Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan was finally prepared to talk.
The Capitals’ last game was May 10, losing Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on home ice in the second round of the playoffs. It was a crushing defeat, after the Capitals rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and seemingly had their arch rivals on the ropes.
But those old ghosts of failure, haunting Verizon Center every postseason, scared them into stasis.
“You can feel it in the building. You feel it in the crowd. It’s in there. You tell me in that Game 7 that you couldn’t feel it,” said MacLellan on Tuesday, on the team’s postseason anxiety. “It felt good, and then we didn’t score in the first part of the first period and then you could just feel it coming. And that’s the history in there. That’s in the fans, that’s in the past players. Even if you were there just for that game, you would feel it.”
The Capitals have tried various things to get over that anxiety. They change tactics. They’ve fired coaches. They’ve brought in veteran players who won with other teams – hell, they had “Mr. Game 7” on the roster, and he didn’t score in Game 7. It’s that kind of franchise.
Coach Barry Trotz wanted to ignore that past, and his general manager disagreed with that tactic. “To ignore it I think is a mistake. I think you’ve got to acknowledge it and then you’ve got to work through it,” said MacLellan.
So how can the team work through it? How can the Washington Capitals finally play for a championship with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the roster?
The answer for many observers, around the Capitals and outside Washington, was easy: To blow it. Blow it all up. Make dramatic changes.
But MacLellan said that’s not his plan.
“I don’t think it makes sense in my mind just to blow it up or make a major change. As soon as that Game 7 finishes, everybody’s angry and that shouldn’t happen and we should have played better in the game — I get all that but how do you address that? It’s a good team. And there’s issues too. Obviously, there’s some issues and they need to be addressed internally,” he said.
Trotz will be back, although it sounds like some other coaches won’t. The Capitals will try and retain unrestricted free agent T.J. Oshie. And Alex Ovechkin will not be stripped of the captaincy – “I don’t know that that’s an avenue we’d want to pursue right now,” said MacLellan – or traded away.
Unless, of course, MacLellan is just simply blown away by an offer for him.
“He’s a big part of our franchise, a big part of our history. He’s been a big part of where we’re at as an organization. Just to casually say, ‘Let’s trade him for what, for who?’ I don’t think it makes sense from an organizational point of view,” said MacLellan.
“Maybe at some point if there’s a legitimate hockey deal that came available, but I don’t know that that’s where we’re at right now. I just think he’s got a history here, he’s a big part of this franchise and he’ll continue to be, going forward.”
When a general manager says this to the media about a player after a disappointing season, he’s basically saying “ante up” to the other 30 teams.
Does this mean that Alex Ovechkin is being traded this summer? No. It remains the longest of long shots, as long as owner Ted Leonsis backs him and sees Ovechkin as the valve for all the revenue streams that flow from this popular franchise. But the notion that Alex Ovechkin is untouchable for the Washington Capitals officially ended 20 days after the latest playoff disappointment for his team.
Assuming that he’s back – and, again, there’s every reason to assume it – MacLellan said Ovechkin knows he has to bounce back after following three straight 50-goal seasons with a 33-goal clunker.
“I think he had a down year. The less ice time would correlate with less production but I think even talking to him at the end, he was disappointed in the playoff performance and the results he had and the results our team had. He’s frustrated as much as we all are,” said MacLellan.
Ovechkin is 31. He’s played 921 games in the regular season. Russian Machine may never break, but every machine slows down efficiency as some point.
Unless you redesign it, and replace a few parts.
“I think for him moving forward … he’s getting in the low 30s, I think he’s going to have to think of ways he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game. The game is getting faster. He’s going to have to train in a different way. A speed way instead of a power way,” said MacLellan. “It’s a fast game now. You gotta be able to forecheck, There’s a lot of backside pressure. He’s gonna have to evolve.”
The Capitals are also going to evolve from their three-year build under MacLellan, who was promoted to general manager in 2014. Some of this is out of some necessity.
“I think it’s evolving out of that three-year because it’s going to be hard for us to bring all the free agents back. We’re going to be getting younger, our prospects are developing and they’re going to take a bigger role. It’s just going to be a different feel to it, I think,” he said.
Different, but ultimately the same. And that’s OK. There’s an argument to be made that staying the course is the right course to take for the Capitals.That a down year, and a frustrating ad injury-affected postseason, isn’t a reason to make a dramatic move with your star player. That a Game 7 loss to a team that they haven’t beaten in the second round in consecutive years isn’t a reason to believe the window to win a Stanley Cup has slammed shut.
There’s reason to believe all of that. Just as there is reason to believe that the Washington Capitals might also be the definition of insanity, incarnate.
s/t to the Capitals for the audio
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