The 2021 offseason is quickly drawing to a close, as NHL teams make final additions and subtractions to their rosters in advance of the opening of training camps in mid-September. The Capitals have been relatively quiet this offseason, primarily due to salary cap constraints, but have they approached the offseason in the most proficient manner possible?
In this post we’ll discuss the overarching player and roster management philosophies for any professional sports team, and discuss which management scenarios might be best suited for the Capitals at this specific point in time.
For the sake of this post, the term “re-load” simply refers to a general manager making minimal roster adjustments, maybe moving or acquiring a player or two. The 2021 offseason (so far) has definitely been a re-load scenario for the Capitals.
“Re-tool” means a few more moves and a greater degree of reworking of the roster prior to beginning the season. For the sake of this discussion, it would include the movement of one or more big ticket players in an attempt to establish much more salary cap space, as well as reshape certain aspects of the team that may not be as efficient as necessary.
“Re-build” is essentially a complete tear-down to the foundation, keeping only players essential for the next 3-5 seasons.
In the end these are just are just general terms established for this discussion, but will help illustrate varying approaches to managing a team during the offseason.
As previously noted the Capitals have been somewhat hogtied this offseason because of their scant salary cap space. The decision has been made to shed enough salary cap space (Brenden Dillon) in order to re-sign Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Samsonov. But is this the only viable approach at this point in time for the Capitals? No. Is it the best approach? That’s debatable.
Some may argue that being able to reload the same talent is actually a step forward in this era of the flat salary cap. We saw a significant number of high-priced free agent players sign with lesser teams with salary cap space this summer. In a big picture sense, the overall league talent pool is spreading/flattening out, as very few of the league’s top teams actually got any stronger this offseason. In fact, many got weaker.
However, some may argue that three consecutive first round exits in the postseason screams for sizable change, or a re-tooling. Some may say that the current core isn’t built to compete with the top-tier teams in the league. Yes, there are other issues to consider, including the accommodation of all-time franchise players Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. But in this scenario (Re-tool), it would mean trimming more cap space, saying goodbye to one, two or three core players, in order to restructure the team in a younger, more competitive fashion.
Assessing The Options
We can probably safely say that a full rebuild is really not an option at this point in time, at least not until Nicklas Backstram retires in four seasons and/or Alex Ovechkin retires in five seasons. The two players account for 23% of the Capitals total salary cap. Like it or not, the Capitals are really precluded from a full rebuild until then.
Re-Tool, by definition, wold have meant significantly more restructuring of the roster, which would require the movement of one or more expensive contracts in order to upgrade the team. For sake of discussion, players (or combination of players) that might have been moved in order to “re-tool” the team include:
- Evgeny Kuznetsov
- John Carlson
- T.J. Oshie
- Anthony Mantha
- Justin Schultz
- Carl Hagelin
- Lars Eller
- Nick Jensen
This is where it gets difficult. Fans are attached to most of those players. Moving any one of them might be upsetting, but if it yielded a shot at improvement, a younger, faster more contemporary team, would it be worth it? In the grand scheme, yes. How many more first round playoff exits until a “re-tool” is justified? I’d say it’s past due.
The Overarching Goal
We asked more than 90,000 followers on our social media accounts which was more important, to see Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record or to win a second Stanley Cup in the next five years.
Daily ask: if you could have just ONE in next five years, which would you take? #ALLCAPS
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) July 29, 2021
The results reinforce the fact that winning a second Stanley Cup was more important to a majority of Capitals fans, but not all of them. 40% preferred that Ovechkin break Gretzky’s record. In other words, winning isn’t everything, at least for 40% of Caps Nation.
The question is which management approach will give the Capitals the best chance at winning a second Stanley Cup in the remaining years of the Ovechkin and Backstrom era? Should the Capitals “re-load” each of the next five years, making small adjustments and deal with an extremely constrained salary cap every step of the way, or should they make larger moves, create significant space and restructure (re-tool) the team. I’d argue that a re-tool is already past due.
Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” With the offseason drawing to a close it’s fairly apparent that the Capitals roster is what it will be – pretty much a re-load.
As previously noted, the ability to keep a roster intact in a time of tight cap space and tough economic times might actually be a step forward when compared to the status of each and every team in the league. Then again, maybe not. We shall see if the forth time is the charm, or if we are in the exact same spot this time next year.
By Jon Sorensen