It’s been pretty fortunate to be a Washington Capitals fan this season. They’re on pace for another Presidents’ Trophy, Braden Holtby is having another Vezina-worthy season, and they’re arguably the best defensive team in the league while boasting four blueliners with 30-plus points and five forwards with 20 or more goals. You know what they say, “defense wins championships,” but therein lies the problem. They have no cups to show for it and monetary issues thanks to the salary cap on the horizon.
The Washington Capitals Future is Scary
There are plenty of reasons why the uncertain future of the Capitals is something to ponder.
Why Change is Needed
Washington has had a great team for a few years now and they still haven’t been able to escape the third round of the playoffs. Last year was supposed to be their year but they ended up being knocked out early by their rival, the same rival that would go on to win their second Stanley Cup under captain Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Effort Being Made
GM Brian MacLellan saw the signs that things were looking the same as last year and made a pre-deadline deal to strip away a top-pairing defenseman from a divisional rival’s grasp and really take a push at Lord Stanley. Washington acquired Kevin Shattenkirk and reacquired Pheonix Copley from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, a 2017 1st- round pick and a conditional pick in 2019. They’ve gone all-in this year. This was the right decision because this season could be the last that this team is a perennial Presidents’ Trophy contender.
Why the Future of the Washington Capitals is Scary
By the time the 2016-2017 season concludes, the Capitals will have several major contract issues to sort out. They’ll have five UFA’s and six RFA’s. These contracts all belong to key players to the current dynasty the D.C.-based club has been trying to create. Perhaps the two biggest contracts that need to be addressed are those of forwards T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Since joining Washington in 2015, Oshie has effortlessly fit in with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line. He’s put up his two best seasons statistically. That’s what creates the problem. After the fantastic years Oshie has had in Washington, he’ll be expecting more money than he’s currently making ($4.2 million), and understandably so. What makes these expectations tricky to deal with, however, is that Oshie will be turning 31 this year. You have to wonder whether or not you could find a cheaper, younger option somewhere else in the league. Oshie fits into Washington’s playing style perfectly, but they already have an aging core and – as well as he’s played and fit in – the future needs to be considered. Same goes for 35-year old Justin Williams, a perennially clutch playoff performer that’s one of the five Washington forwards with 20+ markers (22).
Down the Middle
Evgeny Kuznetsov was the Capitals point leader in the 2015-2016 season en route to their second President’s Trophy in franchise history. When this season ends, he’ll be a restricted free agent. Signing Kuznetsov is a top priority. Although he had a slow start to this season, he’s turned it on and is playing some of the best hockey on the team. He’s a perfect second-line center who can play first line minutes when he has to. He’d be a Number 1 guy on any team that doesn’t already have Nicklas Backstrom running the show. With that knowledge, Kuznetsov will be looking for more than the $3 million he currently makes annually. This makes it tricky to re-sign guys like Karl Alzner. He may not be gifted offensively, but he’s been a shut-down guy on the blueline for the Caps for years. He is currently on a 500+ games-played streak.
Then there are depth guys like Brett Connolly and Daniel Winnik who have subtly won games for this club providing essential depth scoring. Andre Burakovsky, who’s a growing player with a heck of a shot is an RFA as well. Also, (if he doesn’t get picked off by Vegas) their stud backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer also needs a new contract. Shattenkirk is a rental to make an aggressive playoff push – so his contract isn’t as concerning. However, letting any of these guys walk hurts the club in some way because all of these pieces have chipped in this year in major ways. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of the business.
A Post-Ovechkin World
Finally, the one thing to think about that no Caps fan wants to think about – Alex Ovechkin’s age. Ovechkin turned 31 back in September. This season hasn’t been terrible for Ovi, who has 66 points in 77 games as of this writing. Of those 66 points, however, only 33 are goals. That’s scary for someone of Ovechkin’s caliber. Ovechkin’s won the Rocket Richard trophy the last four seasons. Three of those seasons were 50+ goal seasons (the only season he missed this mark being the shortened lockout season). Ovi has gone two games this year without registering a shot on goal. That’s something that hadn’t happened in the 315 games prior. It’s starting to look as though $9.5 million might be a bit much to pay a sniper of his caliber who has fewer goals than two rookies in Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Granted, those are two elite players, but so is “Ovie.”
However, maybe Ovechkin doesn’t need to be putting up outrageous goal-scoring seasons if his team is as dominant as they’ve been. Which brings one back to the salary issue. If a guy who’s paid to score at a dominating pace isn’t doing exactly that, maybe he should be paid less so one has more money to pay those contracts to keep that dominating team intact for future years. It’s an endless cycle that doesn’t seem to have a very happy ending.
The Time is Now
Washington’s window is closing; this team won’t be together much longer. Management needs to realize this now and act on it. The players need to play their best, most intense hockey of their lives, and they need to be rewarded for it.
The clock is ticking.