When one reads a season preview for the 2017-18 Washington Capitals, one is bound to see the same thing. It’s a team that has been at the top of the standings for the past two seasons, but is expected to take a step back this season. After winning back-to-back President’s Trophies, it’s no surprise that the salary cap became an issue for the team this offseason.
The Capitals lost several key players this summer, a number that one doesn’t often see unless a team wins the Stanley Cup, something known colloquially as a “Stanley Cup hangover”. Even without winning the Cup, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan compared the Caps’ offseason to a “Cup hangover” due to the losses. Regardless, finishing with the records they have compiled over the last two seasons will not be easy. Over the past two seasons, the Capitals have managed to amass 238 points, best in the league over the 164 games played. The second-place Pittsburgh Penguins put up 215. Over that same span, the Capitals won 111 games, while Pittsburgh won 98. During that span of time, the Capitals lost just 37 of their 164 games, while Pittsburgh lost 47.
As mentioned above, the Capitals lost key players in free agency, trades, and the 2017 Expansion Draft, including Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik. Those players combined to give the Capitals 68 goals and 175 points last season. On top of losing those players, Washington did not make any significant additions to replace them. With core players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie in need of new contracts (both signed long-term eight-year deals worth $62.4 million and $46 million, respectively), the Capitals just didn’t have the cap space to bring in players to replace the likes of Johansson, Williams and Alzner.
Repeating their amount of success won’t be easy and probably shouldn’t be expected, but finishing first in what is arguably, the toughest division in hockey shouldn’t be out of reach for the Caps. Why? The Capitals are not the only team within the division to go through some big changes. Every other team within the division lost key players through various ways this summer, including the Penguins, who have won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons.
Everyone saw this offseason coming for the Capitals. Stanley Cup or not the team was going to lose key players. And while it’s tough to see talented and well-liked players leave, this team still has plenty of great players left. The only team in the division that can match the deep core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Braden Holtby is the Penguins. Look at those names, they are great players. The third and fourth-lines are not as strong, however.
Looking at the top two lines of this team, it’s clear they can still do a ton of damage. The Capitals should fine defensively, and although they will miss Alzner they still have enough depth and talent to recover. They have one of the best goalies in the NHL in Holtby, and above all, they have Barry Trotz, a proven head coach (at least in the regular season) who has gotten more out of worse teams than this one.
Other top teams in the division have experienced quite a bit of change too. Key players within the division have gone all over the place. When I hear the Capitals could be a third-place team in the division or a sixth, seventh, or eighth seed in the old playoff format I have trouble buying it. When looking at the key players on the teams in this division, the Capitals still have a really good chance to win the Metropolitan Division in 2017-18.
By CJ Witt