-- It is approximately 270 steps from the visiting locker room here at the St. Pete Times Forum to the end of the loading dock where the bus waits to ferry visiting teams to the airport.
made that walk alone Wednesday after the Washington Capitals
were swept out of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning
with a 5-3 loss in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
General Manager George McPhee
and coach Bruce Boudreau
made the walk together, with the coach pulling his briefcase behind him. It isn't hard to visualize the looks on their faces -- a combination of frustration, anger, and maybe most of all, disbelief.
Another season full of promise and incredible expectations had ended with an all-too-familiar feeling of disappointment for three of the four most important figures in the Washington organization. They, along with the rest of the Capitals, were walking toward a far more uncertain future than any of them could have expected a week ago.
"Will there be changes? Of course there's going to be, and who knows what it is going to be. ... As far as who it is going to be -- there will be some different faces here next year."
-- Mike Knuble
"I hope not," Ovechkin said after the game when asked if he was worried about major changes for next season. "This locker room is unbelievable. Everybody supports everybody. I hope this same team is going to be here next year.
"I don't think we miss something. We have unbelievable team, great locker room, great atmosphere, but we just miss one opportunity to win one game and didn't bounce back. Again, it happened and we're going to see what is going to happen."
Added Mike Knuble
: "I'm glad I don't have to make that decision as a player. That's a knee-jerk reaction, you've got to blow it up or change it. I think that's a real knee-jerk and George isn't like that. Will there be changes? Of course there's going to be, and who knows what it is going to be. … As far as who it is going to be -- there will be some different faces here next year. That's a guarantee, probably."
McPhee and majority owner Ted Leonsis will have to make those decisions, and what lies ahead for a franchise that has earned so much regular-season success the past four seasons but has been unable to translate it to postseason results remains to be seen.
Boudreau has been asked about his job security at various points this season, which was a trying one at times despite the team's late rally to claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Leonsis and McPhee also have been asked about it, and consistently have backed their coach, through an eight-game winless streak in December and uneven play in January as Boudreau implemented a new defensive-minded system.
"(This) doesn't fall on Bruce," Brooks Laich
said. "We're the guys that play the game. I think Bruce, (assistant coaches) Dean (Evason) and Bob (Woods) -- I think we have a dream team of coaches. I think we're privileged to play for these guys. I think we're lucky to play for these guys. I've said it before -- any criticism directed toward them is totally unjust. They put the game plan together (and) it's up to the players to execute it. I can't say enough about our coaching staff. Like I said, I think they’re a dream team of coaches."
McPhee has continued to improve his roster the past couple of seasons despite often being very close to the salary cap ceiling, and the 2010-11 edition of the Capitals had by far its best collection of talent to support the franchise's core of young stars in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom
, Alexander Semin
and Mike Green
Washington was short on playoff experience and short on veteran leadership two years ago when the Capitals pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins
to a seventh game in an epic conference semifinal series. Since then McPhee has added Knuble, Jason Chimera
, Scott Hannan
and Jason Arnott
while promoting promising young talent in John Carlson
, Karl Alzner
, Marcus Johansson
and Michal Neuvirth
. Yet still the Capitals were unable to meet expectations this postseason.
"They have everything that it takes to win, no question," said Arnott, one of two players on the team who has won the Stanley Cup. "It's a tough, tough thing to do. Playoffs can go one way or another. You've got to have luck, you've got to have bounces go your way. For me, I think this team's got a great mix of guys that can win. Unfortunately, it's not going to happen this year, but if they keep building on it and building on it and use this series as an experience to move forward next year, hopefully that'll give them the drive to do so."
According to Capgeek.com, the Capitals have nearly $51 million in cap space tied up for next season with 18 one-way contracts. There are several key players who are not signed, and there are tough decisions to come depending on what the upper level of the cap is for next season.
In-season additions Arnott, Hannan and Marco Sturm
can become unrestricted free agents on July 1. Also on that list are Laich, Matt Bradley
and Boyd Gordon
, while Karl Alzner
and goalie Semyon Varlamov
-- who did not appear in any of the team's nine playoff games after starting all but three of them in the previous two years -- can become restricted free agents.
There won't be enough money to go around for everyone. McPhee also will have to decide which, if any, of the players under contract he would be interested in moving out in an attempt to shake up a roster that has been incredibly talented but unable to perform up to expectations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"This locker room is unbelievable. Everybody supports everybody. I hope this same team is going to be here next year." -- Alex Ovechkin
"If I had all the answers, I'd be in a different position," Arnott said. "It's hard to say. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way. You need to play 60 minutes every single night, every single game. If you don't, you're not going to win much. Hopefully the guys learn that through this series -- if you don't come to play 60 minutes every single night, you're not going to win anything. Hopefully they take the experience away and look at it that way and have a horrible summer and come back hungrier next year."
This was a wild and memorable season for the Capitals. They rallied to claim their fourth straight Southeast Division title and earned their second consecutive No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They were part of an Emmy Award-winning documentary, and won the League's signature regular-season game, the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
Many pundits wondered if New Year's Day would be a turning point in the Capitals' season, and allow them to author a happy ending to what had been a tough few weeks in front of the HBO cameras.
As it turns out, the season did ultimately turn on that night in the rain at Heinz Field. While the Capitals were in the midst of collecting a 3-1 victory, Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman
was completing a trade with the New York Islanders
for 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson
"They were four points behind us this year, and when they got Dwayne Roloson
, they became a completely different team," Boudreau said. "And then they played well. They're totally committed and they did a great job. We all want to put us down, but I think we've got to give them credit. Every game hinged on a break here or a break there. The first goal goes in off (Ryan) Malone's leg -- that's a break, but they earned the breaks. You earn your own breaks. We had great looks and chances in the first period to get ahead and we didn't take advantage of it. When that happens, you don't usually win."