Following a regular season in which they dominated the league, the Washington Capitals were ousted in the first round of the playoffs, leaving a lot of question marks for a team with so much talent.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Capitals and what they might do this summer in order to take the next step towards winning the Stanley Cup.
The Capitals could surely roll out a lineup similar to the one with which they lost to Montreal in the first round and still turn in a 100-point-plus regular season, but that doesn't matter for this team anymore.
After 108 points in 2008-2009 and 121 points last season, the Capitals have established that they can be successful in the regular season, but now they have to figure out what it's going to take to get them over the hump in the postseason.
That might sound easy enough, something that time will take care of for a team with this kind of talent, but ask the San Jose Sharks; they can assure the Capitals that nothing can be taken for granted in the evolution of a hockey team.
Defensively, the Capitals should be better if they get full seasons from John Carlson and Karl Alzner and possibly a veteran free agent or two.
Up front, the Capitals have more than enough talent; enough that they can probably afford to deal a scorer if it will mean fitting a need elsewhere in the lineup.
Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger critiqued the Capitals' style of play, suggesting that the Caps don't play the right way to win in the playoffs. Then, after Washington's first-round loss to Montreal, the ensuing criticisms -- however veiled -- of head coach Bruce Boudreau and many of his most talented players, ratcheted up the pressure on the Capitals heading into next season.
Sure, there needs to be a sense of urgency from this team so that they will do what is required to win in the playoffs, but with the expectations that will be on this team from the get-go next season, the Capitals had better figure out how they're going to deal with the pressure that starts to build after every year's playoff appearance requires an explanation of what went wrong and how it will get better for next season.
After all, the Capitals can make a lot of the right moves this summer and they still might not have the kind of regular season that they just completed in 2009-2010, which is fine, because that's not going to matter.
What will matter is what they can accomplish in the playoffs and it's up to GM George McPhee to put the finishing touches on this group so that they are more than a regular season juggernaut.
George McPhee/Bruce Boudreau
Alexander Ovechkin is coming off the third straight season in which he's tallied at least 50 goals and 100 points and he put up a career-best plus-45 as well, but he also crossed the edge a little too often.
One of the factors that makes Ovechkin such a special player is his physical presence, but Ovechkin was careless too often and it resulted not only in a suspension, but a mark against his reputation. That, combined with postseason, Olympic and World Championship disappointments, should assure that Ovechkin will be as motivated as ever next season.
Signed to a long-term contract extension, Nicklas Backstrom just continues to improve and his third-year production was exceptional. Pavel Bure, in 1992-93, was the last player to put up more than 100 points and a plus-30 rating in one of his first three NHL seasons, as Backstrom did last season.
Following a playoff in which he didn't manage a single goal, despite registering 44 shots in seven games against Montreal, Alexander Semin is taking a lot of heat, even though he set career highs with 40 goals, 84 points and a plus-36 rating.
An unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, Semin would seem to be a highly-marketable commodity if the Capitals try to make a blockbuster trade this summer; however his game-breaking talent is sure nice to have as a complement to Ovechkin, whether on the same line or when the Capitals spread out the offence by having Semin and Ovechkin on different units.
37-year-old Mike Knuble has made a career out of being the meat-and-potatoes winger alongside elite talents and that role fit him well in his first season with the Capitals. He scored 29 goals in 69 games last season and, given that speed isn't a significant part of his game, Knuble should be able to bang in a similar number next season too.
Brooks Laich gives a consistent effort and that's helped him improve each season and he set career highs with 25 goals, 59 points and plus-16 rating. He doesn't have the flash of other Washington forwards, but Laich is a strong winger who can maintain his presence in front of the opposition goal.
Veteran checker Matt Bradley is a solid depth guy, who does the little things well. He scored a career-high 10 goals and 24 points last season, but the 32-year-old is also capable of scrapping, if need be, and killing penalties.
Picked up in a deal with Columbus last season, Jason Chimera is a third-line winger with some upside. He's 31, so it's not likely that his offensive numbers will take off, but Chimera has the size and speed to create more chances than the typical checking wingger.
Checking centre David Steckel anchors the penalty killing unit and handles the defensive side of the game well. At 6-foot-5, his size allows him to match up well physically and even though he's not going to provide little offence, he's a good fit in his role.
Though 37-year-old Michael Nylander remains under contract with the Capitals, he split his time between the AHL and Finnish National League last season. It would be completely shocking for him to get a sniff in Washington next season.
Eric Fehr's ascension to a role as as scoring winger has been very gradual and he did have a career-high 21 goals, 39 points and plus-18 rating, yet played a little over 12 minutes per game. He may not have the most complete game and he's streaky, but is ultimately too productive to be kept under wraps like this.
26-year-old Tomas Fleischmann has made steady progress and set career marks last season with 23 goals, 51 points and a plus-9 rating. His production slipped late in the season and into the playoffs, but he's a capable second-line scorer.
Back problems limited Boyd Gordon to just 36 games last season. He doesn't play a lot, but is reasonably effective in a fourth-line role when healthy.
After making several additions at the deadline last season, the Capitals will have some holes to fill up front and those holes can be filled with a promotion or two from Hershey as well as a look to free agency, where a quality two-way centre like Tomas Plekanec or Matt Cullen could be of interest, especially if Eric Belanger doesn't return.
Mike Green is easily the best offensive defenceman in the league, as his 50 goals and 149 points over the last two seasons would indicate, and he is a plus-63 over the last two years too, but he's still battling the perception that he's too high-risk defensively.
Additionally, back-to-back playoff flops have brought him under greater scrutiny and that reputation can only be put to bed with a strong playoff performance.
Veteran Tom Poti gets his share of criticism at times but as one of ten defencemen in the league to have at least 20 points and a plus-20 rating last season, he's a steady top-four defenceman.
There may not be one individual player with the opportunity to make a bigger difference for the Capitals next season than John Carlson, the 20-year-old defenceman who was kept on a short leash in his first pro season, then was the Capitals' best defenceman in the playoffs.
Tough guy defenceman John Erskine has never played more than 60 games in a season and doesn't play a huge amount when he is in the lineup, but he's evolved to the point that he's a serviceable stay-at-home defender.
Tyler Sloan's been hanging around in a reserve role, playing 66 games with the Capitals over the last two seasons. The 29-year-old is okay if needed, but that's about the extent of it.
Shockingly, Jeff Schultz led the league in plus-minus with a plus-50 rating, a breakthrough season for the 24-year-old. He is a too-gentle giant, but Schultz is a safe defensive defenceman -- something that the Capitals' roster isn't overrun with right now.
With three unrestricted free agent defencemen, the Capitals could be shopping for defensive help this summer. Even if prospect Karl Alzner is ready for a regular role, the Capitals need to bolster their blueline; even if they're not in the market for Anton Volchenkov, the Capitals could use Dan Hamhuis, Henrik Tallinder or Toni Lydman, all reliable defensively. If healthy, a shutdown guy like Willie Mitchell would be intriguing.
The ideal situation for the Capitals might be just to give Semyon Varlamov the starting job and let the talented 22-year-old grow into it, but it's difficult for a Stanley Cup contender to pin their hopes on a goaltender with 28 career regular season starts.
At the very least, the Capitals may want to consider a veteran backup who can handle a significant role.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
33-year-old Jose Theodore had a good year for the Capitals, going 21-1-3 to finish the regular season, but still didn't earn a lot of trust, as he lasted just a couple of games in the playoffs before he was supplanted by Varlamov. Another chance with a new team may be his best bet.
Should Theodore leave, and Michal Neuvirth be deemed to need more time in the minors, the Capitals could look to free agents like Dan Ellis, Chris Mason or Marty Turco, guys that are capable of starting, but will elevate the play of Varlamov with competition for the top job.
||3-18-21,+34, 56 GP
||15-6,2.24 GAA, .919 SVPCT, 22 GP
||16-34-50,+23, 56 GP
||10-10-20,even, 42 GP
||24-8-2, 2.32 GAA, .917 SVPCT, 35 GP
||Novokuznetsk Metallurg (KHL)
||4-3-7,-8, 41 GP
||29-58-87,+19, 66 GP
||Swift Current (WHL)
||47-44-91,-8, 70 GP
||21-31-52,+21, 77 GP
||37-34-71,+22, 79 GP
Karl Alzner's split his time between Hershey and Washington in his first two pro seasons, and the 21-year-old will get a full-fledged opportunity to stay with the Caps as a regular next year. He's not going to provide much sizzle, but Alzner's defensive conscience should be an immediate help.
22-year-old Michal Neuvirth has played 22 games with the Capitals and while he was up-and-down in his appearances last season, he didn't appear to be too far away from being ready for an NHL job. If Washington didn't already have a young goaltender like Varlamov, Neuvirth might be more likely to start next season with the Caps.
He may be small in stature, but Mathieu Perreault has been able to produce and he fared okay in 21 games with the Capitals last season. He hustles and has the hands of a playmaker, so Perreault may get a longer look next season.
Last year's first-round pick, Marcus Johansson, is a talented young playmaker whose game is well-rounded, considering his youth. It may take some time for him to be NHL-ready, but he should have a chance to play a scoring role for the Capitals.
It's not easy for Braden Holtby to unseat the young goaltenders ahead of him in the Capitals' organization, but the 20-year-old enjoyed a strong first pro campaign.
Puck-handling defenceman Dmitri Orlov is just 18 and coming off a full year in the KHL. He'll need some time to develop, but a couple of years in the AHL could be the seasoning he needs.
Dmitri Kugryshev is a strong Russian playmaker who has played the last two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. If Kugryshev figures to handle the jump to the next level (the AHL) due to his combination of balance and skill with the puck.
Speedy centre Cody Eakin emerged as an offensive force in the Dub last season, scoring 47 goals, and he's going to get a chance to prove that he can do it in the pros.
22-year-old Francois Bouchard has made steady progress in two pro seasons, though he has yet to skate in a single game for the Caps. A lanky forward with a scoring touch, he may need another year before he's really ready to challenge for a job.
Andrew Gordon is a hard-working 24-year-old who has been a productive AHLer for the last three seasons. If Washington has an opening on the fourth line, that could be the opportunity that Gordon needs to make the jump.
26th - Riley Sheahan, Stanislav Galiev, Jaden Schwartz
According to www.capgeek.com, the Capitals have approximately $43.4M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, veteran goaltender.
What I said the Capitals needed last year: Two top six forwards.
Who did they add? Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison.
TRADE MARKET Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, Boyd Gordon.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.