It’s a familiar script, at this point, isn’t it? Capitals dominate regular season. Capitals dispatch first round opponents with relative ease. Capitals run into Pittsburgh Penguins in second round. Capitals slink to the golf courses and/or to the IIHF World Championships in defeat.
Watching Alexander Ovechkin and company lose like this isn’t fun for anyone except Pittsburgh Penguins fans, but who cares about them? They have back to back Stanley Cups, they don’t need this too.
The Washington Capitals have been in “Win Now” mode for a while now, but that’s been particularly true the last few years. They’ve been rewarded with back-to-back President’s Trophy wins — which frankly, seems to be a better indicator of the best team in the NHL than the tiny sample size that the postseason provides, but that’s a topic for another time — and 2016-17’s squad was perhaps the best of the Ovechkin era.
Certainly, last year’s team was the most well-balanced, if not the most overpowering.
A very good top six forward group that featured Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov is nothing to sneeze at. Even if Ovechkin’s 2016-17 campaign was not quite up to his usual standards, he was still good for 33 goals. It’s also of note that Trotz reduced Ovechkin’s ice time with the intention of keeping him fresh for the playoffs, which likely factored into his reduced production. Meanwhile, Backstrom enjoyed one of the most productive seasons of his career to date and Kuznetsov seemed to find his footing as the season went on despite an early slump.
Also of note in the Caps’ forward corps: Wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, each on the last year of their contracts, continued to come as advertised. Oshie put up his best-ever numbers playing on either Backstrom or Kuznetsov’s wing all season, and Williams was as consistent as ever.
One of the biggest changes in this year’s team from the 2015-16 group, however, was the bottom six depth. Center and proven Corsi king Lars Eller was acquired with the specific goal of strengthening that Caps third line, and along with the continuing emergence of Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson’s best offensive season to date, that goal was easily achieved.
Brett Connolly turned out to be a savvy pick-up, as he was a depth forward mainstay, and Tom Wilson took a step forward, even making a few appearances in the top six. With Eller filling the third line center role, Jay Beagle dropped to the fourth line and was Barry Trotz’s go-to faceoff man and defensive specialist.
In terms of defense, the major change for most of the year was that veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik took a step back, seeing much less ice but also seeming to thrive within the role. With Orpik in that reduced role, it was John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner filling out the top four. Orlov especially saw an increase in playing time and responsibility, as he built off a strong campaign in 2015-16 after losing an entire season to injury. The smooth-skating Nate Schmidt played fewer games than he did last year — largely thanks to the deadline addition of Kevin Shattenkirk — but turned in a nice season nonetheless.
In addition to having a very nice roster, the Capitals were also incredibly fortunate in terms of injury, losing the fewest man games in the league.
Conclusion: The window isn’t closed, exactly, but last year’s team was a good one. Next year’s Capitals will have a slightly different look, and the change may not be for the better, if simply for the reason that the 2016-17 team was genuinely really good.
The Capitals aren’t in trouble, per se, but Brian MacLellan is going to have to tread carefully. As of now, six forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender are under contract for 2017-18. The cap hit for those players is right at about $50 million. As the cap ceiling was announced at $75 million, the Capitals have about $25 million to work with.
However, they do have six RFA’s this summer, and of those, they’ll want at least four of them back. Kuznetsov is probably the priority, but Orlov and Burakovsky will also get new contracts. Schmidt and back-up goaltender Phillipp Grubauer would also be re-signed in an ideal Capitals world, but one of those two will be snatched up in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights unless MacLellan and Vegas GM George McPhee reach a deal.
In addition to those RFA’s, the Capitals would probably very much like to work things out with TJ Oshie. Oshie’s been with the Capitals for the last two seasons, and the fit has been very good. Oshie has slotted nicely into a role in Washington’s top six, and has proven that he can play with Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Kuznetsov. The problem is this: Oshie’s been too good the last two years, and as this has the potential to be the last big contract of his career, he may be too expensive for the Capitals to re-sign after they’ve locked up Kuznetsov, Orlov, and Burakovsky. There is hope, though: Oshie likes playing in Washington, and if the Capitals can come up with a reasonable salary, it’s not out of the question that Oshie will start next season right back on Nicklas Backstrom’s wing.
OFFSEASON GAME PLAN
Once the expansion draft has come and gone, one of Nate Schmidt or Philipp Grubauer will be a Vegas Golden Knight. For as good as both of those players have been for Washington, it’s just not likely that MacLellan would be willing to trade assets to keep them. That’s especially the case since the Capitals don’t have a single pick in the first three rounds of the NHL Entry Draft this year.
If Grubauer is selected by Vegas, MacLellan will have to get himself a new back-up goaltender. Holtby’s a workhorse and plays a ton of games, so this isn’t as important as for some teams, but it never hurts to have an above-replacement-level back-up goalie.
As mentioned above, MacLellan’s first order of business should be signing Kuznetsov and Orlov to new contracts. Both players have been essential in Washington’s back-to-back President’s Trophy-winning seasons, and at 25 years old, both still have plenty of good hockey left in them.
Of the players from last year’s team who will be UFA’s, the Capitals’ main target will be Oshie, as discussed above. Williams has been very good for them, but he’s also 35 years old. There’s practically zero chance that Shattenkirk will be returning, and it’s likely that Karl Alzner will cash in on a pretty fat paycheck elsewhere. (And for the record, the Capitals should let him do so.)
In the end, what it comes down to is this: Last summer, MacLellan hardly had to make a single move in the summer. His roster was more or less set, with the only major addition being Lars Eller. This time around, he has just 11 players signed for next season. Assuming they re-sign five RFA’s after losing one to Vegas, that’s still just 16 guys rostered. It sounds like the organization believes forward Jakub Vrana and defenseman Madison Bowey are ready for the NHL, but that still leaves a handful of players MacLellan is going to have to find.
The important thing is for MacLellan to stay his course. The danger is in the draw of blowing the whole team up after devastating second round exits in the last two postseasons. The Capitals don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They just need to fortify it, a little.
Oh, and because it apparently needs to be said: No, don’t trade Alex Ovechkin. Or Nicklas Backstrom.
Conclusion: MacLellan has a pretty busy summer ahead of him. If he can get Oshie re-signed to a good deal, that’s icing on the cake, but he needs to get Kuznetsov and Orlov locked up. Both are arbitration-eligible, but it would be nice to stay away from that. The 2017-18 Capitals will be missing some familiar faces, but if MacLellan plays his cards right, they’ll be just as competitive as they always are. That window’s still open, guys.
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins, 12. Ottawa Senators, 11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues, 9. New York Rangers, 8. Edmonton Oilers, 7. Montreal Canadiens, 6. Anaheim Ducks, 5. Minnesota Wild, 4. Columbus Blue Jackets, 3. Chicago Blackhawks, 2. Pittsburgh Penguins