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Capitals at crossroads following latest playoff loss

Face uncertain future with Alex Ovechkin, coach Barry Trotz after falling short of expectations again

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals have reached an organizational crossroads, and left wing Alex Ovechkin and coach Barry Trotz are standing in the middle.

The Capitals fell well short of their expectations again by losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round, ending with a disheartening 2-0 loss in Game 7 on Wednesday. Now they face an uncertain future.

Even if the Capitals had reached the conference final for first time since 1998 and won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43-year history, some change would have been inevitable because of free agency and salary-cap constraints. General manager Brian MacLellan acknowledged that when he said before the start of last season that this group of players had a two-year window to win a championship.

But having that window close so abruptly might force MacLellan, and perhaps owner Ted Leonsis, to make some more difficult decisions concerning Ovechkin and Trotz.

Ovechkin, Washington's captain, remains the face of the Capitals and probably isn't going anywhere with four more seasons left on his 13-year, $124 million contract, a limited no-trade clause and an average annual value of $9.5 million, according to CapFriendly.com. But Ovechkin will turn 32 on Sept. 17, and after having his ice time reduced during the regular season and being dropped to third line for the last three games against the Penguins, there is some question about his role going forward.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Ovechkin strikes on second effort

The Russian Hockey Federation said Thursday that Ovechkin won't play in the IIHF World Championship because of a lower-body injury. The Capitals have yet to comment on Ovechkin's injury, which may have occurred on a low hip check to his left leg from forward Nazem Kadri in Game 5 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but that might explain why Trotz decided to play him on the third line.

It also might be why Trotz dodged a question following Game 7 about Ovechkin's play, saying, "Emotionally right now, I don't want to answer that question. We win and lose as a team. That's probably my best answer right now."

More likely will be known after the Capitals gather for breakdown day on Friday, but Ovechkin was inconsistent during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, finishing with eight points (five goals, three assists) in 13 games. He was held to one point (a goal in Game 5) in the last four games, and his inability to chip the puck past Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz in Game 7 contributed to forward Patric Hornqvist's goal 4:14 into the third period that increased the Pittsburgh lead to 2-0.

During the regular season, Ovechkin scored 33 goals, his lowest total in a full season since 2010-11, after three consecutive 50-goal seasons. Yet he accepted without complaint everything Trotz asked of him, including the demotion to the third line, and Trotz repeatedly praised him for that.

The Capitals have won the Presidents' Trophy three times, including each of the past two seasons, and finished first in their division seven times during Ovechkin's 12 NHL seasons. Mostly because of him, Verizon Center is packed for every game, something that was not the case before his arrival in 2005.

But they have not been able to get over the hump in the playoffs. Losing again to the Penguins, who also defeated them in the second round last season, only made it more painful.

Ovechkin was unable to explain it Wednesday, saying, "It's hard to say right now. The feelings [are] not there."

Trotz, 54, hasn't been able to solve the riddle during his three seasons with the Capitals either. In his 18 seasons as an NHL coach, the first 15 with the Nashville Predators, he hasn't advanced past the second round.

Trotz, who won the Jack Adams Award as the top coach in the NHL last season, has one more year left on his contract. MacLellan and Leonsis have to decide whether to sign him to an extension, let him coach next season on an expiring contract, which would create uncertainty during what figures to be a pivotal season, or let him go.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Backstrom goes top shelf to pad lead

The decision could depend on which approach the Capitals take. If they attempt to retool on the fly, which the Penguins did after losing in the first round two seasons ago, and try to immediately make another run at the Stanley Cup while they have some good years left in Ovechkin and 29-year-old center Nicklas Backstrom, MacLellan will have to decide whether he believes Trotz can win in the playoffs.

If MacLellan thinks it's better for the Capitals to take a step back for a couple of seasons while acquiring and working in some younger players, Trotz might be the best coach to get the most from the group during that transition.

Regardless, the Capitals will have a different look next season. Forwards T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik, and defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk each can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer each can become a restricted free agent and is likely to command a significant raise. Washington also will lose one player to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft.

"There's going to be some good people leaving," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "That's the way professional sports work. It's math."

But what happens with Ovechkin and Trotz will be about more than simple math. Because their regular-season success has not added up to playoff success, the Capitals might have to figure out how to work the equation from a different direction.

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