It appears that the Washington Capitals will not lift another Stanley Cup with this generation of players. At least not without some major help. That prediction isn’t necessarily about the talent on the team, but if their issues are combined with the fact that other teams within the division are just younger and better now, it will be more difficult moving forward due to the emergence of more competition.
In order to better their chances in the coming years, they must figure out their top-six, get younger, and commit to a starting goaltender.
Capitals Need Help to Be Competitive
Inconsistency is the best word to describe the Capitals’ 2021-22 campaign. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek couldn’t do enough to prove they were the primary goalie, though they both showed stretches of dominance at one point in the season. The forward core is aging, and with Tom Wilson’s injury and Nicklas Backstrom’s future creating uncertainty, the team will need to find help from either a mega trade, within the system or spending too much in the free-agent market.
There are options within the system, which is where management and head coach Peter Laviolette should dedicate their focus.
Capitals’ Top-Six Is a Mess
Wilson is expected to miss six to eight months after undergoing ACL surgery, which means he may not even play until December. It would be wise for the Capitals to keep him off the roster until he’s absolutely ready to return. There’s no point rushing him back into the lineup, risking further injury, if they don’t have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup next season.
The Capitals don’t have a game-changer anymore, or at least a consistent one. Anthony Mantha, T.J. Oshie, and Wilson are great, but they thrive off the support of their teammates. Alex Ovechkin is coming out of his prime, Evgeny Kuznetsov has all the talent to dominate, but the team never knows which version of the center they’re going to get when the puck drops, and Backstrom may be tinkering on the edge of retirement.
Between Backstrom possibly not being on the roster and Wilson not being available, the top-six is sort of a mess right now. There are major question marks of which impact players could slot in and skate and produce at the level of Backstrom and Wilson. There are good free agents available this offseason, but a few of those names come with hefty price tags. A one-year deal for a veteran may also be an option.
Or the Capitals can save the money and develop the next generation. It may be hard for the fans to accept, but eventually it needs to happen. This upcoming season would be a good one to find out what they have, even at the risk of missing the playoffs.
Youth in Hershey
Connor McMichael will likely be on the opening night roster in October and there to stay. After that, it gets a little murky with options. However, with a year or two more of development, which may not be what fans want to hear, they could have Washington back in the playoffs.
Aliaskei Protas might be the next best option at the forward position to offer some relief while Wilson is sidelined. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, the center is a presence. He recorded nine points in 33 games with the Capitals this season, and for the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, he finished the season with 24 points in 42 games played.
Two other names to keep an eye on are Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Kody Clark.
The former did get ice time with the Capitals in 2021-22, registering four points in 23 games played. Behind Martin Fehervary, McMichael, and Protas, he appeared in the fourth most games for rookies on the team. He’s fast and averaged 41 seconds on the penalty kill while with Washington, which is very valuable. With Hershey, he finished the season with 34 points in 44 games played.
Clark, though still a little raw, will be worth keeping an eye on. From all the trades the front office made over the last few seasons, he may be the main asset – at least in regards to the future – they received in return. He was selected in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, a pick the Capitals received from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Philip Grubauer. The 22-year-old winger had 19 points in 63 games with the Bears during the AHL season. He won’t make the opening night roster, but he could be called up at some point to get a few games of NHL experience.
With the play of Mike Smith and Antti Raatna this postseason, it’s being argued a team doesn’t need an elite goaltender to make a run at a championship. That’s true. However, you need to balance it out somehow with an elite forward, or forwards, or a young complete squad. Right now, Washington doesn’t have a reliable netminder that can win them a championship.
That’s not saying that Samsonov or Vanecek won’t eventually be able to develop and make the leap, as they are both still young. First, the Capitals need to commit to one this offseason, as both are restricted free agents, and it will likely be Vanecek. He outperformed his teammate in save percentage (.908), goals-against average (2.67), and shutouts (4). Plus, Samsonov had an opportunity in the playoffs to perhaps redeem himself, and though he was solid, he may not have done enough to validate the higher price tag he will probably demand.
Also, Zach Fucale proved he can be a viable backup heading into the 2022-23 season. And, who knows, maybe even the future. There may be some growing pains to come with it unless they want to try and sign a veteran this offseason. Though the team’s ability to advance this season was hindered by inconsistent play in net, the franchise isn’t in that bad of a spot. They do, however, need to figure it out this summer so they can become a contender again sooner rather than later. At the moment, they have three goalies under 30 who can play at the NHL level. One must be given the crease to bask in the good games and fight through the bad ones.
Capitals’ Offseason Goals
Goalie and forward are what the Capitals should be concentrating on this summer. There are options in free agency if they want to keep at it, but they are also very limited financially, especially if Backstrom decides to keep playing, which may lead to some incredibly tough decisions.
The team’s best bet is to accept that the hard years are here or coming very quickly. They may have a 2-3 year hiatus from the postseason, but be back in the mix if they save money and develop their youth, stacking the system even more with a couple of high draft picks in the process. Either way, the team is going to look very different very soon.
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Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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