From a player’s perspective, the Washington Capitals’ mission over the season’s final 34 games is simple.
“We want to be in a playoff spot,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We want to be fighting for the top. And I think it’s — How I say? — it’s up to us.”
Except it’s not that simple. We are not at a point in the Capitals’ evolution in which playing their best hockey means racking up wins, regardless of the opponent. We are at a point where every shift is tense, every turnover is magnified. These Caps don’t blow people away like the old “Rock the Red,” young guns version once did. These Caps live every night on the edge.
And with the trade deadline looming a month from Thursday, that edge is tricky for Ovechkin and the franchise that he both built and has been built around him. After Tuesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens that included an ugly three-goal first period, the Capitals sit on the outside of the playoff picture looking in — seven points back of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, with five teams ahead of them. The old Caps might have added at the deadline and made a push. These Caps? That just wouldn’t be wise.
The more jarring thought: If the Capitals sell, there’s more than just the typical discussion about who to move and what the appropriate returns would be — which we’ll get to. There’s a serious discussion with Ovechkin about how any trade makes sense both for the team’s competitiveness in the next two seasons — the final two seasons of his contract, perhaps the final two seasons of his career — and for his (currently sputtering) pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record.
This is delicate, allowing the core of the most successful and important teams in franchise history to age however gracefully it can while simultaneously — and rather stealthily — getting younger overall, rebuilding without admitting it. It’s why Ovechkin’s best argument not to sell might be to get himself going offensively, and he did score his 10th goal of the year against Montreal. It’s also why each of the 13 games between now and the trade deadline is massive.
“There’s just not a lot of margin for error,” rookie coach Spencer Carbery said. “And we know that.”
They’re living it. If it feels like the Caps can easily be blown out of nearly any game but all of their wins are 3-2 cliffhangers, that’s because they are. The Caps have 22 wins; 17 of them have been either one-goal decisions or two-goal victories capped with an empty-netter. The Caps have 19 regulation losses; 15 have come by three or more goals, all but laughers, including Tuesday night in a rare game against a team behind them in the standings.
That’s a tough way to go through life, and it should inform the decision-making as the deadline approaches. The most aggressive play General Manager Brian MacLellan could make would be to trade either or both of goaltender Charlie Lindgren and center Nic Dowd. They could bring the highest return not only because they’re both performing well — despite being yanked Tuesday, Lindgren has essentially supplanted Darcy Kuemper as the No. 1 goalie, and Dowd is a pest of a penalty killer — but because they’re also under contract for next season. Some of the potential rentals — defenseman Joel Edmundson, forward Anthony Mantha — might bring a pick or a piece. Lindgren or Dowd — or both in combination — could yield a haul.
In a normal situation, MacLellan might look at the brutal stretch ahead — eight of the next 11 games against teams that currently hold playoff spots, including games this weekend at Boston and home with Vancouver, the league’s two best teams — and think, “We’re going to have to swallow hard and trade guys we like.” This isn’t a normal situation. Ovechkin hangs over it all.
That the Capitals are 30th in a 32-team league in goals per game isn’t all on Ovechkin. But that he’s not helping — he has those 10 goals in his 45 games — contributes to the Caps’ current predicament. Consider that, through the first 18 seasons of his career, Ovechkin scored 0.61 goals per game. Even after coming off his 13th 40-goal season, at 38, he figured to slow down some.
What he has done isn’t slow down. It’s crash. He is scoring just 0.22 goals per game he plays, and he’s now on pace for 17 or 18 goals — barely half of his lowest previous total from a season not shortened by the pandemic.
“It’s up to me,” Ovechkin said. “It’s what I have to do better to get the shots to go in.”
Except they’re not going in. For his career entering this year, Ovechkin buried 12.9 percent of the shots he took. If he could have maintained that, he’d be around a 34- or 35-goal pace — and some of these hard questions might be easier. Instead, he’s at a career-low 6.4 percent. He has either lost some of the juice on his shot or is squeezing the stick — or both.
The solution, from Ovechkin’s perspective, would be to get another center who might better set his table. Nicklas Backstrom, Ovi’s forever ride or die, lasted only eight games this season before stepping away because his resurfaced hip wouldn’t let him play to his acceptable standard. Evgeny Kuznetsov, long ago the engine that helped the Caps win the 2018 Stanley Cup, was placed in the NHL’s player assistance program Monday, a development that might explain his flaccid season but that also subtracts one of the Caps’ highest-upside players from the lineup.
Of Ovechkin’s 832 career goals, either Backstrom or Kuznetsov — or both — had an assist on 376 of them. That’s north of 45 percent. That’s also a favorite-pillow level of comfort that’s suddenly gone.
So here Ovechkin sits, 62 goals shy of Gretzky’s magic 894. Age, of course, remains undefeated. When the 2024-25 season begins, Ovechkin will be 39. Only six players in history have scored more than 50 goals after their 39th birthday. For Ovechkin to surpass Gretzky, he’ll almost certainly have to become the seventh.
This is a team in transition to a younger future while also clinging to the glory days provided by the stars of the past. It’s hard to sit in those two spots simultaneously. Ovechkin’s presence and Ovechkin’s chase looms over it all. To tie Gretzky, he’ll have to average nearly a third of a goal per game through the end of his contract.
But to get this franchise where it once was — 14 trips to the playoffs in a 15-season span — will involve a more complete roster overhaul. Whether that starts at this trade deadline will be determined in the next month — and in consultation with Ovechkin, upon whose shoulders the glory days were built, but whose pursuit of history clouds what could be a true rebuild.