Looking ahead for the Capitals: Tough decisions on veteran free agents

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As each NHL team is eliminated from the postseason, we'll take a look at why its quest for the Stanley Cup fell short in 2018-19, three keys to its offseason, impact prospects for 2019-20 and a way-too-early prediction for what next season will hold.

What went wrong

All of last summer, we wondered how the Washington Capitals would manage their Stanley Cup hangover. A taxing playoff run (plus some heavy summer celebrating) surely would weigh on this team, which struggled for so many years to get over the hump. That hangover never really set in -- until the first round of the playoffs.

The Capitals brought back nearly everyone from their Cup-winning team, and they made tweaks along the way to get better. Nick Jensen was a solid depth add to the blue line, and perhaps general manager Brian MacLellan's best move was adding Carl Hagelin, who immediately helped a penalty kill often in peril.

Sure, the Capitals had a rough stretch in January, losing seven straight games, but they pulled out of their funk and won their fourth straight Metropolitan Division title. Yet there were cracks in the foundation that revealed themselves against the Carolina Hurricanes -- who, like many underdogs in these playoffs, played with conviction. It was nothing major for the Capitals, but enough little things accumulated to suggest this wasn't going to be the year for another Cup.

Losing top-pairing defenseman Michal Kempny right before the postseason was a blow; Jonas Siegenthaler ended up filling in nicely, but the blue line looked shaky at times, especially the games in Raleigh. Washington was going to have a hard time without T.J. Oshie for a long playoff run; perhaps Devante Smith-Pelly eventually would have added a spark -- both on the ice, where he has a history of playoff heroics, and in the locker room, where he is a popular teammate.

Alex Ovechkin was once again stellar for the Capitals, and so too was Nicklas Backstrom. But Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared off until Game 7, and that made the second line far less dangerous.