As the Washington Capitals exited last year’s playoffs in the first round against an upstart Florida Panthers squad, it felt like the end of an era. The core of the team stayed together from their 2018 Stanley Cup victory but hadn’t won a playoff game since and was only growing grayer. And if being past your prime is signaled by bodies breaking down and numerous injuries, this season in the nation’s capital on ice has been a shining example. Each of its star six missed time with an injury, if not significant injuries (plural), which brings us to the most recent shelving of a player in American hero T.J. Oshie.
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His run with the Capitals has been spectacular but might, and should, be over after the team shut him down for the rest of the season on Monday. Oshie will miss three games with his deactivation, as Washington won’t make the playoffs in a full 82-game season for the first time since 2007, which was literally more than half my life ago, and more importantly, Alex Ovechkin’s second season in the NHL. The only question is whether Oshie’s done in the NHL. Of course some team will easily sign him for the veteran minimum if the Caps let him go in favor of a younger, cheaper player. Could Osh’s body handle another NHL season as the game only gets faster and more physical? The shootout maestro from the 2014 Olympics will be just shy of 37 when next season begins. He’s due $5 million next season and is the fifth-highest-paid Capital. All that fuss for 35 points in 58 games?
There’s no doubt Oshie can still produce at times at a high level. AT TIMES. You don’t pay anyone like an All-Star for anything temporary. If a wind gust is too strong and he crumbles like paper and is out for the next two weeks, Washington is left with its pants down financially. He’s no doubt on his last contract in The District, as his current deal expires in 2025. And the yield for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick has been phenomenal. Part of the harsh reality of sports is knowing when to say goodbye. Outside of the championship run in 2018, the Capitals have a tendency to trade away exciting prospects too soon and hang on to grizzled veterans too long. Here’s the chance to break the chain like Fleetwood Mac taught us.
A decision on Oshie’s future, as with every other decision the Capitals will make for the next few years, will revolve around Ovechkin. The soon-to-be-38-year-old captain and franchise legend is still one of hockey’s most marketable players and his chase for Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record actually supersedes winning a Stanley Cup until he’s out of the league, although Washington will never admit that publicly. Two good seasons from Ovi will no doubt put him within striking distance, if not on the doorstep, of Gretzky’s 894 all-time regular-season goals. It’s the unfortunate crux of where the Capitals’ organization resides that Oshie should be viewed as a hindrance to Ovechkin toppling one of sport’s untouchable records. The team’s farm system needs to step in and replace the core. Not winning a playoff series in four years is a strong enough indictment. Not having the chance to even compete in the postseason is even worse.
Washington needs to cash in on being an attractive destination for free agents. As long as Ovechkin still plays for the franchise, it’ll hold weight that few teams around the league can. You get to share in the glory of a chase for Gretzky, something we may never see again with more fluidity in hockey. Using Ovechkin now to set the team up for life without its Russian savior needs to be done at least behind the scenes, if not the worst-kept secret in plain sight. The team has revolved around Ovechkin since his arrival in 2004. The heave-ho of Oshie would be the first sign of how the Capitals are handling the future. As beloved as the American hero is, there isn’t room for him anymore in Washington.
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