Ovechkin, Capitals face challenges after failing to make playoffs

“Obviously, you don’t want to finish a season like that early,” Ovechkin said Saturday. “When you know you’re not going to be in the playoffs, it’s kind of hard to find motivation. I think this core group of guys has been in the playoffs most of the time and won the Cup (in 2018). Lots of things happened right away before the season, during the year, lots of injuries, lots of ups and downs. I think no one is happy right now. 

“No one enjoys being in this situation.”

Washington (35-37-10) went 2-8-3 in its final 13 games to finish 12 points behind the Florida Panthers for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. 
The Capitals head into the offseason determined to avoid being in the same position a year from now but face a difficult challenge trying to retool around the remaining players from their 2018 championship core, including Ovechkin, 37, forward T.J. Oshie, 36, cener Nicklas Backstrom, 35, defenseman John Carlson, 33, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, 30, and forward Tom Wilson, 29.

They also have to hire a new coach after parting ways with Peter Laviolette on Friday.

“Trying to stay competitive while getting younger is going to be challenging, yes,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “But that’s the stage we’re at. That’s the decision we’ve made here. We want to finish out a couple careers of important players in our organization and we want to stay competitive, but we also want to get younger.”

Ovechkin, who led the Capitals with 75 points (42 goals, 33 assists) in his 18th NHL season, is undoubtedly at the top of the list of those “important players.” Before the forward signed his five-year, $47.5 million contract in 2021, the Capitals pledged to him to remain competitive to provide him with the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup and the best chance to break Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894 goals.

Ovechkin finished this season with 822 goals, leaving him 72 behind Gretzky, after passing Gordie Howe for second in League history when he scored his 802nd against the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 23. But he still has some work to do, and MacLellan acknowledged Ovechkin’s chase of Gretzky will influence how the organization proceeds.  

“That’s all of it,” MacLellan said. “We want to do what’s best for him and at the same time, what’s best for the organization.”

The Washington captain had a trying season, playing through an injury for much of the second half and dealing with the death of his father, Mikhail, on Feb. 15. 

“It’s part of life, but you never thought it’s going to happen ever,” Ovechkin said. “It was hard for me and for all my family and friends, but it’s life. You just have to move forward and try to be mentally prepared for that stuff. Obviously, the team, fans, everybody supports me, so I thank them very much, but, yeah, it was a hard year.”

Despite that, Ovechkin remained a productive cornerstone piece. The plan is to add more younger players to complement him. That process began before the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, when the Capitals traded away five players on expiring contracts for pieces for the future.

The return included 23-year-old defenseman Rasmus Sandin from the Toronto Maple Leafs, two third-round picks in the 2024 NHL Draft and two second-round picks in the 2025 NHL Draft. Washington potentially could use some of those draft picks to acquire more young players before and at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville on June 28-29.

MacLellan said the Capitals also would explore free agency with the hope of strengthening its forward group.

“To me, our main work will be in our top-six forwards,” MacLellan said. “And then based on that, we’ll see what we can do on the back end.” 

MacLellan said he would keep Ovechkin apprised of the team’s offseason moves, including the coaching search out of respect for his role in the organization. 

“We’ve talked in general about stuff,” MacLellan said. “I’m going to communicate with him, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking. Here are the strengths of the guy coming in. Here’s where he might need help.’ We’ll have those discussions.”

MacLellan said he also plans to meet with Backstrom, who had 21 points (seven goals, 14 goals) in 39 games after returning from resurfacing surgery on his left hip. 

“That’s a major surgery,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s frustrating in that I don’t know that it gets — how much better does it get? I haven’t seen any other players do it, recover and get back to the level the thought they were at before. I don’t know where that ends up with the offseason training. 

“He’s going to have to make a decision on his career where he thinks he’s at.”

Backstrom said he’s optimistic a normal offseason of training, after his hip caused him to focus on rehab the past two summers, will help.

“Have a good summer, the first really good summer in a couple years, and be ready at training camp and be a part of that,” Backstrom said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Signing Wilson to an extension could also be part of Washington’s summer agenda after he becomes eligible July 1. The forward has one season left on the six-year, $31 million contract he signed after the Capitals won the Cup in 2018 and can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. 

“I’d like for Tom to finish up in Washington,” MacLellan said. “He’s been a big part of our culture, our group. He’s consistently gotten better throughout the years. We’re going to do everything we can to sign him.”

Wilson, limited to 33 games this season because of ACL surgery and an ankle injury, had 22 points (13 goals, nine assists). He said he’ll be ready to talk when the Capitals are ready.

“Everyone knows I love it here and I want to be here,” he said. “No matter what happens, I want to help this city win games. … Who knows what’s going to happen over the summer into next year? I think if I do my job and we start winning games and the team’s playing well, there’s not going to be a lot of question marks.”