The Washington Capitals enjoyed arguably their best regular season in franchise history last year. Key word, though, regular. The Caps were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, well shy of their ultimate goal of winning their first-ever Stanley Cup, making it difficult to call 2015-16 a success.
The easy thing to do here is to point fingers, yell and scream, and say that the team totally messed up, or that they couldn’t get the job done. But sometimes, you’re a damn good team that plays well, and you just don’t come out on top because the other team is also damn good, they also played damn well, and, you know, things happen.
Thankfully for the Caps, their window didn’t slam shut after they were dropped by the Penguins. They’re going to get another go at the prize with this group again next year, but after that? That’s anybody’s guess.
Like I said, 2015-16 was a fantastic season for the Washington Capitals. They were dominant, only dropping back-to-back games three times, and not once having it happen back-to-back in regulation. They went 56-18-8, scored 252 goals, the second most of any team, and allowed 193 goals against, the second fewest of any team. Pretty typical for a team who takes home the Presidents’ Trophy.
Their underlying numbers weren’t really all that impressive, as the Capitals ranked in the middle of the pack in both Corsi and Fenwick For percentage, and fourth in the league in PDO, which isn’t surprising considering the fact they have an excellent goalie, and a wealth of good shooters. The Caps were dominant, though, on special teams, finishing with the fifth best power play efficiency and second best penalty kill in the league, which certainly made up for anything they lacked at even strength.
Their playoff run was stopped earlier than expected by the Penguins in what you could honestly argue was essentially the Stanley Cup Final two rounds early. Only one game in that series was determined by more than one goal, and three of them ended in overtime. The Capitals played well, but the Penguins played better, and while it was a disappointing finish, it’s not like they laid an egg and imploded.
The Capitals have one of, if not the best top-six forward group in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are a big part of this because, well, they’re Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They’re two of the game’s elite producers, and we can expect tons and tons of goals from the two of them each season. But for the first time in quite some time, the Caps also had a legitimate threat behind them that they could count on to produce offence, so other teams had to focus their efforts on shutting down more than just Backstrom and Ovehckin.
A big part of this was the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov as a star forward in the NHL. Drafted 26th overall way back in 2010, much lower than he should have gone because of the ~Russian Factor~, Kuznetsov took quite some time establishing himself as the player the Capitals expected he would become. But this year, alongside veteran free agent acquisition and Corsi God Justin Williams, Kuznetsov exploded for a career-high and team-leading 77 points, helping give the Capitals one of the better one-two punches in the league down the middle in him and Backstrom.
Along with Kuznetsov developing into a legit scoring threat, the Caps also made two excellent offseason acquisitions last summer. The aforementioned Justin Williams did what he’s done for his entire career, boosting his teammates’ possession numbers whenever they’re on the ice with him. They also acquired T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues, giving Alex Ovechkin the best trigger man he’s had on his opposing wing since, like, who? Alex Semin, probably? Mike Knuble? Anyways, both Williams and Oshie were fantastic last season, and gave the Capitals legitimate scoring depth for the first time in, well, forever, really.
Their bottom-six could also chip in offensively, as Jason Chimera scored 20 goals and Andre Burakovsky potted 17 of his own. After them, Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik, Tom Wilson, and Mike Richards were fine in a depth, checking role, but, such as is the case with most fourth lines, didn’t add much offensively.
Their defensive core, while it isn’t bad or anything, certainly isn’t as impressive as the group they have up front. They don’t really have a true number one defenceman, as Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and John Carlson form a defence by committee. Niskanen and Alzner made pretty heavy defensive zone starts against the other team’s top competition, while Orpik and Carlton played softer, slightly more offensive minutes. This ultimately left Dmitry Orlov to run wild on the team’s third pair, playing in heavy offensive zone situations.
And, of course, the Capitals are set in net for the foreseeable future with Braden Holtby, so there isn’t much to talk about there.
When it comes to this current group, the Caps probably only have one solid kick at the can left. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner will become UFAs at the end of the 2016-17 season, while Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will need new RFA deals.
Otherwise, their main core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, and Matt Niskanen are locked up for at least four more years, so it’s not like the team is going to disappear into oblivion after next season. It’s just hard to imagine the Caps keeping around all of the aforementioned players beyond July 1, 2017, is all.
Most of last year’s Washington Capitals are intact for another season, so this summer will be mainly about making some minor tweaks and RFA signings.
Michael Latta and Tom Wilson didn’t accomplish a hell of a lot at the NHL level last season, so their new RFA deals this summer should’t be too pricey at all. Marcus Johansson, though, scored 46 points and will be looking for a raise from his $3.75 million annual salary on his last deal. That said, he could be trade bait as the Caps look to upgrade in different areas. Dmitry Orlov scored a career-high 29 points after missing all of 2014-15 with an injury, and like Johansson, will be looking for a bit of an upgrade on last year’s $2 million contract.
Regardless, Washington’s four RFAs won’t cost them a hell of a lot to re-sign, and if they decide to bring all of them back, they’ll have a roster of 12 forwards, seven defencemen, and two goalies signed with roughly $7 million in left over cap room, depending on how everything shakes out. I don’t think a major free agent splash is realistic, but the Capitals have the capacity to make a few minor signings to help them with depth.
In terms of forwards, players like Jamie McGinn, Teddy Purcell, and Kris Versteeg could add some scoring depth, but with top prospect Jakub Vrana waiting in the wings, adding scoring depth really isn’t much of a priority. Ideally, the Caps would add another defenceman, especially considering Orlov and Orpik’s struggles with injuries in the not-so-distant past. Brian Campbell could be a solid option on a short-term deal to help provide some offence from the blue line, if he’s willing to come on a cheap, one-last-hurrah type deal. If not, Dan Boyle could also fill a similar role.
The Washington Capitals are a really, really good team, and a second round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions doesn’t change that. They have damn near all of their team from last year coming back for another go at it, so it’s hard to imagine them having a busy summer save for figuring out some new contracts for their RFAs.
If they do look to make upgrades, the place to do so will be on the blue line, mainly because they have a couple of defencemen who have struggled with injuries in the past, and last playoffs, depth on defence became an issue as, err, Mike Weber found his way into games, unfortunately.
Of course, the Capitals should be looking to sign players to one-year deals this summer, if anything, so they have the most space possible next summer to figure out new deals for T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who are major keys to the team’s short- and long-term success.