ARLINGTON, Va. — There are hints of gray in Alex Ovechkin’s hair now and his 31st birthday is a few months away.
Ovechkin isn’t old, not even in hockey years, and is coming off a 50-goal season. But Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan knows Ovechkin’s prime years as a player won’t last forever, which adds urgency to the team’s push for a Stanley Cup.
After another early playoff exit, MacLellan said it’s up to him and the rest of the front office to make sure Ovechkin’s playoff window doesn’t close too soon.
“Our job is to surround him with a little more depth so there’s not the pressure,” MacLellan said. “I think he can play a lot more if he doesn’t feel that pressure that he needs to win the games. … I think he can play longer given a good team, a deep team. I mean, if you’re going to put pressure on him every night to carry the team, he’s not going to be more excited about playing.”
That’s what the Detroit Red Wings did 20 years ago for Steve Yzerman, the face of that franchise and who like Ovechkin shouldered the blame for a lack of playoff success. Yzerman finally won the Cup in his 14th season at the age of 32 and finished with his name on the trophy three times.
The Capitals have made the playoffs eight times in the last nine seasons with Ovechkin and All-Star linemate Nicklas Backstrom, yet have failed to reach the third round. MacLellan at the trade deadline referenced a two-year Cup window for this core that included 2015-16 and 2016-17 but on Monday hedged that.
Contracts for top-six forwards Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie and top-pairing defenseman Karl Alzner expire after next season, and blossoming center Evgeny Kuznetsov will be in line for a substantial raise. It’ll be one of the most important summers for the Capitals in determining their long-term direction and chances of winning.
“I don’t know that the window closes off, but it’s got to change because money needs to be allocated to different players and that sometimes squeezes out other players,” MacLellan said. “The situation will change after next year.”
Ovechkin is signed for five more seasons and Backstrom is locked in for four more. Despite that, patience is in short supply after Washington lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, ending another run at the Cup after finishing with the most points in the NHL.
The emergence of Kuznetsov and 2013 first-round pick Andre Burakovsky means the Capitals should be contenders for at least a few more years. But Backstrom is 28 now and has thought about how time is running out on him and Ovechkin.
“It absolutely crosses your mind,” Backstrom said. “Even if we have long contracts, it’s up to the GM and the owners to evaluate everybody and how they want to go forward here, which players they want to have here and stuff like that.”
MacLellan said the entire team is “agitated and angry” right now and implied only small tweaks are coming for next season. The expectations will be high again, especially for Ovechkin and Backstrom — the only Capitals players to go through all eight playoff appearances.
“Frustration is probably at a different level with Nick and Ovi because they’ve been through a lot over their careers,” MacLellan said. “It’s hard when they don’t achieve the success they wanted to achieve as a team.”
Rather than pondering the chances he has left, Ovechkin thinks about what it will take to get back in form next season, when the Capitals should again be among league’s best.
“You’re in good shape and right now you have to take months off or whatever and start doing it again,” Ovechkin said. “It’s not fun, to be honest with you. When you get older, you have to take more time to practice and train (than) when you was 21 or 22 years old. But again, it’s life and you have to live with it.”