After three straight first-round exits for a team built around a 35-year-old superstar, the inevitable question of whether it is time for the Capitals to rebuild now has to be asked. Washington was dispatched in five games by the Boston Bruins and, though they had a much better showing than last year's series against the New York Islanders, the results were still the same. Five games and out.
The players clearly believe the Stanley Cup window remains open for the team, but they ultimately are not the decision-makers. That responsibility lies largely with general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette who are now tasked with deciding if it is time to tear it all down.
As the Caps enter the offseason pondering the future, it is clear that the team is not yet ready to commit to a rebuild.
"I don't know that we're at that stage where we need to rebuild," MacLellan said at the team's final media availability of the season. "We made the decision here to bring back [Nicklas Backstrom] and to bring back [Alex Ovechkin], I don't think that's a rebuild situation when you're doing that."
Backstrom, 33, has another four years left on his contract at $9.2 million while Ovechkin just finished the last year of his contract. He will turn 36 in September and is expected to sign a new deal in the offseason for more than his previous $9.5 million cap hit.
It's hard to rebuild when you have that much cap room committed to two players in their mid-30s.
But the worst place to be in the NHL is in the middle. When a team is no longer good enough to compete for the Cup, but is not bad enough to be in the running for high draft picks it can easily get stuck in a no man's land of mediocrity that can be hard to dig out of.
The Caps, however, do not think they are accepting that fate in the name of remaining loyal to Backstrom and Ovechkin. To them, there is plenty of talent still within the organization to compete for a championship.
"I believe that this team can still win," Laviolette said. "I believe that we can win rounds in the playoffs. That’s what’s disappointing and frustrating for us, is that we didn’t get it done. We had an opportunity playing the Bruins, and the Bruins are still playing and we’re not. So everybody’s frustrated about that.
"There’s still a core here, you look at the production from some of the players, like T.J. Oshie had a really good year from a production standpoint, Nick Backstrom is still able to produce, John Carlson had a good year. Right through the lineup there was a lot of players, not all, but there was a lot of players who produced well.”
On the one hand, Laviolette is right in that the core players all had productive seasons. The problem is that each of the players Laviolette listed, as well as Ovechkin, is over 30 and their prolonged production is a question mark.
Laviolette, however, believes there are enough young players on the team to bolster the rest of the lineup and keep the Caps' window open.
“I think that there are some young pieces that are here now, I think that there may be some young pieces that come into play next year," Laviolette said.
That may be wishful thinking considering the Caps' current prospect pool frequently ranks near the bottom of the league. Players like Connor McMichael, Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev may be able to compete for ice time next season, but there likely are not any other impact players who will be able to contribute much right away.
But the team insists there is enough left in the cupboard left to restock the roster, at least in the short term.
While every team in the NHL would love to be able to both compete for a championship and stockpile future talent for a seamless transition from championship window to championship window, that rarely ever happens. Teams competing for a championship just are not consistently able to get the volume of stars needed to rebuild around thanks to trading off assets. MacLellan knows this is the case in Washington as well.
The Caps are not naive to the challenges that lie ahead for this team and MacLellan acknowledged that a rebuild will be necessary...just not yet.
"The rebuild would be a little premature," MacLellan said. "I do realize that it's coming, but right now we're just looking to incorporate a few more younger players in our lineup and we feel that we have a couple coming."