In a sport as random and silly, and at times downright stupid, as hockey, it’s oxymoronic to try and weave some overarching narrative from a playoff exit. Games and series are decided on a few bounces and deflections most of the time. Change any one variable, and you can get a completely different result, and see a team even win a round or two more instead of slogging through a handshake line. The Washington Capitals probably know this better than anyone.
This time around, the Caps can’t really bemoan a bounce or call here or there. While they did suffer injuries in goal that are crippling for most teams, the Bruins pretty much kicked the shit out of them in Games 1-4. The Caps managed one last stand in Game 5, but Tuukka Rask was brilliant and that was that.
Before considering what comes next, it is important to marvel at what the Caps have done the past decade. In the past 14 seasons, Washington has only missed the playoffs once (under the incredibly head-up-the-ass guidance of Adam Oates). That’s a record only matched by the Penguins, who have never missed out. Fitting that it’s the Penguins who are the only team with the better record, as there’s nothing the Caps can do that won’t be measured against their tormentors in black and gold. And Pens fans will gleefully point out that with all those playoff trips, the Caps only made it as far as the conference final once, the year they won it all, while the Pens made four trips to the Final and an additional conference final one. It’s also necessary to point out that in 11 of those 14 years, they finished first in their division. There were also three Presidents’ trophies. While most hockey fans scoff at these kinds of things, to be that good over the 82 games that many times is esteem-worthy.
The Caps record would probably look a ton different if Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby had never been born or ping pong balls had bounced a different way, or Jaro Halák hadn’t gone supernova in 2010, or Henrik Lundqvist had played somewhere else and not sentenced us all to those interminable and insufferable Rangers-Caps series. But that’s life, and that’s hockey. Wherever the Caps are headed now, there’s always going to be an air of “shoulda been more” despite that cathartic 2019 victory.
And that air might get pretty damn heavy now. To put it simply, the Caps are three days older than water. The only players to take the ice during the Bruins series that were under 28 were Anthony Mantha, whom the Red Wings didn’t think they needed, Daniel Sprong, and two of the goalies in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. Only Vanacek and Samsonov are under 25, and obviously only one of them can play at a time. So clearly, the Caps arrow is pointed decidedly down. As constructed, this team isn’t going to get any better.
The big matzo ball hanging over the team is that one Alex Ovevchkin is a free agent now. By any angle, or in a vacuum or outside of one, re-signing Ovie should be a no-brainer. Even putting aside that he’s the franchise’s greatest player by light years, or that he’s still the face and captain of the team, or that he basically saved the fucking team from irrelevance, and that’s a lot of kettlebells to put to the side, he’s still quite productive. He potted 24 goals in 45 games this year, 48 in 68 last year, and is almost dead certain to provide 40+ goals the next few years. He might provide 40 goals per season until the universe’s heat-death. There just aren’t that many surefire 40-goal scorers out there.
But some of this comes down to what Ovie might want. The Caps have to be staring at a rebuild, because the flexibility to try and fix this war rig in transit just isn’t there. The Caps have about $9 million in cap space for next year, and that’s before re-signing Ovechkin. Is Ovie willing to take something of a discount? He’s under no obligation. Someone will have to be moved to free up cash, but will that set the team backwards even more?
The one advantage the Caps might have is that even though both Samsonov and Vanecek are free agents, neither are going to be a lot to bring back. And having cheap goaltending is a real bonus in this capped league, given their importance. At least it would be if the Caps could be certain either of them were any good. But they can’t, as neither has lit it up in small samples in the NHL. They are hopes and wishes more than expectations at the moment.
Cheap goaltending would allow the Caps to pretty much run this squad out again, which did finish first. But it also has its limits. The defense is thin behind John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov (seriously, who sanctioned this $3.9 million for Brenden Dillon and how have they not been defenstrated yet?). The bottom six is very old for such a thing, and the Caps just looked a step or two behind the best teams now. Given their age, getting faster would take something that comes from a lab. There isn’t much in the pipeline to help, given that the Caps have been at the back of the draft for close to 15 years now.
They can hope that Seattle takes one of their problem contracts off their hands like Dillon or Justin Schultz or maybe even Lars Eller (32 and a third center at best). They can hope that Bobby Nardella or Connor McMichael are ready to take roles next year on entry-level deals.
But that alone won’t make the Caps faster and younger. Would seeing what the market on Evgeny Kuznetsov be worth the time? He’s got a no-move and is 29 and due $7.8 million for the next four years with durability concerns. Even with that, he’s probably the most attractive piece they have for other teams. Does anyone want to pay T.J. Oshie for another five years when he’s already 34? Go nuclear and see if anyone would pay the bounty for John Carlson? These seem the only routes to multiple, younger pieces that the Caps need.
And the undercurrent to all that is whether Ovechkin will have the patience to watch two or three years slip by as the team is reconstituted.
Come next spring, that feeling of “shoulda been more” is likely going to be pretty pungent around DC.