By: Andy Palm, Columnist
To say the Capitals playoff performance was underwhelming is a severe understatement. The team was downright terrible.
After looking out of shape and generally disinterested during the round robin portion of the tournament, in which the top four teams in the east played each other for seeding position, fans hoped Washington was taking it easy in anticipation for when it really counts in the first round of the elimination stage. Those hopes were quickly destroyed, after the Caps saw their season come to a crushing conclusion on Wednesday night.
The team was eliminated by their former Head Coach Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders. The Islanders absolutely dominated Washington in every aspect of the game en route to a four games to one series victory to advance them to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Caps went down in fairly pathetic fashion, only mustering more than two goals once in the series. The one time they did so resulted in a 3-2 victory, which gave the team a brief period of optimism.The optimism was quickly vanquished on Wednesday night, when the Caps were shutout 4-0 to end their season.
As the teams shook hands and exited the ice, there was a glaring feeling of uncertainty for Washington. This is an aging team that faces a lot of questions as they head into an already unorthodox offseason.
The biggest question the Caps will be facing comes in the form of their all-star goalie, Braden Holtby. Holtby, who will be 31 in September, is a free agent now that the season has ended. With Russian goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov showing flashes of greatness throughout the 2019-20 regular season, Holtby’s future in the nation’s capital is looking uncertain.
“Certainly there’s a chance it is,” Holtby said in a zoom meeting with reporters when asked if he believes he had played his last game in Washington. “But who knows? You live one day at a time.”
It doesn’t help that the Canadian goaltender had a decent season in 2019-20 before being postponed. His mediocre play opened the door for Ilya Samsonov to get more opportunities in front of the net.
The 23-year-old did not disappoint, making the Capitals difficult decision a relatively easy one. If it had not been for the neck and back injury that Samsonov had sustained over the COVID-19 hiatus while he was back home in Russia, Holtby may have been backing him up during the playoff run. However the injury left Samsonov unable to play until next season. Be careful of ATV’s kids, especially if you’re…you know…a professional athlete.
Even with the injury, the Capitals decision shouldn’t be very difficult. At this point the only thing making it hard to say goodbye to Braden Holtby is the emotional connection. He was a pivotal piece of the franchise for the last decade, and a vital contributor to the 2018 Stanley Cup run.
The team is already strapped in regards to the salary cap. They just re-signed forward Nicklas Backstrom to a new 5-year $46-million earlier this year, and left winger Alex Ovechkin is due for a new contract after next season as well. There simply is no room monetarily to keep Holtby, especially with a solid, young replacement waiting.
The other big question for Washington, is what to do with head coach Todd Reirden. Reirden has now registered two consecutive first round exits in his first two seasons as the head coach. The team looked good early on this season, but quickly regressed after the all-star break. Once inside the playoff bubble, the team looked ill prepared and slow. There was a clear lack of communication and the play was sloppy.
The lack of preparedness falls back on coaching. With the talent this team possesses on all four lines, there’s no excuse for the lackadaisical performances we have been seeing. A coaching change is very imminent for Washington, but is it too early to call it quits on Reirden?
It is only Reirden’s second year of being a head coach in the NHL, giving him a little bit of slack may be warranted. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been known to give people fairly long leashes before eventually pulling the plug.
The Capitals thoroughly disappointed with their play inside the Toronto playoff bubble, will that result in a tumultuous offseason full of change? Only time will tell.