Another season and another discussion on the high expectations for the Washington Capitals. It seems like every year we end up in the exact same position discussing this team and what to expect in the back half of the campaign. However, the finish to the 2019-20 season has a new and exciting twist: Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are pending unrestricted free agents. To pile on to the two superstars contracts coming to a close we have to factor in that the Capitals have less than $1.4 million in cap space.
Beyond the looming free agency, Alex Ovechkin already has 24 markers through 41 games, John Carlson is miles ahead in the race for his first Norris Trophy, Jakub Vrana is flourishing during a breakout campaign and the Caps sit atop the NHL standings for the moment. What can we expect for the remainder of the 2019-20 season?
Is this the final year of the Capitals’ Metropolitan Division domination? After four straight Division titles, this may be a slightly dramatic question, but one has to wonder what would happen to the Caps if they lose one of their premier leaders and talents.
Heading into the back half of the NHL season, general manager Brian MacLellan has some serious wizardry that is going to be required of him. Backstrom’s cap-friendly 10-year, $67-million deal is coming to a close, while former Vezina winner Holtby is also becoming a free man. To add to the joyous situation Radko Gudas, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are all pending free agents that will require increased compensation to remain in the nation’s capital. What does all this mean with less than $1.4 million in current cap space? A significant problem.
Without diving into a plethora of hypothetical situations, there is one clear objective on the Capitals to-do list: lock up Backstrom. He has been a dynamic leader for the Caps since entering the league in 2007 and sits second all-time among Capitals points leaders (behind some Ovechkin guy). He’s also fourth in Caps history for career goals and number one on the leaderboard for helpers (go figure). The guy has been a staple for this team alongside “The Great 8” and Washington has no desire to let one of the best playmakers in the game walk away. It’s nearly impossible to find the skillset that Backstrom possesses: a superior offensive dynamo with great face-off ability and versatile two-way presence.
Backstrom began contract talks in November without an agent, and clearly identified he wants to continue his career in D.C. The first clear expectation you can have for 2020 is that Washington announces his contract extension, and it won’t take very long. With 30 points in 33 games, Backstrom is still a premier centerman in the game, so I’m ball-parking his contract at four years and $7.5 million average annual value (AAV). This means roughly an $800,000 increase in average annual value.
What Does This Mean for Holtby?
I don’t agree with this path if it ends up being the chosen one, but I truly believe the Capitals let Holtby walk in the offseason. Ilya Samsonov has widely been considered one of the next big names in NHL goaltending and the Caps are growing more confident in the young man by the day. The former 22nd overall pick from 2015 has blossomed this season as Washington’s backup:
- 10-2-1 record
- 2.28 goals-against average (GAA)
- 0.918 save percentage (SV%)
We have seen Samsonov appear in 14 of 41 games thus far (relief appearances included), and I would highly project that percentage increases down the stretch. Washington is looking as concrete as ever among the playoff contenders, so they will turn to their young star more often later in the year to truly test him. If he continues to shine it hurts Holtby’s case of being retained, and No. 70 could end up being the most sought-after free agent on the market. His current cap hit carries a $5.7 million AAV, but after some dominant campaigns, a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup – expect that number to be much closer to $8 million on his new contract.
Remember, Holtby will be only 31 years old when next season begins for whichever team he mans the crease for. Sergei Bobrovsky just inked a seven-year, $10-million deal with the Florida Panthers at the exact same age. Holtby will demand some attention on the market, so the expectation will be the Caps choose to move on rather than fumbling pieces to try and make it work with his salary increase.
You just can’t write a Capitals article without mentioning the phenom goal-scorer. Ovechkin is doing more of the same this season with 24 tallies through the team’s first 41 games. This has him sitting fourth on the leaderboard, and nearly on pace for 50 goals for the ninth time in his career. Imagine that… Ovechkin scoring 50 goals again.
What can you expect in the second half of the season? More of the same. Every year Ovechkin has a stretch of 5-10 games where he absolutely catches fire and pots an abundance of markers in a short period of time. I have a feeling that could happen shortly after the All-Star Game and it would launch Ovi back to the top of the leaderboard.
Related: Ovechkin’s Path to 700 Goals
His shooting percentage is bang on with his career average (12.6%), but he’s actually shooting a fair amount more than last season (on pace for 398 shots, as opposed to 338 last season). His power play goals are on pace for a similar number and he’s lining up next to the same linemates for the majority of his playing time. Ovechkin does Ovechkin things, so expect his name to climb the ranks over the remainder of the campaign due to his unparalleled consistency.
John “Norris” Carlson
Everyone remembers the Ovechkin interview earlier in the year where he corrected the reporter on John Carlson’s name? “Sorry, John Norris?” Classic Ovechkin. The captain is front-running the campaign for his defensive counterpart.
But let’s face it, Carlson deserves that kind of attention with the season he is having. He has been an elite D-man ever since scoring the game-winning goal for the US against Canada in the 2010 World Juniors (that one still stings). Taking it to new heights doesn’t even quantify the year John is having:
- 41 games played
- 13 goals and 37 assists
- Plus-14 rating
Carlson has already matched his goals output from last season and we aren’t even halfway through the year! Not to mention he’s only two goals away from his career-high. This season is providing flashbacks of the 2008 Mike Green campaign that saw him tally 31 goals in only 68 games from the back end. At the current pace, Carlson would be the first defenseman to hit 100 points in a season since Brian Leetch in 1991-92. Does he get there? Not likely. His production is due for some regression, although probably not too considerable given how strong the team has played.
With team success comes individual success after all. The expectation should be that Carlson finishes around the 85 point mark and claims his first Norris Trophy. (from ‘Forget the Norris Trophy. John Carlson deserves to be the NHL’s MVP.,’ Washington Post, 12/05/2019) He would join Rod Langway as the only two Capitals defenseman to win the award in franchise history.
After his 24-goal burst last season everyone had a feeling the 23-year-old was due to become a prominent forward for the Capitals. Sure enough, he has exceeded expectations in a colossal way with 15 goals and 31 points through 41 games.
The biggest reasons why? His speed is truly elite, and he has spent countless hours developing his shot to create more elusiveness with his release. Vrana possesses that extra gear you hear about (usually with Connor McDavid) and can skate with the best talent in the NHL. Couple this with a shot that can beat even the most experienced goaltenders and you have a very lethal young forward.
Vrana has showcased his skill set this season and truly cemented himself within the top-six forward group. What can you expect from him the rest of the way? His first career 30-goal season and a ceiling around the 65-point threshold. If there was a “Most Improved Player Award” for the Capitals he would be the clear favorite.
So now we turn the spotlight to shine upon the team itself. What can we expect as fans from our precious Capitals?
Simply put, nothing less than first in the Metro Division and a deep run in the playoffs. It would be a crime to leave anything on the table if this is truly the last year with Holtby in the crease. He deserves one final chase for Lord Stanley with this team and the Caps have all the pieces to get the job done.
The great part about the treacherous path? The Pittsburgh Penguins look like a shadow of themselves compared to previous years (an injured one at that), the New York Islanders aren’t deep enough to compete with the league’s best rosters, the New Jersey Devils have already imploded after sky-high early expectations and the New York Rangers have proven they aren’t ready for a playoff berth yet. The only obstacle would appear to be the young and uber-talented Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina showed they can’t be underestimated in last season’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final, so Washington can expect to see them once again in this year’s face-off.
There is no doubt that Washington possesses a versatile and deep package this year, but the question becomes focused on longevity. The core leadership for Washington are aging and becoming more wary of watching their health as time draws on. Any team can post dominant regular-season numbers (ask the Lightning), but postseason success is where everything is truly measured. The one big uncertainty is whether a deep playoff run becomes a second Stanley Cup for the blue, white and red. Only time will tell.