After a 2-0 Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals were well aware that they had five pending unrestricted free agents and six pending restricted free agents that would be in line for pay raises this summer. Something had to give.
The Capitals have been able to re-sign T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Brett Connolly so far, and still have to sign RFAs Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Philipp Grubauer. Those contracts forced Washington to lose Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, and Daniel Winnik to free agency and they lost the sixth RFA, defenseman Nate Schmidt, to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft. Some people think that the Capitals’ championship window may be closing, but is it really?
The Caps may have lost some very valuable pieces. Williams, Shattenkirk, and Alzner all went to Eastern Conference clubs. Williams signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes worth $9 million, Shattenkirk signed a four-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $26.6 million, and Alzner signed a five-year contract worth $23.1 million with the Montreal Canadiens. Despite losing some valuable pieces, they still have a great core.
Kuznetsov and Burakovsky are essential pieces of the Capitals’ future. Kuznetsov had a breakout season in 2015-16, scoring 77 points in 82 games played, and had a strong playoff performance this past spring with five goals and 10 points in 13 games played. Burakovsky has the potential to be a major force this season after an impressive finish in the playoffs. Kuznetsov is 25-years old and Burakovsky is only 22-years old. These young, upcoming superstars have shown flashes of the talent that gives them bright futures and will certainly be key to Washington’s future success.
The Capitals still have Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie who have been among the team’s most productive players the past few seasons. Ovechkin’s goal-scoring may have taken a dip this past season, but 33 goals is not bad at all in the NHL today. He may have been a 50-goal scorer two years ago, but that trend was going down whether it was this past year or later on, as the captain is 31-years old (32 on September 17). Backstrom is coming off one of the best regular seasons and playoffs in his career, and will no doubt continue to build on that. Oshie is also coming off of a career year, one in which he scored 33 goals despite missing 14 games. Even with Ovechkin’s down year, he is still one of the league’s best offensive players, especially when playing with one of the best playmakers in Backstrom and another dangerous sniper in Oshie.
Despite the losses of Shattenkirk and Alzner, the Capitals still have a solid defense, despite the holes that need to be filled. Orlov, one of the league’s rising young stars on the blueline, signed a six-year contract worth $30.6 million and is projected to play on the top-pairing with Matt Niskanen this season. He had a career-high in goals (six) and points (33), and he’s only 25-years of age. He was a plus-30 this past season, good enough for second-best on the Caps (fellow blueliner Brooks Orpik was a +32) and sixth-best in the league.
John Carlson and Niskanen are also really good defensemen. They both represented Team USA at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and have played vital roles for the Capitals. It’s likely both will spend time on the power play this year which could increase their production. It’s also good that they are playing in front of one of the best goalies in the world in Braden Holtby. While Holtby has, arguably, been the best player on many nights for the Capitals, the Caps’ defense was one of the best last season.
Holtby may be coming off a difficult postseason, but he finished second in the Vezina Trophy voting after going 42-13-6, with a career-best 2.07 goals-against average (GAA) and a career-high .925 save percentage. Despite the rough postseason, Holtby has always shown a strong ability to bounce back and entered the 2017 playoffs with the best playoff save percentage in NHL history.
There are a lot of other reasons to be optimistic, including the Capitals’ depth at center. They have some of the best depth in the league when it comes to centers with Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, and Jay Beagle making up their four lines. They were all key components to the Caps’ special teams this past year, with Kuznetsov’s and Backstrom’s offensive production, Beagle’s work ethic on the penalty kill and strong faceoff percentage, and Eller’s’ defensive play. The Capitals are very strong down the middle.
The Capitals also have some up-and-coming prospects who should see some more opportunities with the departure of many UFAs. They have a lot of talent down in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears – Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Travis Boyd, and Madison Bowey. These players may not be the same as a Justin Williams or a Kevin Shattenkirk, but perhaps it will be good for the Capitals to infuse more youth into their very talented core.
The Capitals are going through a lot of changes from the team that has won back-to-back President’s Trophies, but there is no doubt that this team can bring a Stanley Cup to D.C. in the not too distant future. The team may have lost a lot of key pieces, but this is still a strong team. The Chicago Blackhawks have proven that teams can win the Cup even after significant changes. They lost Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager, Antti Niemi, and Brent Sopel after their first of three Cup wins in the last seven years in 2010, but still managed to win the aforementioned two Stanley Cups after they lost these core players. Besides, less pressure may be good for a Capitals team that has struggled to deal with high expectations since the beginning of the Ovechkin era. Regardless of who this team lost on July 1, they are arguably a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and still have a strong chance to make the playoffs this year.
By Harrison Brown