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The biggest offseason decisions facing the Capitals start with Alex Ovechkin

May 18th, 2017 at 12:35 PM
Aggregated By Sports Media 101

Another playoff exit has sparked media talk of Alex Ovechkin being traded or stripped of the captaincy. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A lot of attention has been placed on the inevitable roster turnover that awaits the Washington Capitals this offseason with 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency. But what of the players who are expected back next season? Their projected roles will impact a series of critical decisions by General Manager Brian MacLellan.

What follows is the second installment in a three-part series looking at the offseason ahead for the Capitals. The Washington Post is examining the organization’s summer plans, including how the expansion draft will affect the team, what will happen to the players from this past season and what external solutions could aid the Capitals in the season to come.

MacLellan is conducting a “thorough evaluation” of the team after the Capitals had yet another disappointing postseason run with an exit short of the conference finals. Alex Ovechkin’s role going forward, how to fill expected holes in the forward corps and blue line and which prospects might find themselves in Washington next season are possible considerations for MacLellan.

What’s the future for Alex Ovechkin?

This past season was frustrating for Washington’s superstar winger. Ovechkin’s minutes were reduced by roughly two per game, and his 33 goals were his second-lowest over an 82-game season. More concerning: Just 16 of those goals came at even-strength, a career low.

He ended the postseason playing on a third line alongside center Lars Eller, a move Coach Barry Trotz said was intended to spread the team’s scoring through the lineup. Ovechkin was also hurt for most of the playoffs, suffering a knee injury on a hit by Toronto’s Nazem Kadri in the first round, then injuring a hamstring going into the boards in Washington’s second-round series against Pittsburgh.

When Trotz spoke to reporters two days after the Capitals’ season ended, he indicated a bottom-six role isn’t in Ovechkin’s future.

“He’s a prominent big-time player, no question,” Trotz said. “Every series, there’s always a tweak. I think probably very similar to last year. He’s been in the top six, top three really, through his whole career. And when I go top six, I can play him with [center Nicklas Backstrom] or play him with [Evgeny Kuznetsov]. It’s not a bad option. â?¦ He’s still got game. No question. He’s still a pretty productive player for us.”

So, what does the future hold for Ovechkin? The popular suggestion that he should be traded isn’t realistic; a deal would require approval from ownership, and Ted Leonsis vows that the team intends to contend for a championship next season. If they traded Ovechkin, they’d have to replace upwards of 30 goals in their lineup. Stripping him of the captaincy, another suggestion to shake up the team, is also unlikely because that could create more locker room tension than it would potentially solve.

The good news for Ovechkin is that he doesn’t require any offseason surgery for his knee and hamstring injuries, and not representing Russia at the World Championships gives him more time to rehab those ailments. But with the league becoming increasingly speed driven, Ovechkin’s game has to similarly evolve to regain the explosiveness he more consistently flashed in his younger years. He’s at his best when he’s using his hulking 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame to play physically, but to avoid becoming a power-play specialist, Ovechkin could become a little lighter and quicker.

“I don’t want to stay on the same level,” Ovechkin said. “I want to be better, I want to get better and I have to work much harder this offseason than those previous to get success and to get the goal of the Stanley Cup. I’m pretty sure everybody wants to win …

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Tags: Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, NHL, Washington Capitals

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