In the end it was Carter Verhaeghe, and not Jonathan Huberdeau or Aleksander Barkov, that the Washington Capitals did not have an answer for in their First Round playoff series.
When he scored two minutes into overtime of Game 6 on Friday night, sending the Florida Panthers to the Second Round for the first time in 26 years, it also sent the Washington Capitals to their fourth consecutive First Round exit.
It is certainly a disappointing end for Washington, not only because it is a team that is another year older and closer to the end of its run than the beginning, but also because it was a series where it had plenty of opportunities to win. The Capitals did not get run out of the building by the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers, and it was certainly not the one-sided mismatch many expected it to be at the start. They mostly kept the Panthers in check and had leads (including a three-goal lead!) in each of the last three games of the series (all losses).
That, combined with the fact they have not advanced in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, is going to lead to a lot of questions this offseason about what this team is and where it can still go.
Let’s try to tackle some of those questions now.
Just how good is this team as currently constructed?
The Capitals are clearly not where they were back in 2016, 2017, and 2018 when they were either winning the Presidents’ Trophy or the Stanley Cup every season. But they are still good.
They may have been the eighth playoff team in the East, but they still finished with 100 points in a very tough division. They also got there while Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha (literally half of their top-six forwards) each missed half of the season due to various injuries. That also does not include the five games they played without Tom Wilson in the playoffs.
They also spent the year getting average at best goaltending from Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov as the duo finished 16th in 5-on-5 save percentage and 23rd in all situations. They were one of just three teams to finish below 18th in all situations save percentage to actually make the playoffs (Los Angeles at 19th, Toronto at 22nd, and the Capitals at 23rd), while no playoff team was lower than them. So even getting there with that level of goaltending is an accomplishment in itself.
Unfortunately, that position did not get much better in the playoffs.
There are a lot of flaws there, but the results were still pretty good. And that makes it easy to get sucked into the belief that better health and better goaltending could produce better results.
They have to find a goalie
The Capitals have used the Samsonov-Vanecek duo for two years now, finishing 19th and 23rd respectively in all-situations save percentage and not being close to good enough in the playoffs.
That is a problem.
Also a problem is the fact none of their goalies are currently under contract for next season (they are both restricted free agents). Is there anything that should make you think they should make a significant investment in either of them? Or that a “prove it” contract will result in a different outcome?
If the Capitals still have sights set on seriously competing this position has to get better. A quick look at the potential free agent options shows Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell as pending UFAs. Kuemper will be pricey and have no shortage of suitors if he hits the open market. Marc-Andre Fleury is also set to be available, but him playing in Washington does not seem to be in the cards.
In the end the Capitals received some of the worst goaltending of any playoff team in the NHL this season and no matter what else happens with the rest of your team that can be difficult to overcome. Is it the biggest problem in Washington? That is certainly debatable. But it might be the quickest fix.
Will everybody be back?
Aside from the goaltending question, the Capitals have a couple of pending UFA’s on defense (Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny, Matt Irwin) and still need some improvements.
They do not have a lot of salary cap space to play with because they have some significant contracts on their books.
Alex Ovechkin is not going anywhere. Unless Nicklas Backstrom decides to walk away and retire he is not going anywhere.
Evgeny Kuznetsov spent most of the 2021 offseason on the trade rumor mill, so it is worth pondering if the Capitals would explore that possibility again. But he also had a great bounce back year and was their best center this season. Trading him now seems counterproductive.
Anthony Mantha has a significant contract number and has not quite been what expected in Washington, but a lot of that has been due to a lack of availability. When healthy I still think he can be a really good player here and one that will ultimately be worth his cap number (and the price they paid to trade him).
Two names that should be in play? Oshie and Lars Eller. Oshie has been a fantastic Capital, but I do not know that he is going to age as well as players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, or Kuznetsov, and at a $5.75 million cap number for another three years, that might be one you try to get out of.
Eller is intriguing because his cap number is fair, he can still play his role pretty well, and the Capitals could use an extra $3 million to play with. There is also the fact Connor McMichael needs a bigger role and still only costs $863,000 against the cap for the next two seasons. You lose four years in a row you have to expect some changes, especially when you still have holes to fill.
The Capitals have been near the top of the NHL for a decade-and-a-half and been one of the league’s elite teams. When you are on top that long, and have a core that is getting onto the other side of their 30s, it is inevitable that a decline will arrive. That decline has definitely started to arrive. But it is not yet a cliff dive and it is clear this team can still be a playoff team, and a pretty good one. A full-blown rebuild will need to happen in time, but that time is not here yet. But some changes still need to be made if they are going to be more than a team that simply gets to the playoffs without being able to do anything once they get there.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.