After another disappointing end to their season, the Washington Capitals will be faced with more questions than in the previous decade as they enter the offseason at a fork in the road.
Will the two-time President's Trophy winners keep most of their big pieces and try to reload, or will they sell off their tradable assets and begin anew? Such is the life of a franchise who continuously comes up short of a Stanley Cup.
Following another early exit from the NHL Playoffs — this time in the second round at the hands of their arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins — let's examine some moves that can be made that may shape how Washington — and the Alex Ovechkin era — will look moving forward.
Active Free Agency
The Capitals have 13 unrestricted free agents scheduled to hit the open market in a few weeks, and most of them are impact players that the team can ill afford to lose. But when you come up short with a group that has been together for much of the last two years, some radical changes could be made to try and find another path to glory.
The biggest free agent name is defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk who the Caps acquired from St. Louis mid-season. Since his arrival, Shattenkirk has been a bust, and there seems to be no reason to think Washington will re-sign him due to his play and likely demand for a pricey contract.
The three players the Capitals need to focus on signing most are T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner, and Daniel Winnik. Oshie is the proven goal-scorer who can give the team offensive depth, while Winnik can play very well as a center or winger and provides decent defensive returns.
With most of the defensemen for Washington getting up there in age, the 28-year old Alzner is a valuable signing who is more of a defense-first guy instead of someone who can rack up a bunch of points.
Justin Williams is still a possible signee as well, but at 35 years old there could be questions of how much is left in the tank, and replacement players should not be hard to find.
Sign One Big Name, Multiple Complimentary Pieces
Besides their own free agents, the Caps need to be active in the open market to find talent to infuse a different flavor to the locker room. When scanning over the projected list of UFA's in the coming weeks, a few names stand out as plausible transactions.
Michael Del Zotto stands out as a name who could be a decent signing for the team as he provides another right-handed d-man with the departure of Shattenkirk, but lacks the goal-scoring ability. With six goals in 51 contests, the possibility for scores is there and the Caps may not need too much depending on their other signings.
Alexander Radulov would be a nice replacement for Justin Williams, though he comes with a bigger cap hit. But with the dump of talent that should be coming, Washington can afford the current Oiler. A 30-goal scorer, Radulov would give offensive depth a boost and could be a fantastic addition to the second line.
The final piece of the puzzle is a bit of a stretch because he could end up in a crowded room, but he provides much more depth in the center group than the Capitals currently have. Martin Hanzal from Minnesota is a capable scorer, and could command a second or third line with the talent Washington has. Minnesota isn't going anywhere in the playoffs either, so an exit to the East could be in the works for Hanzal.
Trade One Of Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom or Braden Holtby
If the Capitals are going to truly find a difference moving forward, then they need to trade away one of their proven superstars. While it is hard to swallow for Capitals fans, the truth is that if they can't win a Cup together, then why keep them together?
Holtby seems the least likely of the three based on his age (27) and exquisite play he showed during the playoffs, especially late against the Pens. It is hard to come by elite goalies, and the Caps have one, so they should be wary of just throwing him away.
Backstrom is a possibility, but he has been a consistent performer even when the Caps are at their lowest of points. The alternate captain behind Ovechkin, "Backy" could have number-one guy potential to him, but we don't know so long as Ovechkin is still wearing the Capitals sweater.
And here comes the big move. Alexander Ovechkin must be traded if the Capitals are serious about making a Stanley Cup run any time soon. As great of a player as he is, Ovi will be 32 in a few months and showed signs of slowing down this season. Combined with lazy play in the postseason, it is almost as though the captain doesn't believe in his own team when he is on the ice.
Trading away one of the best goal-scorers in the history of hockey will be tough because teams may balk at the price, but there should be plenty of suitable trade partners out there. The first stop that comes to mind is Toronto, but they may be hesitant to sell off their youth.
The Capitals would also likely send their best player somewhere where they won't see him all the time, so that rules out anybody from the Metro Division. In the end, I believe Ovechkin could end up in a town like Boston, where his hard-hitting mentality would be accepted with open arms and his goal scoring would add a fun flavor to the Bruins lineup.
Backstrom would overtake the captaincy for Washington — as he should — and the Capitals would enter a new era as a franchise still seeking glory for the first time in their history.
Such is the life of a team which continuously comes up short.