2017-18 team-by-team NHL season outlook: Previewing the Washington Capitals
After the Caps went 'all in' a season ago, a rough offseason figures to lead to disappointment in D.C.
As October creeps closer, another NHL season creeps with it.
In the 30th of a series of team-by-team summer reviews and season previews, here's a glimpse at the ...
The Capitals entered 2016-17 still on the hunt for a deep playoff run, having advanced no farther than the second round since 1998 despite repeated great regular-season results. Longtime captain Alex Ovechkin still produced at age 31, tying T.J. Oshie for the team lead in goals (33) to give Washington a top-three offense under Barry Trotz. Another strong outing from goalie Braden Holtby, meanwhile, helped a firm blue line rank atop the league with just 182 goals surrendered, the NHL's lowest mark by 13 goals. An astounding plus-81 goal differential, coupled with top-ranked power-play efficiency and defense, turned the Caps (55-19-8) into a juggernaut, especially at home, where they went 32-7-2 en route to a repeat Presidents' Trophy-winning campaign and Metropolitan Division title.
Another season of consensus power-rankings dominance could not quell the team's playoff woes, however. After edging the gritty Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round, Washington couldn't get over the hump against the defending -- and eventual repeat -- champion Pittsburgh Penguins, suffering elimination at the hands of Sidney Crosby and Co. for the third time since Ovechkin made his NHL debut in 2005-06. The offseason wasn't any prettier, either, with general manager Brian MacLellan forced to work around the franchise's salary cap squeeze.
Ouch. Early in the offseason, it was fair to wonder whether the Capitals, after all their regular-season showmanship,through just the first stage of free agency. Now, it would be unfair not to agree the team is, without question, worse off than when it closed the 2016-17 season.
That notion starts and ends with the heaping pile of key losses sustained over the summer. Shattenkirk's departure was unsurprising even after the Caps paid a decent price to land him at the deadline. Williams wasn't getting any younger, but his exit wasn't followed by any confident replacement plan. Then you have Alzner, who probably got overpaid in Montreal but still, with Schmidt, takes with him a big, reliable chunk of blue-line power. And there's no way to chalk up Johansson's move as a plus. Sure, he garnered Washington two draft picks, but trading away a 26-year-old top-six forward coming off career highs in goals and assists simply to preserve salary cap space comes off like the desperate money-saving move it was.
Give MacLellan credit for re-upping Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov, even though an eight-year, $62.4 million deal for the latter is no small pill to swallow, because at least the Caps have somewhat of an eye on the future. But even the team's other big re-signing, an eight-year, $46 million extension for Oshie, looks questionable, what with the veteran forward already 30 years old.
No one should be entirely shocked that Washington got hit hard this offseason. That's what happens when a team goes "all in" knowing it'll have 14 pending free agents after the playoffs come to a close. But the fact that the Capitals couldn't capitalize on their big bet for 2016-17 magnifies the concerns of a disconcerting summer. MacLellan did his part in locking up short- and long-term talent, even if Oshie's deal seemed more appropriate for a semi-desperate team willing to pay for production the veteran probably won't match. But you can only do so much maneuvering with big, bad salary cap limitations, and the Caps' lead-up to 2017-18 proved just that. Key regulars like Johansson and Alzner were shown or allowed to find the door, only to be replaced by younger, unproven prospects or minimum-salary additions like Smith-Pelly.
Holtby is still a Grade-A presence in net. Between the team's first two lines, Oshie, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom still make an intriguing bunch. And Washington, traditionally speaking, hasn't had much trouble winning in the regular season, finishing below second place in its division just once in the past nine seasons. The list of reasons for concern is a long one, however. Can a team that lost two of its top six scorers -- and hardly replaced either -- really replicate the offensive outburst from a season ago? Can Ovechkin, at age 32, improve upon a year in which he posted a career-low goals-per-game average to supplement Oshie, who will be hard pressed to top his career-high 33 goals? Can a blue line missing Alzner find new leadership? Can the Capitals, in a division that could conceivably have six other realistic playoff contenders, do the impossible and win a third straight Presidents' Trophy?
The odds are long. And the worst part about it is that, for Capitals fans, even a third straight Presidents' Trophy, let alone a division title, 100-point season or playoff berth, wouldn't be any more satisfying than what the locked-and-loaded Washington lineup accomplished in 2016-17. Perhaps Ovi will be more motivated than ever and push the Caps back to the postseason, but no matter how you slice it, this season is setting up to be something of another disappointment in Washington.
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