New year, new coach, same result. The Washington Capitals saw their season come to an unceremonious end on Wednesday with a Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers and once again, it felt far too early.
But for all the similarities to the team’s past failures, there were clear signs of progress over the course of the season and the playoffs.
It may not feel that way right now. The Caps lost to the Rangers in the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons despite having a 3-1 series lead. It is the fifth time the Capitals have lost a series when up by 3-1 and the tenth time the team has lost when leading by two games. The Caps still have not made it past the second round since 1998, well before Alex Ovechkin came to Washington.
Yet, this is also the team that failed to make the playoffs just one season ago. In his first season as coach, Barry Trotz made the Caps into a hard-nosed, balanced team. He took this underachieving roster and made them into playoff contenders in just one year.
Rather than meddle with all aspects of the game and every position as Adam Oates did, Trotz delegated responsibilities to trusted and respected assistants such as Mitch Korn, who transformed Braden Holtby into one of the league’s top netminders, and Todd Reirden, who helped the Caps improve defensively from 21st in the NHL with 2.79 goals against per game to 7th with 2.43.
Under Trotz’ tutelage, Alex Ovechkin became a more defensively responsible player, improving last season’s comical plus/minus of -35 to +10 in the regular season. Analysts were absolutely effusive in their praise of the Great Eight throughout the season saying he was a more complete player and a better leader. Clearly he was and that’s an important step.
Rookie playmakers also flourished under Trotz. In his first season with the team, Tom Wilson was locked in a closet by Adam Oates and given less than eight minutes of ice time per game. That’s less ice time than notable stars such as Ryan Stoa, Casey Wellman and Chris Brown. It’s even less time than Oates gave Martin Erat despite how clearly he distrusted Erat.
Under Oates, there was seemingly no plan in place for what to do with Wilson or how to develop him and we saw no noticeable improvements in his first season because of it.
That was not the case this year with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Both players cycled up and down the lineup. Both saw their time in the press box and Burakovsky was even reassigned to Hershey. Yet, there was a clear focus on developing them. Both rookies played key roles with the Caps in the postseason, especially Kuznetsov, who had a breakout performance with five goals and two assists.
The bottom line is that this is a team that missed the playoffs last year with a coach and general manager making decisions based solely on the present with little regard for the team’s future. This year, not only did the Caps develop some of their top players for the future, they also took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to overtime in Game 7 in the second round.
One favorable bounce of the puck could have the Caps facing Tampa Bay right now. That’s all that separated them from the conference final.
As much as it may sting now, overall this season was a clear success. The reason it doesn’t feel that way is because of how the team lost. Losing yet another 3-1 series lead is hard to swallow, especially since the Caps came 101 seconds away from winning Game 5. Seeing Henrik Lundqvist on his way to the bench lifting his arms in triumph before he could get there will be an image that haunts Caps fans for years to come.
Trotz, however, was not the coach when the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in 2011. He was not behind the bench when Montreal pulled off the unbelievable upset in 2010. No one with the team now was on the roster for the Caps’ collapse against Pittsburgh in 1992 or the Easter Epic in 1987.
In terms of this team, right now, this team showed progress.
Consider this: if back in October someone had said the Caps would take the Presidents’ Trophy winners to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, wouldn’t that have been considered a success?