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20 offseason Caps questions: What direction should the Caps take this summer?

20 offseason Caps questions: What direction should the Caps take this summer?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.     

Today’s question: Another year, another early playoff exit. The Capitals earned the Presidents’ Trophy this season despite playing in the toughest division in the NHL, but once again they could not get past the second round. In the Alex Ovechkin era, the Caps have won three Presidents’ Trophies and reached the postseason nine times and yet, they have never made it to the conference final. Now with Alex Ovechkin set to turn 32 before the start of next season, an aging core with no playoff success to speak of and several expiring contracts, the team looks like it may have reached a crossroads.

After another postseason flameout, what direction should the Caps take?

Sorenson: In one word: Build.  For me, I have to look at the organization which the Capitals have been trying to best for quite some time now, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I think the biggest difference on the ice between the two teams recently has been depth.  Last offseason, the Caps added to the depth of their bottom six, but that wasn’t enough this postseason.  That’s because the Penguins were able to draw on forwards from Wilkes-Barre throughout the season and playoffs to push them over the edge.  It was constantly next man up, and their supposedly unknown forwards and defensemen constantly stepped up, both in the regular season and especially in the playoffs.  I think the Capitals need to keep their core, and build around players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jay Beagle, Lars Eller, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, and Brooks Orpik.  Keep the supporting players around them (Nate Schmidt, Andre Burakovsky, etc.) but they have to find a way to build up their foundation in Hershey as well.  They need to find a way to package some players and prospects to get equal players and upgrade their prospects.  As Kuznetsov so aptly put it on breakdown day, “You can’t build big building without underneath, right?”

RELATED: What's next for the Caps? No one seems to agree

Regan: It’s tempting right now to say they should tear it all down and start over, but let’s not let emotions take over. The Caps are not the Vancouver Canucks who are terrible and yet refuse to trade the Sedin twins and start over because of a misguided sense of loyalty. They are not the Detroit Red Wings who held onto a rapidly declining core in the hopes of maintaining their postseason streak as long as possible. The Caps have won the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons. A complete rebuild at this point would be premature. Will their roster be as good as in 2016-17? Probably not, but that does not mean they have no chance of winning the Cup. Having said that, however, they cannot afford to simply bring back the same team and try again. Part of the problem in Washington is clearly mental and if you return much the same roster, the players will have no confidence that things will be any different. Shake things up with a major trade. Trade away a part of the core, a big name player to jolt the team. Even if it is just a one for one trade, look at what trading Shea Weber for P.K. Subban has done for Nashville. If the core is rotten, shake it up.

El-Bashir: Let’s begin with the notion that blowing up a roster that’s earned more points than anyone else the past two seasons is a good idea. It’s not. But let me also be clear about this: the time for nibbling around the edges has passed. The Caps need more youth, more speed and, perhaps, a little more pushback, too. As the roster stands now, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matt Niskanen are all under contract or under team control. If GM Brian MacLellan can shoehorn T.J. Oshie back in the fold, that’s a solid start. Add to that foundation a couple of impactful players—a top-six forward and a top-four defender—and the Caps will have made some substantive changes without resorting to a full teardown. It’ll be a challenge, no doubt. After Mac re-signs his restricted free agents (and possibly Oshie) there won’t be much cap space with which to work. Also, he’s got no draft picks until the fourth round and the free agent market doesn’t look all that appealing. So how can he do it? By taking a page out of David Poile’s playbook and swinging a big trade (or perhaps two). Poile retooled the Western Conference champion Nashville Predators on the fly with a couple of bold deals, acquiring Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones and P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. The trade route is a risky one and, of course, it costs a good player to get a good player so a fan favorite and/or up-and-comer would be headed the other way. But it’s the only way I can see the Caps propping the window back open for another run with the current core. I also see it as the Caps' best option.

MORE CAPITALS: Caps release key offseason dates

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Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist add new chapter to their rivalry Sunday

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USA Today

Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist add new chapter to their rivalry Sunday

Everyone knows about the Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby rivalry. Two generational talents who entered the league the same year playing for rival franchises was a dream scenario for the NHL. That rivalry is so great that it can be easy to overlook some of the other great matchups we see between Ovechkin and other players.

On Sunday, we will be treated to another of Ovechkin’s great rivals as Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers come to Washington (12:30 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

One of the best goal scorers of all-time against one of the NHL’s top netminders? Yes please.

Ovechkin has won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer seven times in his career and looks well on his way to No. 8 as he leads the league in goals again with 44. He has hit 50 goals seven times and has the most goals among active players with 651. Lundqvist, meanwhile, won the Vezina in 2012 and has a career save percentage of .919. He is sixth all-time in wins with 448.

These two have had epic battles over the years. Ovechkin has scored 24 goals on Lundqvist, tied for the most he has scored against any netminder over the course of his career. He also has another 13 goals in the playoffs against King Henrik. Lundqvist went so far as to call Ovechkin “one of the best goal scorers of all time” in an interview with Esquire.

Another chapter in the rivalry will be written on Sunday. Who will win this round?

Game notes

Nick Jensen to make his debut

Jensen will make his Capitals debut Sunday against the Rangers after skating in warmups and adjusting to his new team on Saturday. With no morning skate it is unclear who will come out. Christian Djoos was playing right on the third pair which is where Jensen will slot in. Chances are either Djoos or Brooks Orpik will be out.

Pheonix raising

Pheonix Copley will start Sunday after Braden Holtby got the start Sunday in Buffalo. Copley has won his last three starts with a .908 save percentage.

Home sweet home

The Caps concluded a season-long six-game road trip Saturday in Buffalo. Sunday’s game will be the first in Washington since a 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 11. Washington has gone 4-1-1 at home since the All-Star break.

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Caps can't complete season sweep, fall to Sabres 5-2

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USA Today

Caps can't complete season sweep, fall to Sabres 5-2

The Capitals could not complete the season sweep of the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday as Sam Reinhart recorded a hat trick in a 5-2 loss for Washington. The Caps gave up two goals in the first and chased the rest of the game, but never could erase the deficit.

Saturday's game finished off a season-long six-game road trip for Washington which now heads home with three wins in those six games.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost Saturday.

A misplay by Dmitry Orlov

It has been a tough season for the Caps’ second defensive pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. That continued on Saturday as Buffalo got on the board thanks to a mistake by Orlov.

Jack Eichel had the puck along the boards on the right side of Washington’s defensive zone with Niskanen in good position between the puck and the net. Orlov was tailing Jeff Skinner in front of the net and when Skinner went to the right corner, Orlov followed him leaving both defensemen on the right side of the ice and absolutely no one in front. Skinner passed to a wide-open Jason Pominville who buried the goal.

That was just one play in what was a really tough day for the pair which struggled all game long.

A perfect shot

Buffalo cleared their zone with a flip of the puck into the neutral zone. The puck took a few bounces before anyone could settle it and Evan Rodrigues managed to chip it over to Sam Reinhart who had a lane to shoot on Braden Holtby. Holtby saw him coming on his left and slid over to square up, but his momentum carried him just a bit leaving the right corner of the net open. Reinhart wristed the shot into that corner to extend Buffalo’s lead to 2-0 in the first period.

A late power play goal

Washington did not have a great start to the game, but seemed to settle things down in the second period. Alex Ovechkin scored on the breakaway to make it 2-1 and the ice began tilting in the Caps’ favor. At least it was until Nic Dowd took a late tripping penalty with just over two minutes remaining.

Instead of going into the locker room down by only one and feeling confident, the Caps were suddenly on their heels on the penalty kill. Rasmus Dahlin scored with just 31 seconds left in the second frame. That goal put momentum back In Buffalo’s favor.

A quick response

There was a brief moment of hope in the third period for Caps fans as Andre Burakovsky pulled Washington to within one less than five minutes into the third. Reinhart, however, scored his second of the game just 1:27 later to restore Buffalo’s two-goal lead.

Carter Hutton

Washington’s defense was just plain bad in this game. The offense, however, looked pretty good. Buffalo’s netminder was just better.

Hutton turned aside 31 of the 33 shots he faced including a handful of top-notch saves, especially in the second period. T.J. Oshie tried to sneak a great shot blocker side between Hutton’s arm and body, but he managed to just squeeze the arm together in time to get the stop. He was particularly good against the third line which was Washington’s best line of the day, denying Brett Connolly off a great cross-ice pass from Lars Eller and stunning Eller with a great save as Eller took a pass right on the back door. Eller looked like he had an empty net, but he was skating backward and the pass was just behind him. Eller couldn’t fire a one-timer, because of the position of the puck, he had to control the puck first and fire it. That little delay allowed Hutton just enough time to get over for the save.

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