Is It All Downhill From Here for the Capitals?

They looked little like the 2018 Stanley Cup champs in their loss to the Islanders. Has Washington peaked, or can the core group rally for another run at a championship?
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The 2017-18 Washington Capitals were big, strong, mean, talented and hungry.

The 2019-20 Washington Capitals, in their season-ending Game 5 loss to the New York Islanders, looked slow, sluggish and, well, disinterested. In Thursday’s defeat, the Caps iced 10 players from the 2017-18 Stanley Cup team, but the group barely resembled the champions of two years ago. The Caps mustered 21 shots in a do-or-die game. They couldn’t get to the net all series, either. In 5-on-5 play, the Isles, not known for their offense, doubled Washington in high-danger shot attempts, 48-24.

“The league is too good – If you’re not physically engaged and mentally on top of your game going against any team in this league, you’re going to come up short,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden in a Zoom call after the game.

As Reirden also pointed out, however, the Capitals won their fifth straight Metropolitan Division title this season. Maybe they just got discombobulated by the season’s strange circumstances. They just lost to a team that had dropped seven straight games before the March-12 shutdown, after all. Not every team emerged from the layoff with the same identity.

“This year was a tough year for everyone,” said captain Alex Ovechkin following Game 5. “Families, players…is there going to be a season? Is there not going to be a season? Do we have to be in shape, or is the season over?”

So an optimist could argue the Capitals merely got caught sleeping during a weird year. They’re only a few months removed from being one of the best teams in the NHL, having boasted the league’s No. 2 offense in the regular season. Captain Alex Ovechkin just won a share of his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy. Defenseman John Carlson is a Norris Trophy finalist. The Capitals’ core still includes Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana, not to mention promising young goaltender Ilya Samsonov.

“We’ve got some incredible talent,” Carlson said. “We have some young guys who can really bring it. There’s a lot of good days ahead for this team.”

So, sure, the Caps will still probably win a lot of games next season. That’s hardly in question. The question is whether they have peaked as Stanley Cup contenders. Are they embarking on the same trajectory as the Chicago Blackhawks from 2015-16 through the present or the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2017-18 through the present? Both were perennial powerhouse squads, founded on multiple first-round draftees, winning multiple Stanley Cups. Both traded picks and prospects and essentially punted their farm systems for several years, and they began to sink in the standings as their veterans aged out and didn’t have enough young help arriving behind them.

The Blackhawks are deeper into that process. They’ve bottomed out and have begun refilling the pool with top-10 picks such as Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach. The Pens are mid-descent, still in the denial phase after going 1-7 against the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens across their past two post-seasons, with GM Jim Rutherford vowing big changes.

And the Caps? Still competitive but perhaps preparing for the slow decline. Ovechkin is 34. Oshie is 33. Backstrom is 32. Carlson is 30. Even Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov are creeping into their late 20s. And the next wave of talent isn’t guaranteed to provide top-notch support. Unlike the Penguins and Blackhawks, the Capitals haven’t sacrificed all their coveted draft picks, having used seven of their last eight first-rounders on draft day, but they have not picked in the top 10 since 2007, and Vrana is their lone top-20 selection since 2014. Center Connor McMichael is a legitimately exciting prospect, ranked 18th overall among NHL-affiliated prospects by our scouting panel in Future Watch 2020, but no other Capital kid cracks the top 50. Our panel, which consists of active NHL scouts and team executives, ranked Washington’s crop of 21-and-younger talent 27th in the league.

So Washington’s aging veteran core can’t count on a wave of all-star-level talent to share the load within the next couple seasons. While anything can happen with a stellar training camp, and it would be exciting to see some of the kids get a shot soon, McMichael needs to get stronger and is perceived to be another year away from challenging for a roster spot. Same goes for top defense prospect Alexander Alexeyev. So if Capitals GM Brian MacLellan wants a better, younger, faster team on the ice next season, he’ll have to make some moves.

And that won’t be easy. Backstrom’s contract extension kicks in next season, carrying a $9.2-million cap hit. He’d earned it with more than a decade of excellent play in what could one day be considered a Hall of Fame career, but he’s now about to be paid for his decline years. Gulp. With a flat salary cap, Washington projects to have $10.39 million available. That’ll mean the end for Stanley Cup winning goaltender Holtby, 30. It just doesn’t make sense to pay him the starter’s money he’ll want when Samsonov is ready for the gig on an entry-level AAV. With defensemen Radko Gudas and Brenden Dillon going UFA, MacLellan could consider shelling out some UFA dollars to a 2020 class that includes excellent talent and variety among blueliners. But Ovechkin enters the final year of his contract, and Vrana is a season away from his RFA off-season, so the Capitals can’t necessarily spend like maniacs. They have to squirrel away some money for those two.

Still, something has to change for a team that looked stale in these playoffs. Some speedier legs would help the forward group and the defense corps. It’s just a matter of whether MacLellan and the Capitals are willing to go all-in and abandon the near future in the name of another championship push before the Ovechkin era ends.

“You still look back on 2018, and no one thought that we were going to win that year, so anything can happen,” Backstrom said. It’s going to be different kind of team every year, but at the same time, we have as a goal in our group to get better and win more championships. That’s what we’re striving for.”

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