‘it’s all about patience.’ It takes time, and at the end of the day you’ve got that one good eye that’s going to carry you.”

While there isn’t a firm timeline for Hagelin’s return, he plans on playing next season. For now, though, it’s a waiting game to scrutinize as his recovery unfolds.

Capitals Approach Offseason of Major Significance

In the aftermath of a bumpy season, Washington’s head office will now turn its attention to the future. This year’s NHL Entry Draft is important for the Capitals: they must find value in the later rounds while hitting on their early picks to bolster their prospect pool.

MacLellan also has a narrow needle to thread in free agency. Sourcing adequate support for his ageing core will shape the Capitals’ fortunes in 2021-22: he can’t afford to overpay for fringe talent.

Ultimately, though, Washington is another year closer to the end of the Ovechkin Era – which creates new pressure and anxiety for the organization to shoulder. Is the Cup window shutting or is it already closed? We’ll find out next season.