I’ve been a Washington Capitals fan since 1976. I was just 7 years old at the time and they were the “new” thing in the DC area. Those early teams were horrible, but they were the home town team, and I was a home town kid, so they were “my team”! Obviously the 1980’s were a breath of fresh air when we became a perennial playoff team, but along with that came the perennial heartbreak! I’ll never forget the Easter Epic in 1987. I was 18 by that time and I remember at some point I became convinced that the game would never end! I was watching on an old 13 inch black and white TV (I never knew where the puck was) and at 1:58 a.m. I stood stunned like so many Caps fans not believing it was really over. We’ve had way more than our share of heartbreaking playoff losses as Caps fans!
So what about this Caps team? Why can they do what no other Caps team has done before them? Well, it’s still a bit early and so I’m hesitant to say this team will win it all, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think this version will be different. The biggest difference is the feel after game 7 against the Rangers. My instincts were to chalk it up to the curse of being a Caps fan, but my gut said this one wasn’t the same. This team played hard every game and there was no quit. This wasn’t a lazy play or losing to a team that was just better. We were the better team but we lost anyway. We had the hot goalie, we got clutch secondary scoring and we didn’t give the Rangers anything. We took a few bad calls and didn’t show the last little bit of killer instinct but this one felt closer than any of the others!
So what have we done since then? Gone are Mike Green, Joel Ward, Troy Brower and possibly Eric Fehr. The big additions are Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie. We opened up some cap space and filled it with the pieces we actually needed. Whichever of the two additions ends up on the top line, our top six is definitely better than they were a season ago. With Orlov coming back and a healthy Nate Schmidt, any drop off on the 3rd D pairing should be manageable and I could argue it may well end up being a better line. The offense is spread more evenly between the two and their defense is better as well. It’s unlikely we get Green’s PP production from either of those guys of course, but 5 on 5, I’m not sure we haven’t actually gained. The top 4 D are still solid and with Holtby back in net and Grubauer backing him up the goaltending should be even better than last season. We also won’t have the entire team learning a new system so we should expect a faster start.
We know we’ll get production from the first line. It would be shocking if Ovechkin didn’t score 50 goals! Sure, Backstrom could miss a little time early on but we can tread water for a few weeks to start the year if it means getting Backstrom back at 100%! I expect T.J. Oshie will get the first shot on the top line and with the attention given to Ovechkin and Backstrom, I think it’s fair to expect him to have a big year with more space to skate, and the best setup man in the NHL dishing to him!
The second line is all about potential! Kuznetsov had an incredible spring and Burakovsky was no slouch either! Things clicked for both at the right time. If Oshie is on the top line as I expect, Williams on the right side is the likely second line pairing. We saw the puck handling skills of Kuznetsov on full display in the playoffs and in particular below the goal line. Dishing to the front of the net with Williams in the slot fits each players MO to a tee. Throw in Burakovsky a little further out as a secondary target who can find the back of the net and you have a line that will give opposing defenses fits! If they double Williams, Kuznetsov dishes to Burakovsky which should draw the D out as the shot comes in with Williams there to put away a rebound. Decide to chase Kuznetsov? He’ll burn you with the pass. Let him go, he’ll skate through you and burn you with his shot. No doubt about it, the second line will be Kuznetsov’s line to dictate and he has the skills and the hockey sense to read what he’s given and make the right plays. This line should be a real handful! The only real question I have is does Trotz go with Burakovsky on the left-wing or does he give MoJo a shot? I think Burakovsky has the most upside so I hope thats what we see first!
Now the 3rd and 4th lines will look a lot different and I’m not sure we’re done there just yet. What we do know is Jay Beagle is back, and that’s huge for whichever line he ends up on. The face offs and the hard work show up every night! If we assume Wilson slides up to the 3rd line then either Johansson or Burakovsky end up on the opposite wing for some offensive punch. I’d love to see Eric Fehr back if they can find the money, but I’m willing to give Beagle that 3rd line center spot and see what he does with it. Another possibility for 3rd line center is Brooks Laich since I don’t think a trade is imminent, and we could do worse! Chimera is probably a 4th liner at this point but he still plays a solid game in his own zone with game breaking speed if the opponent gets too aggressive. Latta was respectable in the 4th line center position and I expect he’ll only get better. I see enough pieces to put those two lines together. It just depends on what role Trotz wants each to play.
So I guess the biggest question left is, where are the weaknesses with this team on paper? You could argue for a better 3rd or 4th line but I don’t think you can really argue we won’t be able to put two lines out that at a minimum won’t be a liability. Other than that, and barring injury, I don’t see a real weakness for other teams to target. I see a team that is capable of driving play and controlling the puck, and what we saw last year is, when the Capitals do those two things they have looked dominant for long periods of play.
Brian MacLellan has spent the summer filling the needs we all could see. To his credit, he hasn’t been tempted by shiny things that don’t fill a need (like a certain flightless bird team we hate). We haven’t spent foolishly or overspent, and we haven’t changed for the sake of change. We won’t know how MacLellan’s drafts look for another 2-3 years but in free agency and trades, I’m confident we’ll get the right player and we won’t give away the farm to get him! We’re in surprisingly good shape with the salary cap going forward! There is nothing coming up in the next 2 years that will necessitate big changes to the team and thats without considering players within the system we can expect will start to show up in that time.
If I’m doing a state of the Washington Capitals, I can’t help but see a real window to win it all opening for this team. The next two years look really good and I have no doubt we have the money to keep a guy like Kuznetsov beyond that and a few pieces coming up through the system that can have an impact as well. Given Ovechkin’s age and Backstrom’s age a 5 year window with this core seems entirely realistic. Even if projecting a 35-year-old Ovechkin is tough, I don’t think anyone believes he’s suddenly a 20 goal guy at age 35! 40 plus seems like a good number, even with a slowdown in production, and the youngsters seem likely to increase their production in that time by more than Ovechkin should drop off. That all just happens to coincide with Braden Holtby’s new contract!
This Caps team can win. I think over the next 5 years we should expect not one, but multiple appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, and at least one victory (or more)! This is the Washington Capitals team that can do it!
By Ernest Mudd