The Washington Capitals will soon begin their most Stanley Cup Or Bust season in a series of Stanley Cup Or Bust seasons since breaking onto the NHL stage a few years ago. This is the year, says Washington D.C., and it's justified. When you combine another playoff failure with the active offseason George McPhee had this summer, there's no reason to have any other expectation.
So with that in mind, the following question must be asked: what happens if the Capitals, well, bust? What if they don't win the Stanley Cup? What does the team do then? What do we as fans do then?
I'm not saying definitely that the Capitals won't win the Cup. Hockey is really difficult to predict. The best thing you can do is put yourself in a position to be playing well at the right time. The Capitals have clearly upgraded their roster on paper, fixing holes up front (Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward), on the blue line (Roman Hamrlik is pretty much the ideal defensive partner for Mike Green) and even in the back by getting an elite goalie in Tomas Vokoun for pretty much nothing. Their stars, most notably Alex Ovechkin, took the offseason more seriously. All the elements are there. As long as everyone plays and coaches to the level they should, they'll be one of a handful of teams with the best chance. That's the best you can hope for in this game.
But still, it must be asked. If the Capitals don't win the Stanley Cup with all of these elements in place, what happens? When it didn't happen in 2009, it was fine because the team was young. When it didn't happen in 2010, it was one bad series in a game where bad series happen. When it didn't happen last year, everyone did some soul-searching before eventually deciding to stay the course and bring in some veterans. What if it doesn't happen again?
For the team, there's ample reason to believe this really is the final year of status quo. Next season, Green and Alexander Semin are free agents. Green is restricted, but already, there's whispers that if the Capitals fall in the playoffs once again, the Young Guns will be broken up. Via Katie Carrera's story:
There is a feeling among those close to the organization that if the Capitals depart the postseason early once again, there will be significant changes. Green and Semin are set to become free agents next summer, the same time the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement expires and likely alters which players teams can afford to keep.
So there's clearly a vibe of "It's Do Or Die Time, And We Actually Mean It This Year."
All that leads back to the roundabout issue that intrigues me this season: what will fans do if the Capitals bust? More specifically, how will this team be remembered?
My sense is that publicly, the "Young Guns" era will be seen as unfulfilling, especially in the immediate aftermath of a playoff disappointment. We'll publicly lament how Ovechkin isn't as good as other stars, how Nicklas Backstrom's growth stagnated, how Semin couldn't care and Green couldn't stay healthy. We'll sling arrows at Bruce Boudreau for never winning in the playoffs.
Then, a summer will happen. Big changes will be made and we'll pretend like we feel better. The team will play worse, slowly sinking back into irrelevancy before we hear about another big rebuilding project. The story will end with us sitting in a bar in 10 to 15 years with a fellow diehard fan remembering how great it was when Ovechkin was still young and the Verizon Center was loud with thousands of screaming fans rocking the red. We'll be downing cold ones before eventually toasting to that great team that gave us thrills even when they didn't win the Cup.
Or maybe change will be for the better. Who knows. But regardless, an era will end, one that will be remembered more fondly than you think now.
All this is why I want to stress to my fellow Capitals fans a similar message to what I stressed last year. Enjoy the journey. Count your blessings knowing you follow one of the very best teams in the league, even if they aren't the champions. Look around the D.C. sports scene, and you'll see a Redskins team that just now is starting to get it, a Wizards squad who resembles a college team and a Nationals club that has never won more than 81 games since coming here. Enjoy every second of carrying the weight of expectations on your shoulders. Be critical, of course, but criticize knowing that things could be much worse.
Who knows, maybe the Capitals will keep the core together even after another postseason failure. If that happens, ask yourself: is that really the worst thing in the world?