Capitals face uncertain path forward

Alex Ovechkin and the Caps have the talent to make the playoffs, but they may not have the time. Patrick McDermott/NHLI/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It was another loss in a season that's already been too full of them. This time on Tuesday night, the Capitals were defeated by an average Toronto team, one that had played the night before. New coach Adam Oates had the unpleasant task of delivering his evaluation of the game, which wasn't going to be exactly what a fan base (or owner) tired of losing wanted to hear. And it wasn't going to be much different than anything he'd been saying now for several days.

Oates liked the effort. Again. He liked the opportunities his team created. He agreed that it's hard to maintain the confidence of his team during the slow start in his first year as the coach but he'll find examples of where it's working and highlight them.

In this game there was another deflating goal, a miscommunication behind the net between Tom Poti and Michal Neuvirth that led to an early deficit. Every Caps game lately seems to have an equivalent moment.

At one point, as Oates patiently agreed with criticism while maintaining his positive approach, he was asked: When does a good effort stop being enough? Is the time approaching where the results must accompany the effort?

"Sure," he answered.

If this team truly is trying to build a Stanley Cup winner, that moment isn't nearly as close as Capitals fans may want it to be. And possibly not as close as owner Ted Leonsis wants it to be either. There's reason to believe a shot at a Stanley Cup isn't far off. Just not this year.

A hard reality

In their current form, the Capitals aren't a Stanley Cup-winning team. Because of the shortened season, they're probably not even a playoff team.

That opinion, however, isn't shared by someone whose opinion counts most. During a Monday phone conversation, Leonsis shared his immediate expectations.

"I believe this is a playoff team now. Even if you look at where we're situated today," Leonsis said then. "I think the team in the eighth spot, we're three points behind. There's plenty of time this year for us to be better and be a playoff team. We saw last year the team that finished with the eighth-best record in the West won the Cup. The focus has to be on more production from the team and getting points and qualifying for the playoffs."

As it stands now, the Capitals are only four points outside a playoff spot heading in to tonight's rematch against the Penguins. So in that regard, Leonsis is correct, although there's half a conference to leapfrog to get there.

But there's also been a perfect storm working against the Capitals this season because of the lockout. Start with the injuries. A top four on defense of Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov is good, even playoff good. But Orlov (undisclosed injury) hasn't played a minute this season and it's quite possible he doesn't suit up at all. The team's heart and soul forward, Brooks Laich, (groin) is also still out.

In the meantime, if the team was depending on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to carry them while others who didn't play during the lockout (like the entire defense) worked into game shape, that hasn't happened. Their adjustment back to the NHL is still in progress.

And then there's the new system, already under the microscope because everything is amped up and magnified during the 48-game season.

It's going to take a good 20 games to get it right. That's what it took under previous head coach Dale Hunter, and his objectives were easier to grasp. Players are progressing towards a better understanding of where to be and what their expectations are on the ice. That started after the Devils game on Jan. 25. But there's a difference between knowing what to do and allowing your individual talents to flourish within that system. That isn't happening yet and it may not for a while.

"Once you understand the system, that's when you can start being creative. That's when the goals come," said defenseman Mike Green. "That's when the flow of the game comes, rather than, you're thinking too much about the system. That's when you don't get your breaks and you're a step behind."

Like the Caps have been for most of the season.

The players remain confident that moment will eventually happen, just like it did in New Jersey, but it may not be at a point that's soon enough to save this season. Not when there are only 38 games left.

"Yeah," Green said. "That's the problem. It needs to be tomorrow."

Win now ...

That's the dilemma that faces GM George McPhee in what could be the most challenging year of his career running the Capitals. He has an owner with expectations of winning today and a team better poised to win next year and best set up to win in two years.

The Capitals are in a unique place in their development. They easily could have been one of those young teams like the Blackhawks or Penguins to win a Stanley Cup, with the 2010 team the most likely candidate. They didn't. Now there's an evolution into a franchise with a core who learned the hard way how to win that will eventually be boosted by the next wave of young talent. The young talent isn't there yet, but it's coming.

So what does McPhee do right now? He's been the general manager since 1997, does he still have the security to think big picture with this franchise?

"We haven't figured out a way to get past the second round of the playoffs," Leonsis said. "I expect us to be good this year and good [in the future]. Until I see that we're not trying to do things to make us a team that can win the Cup, then I'll know it's time. I think George is constantly trying to make us that team."

If there's something he believes he can do immediately to help the Capitals win right now, McPhee will do it. Considering the needs of this team and the early hole, at least one of these moves would have to happen at some point in the near future to rally back into the playoff hunt:

Trade for a scoring winger. It may take one of the talented prospects in the system or surrendering a first-round pick in a draft that is one of the best of the last several years to do it. But if the Capitals added a guy like Jarome Iginla or Corey Perry (if they ever hit the market), they'd immediately boost an offense producing just 2.3 goals per game (No. 24 in the NHL).

They also need a top four defenseman. Unless Orlov's return is closer than it appears, the Caps must find another talented blueliner in order to be a legit playoff team. Problem is, so do half the teams in the league. There are plenty of sixes and sevens available but nobody the Capitals could plug in and feel good about playing for 20 minutes a game over anyone they have now. Oates' system is built around protecting his defensemen like Green and Carlson, so the theory is that once they get a top four healthy and playing well, things are set up long-term. Right now the top four isn't healthy, nor is it playing particularly well. You might be able to pry Keith Yandle away from the Phoenix Coyotes, but again, the package would have to include a first-round pick -- one that may be a lottery pick -- and/or a player the Coyotes consider a legit No. 1 center. I'm not sure there's a fit there.

Add a veteran goalie. Maybe at some point the Ottawa Senators are willing to move Craig Anderson in order to create room for the talented Robin Lehner. Or if Miikka Kiprusoff returns to health, he could be the kind of star goalie who could carry the Capitals as they grow into Oates' system. There could be a brewing controversy in Anaheim where Viktor Fasth is outplaying Jonas Hiller. Maybe McPhee can persuade Bob Murray to move Hiller, especially considering the Ducks have the talented John Gibson in the system. Again, future assets would be required to make any of these moves.

With a serious hole to dig out of, McPhee is already working the phones. He wouldn't be doing his job otherwise. It's a tough trade market right now, but at some point he may be faced with a deal that provides immediate help at the cost of future success. That's the balance he'll have to weigh.

"We always think in those terms," McPhee said. "A manager's job is to think short term and long term. What could we do to make ourselves better now without really hamstringing us for the future? You have to be smart about things too."

There may be a better option.

Punt this season.

... or play the long game?

Not with any public declaration that you're not trying to win but with the understanding that this isn't the worst year to get caught in transition. Especially considering the talented draft waiting for lottery teams. Spend the remaining games mastering Oates' system rather than pressing now just to win games. Continue to give Ovechkin the necessary time to get comfortable with his move to the right wing. It took Ilya Kovalchuk at least a month to settle into the same transition.

From Oates' first day on the job, he's taken a big-picture approach. Maybe there was a way to ease in his system because of the short season so that the transition wouldn't be as dramatic. That wasn't an option he was willing to consider.

"What I learned from New Jersey the last two years was that you have to drive the bus the same way, all the time," he said. "Not that you don't want to win games. Of course you want to win games, but if we win the game the wrong way and it creates the wrong habits, you're shooting yourself in the foot."

So stay the course. Use this year as a bridge season from the Capitals teams of the past to one created in the vision Oates is implementing fused with the high-end talent coming in the next two years. And while some may think this team's championship window is closing, this strategy immediately opens it right back up. Here's what that path looks like:

• Stick with Braden Holtby and Neuvirth until you're truly comfortable which one is the better NHL goalie. Continue to develop prospect Philipp Grubauer in Hershey with the notion that he may end up being the best of all three. As the deadline gets closer, entertain trading Holtby or Neuvirth to a team looking for help in goal heading into the playoffs. If that doesn't happen, trade one this summer.

• Offer Mike Ribeiro a 2-4 year contract extension. Maximum. He's been the Capitals' best player this season with 11 points in 10 games, looking like the No. 2 center this team has needed for years. But he's 32 years old. This isn't a guy you want locked up until late into his 30s. If he's willing to do it, even if the annual cost is higher, get an extension done. If not, trade him at the deadline. A talented center like that will bring a nice package that can be spun this summer into a player who will help immediately.

• Bring Filip Forsberg to North America as soon as his contract obligations are completed in Sweden. He's big, can skate and has a great release. He should be on the Capitals next year. Put Evgeny Kuznetsov on the next flight to Washington, D.C. as soon as the 2014 Winter Olympics are over if that's the earliest he's willing to play in the NHL. He's a critical part of the development of this team and his absence this season is another huge reason why the Capitals are a step behind in their development.

"We've taken a step back in that Kuznetsov isn't here and Forsberg isn't here and we had a big whiff in a [2008] first-round pick in [Anton] Gustafsson, who is not in the league," Leonsis said. "That's three first-round picks that haven't made an impact on our team. So we do believe as those players come in that will be good for us."

It's not unreasonable to think that by the start of the 2014-15 season, Kuznetsov, Forsberg and 2012 first-rounder Tom Wilson will all be impact players for the Capitals.

• McPhee has left the Capitals with plenty of cap space heading into the future, so rather than spend valuable assets like prospects or draft picks now to trade for a forward in hopes that you can somehow make the playoffs, use that cap space on those same potential free agents. According to CapGeek.com, the Capitals have just $43.9 million committed to players next season, leaving about $20.4 million in space once the cap goes down to $64.3 million.

"We always think we can be players in free agency," Leonsis said.

Ribeiro, Joey Crabb, Matt Hendricks, Wojtek Wolski, Eric Fehr, Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti and John Erskine come off the books after this season. Alzner is a restricted free agent and is due a nice raise. Both Holtby and Neuvirth are restricted free agents and decisions will need to be made there.

• Finally, if the season ended today, the Capitals would have the best shot at the No. 1 overall pick. There's a debate to be had as to whether or not center Nate MacKinnon or defenseman Seth Jones is the better fit in Washington or anywhere.

"Flip a coin," said one NHL executive.

It doesn't matter; either player can change the fortunes of a franchise. Put one of them on this Capitals team and they truly jump right back into Stanley Cup contention. Both players will be in the NHL next season, and adding a center like MacKinnon seems like the ideal pick for the Capitals.

"The thing that MacKinnon can do, he can will himself onto his team and raise the whole team's level," said a Western Conference scout.

That's exactly the kind of personality this team needs, especially if you think there's something fundamentally flawed about the chemistry mix among the core players. Even if they don't land the No. 1 pick, this is a draft with five or six players considered franchise players in a deep first round.

The second plan requires patience and has risk. Predicting Kuznetsov's future is proving to be an impossible task, and there really is too much talent currently on the NHL roster for them to finish completely in the basement.

Still, it raises the question: Is this franchise willing to go through a down year in a shortened season if it means a Stanley Cup in two years? It's definitely an unfair question since there are no guarantees in this league, but I asked McPhee anyway.

"If you're guaranteeing us a Stanley Cup? Well, yeah," he said, hesitating slightly. "If you're telling me, this is the way to the Stanley Cup, sure. But that's not the way you approach the game or you approach the season. You want to win every year. I think we have terrific pieces coming to fill out our team nicely. But the task right now is to make things work right now. It is every year."