Every year, there is nothing like the pressure of becoming a Stanley Cup contender. Everybody wants to be one of the elite, yet not everyone is at the top of the mountain. Only a few can be considered among the best, even from the preseason.
That is what the Washington Capitals became after their magical postseason run in 2008. The likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green formed a core group of all-star caliber players that was expected to last the test of time, grow together and win multiple championships. As it turned out, things didn’t go that way.
After multiple postseason disappointments, Semin left in 2012 followed by Green in 2015. Along the way, two different head coaches would come in to figure out how to make this team into a champion. Both of them delivered disastrous results and many wondered if Washington’s window was closed.
New Bosses, Same Results
Then, Barry Trotz and Brian McClellan arrived as head coach and general manager, respectively. They brought in a different plan for building the Capitals and have brought back the positive vibes to an under-achieving franchise.
Trotz would bring in a tactical system that suited all the players’ needs, in tune with the modernized NHL, while McClellan brought in veterans that improved the depth of the roster and were perfect fits for Trotz’s ethos. Along with that, the draft classes under former General Manager George McPhee’s reign are beginning to take root and build a new core group of players that will carry the franchise in the long haul.
However, even if division titles and accolades from the hockey media have poured in over the last two regular seasons, a Stanley Cup has not been delivered. Now that we are under year-three of the Trotz-McClellan era, more questions will be raised in October 2016 than in previous seasons.
Next Summer’s Challenges
For starters, Ovechkin and Backstrom are now 31 and 29 years old, respectively. Both are either hitting the tail end of their primes or are beginning to see their skill-set worsen. Backstrom will always have an eye for the perfect pass while Ovechkin will always have that rocket of a slap shot, but neither still have the speed that will intimidate the hockey world.
Instead, Braden Holtby has arguably become Washington’s most important player. At 27, the Saskatchewan-native has gone from a fourth round pick and an underrated goaltending prospect to a Vezina Trophy winner. He is also in the middle of his second year of a five-year contract worth $6.1 million per season. Considering what he has accomplished in his short career and how young he is, that is one of the better contracts in the NHL.
The same can not be said of Brooks Orpik. At 36, the former Pittsburgh Penguin is entering the third year of a five-year contract worth over $5.5 million per season. With his lack of puck possession skills, Trotz has decided to place him in the bottom defensive pairing for this upcoming season and give more playing time to Dmitry Orlov, a decade his junior. It’s considered bad cap management to give a bottom pairing defenseman half of what Orpik is making. Fortunately, Orlov, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are cheap cap hits, while Matt Niskanen is living up to his expensive contract as a two-way force. Therein lies the problems.
Orlov and Nate Schmidt will become restricted free agents while Alzner could hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent after this season. Meanwhile, Carlson could test the free agency waters in 2018. All four are expected to receive massive salary increases.
Up front, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams have done wonders to improve both the first and second line forward combinations, but both will also be unrestricted free agents after this season.
For Williams, it is almost inevitable that he will leave, as he is entering his age-35 season. Along with that, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik could hit the open market within the next two years after being successful penalty killers during their time in Washington. That is because Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov are restricted free agents after this season. Burakovsky is continuing to improve as a skilled goal scorer and a dependable top-six forward at 21 years old while Kuznetsov is entering his age-24 season after taking over the team lead in scoring last season.
Ovechkin has held that title since his introduction to the NHL in 2005, indicating how much the Capitals have changed since then. Now, Kuznetsov could become one of the most expensive players in the NHL. His financial future will be determined by how much he can deliver in his first full season as the team’s first line center.
Lastly, Washington could lose one player in this summer’s expansion draft for the new Las Vegas team. All NHL teams are only expected to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender and must also protect players under no-movement clauses. Will Washington lose a huge cap hit like Orpik, or will they lose someone more valuable like Oshie, Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Philipp Grubauer or the newly acquired Lars Eller? Either way, someone of value could be lost and considering where Washington lands on the NHL totem poll, it will be surprising if Las Vegas does not select any Capital.
Long Term Planning
If the current Capitals roster can’t remain intact after this season, prospects and cheaper or possibly less talented options will need to fill the holes. Will the likes of Tyler Lewington, Lucas Johansen and Madison Bowey be a like-for-like replacement or an upgrade to Alzner if he signs with another team? Can Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Travis Boyd and Zach Sanford be good enough to be top six forwards at the NHL level, let alone mainstays on the team for years to come? As of now, Washington has about $22.3 million to resign 10 players on their NHL roster, assuming the salary cap stays the same. That’s not a lot of money to go around and bringing certain players back may not be the smart move in the long term. Either way, enjoy these Washington Capitals while you can, because they may not be the same again.
Either way, enjoy these Washington Capitals while you can, because they may not be the same again.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork