Barring some sort of unforeseen blockbuster move in the coming weeks, it seems as if the Capitals are prepared to enter next season with largely the same roster they had during the 2020-21 season.
Evgeny Kuznetsov has not been traded.
The only real changes have been to trade Brenden Dillon to Winnipeg for two second-round draft picks and allow Michael Raffl to leave in free agency. Otherwise, it is the exact same team. That is not necessarily a bad thing. (We’ll see what happens with Zdeno Chara, a current UFA)
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It is a very good team. Excellent, even. A team that finished this past season tied for first place in its division and over the past three seasons has the third best points percentage in the league behind only the Lightning and Bruins.
But it is also a team that has lost in the First Round of the playoffs three years in a row, winning just two total games the past two years. If you break each series down individually you can easily explain each of them away. In 2019 they were coming off a Stanley Cup run and lost an overtime Game 7 to an on-the-rise Hurricanes team that was just starting to become a contender. Nobody should fault them for that. The next year was the bubble year where, quite honestly, no result should be overanalyzed. Things were weird. Then this past season they got a brutal opening round draw against one of the best teams in the league (Bruins). Sometimes somebody is just better than you on the ice. It happens.
But three years without a series win for a franchise that had won at least won series (including a Cup) in each of the previous four years is still a little eye-opening. Especially given the success the team has had during the regular season, so it is understandable that sweeping changes are not viewed as necessary.
This is an old team
If there is a concern for the short-term future in terms of a “Stanley Cup window” it is the simple fact that this is one of the oldest rosters in the NHL. And when it comes to the skaters it is really not even close to the rest of the leaggue. As rosters stand right now the Capitals are the only team in the league whose forwards and defense both have an average age of 30 or older. Most teams sit in the 26-28 range for both groups, and there are only one or two other groups in the entire league over 30 years of age.
Not only that, every defender currently under contract and on the NHL roster is over the age of 30. That is an old group by NHL standards.
Age is obviously far from the only deciding factor into whether or not a team wins, but it is at least somewhat of a factor. Older players are not as productive as they decline, they get injured more, they are not in their prime, they are not as fast. There is a reason teams that win the Cup and go deeper into the playoffs are not usually among the oldest teams in the league. They usually have an average in the 27-28 range.
Given all of that you cannot help but wonder if this is sort of a “one more run” with this current group. They are obviously not getting any younger, and there is going to have to be a point where some changes have to be made if they keep losing in the First Round of the playoffs.
Kuznetsov and the goalies will be the X-factors
Even with all of the aforementioned concerns there are two things that can dramatically change the shape of the Capitals’ season.
The first is Kuznetsov rebounding and once again being an impact player. Even though his name was floated in trade speculation for a while it should not be a major surprise that he is still on the roster. Or if he opens the season on the roster. Trading him right now would be a massive risk for the Capitals because the return would almost certainly fail to match the potential impact he can still make. Yeah, he has struggled (by his standard) the past two years. He has seemingly been a source of frustration for the organization at times. But he is still Evgeny Kuznetsov, he still has impact ability, and trading him now would have been a lowest possible value move, especially given his remaining contract. Who is paying a premium price for that right now?
You do not want to move that guy for pennies on the dollar and then watch him return to being a point-per-game impact player for somebody else.
Along with (apparently) bringing back Kuznetsov, the Capitals also seem prepared to use the same goaltending duo of Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. There was nothing really wrong with the way they played a year ago, but they were not game-changers, either. Samsonov is the player with the potential, but we have not yet consistently seen it. He is still only 24 years old and has only 48 games of NHL experience on his resume. He is far from a finished product. If he becomes the player the Capitals have hoped he could be, that changes a lot. Combine that with Kuznetsov returning to form and suddenly an old, very good team could again be a major threat come playoff time.