What is next for Capitals after another First Round exit?

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In 2018 the Capitals finally conquered their demons and successfully made the climb to the top of the NHL’s tallest mountain, winning their first Stanley Cup.

It was a long time coming for an organization that had known nothing but playoff frustration and disappointment for its entire existence, and for a core that was being defined more for second round losses than the all-time great superstar that headlined the lineup.

In the three years since they successfully raised the cup, the Capitals have maintained their status as one of the top teams in the league.

Their 125 regular season wins are the third most in the league (behind only Tampa Bay at 141 and Boston at 126), they have won two division titles, and finished in second place this season by way of a tiebreaker. They are still good. Really good. But as their core starts to get another year older, and another year slower, and another year removed from that championship, the postseason success has dried up almost entirely.

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Their 3-1 loss to the Bruins on Sunday resulted in a five-game First Round exit, the third consecutive year they have failed to advance in the playoffs, something that had never previously happened in the Alex Ovechkin era. What is more concerning than the losses is the way they have lost, progressively getting worse and more punchless each year.

They have won just five of the 17 playoff games they have played since raising the cup, and at times looked to be two steps behind the teams that eliminated them.

So what is next?

You know Ovechkin will be back (even if he is technically a free agent). You know Nicklas Backstrom will be back. As long as those two are on the roster you can be sure Capitals management is going to be doing whatever it can to try to win again. And frankly, it is the only way to operate in that situation. But how do they build a roster around those two that can win again? There are some big questions to address this offseason.

The Evgeny Kuznetsov situation

This might be the most interesting situation to watch this offseason.

Kuznetsov is 29 years old, has four years remaining on a contract that carries a $7.58M cap hit, and around the time he went on the COVID list for the second time this season there were rumblings that the Capitals were perhaps willing to consider listening to trade offers this offseason.

This is a tricky one.

There is reason for the Capitals to have some frustration here. When he has been in the lineup over the past two years he has not been the impactful player he once was. His offense has dropped, defense has never been a significant part of his game, and his overall play has just been relatively ordinary. At least by the standard he set for himself at his peak. If you trade him now you are doing so at what might be his lowest possible value and the return might not be what you expect. There is probably not a huge list of teams lining up to trade for a one-dimensional, 29-year-old forward with a big salary cap hit that has not been a game-breaker offensively for two years. That is especially true when the salary cap is not increasing this offseason.

So with that in mind…

How about something bold

While Kuznetsov’s value is probably at rock bottom, there is another player on the roster whose value might be at its peak.

Maybe you explore that?

That player — Tom Wilson.

Capitals fans will riot at the suggestion of this, but hear me out.

While opposing fans, media, and everybody not associated with the Capitals loathe Wilson’s style of play, there is one group of people in the sport that absolutely love it and love him. There are 31 of them, and they are the NHL’s general managers.

Every single one of them would crawl over miles of jagged rocks and broken glass to have a player like Tom Wilson on their team. They can not get enough of this guy. A big, 6-4, 220-pound power forward that rattles cages, defends, and scores 20-plus goals? You are talking a dream player for hockey people. Every one of them, particularly those in the Eastern Conference, are always looking for somebody to counter Tom Wilson. What if the Capitals put the actual Tom Wilson on the market?

Not saying they have to trade him. Not even suggesting they should trade him.

But does it hurt to put out some feelers and see if some overly aggressive general manager loses their mind. I bet at least one of them would.

For all of the talk about “heavy hockey” and how players like him are key in the playoffs, he has not made much of an impact in the past three postseasons, and you also have the X-factor of him being one poorly placed or ill-timed hit away from taking himself out of the lineup for a long time.

The Capitals need a spark. They need to get younger and faster, and they need to do it on the cheap given the salary cap situation. Ovechkin and Backstrom are going nowhere. Same could probably be said for John Carlson. Kuznetsov (contract, recent play) and T.J. Oshie (age and contract) might not bring you huge returns. So what else do you have?

Whenever a player’s perceived value exceeds their actual on-ice value that is probably the time to consider shopping them. Wilson might be at that point in the eyes of opposing general managers. So why not explore?

Worst case scenario is you do not get an offer you like and you simply keep a good player.

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Is the right goalie on the roster?

Then there is the goalie situation. After a decade of dependability and consistency with Braden Holtby, the Capitals came into this season with the uncertainty of an unproven starter (Ilya Samsonov) and a haphazardly thrown together backup situation that nobody planned for.

Overall, their play could probably best be described as “fine.” They were not a liability, but they were not game-stealers, either. Coach Peter Laviolette said in the aftermath of their playoff loss that goaltending was not the reason they are not moving on. But it also did not really do much to prevent them from losing. Samsonov is a restricted free agent, so some kind of a decision is going to have be made here. How confident are you that he is the guy? Do you gamble on the raw talent and natural ability and commit to the goalie you have penciled in as your long-term starter for years? Or do you explore outside options? Old friend Philipp Grubauer would be interesting if the Avalanche can not re-sign him.

The Capitals still have the core to compete, even if it is older and getting closer to the end of its run. But there are still some big questions to address this offseason to help get them back out of the First Round.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.