Washington Capitals: A Brighter Than Usual Outlook

The last time the Washington Capitals made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, ‘Seinfeld’ had just aired its series finale episode, a gallon of gasoline cost slightly more than a dollar and everyone (and I mean everyone) was worried about the ‘Y2K’ bug.

Yes, it was the beautiful spring of 1998 when the nation’s capital last had a professional sports team in any championship final. Ask 100 people on the streets of Washington, D.C. today about 1998, and at least 12 will actually remember that the Caps were in the Stanley Cup final that year. A majority of the other people you ask will look confused and question whether or not D.C. even has a current NHL team. That’s sad, but true.

Seven head coaches have held the reigns since 1998 – Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates and Barry Trotz – and seven different team captains have suited up.

Barry Trotz talks to two of his centers last season. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

With arguably the best player in the world in Alex Ovechkin, certainly one of the best centers in the world in Nicklas Backstrom, and a goaltender (Braden Holtby) capable of becoming a superstar one day, it’s astonishing that the Capitals have failed to make it to a Cup Final in more than 17 years.

Ironically, Ovechkin may be the reason. Put another way, Ovi’s tendency to become a one-man-show has resulted in an uneven top-six for many seasons. Let’s face it – Ovechkin supplied an incredible 22 percent of the Capitals’ goals last season. The other wingers on the team were underachievers alongside him, so GM Brian MacLellan did what his predecessor George McPhee was seemingly frightened to do: he walked the walk – not long after talking the talk. MacLellan said he would sign a top-six forward, and he signed not one but two.

T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams are Key

In came T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and out went Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. That’s like saying: in came the iPhone 6-plus, and out went that Nokia flip phone your little sister had in 2003.

Oshie and Williams will add some extra pizazz to the Caps’ top-six forward lineup, and they’ll give Backstrom someone else to aim for as he piles on the assists again in 2015-16. And, the Capitals have needed someone on that right wing for a while now. Last season, they rotated Ward, Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson and others into the top line to the right of Backstrom, and none of them impressed too much. MacLellan recognizes the problem:

“You don’t like to see revolving players go through that spot all year,” MacLellan stated to The Washington Post. “You’d like to have more stability where a guy’s there permanently or almost permanently.” Ovechkin is ‘permanently’ on the left wing. Oshie should aim to become the set-in-stone right winger on the other side of the top line.

Oshie has 110 goals and 200 assists for a points tally of 310 in his 443 career NHL games, and he recorded a 51.7 shot attempt percentage last season. Ultimately, an Ovi-Oshie partnership on the top line might put the team into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since Ovechkin was 12 years old. And, if Oshie’s promise doesn’t materialize, the Caps have a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Williams ready for his turn on the first line.

Add in Holtby, a solid blue line and the strongest roster depth on the team since the last time they were in the Cup Final, and the Capitals’ outlook is brighter than usual.