WASHINGTON -- After the Washington Capitals were upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, general manager George McPhee resisted the idea of wholesale change for an organization that had three consecutive playoff disappointments.
After this year's second-round sweep by Tampa Bay, McPhee faces another offseason full of more questions than answers -- and 12 added months of added apprehension from a Washington fan base desperate to see postseason success that matches the team's regular-season achievements.
"In my own mind I know and I could see it during the series and all through the playoffs what I want to do for next season -- and it's crazy, even during games, I'm writing down lineups for next year based on the way things are going, the way people are playing and what we have in our organization," McPhee said Thursday as members of the organization addressed the media on "breakdown day." "There's a certain place I want to get to with the team and I think we have it within our organization to get there."
Any sort of drastic changes to the roster will likely have to involve a trade, because the Capitals have 18 players signed to one-way contracts for next season at a cost of nearly $51 million in cap space, according to capgeek.com.
McPhee opted against signing any major free agents this past July, adding only D.J. King in a minor trade and Matt Hendricks at the start of training camp from outside the organization. The biggest additions at the start of the season were players promoted from within to full-time roles -- Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth.
The Capitals have a couple of other top prospects who could push for roster spots next season, and McPhee didn't sound like a guy who is interested in major roster reconstruction.
"I don't think we have to go outside the organization, which is nice," McPhee said. "So I want to spend more time talking to our scouts about that and what they've seen in our young players this year. But we've really got some good ones, real difference makers. And that's something we'll sort through in the next few months."
Here's a breakdown of where the Washington roster stands and what decisions could loom in the coming weeks:
The Capitals have eight of the nine players who made up their top three lines two days before the trade deadline under contract for next season. The one guy who isn't is Washington's most important unrestricted free agent -- versatile forward Brooks Laich.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old Laich made $2.4 million last year and has been a key member of Washington's young core of leaders during the Bruce Boudreau era. The question is whether Washington will be able to afford him, because he would likely be a popular target July 1 if he hasn't re-signed by then.
"I've been here for six years. This organization gave me my shot and turned me into an NHL player, so definitely have some sentiment there," Laich said. "But you know, we'll have to see what they think. It's up to Washington if they want to make a change or not. If they want me back. I don't know what they're thinking, we haven't discussed anything like that. I'll discuss it with my agent and my family and we'll see what happens."
The other unrestricted free agent forwards are midseason additions Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm and fourth-liners Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley. Gordon is the longest-tenured member of the team and a valued penalty killer. Bradley has been something of a folk hero for the fan base but it could be hard for the Capitals to keep him if he wants as much or more than his $1 million salary from the past three seasons.
Arnott may need to take a pay cut to return -- which is what Sergei Fedorov did for the 2008-09 season. If not, the Capitals will likely be in the market for a center.
That guy could be uber-prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was a dominant player at the 2011 World Junior Championship and had one of the best years ever in the KHL for someone in his age group.
"We have lots to talk about over the summer," McPhee said. "(Kuznetsov) may want to play another year, and if he feels he needs another year in Russia, he can do it. If he feels he's ready to play here, we can talk about that, too."
Washington could have a formidable top six on the blue line to start next season, but McPhee said Tom Poti's career is in jeopardy because of a lingering groin injury and that could change the team's plans.
Karl Alzner is a restricted free agent, but he should be back and paired with Carlson again to form one of the top young defense pairings in the League. Mike Green will have a summer to rebound from three head injuries in the final months of the season. Dennis Wideman should be 100 percent for training camp after missing the end of the regular season and all of the playoffs with a severe leg injury.
Toss in dependable Jeff Schultz and that's a top-notch top six, but again it depends on Poti (and Green/Wideman as well). John Erskine and Tyler Sloan are also under contract as depth guys, while Scott Hannan is an unrestricted free agent. His potential return is almost certainly tied to Poti's status.
"It's a great group of guys here. I'd love to be back," Hannan said. "But we'll see how things happen. It's a long way. We'll have to sit down with my family. Maybe we'll talk to Washington here in the next little while."
Michal Neuvirth played every minute in the postseason for the Capitals. Does that mean he is the team's No. 1 goaltender moving forward? Actually, it probably doesn't. If Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby are on the roster when training camp opens, expect there to be an open competition to be the starter on opening night -- though Neuvirth should be the favorite.
Varlamov is a restricted free agent, but it is hard to see the Capitals giving him much more than the two years at $1.15 million per Neuvirth signed for during the season. His Russia-based agent told a reporter during the regular season that Varlamov would consider a move home to play in the KHL.
"If he wants to go to the KHL, let him go," McPhee said. "This is the best league in the world, and most players want to play here. I don't pay any attention to that stuff with any of the European players. If they want to go to Europe to play, go back to play. If that's what they do, then you've got the wrong guy."
Holtby proved this season he is probably ready for at least a backup role in the NHL next year. If Varlamov were not to return for any reason, the Capitals would probably be comfortable with Neuvirth and Holtby as their tandem for next season. However, McPhee probably doesn't want to lose any of his three prized assets at the position for nothing.
McPhee said he "expects" Boudreau to be back next season. That wasn't the same, leave-no-doubt language he used on "breakdown day" a year ago after the Capitals lost to the Canadiens, but it does seem likely that Boudreau will be back for next season.
One area that needs to be improved is the power play, which struggled for the second straight postseason with a precipitous drop in the regular season as well in between. While some NHL coaches have assistants who are in charge of the power play, Boudreau is the guy who does the most work in that area for the Capitals while Dean Evason and Bob Woods co-author the strategies on the penalty kill.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said he will be open to bringing a consultant of some kind to help the Penguins with their sagging power play. It is possible Boudreau could also seek outside opinions on what has ailed the Capitals with the extra man since April 2010.
Some pundits and fans will (or have already started to) wish to see drastic changes for the Capitals between now and the start of training camp. It is possible those people will be disappointed.
Washington has several free agents to make decisions on and isn't likely to have a ton of salary cap space to work with. Kuznetsov could be the most likely rookie to make the team next season, provided he wants to play here and has recovered from season-ending shoulder surgery. Other prospects who could be promoted include Holtby, defenseman Dmitri Orlov and forward Cody Eakin.
There aren't many holes on the roster right now -- McPhee might have built the most complete team of his 14-year tenure. That only enhances the frustration from another playoff failure.
"I don't think anything's missing," McPhee said. "We played a team that played better than us in the second round. It happens sometimes. I think we have a good team and we'll just keep trying to make it better."