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Capitals believe they can win Stanley Cup again with core group

Need others to step up to match playoff production of Ovechkin, Backstrom

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Washington Capitals were still digesting Friday that their bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions ended with their 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference First Round on Wednesday.

Figuring out exactly what went wrong might take some time, but the recurring theme from their exit interviews was that they were unable to match the desperation level they had when they won the Stanley Cup last season. 

"We didn't have the total team effort that we had last year, the commitment, the desperation," general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The most notable exceptions were captain Alex Ovechkin (four goals, five assists) and center Nicklas Backstrom (five goals, three assists), who were the best two players against the Hurricanes. But they didn't have enough other players elevate their game. 

So the Hurricanes moved on to face the New York Islanders in the second round while the Capitals have to begin planning for next season and beyond a little earlier than they hoped.

Video: Todd Reirden | Exit Interview

Unlike last offseason, when the Capitals kept most of their roster hoping it would give them the best chance to repeat, there will be changes. There are decisions to be made on potential unrestricted free agents such as forwards Brett Connolly, Carl Hagelin and Devante Smith-Pelly, and defenseman Brooks Orpik. 

That the core, led by Ovechkin, Backstrom, forward T.J. Oshie, defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby, will remain intact for at least one more season is comforting, and reason to believe they can win the Stanley Cup next season.

"We have the ability in our room to do that, especially with our core group," coach Todd Reirden said. "I don't see any reason why we would expect anything less than coming back and contending for another Stanley Cup."

But how far the Capitals Cup window extends beyond next season will also be impacted by how they handle this offseason, beginning with Backstrom and Holtby.

Each will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after next season if they aren't signed to new contracts before then. The Capitals are permitted to do that beginning July 1.

MacLellan said he will make initial inquiries on what it will take to re-sign each but was vague on how aggressive he will be.

"They both have a year left, so we'll talk to both of them," MacLellan said. "We'll have decisions to make as we go throughout the year."

Regardless, it seems almost certain Backstrom, who turns 32 on Nov. 23, will get a new contract at some point. MacLellan considers him an essential part of the team's leadership group, as Ovechkin's longtime center and right-hand man

What will happen with Holtby is less clear.

Holtby turns 30 on Sept. 16, and by the 2020-21 season, Washington's goalie of the future, Ilya Samsonov, the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft who played for Hershey in the American Hockey League this season, should be ready to play regularly in the NHL. 

Video: Hurricanes oust defending champion Capitals in seven

So the Capitals have a difficult decision to make about whether to commit long term to Holtby financially this summer or wait to see how next season plays out, how Samsonov's development continues, and possibly move on from Holtby after that.

The Capitals also have to keep in mind that Ovechkin, who turns 34 on Sept. 17, has two more seasons remaining on his contract. The Capitals aren't permitted to sign Ovechkin to a contract extension until July 1, 2021.

By then he'll be closing in on his 36th birthday, but he demonstrated this season he is still one of the NHL's top players, leading the League with 51 goals during the regular season.

So it's not surprising that MacLellan anticipates that Ovechkin, along with Backstrom, will remain a big part of Washington's plans.

"For me, you want to extend our chances to win and keep the best possible lineup," MacLellan said. "Ovi had a great year and Nick had a great year. You'd love to keep having them on your team and extend them … ride them as long as they want to play out and then surround them with the best team you can surround them with."

Ovechkin has been non-committal about how long he plans to continue playing, but made it clear he believes the Capitals' window to win the Cup again remains wide open.

"The group of guys that we have in the locker room has been tremendous," Ovechkin said. "We all enjoy playing together, be around together. We've been through ups and downs together, so we know all the different situations and we have to stick together."

That kind of optimism was the main difference between this day of exit interviews and those that followed the Capitals' previous early exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Disappointed as they are about losing to the Hurricanes, the Capitals no longer have to wonder if they have what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. 

After last season, they know.

"Before you win, it's kind of like, 'What do you need?'" Backstrom said. "You don't know the answer to that. You're just guessing and going on your instinct. But now I feel like we've been through it, and it is possible."

Now they have to figure out how to do it again.

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