While it May Seem Closed, the Capitals’ Stanley Cup Window Could Still Very Well Be Open

Evgeny Kuznetsov
Nick Wass/Associated Press

I’ve been following hockey and the National Hockey League for a while now. For the past 10-15 years there’s seemed to be two teams that have somewhat mirrored each other in terms of success. It’s the two teams whose games I watch every night, the Washington Capitals and the San Jose Sharks.

The title people tend to slap on these two teams is “underachievers”. Both of these franchises have been Stanley Cup contenders for a long time and, while one has had a little more success during that span, both have very little to show for all their regular season success. I know it has to be tough for Washington Capitals fans right now. Coming off back-to-back President’s Trophy-winning seasons and playing like a legitimate threat for most of the season and, yet, the team can’t get past the second round of the playoffs. I also know fans of one team don’t like fans of other teams complaining about their club’s lack of success, particularly when your team has clearly had more difficulty.

Then again, after this season’s playoff failure from the Capitals, most people think their window to win a Stanley Cup has closed. As a San Jose Sharks fan, I can relate to the “closed window” theory. The Sharks’ window has closed several times over the past six or seven seasons and here they are years later and the Sharks are still considered contenders in the Western Conference. I’m going to tell you how many times the Sharks were told their window had closed and they should “blow up” their team. Maybe after reading this, Caps fans will realize that it’s not over for this franchise and this group of core players.

The Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09. They lost in the first round of the playoffs that season. That started a trend in which the best team in the NHL would lose in the first round in three of the next four years. San Jose followed that up with back-to-back Conference Finals appearances in 2010 and 2011, losing both times. It was expected the Sharks would remain contenders, especially since they acquired Brent Burns in the 2011 off-season. After an up-and-down 2011-12 season, the Sharks were quickly brushed aside in the first round by the St. Louis Blues in five games.

That was the first window that supposedly closed. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were older, the team was getting worse, and the team had to go in a new direction. The next season (the lockout-shortened 2012-13) began and it was a lot of the same. An inconsistent and old team just hanging on.

San Jose then made some trades at the trade deadline that season and they rebounded. That playoff season, they swept the Vancouver Canucks and took the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to seven games in the second round. Not many people expected that sort of rebound. The very next season, the Sharks won 51 games and finished with 111 points, tied for fourth-best in the NHL. The window had supposedly closed two years earlier, but they had reloaded and come back.

Then came the reverse sweep in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Up 3-0 in their first round series versus Los Angeles, the Sharks couldn’t find a way to finish the job. It was believed Thornton and Marleau and the team’s core could not lead a group to the Cup. The Sharks’ front office believed they still had a good team, and gave it another go the next season with the same roster. They failed to even make the playoffs in 2015. Many believed it was over, finally over. Thornton and Marleau were in their mid to late thirties, they had lost defenseman Dan Boyle due to age and regression, and now they didn’t even have a goalie after longtime starter Anti Niemi left. They missed the playoffs. People were calling for the team to Blow. It. Up. Start over, move on.

Sharks general manager, Doug Wilson, however, did not blow it up and made some moves in free agency, acquired a new starting goalie in trade. Lo and behold the Sharks made the Stanley Cup Final the very next season, seven years after they were supposed to. The window closed two or three times in that time frame, yet the Sharks finally got to the Final. They still didn’t win the Cup, but they didn’t give up on the core of Thornton, Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Burns, and Logan Couture.

The Capitals’s window has pretty much followed the same path. Since they made the playoffs in the Ovechkin Era (2007-08), they’ve had the same core players over the last decade, save for a few leaving whether through trade or free agency (Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Troy Brouwer…). But, the Capitals have had four coaches in that time (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, and current bench boss Barry Trotz). The Capitals have won numerous division titles, and the aforementioned three President’s Trophies, and have also developed newer members of their core (Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Braden Holtby to name a few). Since Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan took over three years ago, the team has seen itself reemerge as a legit Cup contender.

Is it a perfect comparison, Sharks and Capitals? Not really. Washington has won three President’s Trophies and can’t get past round two and the Sharks have won just one President’s Trophy and have three Conference Finals appearances and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. But having followed both these teams for about 10 years, I can’t help but look at them and think they have similar stories.

My point? The Capitals have to keep building around Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Braden Holtby. As long as they have those guys, they’ll be a good team and they’ll have a shot.

Maybe they have to tinker with some smaller things. The Sharks have stripped the captaincy off two of their stars, Marleau in 2009 and Thornton in 2014. They gave it to someone in 2015 who most thought was the best leader on the team, Pavelski, and the first year with the “C” he leads the team to the Stanley Cup Final.

Perhaps the Caps need to take the letter from Ovechkin. Maybe they need to let him worry about putting up goals and points. Give the “C” to someone else who might be a better leader. I’m sure it sucks. Back in 2005 to 2008, I bet Capitals fans couldn’t even see because the glare from several Stanley Cups were blinding them. It was the same for the San Jose Sharks. They acquired Joe Thornton, they acquired Dan Boyle, they had Marleau, they acquired Burns, and developed Pavelski, Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It seemed as though Stanley Cups were bound to happen.

I know the Sharks still don’t have a Stanley Cup to show for their efforts, but they were told by many fans, media, and analysts to stop trying back in 2012 and 2014. They stuck with it, and years later made the Stanley Cup Final. Even if they were dominated in that Final, they still took the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games and most of the games in that series were close (in terms of the score).

I can’t help but compare these franchises. The Capitals are a little bit behind, but they aren’t that far off from the Sharks of 2012. Stars are starting to creep into their early thirties and they have multiple playoff failures. The Capitals, in my opinion, can keep this group of core players. What did the Sharks do? They changed their supporting cast, they got younger, they got faster. They also changed leadership. In 2014 they took away the captaincy from Thornton, they let go of Dan Boyle, and now the leaders of the Sharks are Pavelski and Couture, along with Burns and Vlasic.

I know I’ve started to ramble a little bit, but I think this argument holds some truth to it. This probably isn’t the best thought out piece ever, nor the best written. This is simply just one fan of an underachieving team saying to other fans of an underachieving team that there is hope.

You never know how the path to a Stanley Cup Final will unfold. Just because one window has closed doesn’t mean another won’t open very quickly.

By CJ Witt

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3 Responses to While it May Seem Closed, the Capitals’ Stanley Cup Window Could Still Very Well Be Open

  1. Good article. Whole heartedly agree with you and oddly enough the only other team I watch are the Sharks. Watching Sharks since about 09 but Caps since 92. Giving the C to someone else would benefit Ovi. I think he has realized that he is actually going to have to work on his game and his body if he wants to stay near the top, or at least thats how I took his comments after he revealed he was injured. I think GMBM should be allowed to hire a new coach if he wants. Trotz was embarrassed by Babcock and by Sullivan twice. His inability to have a strategy ready at the start of each series is infuriating and I kinda think that’s what Backy meant when he said ” we lost the series in the first 3 games.” But maybe I’m bias cause I wasn’t in love with the Trotz hiring. Sorry I’m rambling on in a comment. Go CAPS

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  2. Buddy K. says:

    I agree with the general premise but I am not sure I agree with the whole ‘level of success’ thing .. The Caps have to deal with the UBER STUPID new NHL playoff bracket .. to say they can’t get out of the second round is simply stupid and means ABSOLUTELY nothing .. assuming Pitt goes on to win again (or even if they don’t), I don’t think anyone can assert that the Caps didn’t have the 1st or 2nd best team .. NHL playoffs are well just unfair at times .. the only thing that very good teams can good is put themselves in position to win, and then they have to get several breaks along the way .. I watched NHL Live go on an on about ‘How well the Pens played last night and deserved to win, etc.’ .. cry me a river .. Caps have had some of the worst breaks in NHL history along the way and to toss those aside avoids reality .. this year against the Pens, in the final two minutes a super unfortunate missed penalty call and a total phantom call cost them in Games 3 and 4 (inteference on Malkin uncalled and phantom Oshie high stick call) .. Refs can apologize but it doesn’t matter .. they aren’t trying to miss important calls they just do .. We have had a Huet inteference uncalled cost a series against Philly (Ovi’s first playoff year), (Facing almost twice as many PK situations against Pitt the first time a Crosby team beat WAS), an Ovi game tying goal called back on a very weak interference against Montreal, some of the worst possible luck against the Rangers every known to hockey (Ward with a double minor with under 20 secs – totally Correct call) and NY scores the game tying goal on the PP with 6 secs left and in OT scores on the second PP less than a minute in, .. we had the one year in Game 5 up 3-1 (up 1-0 in the game, Ward is called for a SUPER WEAK goalie interference which would have made it 2-0 with under 10 left) .. instead, the Rangers score with under 20 secs again after a way wide shot deflects off a Caps player skate to tie it) .. later in Game 7, the Caps hit the post twice in OT before a super unlucky bounce goes right to Stephan for the winner , last year, our 8th blueliner (Weber) in Game 4 gets disoriented in front of Holtby in OT and accidentally centers the puck right to Hornqvist for a wide open net winner … I could go on and on and on .. certainly perseverance matters but YOU HAVE TO HAVE A LITTLE LUCK (just a little) and the Caps have never ever had the hockey gods tip their hats towards them -EVEN A LITTLE!

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    • Look…most of your observations make a good deal of sense. But I disagree with with your inference that (a lack of) luck was the main determinant in the Caps’ playoff failures for the last FIFTEEN attempts at winning Lord Stanley’s cup…If that were true one would think that the law of averages would have caught up with them and Washington would have made it to the finals–at least once in all of this time.

      I mean, the Penguins were missing Chris Letang for the bulk of this year’s playoff run and they’re poised to win it all again anyway. And past champions have also won without this or that significant piece in their lineup more than once in all team sports over the years. But the Capitals keep coming up short mostly because their so-called secondary players don’t produce enough, or because their primary players don’t come up with back breaking goals in spotlight games….or the goaltender lets in softies at the worst times imaginable…

      And mind you, Holtby, Ovechkin and the Teacher’s Pet St. Nick Backstrom all have decent overall postseason stats. But every pone of them has fucked up at one time or another during the Second Season and, unfortunately, the “depth” guys haven’t had what it takes to seal the deal.

      Last, the underachieving nature of this team can be laid at the feet of erstwhile GMGM who insisted on trading the one time jewel of our farm system (Filip Forsberg) for two future Hall-of-Famers named Latta and Erat–neither of whom are on our roster anymore –although it was often hard to tell that they were even on the ice when they were here unless they’d committed a penalty.

      And the shortcut approach continued at this year’s trade deadline when Barry Trotz OK’d GMBM’s dumb decision to part with young 6’4″ 20 year old power forward Zack Sanford (who Trotz referred to as “A REAL HOCKEY PLAYER” earlier in the season–so much so that Zach was cited as the reason Jakub Vrana couldn’t crack our lineup…). I disagreed with that move too since Shittenkirk was a mediocre Mike Green-like defenseman who was more proficient on offense than he was on the other side of the puck and–also like the afore-mentioned Green–tended to make stupid assed mistakes at the worst possible times…

      But “ON PAPER” the lefty-righty defensive pairing made us stronger, supposedly–even though this team was throwing other clubs down a flight of stairs prior to the league-mandated five day break—just like last year following the weather-related break we got after which we never really “dominated” again despite the gaudy second half won-lost record…

      I could go on but I’ll spare you…

      Unless this team’s management procures, trusts and PLAYS young players–even through their inevitable mistakes–Washington will never win a championship…

      NEVER!!!!!!!!!

      End,
      Clifford
      Santa Monica

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