Here's where I think we lost this season, kind of in order:
-Scheduling. Too many B2B games, with 2nd game in different city than the 1st game, and 2nd game coming against non-B2B teams who were rested. After playing almost 3 seasons worth of hockey in 2 years, I have no idea why the NHL decided to saddle us with the categorically-worst schedule. I think it really hampered our ability to maintain championship level of play.
-We screwed up by making chemistry-altering moves at the trade deadline. We were 10-1-1 and in Stanley Cup form riding into the trade deadline. I understand GMJR was finally making the moves to fill the holes that he identified at the outset of the season, but the team had, in the meantime, learned to win WITH those holes... and by trading away working components of that success, to address an on-paper need (by that time), it messed with what had evolved into a winning formula. (It reminded me of Shero in 2012-2013 w/ Iginla trade when Pens were on a 13-0 run). I love the assets we acquired, I was just really skeptical at that time, of tinkering with something that was already working extremely well. Had those trades been made at any other time of the year, I wouldn't have been nervous about them.
-An overall inability to clear the zone. My observation was that time-after-time we weren't getting clean D-zone clears. I just felt like we'd win our share of puck battles on the boards in our end, only to fail a clearing attempt with a weak/bobbled lift. It allowed the opposition to keep us in our zone way more, and for way longer than they should have been able to.
-Giroux and Wilson damaged our roster enough that it negatively impacted our ability to maintain success derived familiarity/chemistry. Yes, I understand injuries happen, and that champions overcome those situations. The difference here is that these weren't injuries that were sustained through good hockey plays, or bad luck. They were injuries that occurred as the result of an opponent trying to inflict pain when they knew they could get away with it. I think the Hagelin loss was huge. The ZAR loss had implications throughout the line-up, even if ZAR himself wasn't a huge loss (he certainly wasn't a liability in his role, however), it forced Sully to make changes in areas I'd rather he didn't.
-Trotz game-planned us perfectly. He identified where he wanted his guys to shoot the puck from (slot), where to shoot the puck to (glove), and how to get the puck back quickly (intercepting neutral zone). I'm not a coach, I'll readily admit that, and I'm not going to criticize Sully, and I'll gladly stfu, just offering my armchair-2¢ here... but I felt we needed to get Sheary on the top line, we need to air the puck over the neutral zone, and we need to chase deep pucks with speed, because that's where our bread and butter has been the past 2 years. I wasn't sure if we weren't doing it because we were too fatigued (3 seasons of hockey in 2 years) to chase those pucks down, or because Sully didn't feel we had the roster/makeup to hunt those pucks, or that the Caps D were always in a good position to win those foot-races. Dunno. But they were ready for everything we tried to do.
In summary, I think losing Ian Cole was monumental. I'm not sure why he had to go, I'm guessing inner-circle politics... so I'm assuming there's a very very very good reason... but I just don't know what that reason is. All I know is, I started to get really really really worried mid-season when I heard they were looking at moving him (see my post history), because I felt he was a critical piece to our puzzle in terms of success, going into the playoffs. I feel a little justified with hindsight, in my concerns. I don't know how to frame it... something like:
Cole provided us with the already-lacking grit, slot presence, physicality, puck-clearing that we needed... and it was greater than the benefits we gained in center depth with Brassard on the off-chance that Sid or Geno went down long-term. (It just so happens that we did lose Geno for a couple games, and Brassard (probably?) wasn't able to compensate for that loss anyway.)
Would Reaves have deterred Giroux and Wilson? I don't know, you'd have to tell me. But I do know it's the exact reason we acquired him in the first place. Not trying to turn this into a Reaves debate, I know the vast majority of you guys were happy to move on from Reaves, and you're probably right. But I did notice a change in the opponents' physicality post-Reaves, and I do know we never got to see what a Reaves-protected roster in the Playoffs looked like, and that was the whole point of acquiring Reaves in the first place, for the playoffs. I was comfortable with and looking forward to seeing him on this team in the playoffs.
FWIW, I'm a huge Brassard fan, going back to his CBJ days. I'm not shitting on Brass. I like him, and I'm happy we've got him for another year, especially for the price-tag. I'm really looking forward to him finding his place/role/comfort on this team next year. I'm really glad we acquired him. I just wish it was a month or more before TDL, and not at the expense of Cole.