Over the past decade, the Washington Capitals have been remarkably consistent. Seemingly every year, Alex Ovechkin and company would dominate the regular season; there were plenty of playoff collapses along the way, but the club ultimately lifted the Stanley Cup in 2018. Nothing good, though, can last forever.
Over the past few years, age and salary cap concerns have started to eat away at the Capitals squad. With the 2019-20 NHL season about to begin, could this be the Washington core’s last shot at glory?
Building a Stanley Cup contender around Alex Ovechkin
Like so many other teams, the Washington Capitals built their roster through the draft. The team selected Ovechkin with the first overall pick in 2004; two years later, they added Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick. The two immediately struck up a symbiotic relationship, with Backstrom serving as the perfect creative foil to Ovechkin’s pure power.
In 2008, the Caps selected defenseman John Carlson in the first round and goaltender Braden Holtby in the fourth. The pair spent several seasons maturing and, in 2014, head coach Barry Trotz joined the club; he found himself taking over a team with stars up front, on the blue line, and in the net. The Capitals suffered through three more playoff failures before everything finally clicked. Trotz’s discipline reshaped the team both on and off the ice, helping them finally lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Facing a possible salary cap crunch
As soon as the Capitals lifted the Stanley Cup, there was a change in personnel. Barry Trotz resigned from his head coaching role due to a contractual issue, choosing to join the New York Islanders.
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby, and Carlson are still on the roster, but there’s a contract crunch lurking just beyond the horizon. Ovechkin is the club’s captain and star player, but he’s 34 years old and only under contract for two more seasons. Carlson recently signed a major contract extension, but Holtby and Backstrom will both be free agents after this season.
Both players will presumably be looking for raises but dealing with beloved franchise players is always a challenge. After the Los Angeles Kings won the Cup, for example, they rewarded several players with big contracts that quickly became albatrosses. Holtby is a 30-year-old playing in a physically demanding position and Backstrom is already being paid like a top-25 center; adding too much money or term onto their contracts could be a risky proposition.
What comes next for the Washington Capitals?
At least on paper, the Capitals enter this season as one of the stronger teams in the Metro Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins have started to decline, even with Sidney Crosby still working magic, while the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Rangers are all in various states of flux. The upstart Carolina Hurricanes might give Washington a run for their money, but the Caps core should be more than capable of making the postseason without too much trouble. They probably won’t be Stanley Cup favorites at that point but, once you’re in, anything can happen. Just ask the St. Louis Blues about postseason miracles.
After that, the ball will be in general manager Brian MacLellan’s court. Unless he believes that Ilya Samsonov is ready to take a massive step forward in goal, the best solution is probably to offer Backstrom and Holtby contracts that prioritize salary over term. You can work around a short contract if it goes bad; it’s hard to survive a long term deal that ties your hands for the next decade.