The massive questions facing the Capitals this offseason
Another Capitals season came to an end Friday night in DC when Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe scored his sixth goal of the series to defeat Washington in six games.
The scene that followed was all too familiar.
Caps players collapsed as the opposing team celebrated. Solemn faces on the post-game podium. Claims that the current roster has what it takes, that things could have been different had they had a bounce here or there.
“You see how we played against the best team in the regular season,” captain Alex Ovechkin said, asking if the core, as a construct, could win it all again. “We have it, but we just blew it. It’s on us. It’s on me, on Backy, on Osh, on Carly. It’s on everyone. A somewhat shitty situation.
It was raw emotion speaking, moments after another season fell short of expectations.
In the days ahead, however, cooler heads should prevail and a plan will be laid out by general manager Brian MacLellan, who will have a number of big questions to answer this offseason. Among them:
Or continue to increase the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson?
Even after a fourth straight first-round knockout, it’s not an easy decision.
For one thing, the Caps, who were without Wilson for all but the first minute and 31 seconds of Game 1, gave the Presidents’ Trophy winners all they could handle for long stretches. After three games, Washington was leading two games to one and, with 2:04 left in Game 4, were this close to a 3-1 series takeover.
On the other hand, at times they looked old and labored as they tried to contain the skillful and quick attack of the Panthers. The Caps also seemed to lack the courage to “close the door” on a Florida team they had pinned against the ropes in each of the last three games, all losses.
The instinctive reaction might be to blow it up. The reality is that it is complicated.
When Backstrom re-signed in 2020 and Ovechkin took over in 2021, management and ownership assured them the team would continue to spend up to the salary cap in an attempt to surround them with the talent needed to wrestle. For this reason alone, a full rebuild seems extremely unlikely. Then there’s the matter of Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goalscoring record. It will be one of the biggest stories in the sport in the coming seasons, and the Caps will do nothing to hurt its chances.
What is the net plan?
Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov are both restricted free agents.
Vanecek was one of the best goaltenders in the league in January, posting a 4-2-0 record, .929 save percentage, 2.00 goals-against-average and a pair of shutouts. In November, Samsonov went 6-1-0 with a 2.56 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and two shutouts.
Indeed, they showed flashes. But the consistency was not there.
Vanecek, 26, got the net to start the playoffs but found himself on the bench in the third period of Game 2. Samsonov, 25, was good for long stretches but posted save percentages. saves of .868 and .871 in games 5 and 6. By comparison, two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky recorded save percentages of .909 and .919 in Games 5 and 6.
The blame does not lie entirely with the Washington Guardians. That said, they haven’t made enough timely saves in the clutch, regular season, or playoffs.
It’s unclear how MacLellan will handle goalies. The free agent market isn’t particularly impressive or deep. There are, however, some business options that might be worth exploring. The Islanders have Ilya Sorokin ($4 million) and Semyon Varlamov ($5 million) under contract next season, the Kings have Jonathan Quick ($5.8 million) and Cal Petersen ($5 million) and the Blues have Jordan Binnington ($6 million) and Ville Husso (unrestricted free agent). Can MacLellan get one of them – or another goalie with No. 1 potential and good faith – away from his current team?
Again, unclear. But it seems inevitable: After making the risky decision to stick with the March trade deadline, change is likely to come in the Caps fold this summer.
Can Nicklas Backstrom get back into shape?
In the coming days, we’ll likely learn more about what Backstrom has been through this season. But it was pretty obvious to anyone watching the 34-year-old center work around the ice or stumble out of the locker room after a game wasn’t himself.
Backstrom, who missed October, November and most of December with a lingering hip injury, finished with six goals and 25 assists in 47 games. His 0.66 points per game were by far the lowest of his stellar 15-year career.
Backstrom’s vision and hands remain elite but his skating has sometimes proven to be a liability.
What MacLellan and the medical team need to figure out is if another summer of rehab (or maybe surgery?) can get Backstrom back to where he needs to be. Because otherwise it’s a massive publish. And not just because his $9.2 million gobbles up more than 11% of the cap. It also leaves the Caps without a second top-six center to complete Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Will there be a focus on rejuvenation?
In recent seasons, the Caps have prioritized loading grizzled vets. Just look at this year’s Deadline additions: Marcus Johansson, 31, and Johan Larsson, 29.
Yes, experience matters. But as the Caps find out, so does youth and speed, especially after a grueling 82-game regular season. An infusion of lively legs could help a team laden with veterans like Washington keep up with a younger, faster team like Florida and, in particular, a player like Verhaeghe, whose speed was hard to contain as he racked up all 12 best points in the playoffs. .
The Caps were the second oldest team in the tournament with an average age of 30.1. The Panthers are roughly in the middle at 28.3. Sometimes the gap seemed bigger.
Assuming that’s the direction MacLellan is heading, he has options. It can come out of the organization, of course. He can also look inside.
Led by Connor McMichael’s 18 points (9 goals, 9 assists) and Martin Fehervary’s 17 points (8 goals, 9 assists), 10 rookies have scored for the Caps this season.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Joe Snively, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Aliaksei Protas, Alex Alexeyev and Hendrix Lapierre have the opportunity to move a veteran into training camp.
What are the current contracts?
The Caps have 10 forwards and four defensemen signed to one-way contracts next season. Add in rookies McMichael and Fehervary, both of whom are on entry-level contracts, and Washington is committed to 11 forwards and five defensemen.
The only noteworthy free agents are forwards Johansson and Larsson, defenders Justin Schultz and Michal Kempny and the aforementioned guards. (It should be noted that Vanecek and Samsonov have arbitration rights, according to CapFriendly.com.)
Johansson ($1.5 million) and Larsson ($1.4 million) are reliable veterans, but their roles could be filled by younger, cheaper options, perhaps from AHL Hershey. Ditto for Schultz, whose ice time fell from 7:01 a.m. last season to 4:55 p.m. this season, and Kempny, who started the season in the minors before playing sparingly in the second half.
Here’s what the depth chart minus expiring contracts looks like, from CapFriendly:
So there is enough space for maneuvers, but not a lot of places on the list. Which brings us back to the first question: will MacLellan choose to keep tinkering or make more substantial changes? After a back-and-forth streak in which the Caps had several chances to upset the NHL’s best regular-season team, the decision might not be as clear-cut once another’s emotion defeat in the first round will have dissipated.
(Photo by Ilya Samsonov and Justin Schultz: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)