ARLINGTON, Va. — When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they did so after their championship window was supposed to be closed.
Unlike when a roster shake-up and infusion of youth actually augmented the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and John Carlson, the Capitals now face a more immediate challenge. With contracts for Backstrom and Holtby up after this season and Ovechkin after next year, it’s unclear how long this era of success will last.
“With the age of our team, every year is a sense of urgency in my mind,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “It took us a while to get to the point where we did win a championship, and I don’t know how long our window is here. We’re getting a little older, but we also have some good young guys coming up, so I think we can continue to compete at a high level.”
The Capitals still have a potential 50-goal scorer in Ovechkin , a perennial 70-point playmaker in Backstrom, an elite defenceman in Carlson and a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender in Holtby. And with the talent around them, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, defencemen Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny, Washington is a threat to win the Cup again.
“We have a high expectation here,” second-year head coach Todd Reirden said. “We expect to be extremely competitive. We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points. That’s the culture that we’ve established, and now we need to continue to build it.”
Ovechkin is 34, Backstrom 31 and Holtby 30. The same salary cap and aging questions that faced the champion Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins will soon confront the Capitals. MacLellan seems to know when to make free agency moves (defencemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014), when to let key players go (Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams in 2017) and when to dole out big contract extensions (Kuznetsov and Oshie in 2017 and Carlson and Wilson in 2018).
The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning and defending conference champion Boston Bruins remain formidable challengers in the East . Just in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins and New York Islanders aren’t going away and the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers all got better.
But the Capitals are still an established power to be reckoned with.
Free agent signings Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were brought in to revamp the bottom six forward spots. Rugged defenceman Radko Gudas, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, is the Orpik replacement on defence because of the size and muscle he brings.
“Some of the players we added were not by accident,” Reirden said. “That’s what you can look to see: some guys that aren’t necessarily all that fun to play against.”
Niskanen was a salary-cap casualty sent to Philadelphia for Gudas, and forward Brett Connolly left in free agency to sign a $14 million, four-year deal with Florida. Reirden will coach a team without Orpik for the first time in his decade in the NHL after the 38-year-old retired and moved into Washington’s player development department.
“His strength as a person and as a leader will translate well into the role he’s in,” MacLellan said. “Most of the young guys in our organization already know him. There’s a comfort there with him. He’s just fresh out of the gate, so he’s up to date on all our coaches, all of the guys in our room, so it’s a great fit for the organization.”
Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the season after being suspended by the league for inappropriate conduct stemming from a positive cocaine test at the world championships and a meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman.
This team is still led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, and also features Kuznetsov and backstopped by Holtby. The player to watch is Wilson, who is coming off a career year of 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games.
Wilson, 25, wants to be more consistent, and the sky’s the limit if he stays out of suspension trouble and plays close to 80 games.
“The offence obviously is everyone’s big thing over the years,” Wilson said. “That’s got to continue to be there. If you’re playing (big) minutes and you’re playing on the first line you have to be able to chip in, and that’s what I plan to do.”
For the first time fans should get to see what Reirden hockey truly looks like. He took over for Barry Trotz after the Cup celebration and a short summer that didn’t give him much time to overhaul systems. The Capitals could look like a different team.
“You can expect us to be more aggressive in different areas of the ice,” Reirden said. “You can expect us to play that type of style of game where our speed and skating is a really important factor for us.”
Washington should win the Metropolitan Division for a fifth consecutive season and with better injury fortune make it out of the first round. In what could be Holtby’s final playoff run, his play in goal will go a long way to determining how far the Capitals go.
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press