The Washington Capitals have consistently been one of the best teams in the National Hockey League, yet have been unable to win the Stanley Cup. With cap restraints forcing the team to make significant changes to their lineup, the Capitals look to remain competitive while trying to get to the Conference Finals for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
Last year was another President’s Trophy and another second round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite boasting one of the best rosters they have in years, the Washington Capitals were unable to make it past the second round of the playoffs. This was the ninth time since the beginning of the Ovechkin era that the Capitals haven’t made it past the second round and they’re hoping to change that in 2018.
Although Washington was forced to part ways with Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, the Capitals offense still remains one of the better in the league. Last season the Capitals finished third in league standings for goals scored (261) and they still should remain in the top 10 in 2018. Even though the losses of Williams and Johansson hurt the team’s offense, I’m expecting a big bounce back year from Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin, 32, was drafted 1st overall by the Capitals in the 2004 NHL Draft and is currently one of, if not the best, pure goal scorer in the game today. In his 921 games played for the Capitals over his 12 year career, Ovechkin has scored 558 goals and 1035 points. Last year was one of his lowest in terms of goal scoring, netting 33 goals and 69 points in 82 games played. Not bad in terms of overall offense, but I think Ovechkin last season was not the beginning of the end and Ovechkin will score at least 40 goals this season.
Also, centering one of the best wingers in the league today is Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom, 29, was drafted 4th overall in the 2006 NHL Draft and like Ovechkin, has spent his entire career with the Capitals. In his 10 year career so far he has become one of the better playmakers in the game regularly gathering at least 50 assists. He’s also usually the player always dishing the puck to Ovechkin as well. Backstrom had one of his best seasons last year leading the team in scoring with 23 goals and 86 points in 82 games. At $6.7 million a year for the next three years, his contract is a steal compared to other players tallying those kinds of numbers and I expect him to finish this season with at least 70 points.
Along with Ovechkin and Backstrom, general manager Brian MacLellan gave extensions to both Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J Oshie this offseason. Although these contracts may be a little higher than management would have liked them to be, they needed to be signed if the Capitals hoped to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive. Oshie, 30, has excelled in his two seasons with Washington after being traded from the St. Louis Blues. Last season Oshie hit a career high in goal scoring netting 33 goals and 56 points in 68 games along with scoring 4 goals and 12 points in 13 playoff games. A staple in both the team’s powerplay and top line, the Capitals had to re-sign him and awarded him an eight year, $46 million contract extension. At $5.75 million per year until he’s 38, the contract will benefit the Capitals in the short term, but could hurt them in the long run if Oshie’s production slips as he begins to age.
Kuznetsov also got a hefty extension during this offseason. Kuznetsov, 25, was drafted 26th overall by Washington during the 2010 NHL Draft and has slowly developed into the main second line center for the Capitals. After setting career numbers in 2016, Kuznetsov took a dip statistically last year finishing third on the team in scoring netting 19 goals and 59 points in 82 games. He also added in 5 goals and 10 points in 13 playoff games for Washington. Looking to lock up their number two center was important to the Capitals, but it certainly came at a high price as Kuznetsov was given an eight year, $62.5 million extension. At over $7 million a year Kuznetsov will need to get back to his 2016 numbers of around 70 points if the contract is to prove beneficial for the Capitals.
Washington also took a major hit on their defense as well. Not only did they lose Nate Schmidt to the Golden Knights during the Expansion Draft, but they also lost Karl Alzner to free agency after he signed a deal with the Montreal Canadiens. This leaves John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik as the main four defensemen with younger players such as Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos looking to make the opening night roster.
A big reason why Washington couldn’t keep Schmidt and Alzner were due to needing the cap to re-signing Dmitry Orlov. Orlov, 26, was drafted 55th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft and had spent time jumping between the NHL and AHL before earning a fulltime job with the Capitals in the 2013-14 season. Since then he has quickly developed into a crucial defenseman for Washington. Last season Orlov finished third in defensive scoring on the Capitals netting 6 goals and 33 points in 82 games. At 25 years old and a pending restricted free agent, Orlov needed a new contract and the Capitals delivered. Orlov was awarded a six year, $30.6 million deal. Although this new deal locks up one of their young defensemen for their prime, it doesn’t help the cap situation. Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik currently take up over $10 million in cap space and will be on the books for at least the next two years. If their play starts to decline, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them is traded or bought out (specifically Orpik).
Washington will also continue to have one of the best goalie tandems in the league this season. Coming off another sensational season Braden Holtby will continue to lead the Capitals between the pipes. Holtby, 28, was drafted by the Capitals 93rd overall in the 2008 NHL Draft and is arguably one of the best goalies in the game today. Since becoming the starter for the Capitals during the 2012 NHL Playoffs, Holtby has put together some incredible seasons including matching the single season record (48) with Martin Brodeur in the 2015-16 season. Along with that, Holtby is only the third goalie in NHL history to record three straight seasons of 40 wins or more. Last season Holtby appeared in 63 games gathering a 42-13-6 record with a 2.07 GAA and .925% save percentage. Under contract for the next three years at a reasonable $6.1 million cap hit, Holtby will likely continue to lead the Capitals to a great regular season this year. For the backup position, Washington was able to re-sign Philipp Grubauer to a one year, $1.5 million extension. Grubauer was one of the better backup goalies in the league last year and will likely continue to be this year as well. Frankly, I’m surprised Vegas didn’t take him in the Expansion Draft because I think he could have starting potential. Last year he played in 23 games gathering a 13-6-2 record with a 2.05 GAA and .926% save percentage. The good thing about having a great backup like Grubauer is that they can rest Holtby to keep him fresh for the playoffs while having another good goalie between the pipes.
PREDICTION: Despite the losses the Capitals faced this offseason, I still think they’ll be one of the best teams in the Metropolitan Division. They may not win the division, but I think they’ll make the playoffs.