Washington Capitals: The End of an Era?

This past weekend, the Washington Capitals were eliminated in 5 games to the Boston Bruins. After showing some tenacity and promise in the first three games, the final two games were all Boston. It was the second year in a row that lack of effort doomed the Caps postseason. Now only questions remain: where do the Capitals go from here?

While the Capitals suffered from a myriad of injuries to their key contributors, it cannot be understated how much this team did not look like the contender that it should have been on paper.

Alex Ovechkin’s Contract.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Alex Ovechkin is an unrestricted free agent.

Coming off the expiration of a 13 year deal that saw him as one of the highest paid athletes in professional sports (at the time), Ovechkin hits the market for the first time. I, for one, believe he will not leave the only NHL team he has ever known, but technically anything is possible. Neither the team nor Ovechkin have publicly stated much in terms of contract developments, but that does not necessarily mean he will not return. Most recently, at exit interviews, Ovechkin said that he wants to finish his career as a Capital.

I believe he will return, but that he will not re-sign until after the Seattle Kraken conduct their expansion draft, which will allow Washington to protect one extra player. After all, the Capitals did something similar with T.J. Oshie, who did not re-sign until 2 days after the Vegas Golden Knights Expansion Draft.

The legacy of this team lives and dies with Ovechkin. If the Caps cannot re-sign him, the window is shut, but if Ovechkin can return and perform like he did this season, only while staying healthy, then the Capitals technically have another shot at a Stanley Cup.

Few Assets to Build Around in the Coming Years.

While this team certainly has pieces, it must be cautious with any additions. The thing that will plague Washington for the foreseeable future is their lack of assets. The Capitals traded their first round pick this year and a second round pick next year to acquire Anthony Mantha. They also gave up Jakub Vrana who was a young, talented goal scorer with a high 5-on-5 production rate. In short, this trade was very costly from a futures perspective. I see why they did it, as Mantha is a quality contributor who played well in Washington and is signed to a team friendly deal. But this deal goes back to opportunity cost.

Go back six seasons and the prospect pool is very empty. Just look at the Capitals’ recent first round draft history. 2015’s first round pick, Ilya Samsonov, is already on the team and has been inconsistent. In 2016, they took Lucas Johansen, who has not been that great and has yet to make the NHL. The Caps traded their 2017 first round pick for Kevin Shattenkirk. The Capitals took Alexander Alexeyev in 2018, who is a decent defensive prospect. In 2019, they took Connor McMichael who is their best prospect and who projects to be a top-6 forward, but has not played meaningful minutes in the NHL yet. Last year, they took Hendrix Lapierre, a talented forward with a dubious history of injuries that was a high risk, high reward pickup. Lapierre put up good numbers in the QMJHL this season, but was one of the first cuts from Canada’s U-20 juniors team. We will have to monitor how he continues to progress.

Other than that, Martin Fehevary, a talented defenseman who honestly should have made the roster this season, and Brett Leason, a latebloomer power forward with the intangibles to be a solid NHL player, highlight this team’s future.

I would not be surprised to see a combination of McMichael, Fehevary, or Alexeyev making the NHL roster next season, but there will be no room for error in their development. The Caps are counting on those guys to live up to their potential. After next season, the future of the team will live and die with their contributions.

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Peter Laviolette.

It’s easy to forget just how skilled Kuznetsov is, especially after watching him fizzle in D.C. over the past two seasons. Kuznetsov has reached the 70 point plateau three times in his eight NHL seasons, had a 27 goal season, had three 20 goal seasons and two 19 goal seasons, and has a season high point total of 83. Also, Kuzy had 32 points and led the Caps during their 2018 Stanley Cup run. But, right now, nobody remembers that.

Since Washington parted with Head Coach Barry Trotz, Kuznetsov’s game has noticeably fallen. He barely looks like an NHL center anymore, makes ill-timed defensive mistakes, decreased his faceoff skills to career lows, become inconsistent, and is known more for his off-ice troubles with the team than his passing or scoring. Rumor has it that Kuznetsov will be on the trading block and that hurts the Capitals. Kuznetsov has four more years on his contract at $7.8 million and he is only 29 years old.

On paper, the Capitals would be losing a legit 1-2C who can play big minutes and generate offense. But in reality, the Capitals would be parting ways with a player who has been trouble in their locker room and has been unfocused. Losing a player of Kuzy’s 2018 caliber has hurt the Capitals. This team just has not been the same and does not feel as deep. Parting with him now forces Washington to need a center in what projects to be a dry market for centers. Do they hope top prospect Connor McMichael is ready for the big time? Do they trade for a center with what few assets they have left? Do they go looking in free agency at a guy like Paul Stastny or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? How will their cap situation look if they bring Ovechkin back? These are all options that have a myriad of hypothetical results. There is no certainty to any of those moves.

And how do they part with Kuznetsov? Do they try to trade him to a team like Columbus? What is his value? Will his 15 team No-Trade Clause hurt Washington? For what it’s worth, Kuznetsov stated that he wants to stay with this team.

Do they let Seattle take him? Will Seattle take him? There is no easy answer. Getting a comeback season from Kuznetsov or maximizing his return is vital.

Which brings me to Peter Laviolette. I was a big fan of bringing him in. His reputation and record speak for itself and if there was ever a team that needed a coach like Laviolette, it was these Capitals. I’ll never forget watching him on one of those Road to the Winter Classics where he told Scott Hartnell of all players that his play was “as casual as it gets.” Fast forward one whole season and the disciplinary approach Laviolette brings to each team did not work.

After the Capitals’ dreadful absence in the 2020 playoff bubble series against New York, General Manager Brian MacLellan stated that he hired Laviolette to establish structure, culture, and accountability. 1

But did he? Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana were the biggest culprits of the teams structural vacancies, and were arguably the reason Laviolette was brought in. And he did not fix it. Vrana spent a lot of this season in the doghouse and was eventually traded to the Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, Kuznetsov got suspended by the team for missing practice and caught COVID-19 twice, including once hanging out maskless with the Capitals’ Russians. If Kuzy is moved, does that mean the Laviolette hiring failed?

Laviolette was also brought in to help fix this team’s defense. To assist him, the Capitals added Zdeno Chara, Justin Schultz, and a full season of Brendan Dillon. What was the result? The Capitals went from 15th in the league in goals against in 2019-20 to 17th in the league in goals against in 2021. Sure, Washington lost Braden Holtby, but it had Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, who at least showed flashes of brilliance all year.

And leadership should not be a problem. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom led this team to a Stanley Cup as Captain and Alternate. John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller are still here, too. The Capitals added Zdeno Chara, one of the best captains in the NHL for a decade, and several players with Stanley Cups on their resume: Justin Schultz, Trevor Van Riesmdyk, and Conor Sheary.

The Capitals have seen only decline since letting Trotz walk, and it has not been fixed with Todd Reirden or Laviolette. Now what? They should not fire Laviolette, but his failure to fix the Capitals’ woes in year one speaks to larger issues with this team.

The Age of the Capitals.

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and that Father Time is undefeated. Assuming Washington brings back everyone in the core, age will be a huge problem. At the start of next season, Ovechkin will be 36, Backstrom will be close to 34, Oshie will be close to 35, Eller will be 32, Carlson will be 32, Schultz will be 31, and Orlov will be 30. How many more Stanley Cup chances will this team produce?

The Powerplay.

The Capitals Assistant Coach Blaine Forsythe has run the powerplay in Washington for a decade now. He is responsible for some great Ovechkin one-timers and a deadly Capitals powerplay. But in the postseason, it lacked creativity and helped propel the team to a series loss. I think it’s time for a change. With age, Ovechkin is slower in his movement to establish positioning and his puck retrieval skills. His shooting has also noticeably declined in the eye test for the last two seasons. It might be getting stale. In the regular season, nobody is going to risk injury standing in front of an Ovechkin one-timer. But the playoffs are different, and it felt like the Bruins could easily take away Ovechkin and bring the Capitals powerplay to a halt. With this roster, it might be time to try something new that relies less on Ovechkin and gets Backstrom and Oshie more involved besides just space creating passes.

Goaltending

In net, this season did not go as planned. What was supposed to be a mentor-mentee relationship between Henrik Lundqvist and Ilya Samsonov pushing each other for the number one spot became the Vitek Vanecek show after Lundqvist could not play this season due to health concerns related to heart surgery, and Samsonov’s COVID diagnoses caused him to miss a large part of the season. Suddenly the taxi squad goalie, Vanecek, became the starter. Vanecek played relatively well and looked like a a reliable option in net. He did his part to keep the Capitals competitive, and he probably would have posted better statistics if the Capitals did not quit on him so many times this season.

When Samsonov came back, he was not as elite as he had looked last season, but he showed instances where he looked like the goalie the Capitals expected him to become. His play in the postseason showed that he can be a starting goalie in the league.

This is a strange position for Washington. Neither look like elite, Connor Hellebuyck-esque goalies in the NHL, but neither look like part-time goalies either. I would like to see what they have in a longer season and with some more development opportunities. I would be in favor of bringing each of them back for one more season and see what they have together. If it works, then that was a smart move, if not, the Capitals should target a goalie during the trade deadline.

The real question is Lundqvist. Will he ever suit up in D.C.? During the season, he seemed poised to return, only to continue to be ruled out. Will he come back for one more after a full season of recovery? How will he look after undergoing surgery? How will he look after not playing for a full season?

I wouldn’t mind seeing Lundqvist on the taxi squad and letting Samsonov and Vanecek have an opportunity to grow into an NHL starter.

Conclusion.

The contention window is not closed just yet. The Capitals will stay relevant as long as Ovechkin and Backstrom can perform at an elite level. But one thing is certain, this offseason has many more questions than usual and each one needs to be addressed. I personally have faith that MacLellan can do it. After all, it seems like the hockey world wrote off the Capitals after their 2017 postseason collapse, and MacLellan guided this team to its first ever Stanley Cup using depth and underrated moves.

I would not be opposed to moving Kuznetsov to Seattle for a draft pick and an agreement that the Kraken take Nick Jensen, using some of that cap space to bring back Ovechkin and sign Nugent-Hopkins, and trying one more time with this team in a more defense to offense capacity.

This offseason will show what the future holds in D.C.

1 Greg Wyshynski, Can Peter Laviolette fix what ails the Washington Capitals?, ESPN (Sept. 15, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/29892364/can-peter-laviolette-fix-ails-washington-capitals.

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