The Capitals absolutely steamrolled through the NHL in the 2017 regular season, as they had clinched the best record in the league, before a good number of teams had even clinched a playoff spot, winning a total of 55 games and finishing with 118 points in the standings, 7 points better than Pittsburgh.
This was supposed to be their year though. Signing Justin Williams in the off-season, acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, the pieces were surely coming together to help the core group of players get over the hump in the playoffs.
It wasn't to be though. The opening round was certainly a rocky ride, as they had their hands full with the youngsters in Toronto, but they were able to overcome their speed and youthful enthusiasm with bearing down on them late in the series, dispatching them in six games. The Capitals goal of making it past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era was going to have a tough task, getting the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the rivalry was back on again.
The series was an excellent one to watch, as the two teams traded blows, shot for shot, and it went the distance, all the way to Game 7, where they couldn't find their way past Marc-Andre Fleury in the deciding game and it was another early finish to the playoffs.
What does this team need to do to have more playoff success?
The Washington Capitals are always a good hockey pool option for the regular season and their popularity was certainly there this year, as 12 of them were taken at the opening draft in October, including two 1st round picks in Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin, but their depth got off to a slow start, hence a couple drops at the first swap, while the second swap saw their popularity bounce back with three picks. With Kevin Shattenkirk getting deal to the Capitals at the deadline, that lifted their overall end of season to 14 players.
Holtby was the 1st overall pick in this year's pool, to be more exact, and he finished as the pool's MVP, finishing 1st overall in pool scoring, with 42 wins and 102 points in 63 appearances, leading the charge for the President's Trophy for the Capitals. Unfortunately for Jeremy, the pick didn't translate into back-to-back wins in the hockey pool.
In terms of the rest of the team, the Capitals were also good about spreading the wealth, as Philipp Grubauer was also pool worthy this season. There were eight forwards worthy of the conversation, including Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, Andre Burakovsky and Jay Beagle. Backstrom was good enough for a 1st round pick, while Ovechkin was only worthy of a 2nd round pick. On defense, the Caps finished with Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt as worthy blueliners, giving the team 15 players worthy of the pool, so our teams were a player or two short.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
I don't think I can bet against the Capitals having another big year in the 2017 season, especially given how they look on paper today. Any team with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Carlson and Holtby on it, signed and ready to be delivered, has an optimal chance of being tops in any conference and/or league. Unless the unforeseeable happens, which the Montreal Canadiens proved, this team can be a top team in the league again. They have to be considered Cup contenders and it will be how the management team tinkers with this lineup, which will determine their fate again. I believe that they're very close and they need to believe that they can be there in the end.
They really could have been there, but the extra pieces that management managed to rustle up were not the pieces that pushed them over the top, rather they only pushed them to the brink, where they have been before, just to the end of the second round of the playoffs. The team was fun to watch and a great hockey pool team in the regular season again, but this has to be frustrating for Capitals fans, as they should be doing much better than they are.
2018 Pool Outlook
|Alex Ovechkin||9.538||Matt Niskanen||5.750||Braden Holtby||5.100|
|Nicklas Backstrom||6.700||John Carlson||3.967|
|Lars Eller||3.500||Brooks Orpik||5.500||Vitek Vanecek||0.714|
|Tom Wilson||2.000||Lucas Johansen||0.925||Adam Carlson||0.705|
|Riley Barber||0.925||Taylor Chorney||0.800|
|Hampus Gustafsson||0.884||Kristofers Bindulis||0.793|
|Mason Mitchell||0.884||Colby Williams||0.751|
|Jakub Vrana||0.863||Connor Hobbs||0.722|
|Garrett Pilon||0.776||Jonas Siegenthaler||0.720|
|Beck Malenstyn||0.763||Madison Bowey||0.695|
|Tim McGauley||0.663||Tyler Lewington||0.665|
|Zach Sill||0.613||Aaron Ness||0.613|
Free agency has really taken this team down to the bare minimum, in terms of who they have signed and who is pool worthy today. Out of 15 pool worthy players at the end of the regular season, seven have contracts for next season, but with the names they have signed, they should have no problems attracting new talent, if needed.
Potential Losses in the Expansion Draft
Required exposure could be a bit of an issue for the Capitals, as of today, as they are light on signed players that could meet all the requirements, so there could be something left out there for the Golden Knights to happily snap up. Lars Eller at $3.5 million or even Jay Beagle at $1.75 million look like the most likely candidates today, to be left exposed at the forward position, but the Capitals could sign a few other players that could meet that exposure requirement to help protect those two, if needed.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
Well, where do we begin? Let's look at the potential losses of pool worthy players through unrestricted free agency. Oshie, Shattenkirk and Williams highlight the worthy players that could possibly hit the open market, if their love for Washington wanes this summmer. All three are certainly good pick ups for any team and if they hit the open market, they'll likely get paid well.
Restricted free agency will be where the difficulty lies for the Capitals, as they have Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Orlov, Grubauer and Schmidt all hitting at the same time and Burakovsky is the only one of the bunch coming off his entry-level, which would suggest he wouldn't get the same kind of leeway in negotiations. The Capitals will likely have to step up for the rest, possibly offering some UFA years in their new deals.
The Capitals are not exactly working with a lot of space either, as their projected roster is only sitting at 11 signed players and $50.2 million, which doesn't leave a lot for those RFA's to wrestle over. They could really use a big boost, when it comes to the ceiling being raised by the league, which would give them a little more flexibility.
Given the cap and roster situation for the Capitals, it will be high time that they raid the cupboards, trying to find any and all of their young talent for some cheap help. Forward Jakub Vrana and defenseman Madison Bowey appear to be closest to making the jump and having rookie status for next season, just in case we run into the rookie scoring pool again. If either or both of these guys can crack the lineup on a full-time basis, points should just fall into their laps, as they would have to be good enough to get points to begin with. Keep an eye on these two, once training camp rolls around.
Needs at the 2017 Entry Draft
The 2017 season was their time... they spent a lot of futures on the roster that they had going for them and now they won't pick until the 4th round of this year's draft, where it gets pretty thin. Hell, even the 1st round is getting pretty thin, where they would have picked, down at 27th overall.
Instead, it will be the St. Louis Blues, who received this pick, thanks to the deal that saw Shattenkirk end up with the Caps. I already have the Blues picking up a defenseman in the draft already, so a forward should be in order to round it all out. It looks like there is a fair bit of upside to Jesper Boqvist, so the Blues will head in that direction with their pick.
Even with the number of bodies that have been removed from the table above, most of which should come back, the Capitals still have a very good core group of players to build around. Re-signing Kuznetsov will probably be the toughest job of them all, but once that contract is signed, the scoring depth isn't nearly as questionable, as he'll make his line better and things should keep moving forward. Right now, it's hard to imagine that the Capitals will be nearly as dominant in the regular season, from a wins perspective, since all the pieces are not there, but there's no doubt that the quality of top players is there, so the playoffs should be a given. The race for the Metropolitan Division title might be a bit closer though, but the Capitals should be participating, with all things being equal. President's Trophy is a stretch today, but not impossible. Stanley Cup? That's going to need some real elbow grease by the team's management.