Capitals’ Stanley Cup Window is Officially Shut

Despite their hot start and strong finish to the regular season, the 2021-22 version of the Washington Capitals was not a true contender. Their fourth straight first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs has solidified the notion that the franchise’s window to win another Cup has officially shut.

Truthfully, that was probably the case in 2018-19 after losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games. That series, or that lackadaisical Game 7 overtime more specifically, was a precursor of the inevitable decline that comes with an aging roster. This generation did win a Stanley Cup, but it’s warranted to feel disappointed in the lack of more decoration. Needles to say, there are some tough decisions and years ahead for the Capitals.

Capitals’ Stanley Cup Window is Shut

Friday night marked the end of Washington’s 2021-22 campaign. The Florida Panthers defeated the Capitals 4-3 to win Game 6 of their first-round series. Given they were playing the best team in the NHL from a points perspective (among other things), they hung around, but moral victories are useless in the playoffs, especially considering the team eclipsed 100 points during the regular season. There were still expectations.

Washington and Florida were fairly even in shots and hits throughout, though the Panthers did dominate the faceoff circle in each game. The two main positive things to take away for the Capitals are that they held the Panthers scoreless on the power play and notched at least one goal in every game on their own man-advantage. The two main negative things were blowing a lead in the last three games of the series and losing both overtime games.

Related: Capitals’ Season Undone by Goaltending, Inconsistent Effort vs. Panthers

Game 4 was the turning point. Actually, the moment was when the Capitals barely missed an empty-net goal that may have put the game and series out of reach for Florida. It could be compared to Esa Tikkanen missing a late goal against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. The missed empty-netter was the moment, but only producing 16 shots on net was the problem in the grand scheme of Game 4.  

At least Washington won two games in the series, but it still stings. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals have only won a total of seven postseason games. Also, as an indicator of the decline, they’ve dropped in the Metropolitan Division standings each of the last four seasons, from first to fourth.

At the beginning of this season, it was predicted they would be a wild card team.

This is going to be a tough season for Washington. Expect them to be battling for that third spot in the Metro, but could ultimately be jockeying for the second wild-card slot considering how deep the whole conference is.

Carl Knauf, “Capitals Have Tough Road Ahead in Metro Division,” The Hockey Writers, October 12, 2021.

That was fun to revisit. Next season, it’s possible they miss the playoffs.

Average Excitement

There doesn’t really seem to be any undeniable anticipation for a rookie to make their debut for Washington, which is a tad unnerving for the future. Many rookies played during this season, and some had a solid impact, but it wasn’t anything that would appear to change the trajectory of the franchise.  

It’s not like there is a lack of talent, but rather a lack of excitement of a possible passing of the torch from veterans to youth to avoid a rebuild. One decision that is within management’s control, however, is who should play goalie.

Having two young goaltenders, Ilya Samsonov, 25, and Vitek Vanecek, 26, seemingly isn’t a problem, but their inconsistency created even more concern. Washington needs to commit to one. They relied too much on having a viable option when the other was in a slump. The situation in net has become a burden when it could have originally been viewed as a luxury. Also, committing to one puts the pressure on the other to step up. The lack of commitment to one of them shows indecisiveness and vulnerability.   

Basing the decision solely on the business end of things, Washington will likely go with Vanecek next season.

It’s Just Business

Washington has six unrestricted free agents (UFAs) this summer: Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny, Matt Irwin, and Phoenix Copley. Those players average 31 years of age and combined for $9.85 million against the cap this season. It can be assumed, at least practically, that none of them will be back.

Both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents (RFAs). Samsonov’s current salary is $2 million while Vanecek’s is $716,667. Zach Fucale could likely be the backup for whomever the team decides to retain. Whether or not Samsonov did enough in the playoffs to earn the confidence of the coaching staff moving forward remains the question to be answered, but a guess would be that, no he didn’t for the price tag to come.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

In comparison, however, those really aren’t awful contracts. Schultz’s $4 million a year was the bulk of what the unrestricted free agents made. Clearing room isn’t for this upcoming season; it’s for the tough decisions that will come in the summer of 2023. Next year’s seven UFAs will account for $17.8 million.   

This is perhaps where the good old trade deadline will once again become a topic of interest. Management can look at it two ways: blockbuster or setting up the transition. The only way the Capitals make a run at the Cup with Alex Ovechkin’s remaining years is through a blockbuster trade. Not blockbuster in the sense of the volume of the transaction like the Anthony Mantha-Jakub Vrana trade, but in the sense of receiving a top-five player in his prime, a true difference-maker. To help guide the ridiculous, hopeful fantasy, think of either a megadeal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche (a favorite trade partner of Washington), or the Edmonton Oilers (pending the results of this season’s playoffs).

That sounds crazy, so the team may resort to a more realistic approach to the future by setting themselves up for a transition rather than a rebuild.

Storybook Ending, Just Not Right Now

As long as Ovechkin is in a Capitals’ sweater, Washington remains relevant. Perhaps too much attention was on the record chase this season, but in the immediate hard years that are likely to come, that chase will keep Washington in the spotlight, which is a good thing. 

Hard years are better than hard decades, so management has some options. They could be primed for a busy 2023 trade deadline, moving some of the key free agents to be, and replenishing the system with young talent and draft picks. There are definitely tough decisions ahead, but if the fanbase can accept that the next few years may not bring the success they’re accustomed to, it will be better than chasing something that is currently unreachable. In the process, it will get them back to relevance as a contender sooner.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s not unrealistic to believe that Washington may not make the playoffs the next two or three seasons. However, if everything plays out, it’s possible, in 2026, Ovechkin will beat the goal record en route to another Stanley Cup, and then retire, spending his entire career in Washington. Yet, a new window will open in the process, and the team will be set to still contend after the fact.

See, ridiculous, hopeful fantasies don’t go away when stomped upon, they’re just re-routed.

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