With the beginning of the 2019-20 season almost upon us, the Washington Capitals have been using the offseason to try and recapture the form that led them to their first Stanley Cup in 2018.
It has been an eventful couple of summer months for the organization and its fans. To be sure, all of the headlines weren’t exactly ideal. Did the franchise’s all-time-leading scorer really elude to retiring after his contract? What’s the status of some key players with lingering injuries?
There are also the usual questions that surround every NHL team in the offseason. What players are poised to have breakout years? What rookies will make their mark?
Caps fans, however, are pondering some very unique questions as the curtain gets raised on the new campaign.
1. Will Ovechkin’s Status Loom Over Teammates?
In news that shook the hockey twitterverse, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin possibly, maybe, kind of hinted at retirement during a news conference in Russia. His teammates, and the organization itself, have been tight-lipped about the comments, but they have surely reverberated with fans.
How will his teammates react to the news upon his return to Washington?
First, we have to consider that several slightly different variations of the comments have emerged since they first made their way to the nation’s capital. In subsequent translations, the comments seemed more subdued and took a more “time will tell,” or “wait and see,” tone.
Also, let’s remember that these are professional athletes. NHL players are used to this type of media storm. Finally, let’s not forget that the all-time NHL goal-scoring record held by Wayne Gretzky – once thought untouchable – may actually be in reach for the Great 8. Would someone as competitive as Ovechkin really walk away from the chance at catching the Great One? The headlines about his immortality write themselves.
A lot will depend on how this season goes for Ovechkin and how much gas he has left in the tank, but good money says the comments won’t impact much at all once the puck drops on the new season.
2. Will Another Shoe Drop on the Kuznetsov Front?
With just a couple of weeks left before pre-season training camp begins, Caps fans were hit with a one-two sucker punch. Ovechkin thinking of retiring at the end of his contract in two years might be enough for any fan to reach for the stress ball, but news that Evgeny Kuznetsov has been suspended by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for four years for a positive drug test could make even the most hardened fan apoplectic.
Kuznetsov, who has amassed over 150 points and eclipsed 20 goals over the past two seasons, is the most heir-apparent to Ovechkin’s scoring throne. The Capitals released a statement soon after the sanction came down. To say it was tepid in nature is an understatement. Vowing to stay in touch with the NHL, this has the feel like something more could be waiting for Kuznetsov after he meets with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp begins on Sep. 13.
While the Ovechkin retirement news will likely blow over, if the NHL deems a suspension is warranted, the Caps will be hard pressed to replace Kuznetsov’s talent. How long a potential suspension could be is anyone’s guess given the length of his international ban. A lengthy punishment could seriously dampen expectations for the team’s regular season and, potentially, beyond.
3. How Will Holtby’s Contract Status Be Resolved?
No Capitals fan will ever forget “The Save” during the amazing run to the Stanley Cup in 2018. But the Caps face some uncomfortable months ahead as their star goalkeeper, Braden Holtby, enters the last year of his contract.
For his part, Holtby has said he wants to remain a Capital. As anyone who has even paid moderate interest to the NHL during the free-agency era knows, this is a obligatory statement. Let’s investigate some facts that underlie the negotiations.
Caps fans who pre-date 2018 may remember that the Vezina and Jennings Trophy-winning goalie took the organization to salary arbitration in 2015. While the two sides eventually came to a deal before the arbitrator could rule, these hearings can often lead to bad blood between management and player.
In addition, I am sure Holtby and his agent paid close attention to where, and for how much, Sergei Bobrovsky signed. Both goalies hold similar career stats and, like Bobrovsky, Holtby will be 30 when his contract expires. Holtby has a Cup, Bobrovsky does not.
Bobrovsky signed a whopping $70-million contract this summer over seven years. Could the Caps match that number? That would really stretch the bank for a team whose core players aren’t getting any younger.
Finally, let’s not forget that the Caps were willing to make Holtby the back-up to Philipp Grubauer during their Cup run. While Grubauer is no longer with the team, it isn’t out of the question that 6-foot-4 Pheonix Copley could challenge for more playing time and even take a shot at the starting role.
Time will tell how negotiations play out between the two sides, but Holtby is surely looking for a big payday after this season. Whether the Caps can afford the asking price is an open question.
Reporting on Hockey at the speed of write. I am a former U.S. Men’s National Ball Hockey Team player, current G.M. of the Women’s National Ball Hockey Program and Head Coach of the First Ladies Hockey Club based in Washington, D.C.