Capitals Need to Start Thinking of the Next Era

The Washington Capitals have left their fan base filled with anxiety and hopelessness once again. Since their magical Stanley Cup run, the team has only won a total of five postseason games since clinching the championship in 2018. Five games and no series wins in three playoffs. Seriously.

Now, the franchise sits at a crossroads, and the window has seemingly finally shut on this golden era.

Capitals Must Transition Instead of Rebuild

First, Washington has a postseason overtime addiction. The franchise is now 33-40 in playoff overtime matches. In fact, after their first-round matchup with the Boston Bruins this season, eight series in NHL Stanley Cup playoff history have started with the first three games going into overtime, and the Capitals have been involved in three of them.

Not to mention they’ve also played in two of the longest playoff games. On April 18, 1987, Washington lost to the New York Islanders 3-2 in four overtimes, and on April 24, 1996, the Capitals also lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in four overtimes. The total ice time for those games was 128:47 and 139:15, respectively.

Anxiety. Check.

Since Alexander Ovechkin made his debut for the Capitals in 2005, the franchise has only missed the playoffs three times, and two of those years were Ovechkin’s first two seasons with the team. Along with Nicklas Backstrom, who made his Washington debut in 2007, the Capitals have been fortunate enough to keep two of the generation’s best players for 13 seasons and counting (pending). In that span of 12 postseason appearances and 10 division crowns, the team has only advanced past the second round of the playoffs once.

Hopelessness. Check.

It has become a stale storyline for franchise supporters to say the least, and as time progresses, two things are becoming true. Their Stanley Cup title has become more of an anomaly, and the years of underachievement have officially entered a decline. This offseason is the most important for the Capitals because it will either let them save some sort of transition or fall into a long rebuild.

Disappointment

As mentioned above, the Capitals have only advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoff once in the Ovechkin-Backstrom era. Yet, many fans outside the franchise want to vilify Washington as if they always win, especially considering how physical they play the game. The hockey world has learned two things lately. Regarding the former, the Capitals should always be considered an underdog.

Regarding the latter, their opponents being intimidated by their physicality has become an irrelevant narrative by analysts and commentators. If teams were intimidated, Washington wouldn’t always exit the playoffs early. Plenty of other Eastern Conference franchises have faired better than the Capitals in the playoffs.

TeamWin/Point %ECF AppearancesSCF AppearancesStanley Cups
Pittsburgh Penguins.635543
Tampa Bay Lightning.553521
Boston Bruins.654331
Carolina Hurricanes.598311
New York Rangers.570310
Philadelphia Flyers.583210
Ottawa Senators.497210
Montreal Canadians.559200
Buffalo Sabres.477200
Washington Capitals.644111
New Jersey Devils.531110
New York Islanders.525100
Since 2007, nine teams have been to more Eastern Conference Finals than Washington, and two others have also been to one. Only the Bruins have a better win/point percentage than the Capitals during that span.

If Washington wishes to compete for championships during the end of the Ovechkin-Backstrom era, they must make smart moves beginning this summer. It starts with regaining draft picks and trusting in youth. Both may require a massive trade.

Trade Evgeny Kuznetzov

The Capitals should test the market for Evgeny Kuznetsov. The troubled center becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2024-25 season, and each year the team will take a $7.8 million cap hit with him on the roster. The most disappointing part is that Kuznetsov has the ability to do whatever he wants on the ice, but he just doesn’t seem to have any motivation. Fans have watched him glide through all five opponents the full length of the rink and score a goal on multiple occasions or make a sensational pass to teammates no one else could catch out of their peripheral. Yet, it only happens on rare occurrences.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Some fans are suggesting it’s time for the team to move on from Backstrom, but the reason Kuznetsov should be moved is because he’s four years younger. They can get value for him in a trade, perhaps multiple picks and prospects. Also, his numbers are declining, while Backstrom’s are remaining steady. Kuznetsov had his best season in 2017-18 when he earned 83 points. In 2018-19, he had 72 points, and in the last two shortened years, his pace for an 82-game season would have seen his point totals at 68 in 2019-20 and 58 this year. Backstrom’s numbers in comparison were 71, 74, 72, and 79.

Young Guns

Due to their trade deadline deals, most of which haven’t worked out, the Capitals have one of the worst farm systems in the league. They were also already the oldest team in the NHL this past season, the average age of the roster being 29.7. Since they traded Jakub Vrana, 25, to the Detroit Red Wings, they need to figure out what they have, and it needs to happen now.

First, Daniel Sprong, 24, is a restricted free agent in 2022-23, and he has earned an extension with his play this year. Plus, it would be good to get the negotiating out of the way now, instead of the winger becoming more expensive if he gets better next season. Lastly, with T.J. Oshie most likely on his way to becoming the face of the Seattle Kraken in next season’s expansion draft, Sprong will become even more important. Winger Brett Leason, 22, who had 20 points with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, this year, could also be gradually given opportunities at the NHL level.

Second, bring up Connor McMichael from Hershey more often. Center is going to be an issue, especially with Backstrom ageing and the possibility of Kuznetsov being moved. Also, Nic Dowd, 30, is an unrestricted free agent in 2022-23, and Lars Eller, 32, will hit the market in 2023-24. The Capitals can extend Dowd at a bargain as he only costs the team $750,000 and was very clutch for them on a fourth line that was their best line down the stretch.

Washington Capitals Connor McMichael
Washington Capitals forward Connor McMichael (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

McMichael led Hershey in goals (14) and assists (13) in 33 AHL games this shortened season. While with the London Knights of the OHL in 2019-20, the young center posted 102 points in just 52 games. He made one appearance with the Capitals this year. This may also allow their 2020 first-round pick, Hendrix Lapierre, to advance quicker. The 19-year-old center was on pace for a 100-point normal-season in the QMJHL this year.

Defense and Goaltending

The blue line raises even more questions, however. Only John Carlson is under contract past the 2023-24 season. Other than possibly Dmitry Orlov, an extension for the others is highly unlikely unless they change their production and prowess tremendously. Two 2018 draft picks, defensemen Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev, may have to develop quicker than expected.

In net, Ilya Samsonov got a lot of flak for some plays this year and during the postseason, but he also saved the team from complete embarrassment. On the season, Vitek Vanecek played in more games (37), had an identical goals-against-average to Samsonov (2.69), and a slightly better save percentage (.908). Vanecek is 25, and Samsonov is 24, so the future in net is actually promising, but a decision has to be made now. Samsonov is a restricted free agent this year, and Vanecek will be in 2022-23.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

They need a solid veteran in the meantime. The signing of Henrik Lundqvist was supposed to take care of this, but due to a health concern, he was understandably forced to sit out the year. It will be interesting to see what the team decides to do with Lundqvist because he is an unrestricted free agent. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to sign him again on a one- or two-year deal if he’s cleared to play. Keep in mind, an old foe in Marc Andre-Fleury will be available after next year as well.

The Future is Dim

This summer is vital for the organization. It’s hard to believe that Ovechkin will play anywhere else in his career, but he is an unrestricted free agent, and his negotiations are probably already in dialogue. If the Capitals want to remain relevant, they need to make massive moves, get more draft stock, and start seeing what they have in their youth. If not, they will not hoist another cup in the Ovechkin-Backstrom era.

Bold Prediction: The Capitals struggle to make the playoffs next season. It just depends if they waste another year with their current roster or if they give their youth some experience. It doesn’t have to be a rebuild; it can be a transition. However, the franchise needs to commit to a direction this offseason.


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