In 2018 the Capitals finally conquered their demons and successfully made the climb to the top of the NHL’s tallest mountain, winning their first Stanley Cup.
It was a long time coming for an organization that had known nothing but playoff frustration and disappointment for its entire existence, and for a core that was being defined more for second round losses than the all-time great superstar that headlined the lineup.
In the three years since they successfully raised the cup, the Capitals have maintained their status as one of the top teams in the league.
Their 125 regular season wins are the third most in the league (behind only Tampa Bay at 141 and Boston at 126), they have won two division titles, and finished in second place this season by way of a tiebreaker. They are still good. Really good. But as their core starts to get another year older, and another year slower, and another year removed from that championship, the postseason success has dried up almost entirely.
[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
Their 3-1 loss to the Bruins on Sunday resulted in a five-game First Round exit, the third consecutive year they have failed to advance in the playoffs, something that had never previously happened in the Alex Ovechkin era. What is more concerning than the losses is the way they have lost, progressively getting worse and more punchless each year.
They have won just five of the 17 playoff games they have played since raising the cup, and at times looked to be two steps behind the teams that eliminated them.
So what is next?
You know Ovechkin will be back (even if he is technically a free agent). You know Nicklas Backstrom will be back. As long as those two are on the roster you can be sure Capitals management is going to be doing whatever it can to try to win again. And frankly, it is the only way to operate in that situation. But how do they build a roster around those two that can win again? There are some big questions to address this offseason.
The Evgeny Kuznetsov situation
This might be the most interesting situation to watch this offseason.
Kuznetsov is 29 years old, has four years remaining on a contract that carries a $7.58M cap hit, and around the time he went on the COVID list for the second time this season there were rumblings that the Capitals were perhaps willing to consider listening to trade offers this offseason.
This is a tricky one.
There is reason for the Capitals to have some frustration here. When he has been in the lineup over the past two years he has not been the impactful player he once was. His offense has dropped, defense has never been a significant part of his game, and his overall play has just been relatively ordinary. At least by the standard he set for himself at his peak. If you trade him now you are doing so at what might be his lowest possible value and the return might not be what you expect. There is probably not a huge list of teams lining up to trade for a one-dimensional, 29-year-old forward with a big salary cap hit that has not been a game-breaker offensively for two years. That is especially true when the salary cap is not increasing this offseason.
So with that in mind…
How about something bold
While Kuznetsov’s value is probably at rock bottom, there is another player on the roster whose value might be at its peak.
Maybe you explore that?
That player — Tom Wilson.
Capitals fans will riot at the suggestion of this, but hear me out.
While opposing fans, media, and everybody not associated with the Capitals loathe Wilson’s style of play, there is one group of people in the sport that absolutely love it and love him. There are 31 of them, and they are the NHL’s general managers.
Every single one of them would crawl over miles of jagged rocks and broken glass to have a player like Tom Wilson on their team. They can not get enough of this guy. A big, 6-4, 220-pound power forward that rattles cages, defends, and scores 20-plus goals? You are talking a dream player for hockey people. Every one of them, particularly those in the Eastern Conference, are always looking for somebody to counter Tom Wilson. What if the Capitals put the actual Tom Wilson on the market?
Not saying they have to trade him. Not even suggesting they should trade him.
But does it hurt to put out some feelers and see if some overly aggressive general manager loses their mind. I bet at least one of them would.
For all of the talk about “heavy hockey” and how players like him are key in the playoffs, he has not made much of an impact in the past three postseasons, and you also have the X-factor of him being one poorly placed or ill-timed hit away from taking himself out of the lineup for a long time.
The Capitals need a spark. They need to get younger and faster, and they need to do it on the cheap given the salary cap situation. Ovechkin and Backstrom are going nowhere. Same could probably be said for John Carlson. Kuznetsov (contract, recent play) and T.J. Oshie (age and contract) might not bring you huge returns. So what else do you have?
Whenever a player’s perceived value exceeds their actual on-ice value that is probably the time to consider shopping them. Wilson might be at that point in the eyes of opposing general managers. So why not explore?
Worst case scenario is you do not get an offer you like and you simply keep a good player.
Is the right goalie on the roster?
Then there is the goalie situation. After a decade of dependability and consistency with Braden Holtby, the Capitals came into this season with the uncertainty of an unproven starter (Ilya Samsonov) and a haphazardly thrown together backup situation that nobody planned for.
Overall, their play could probably best be described as “fine.” They were not a liability, but they were not game-stealers, either. Coach Peter Laviolette said in the aftermath of their playoff loss that goaltending was not the reason they are not moving on. But it also did not really do much to prevent them from losing. Samsonov is a restricted free agent, so some kind of a decision is going to have be made here. How confident are you that he is the guy? Do you gamble on the raw talent and natural ability and commit to the goalie you have penciled in as your long-term starter for years? Or do you explore outside options? Old friend Philipp Grubauer would be interesting if the Avalanche can not re-sign him.
The Capitals still have the core to compete, even if it is older and getting closer to the end of its run. But there are still some big questions to address this offseason to help get them back out of the First Round.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.