When we look back on this era, the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals will always be linked.
They’ve never played each other in the postseason, of course, and that’s part of the reason why: The two franchises are kindred spirits, labelled as perennial disappointments for their perceived perennial postseason failures.
The Capitals are “Sharks East,” never having made it past the second round of the postseason in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Sharks have, and even made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, but they’ve never won it, so they’re “Capitals West.”
Now, though, the two franchises find themselves on divergent paths. Yes, both teams find themselves in playoff position entering Monday night’s matchup, and only about $1.5 million separates them in salary cap space this offseason.
But if you look beneath the surface, the differences are clear, as the Sharks and Capitals are utilizing different blueprints to address their own failures.
The Sharks can’t score, but their opponents haven’t scored much, either. Their plus-eight goal differential is tied for the fourth-best mark in the conference, and their possession numbers (top-five in both major metrics, per Puck On Net) bode well for future success.
The Capitals can score, but they can’t stop anyone from scoring. They’re one of two playoff teams in the East with a negative goal differential (minus-three), and find themselves in the bottom-10 of both corsi-for and fenwick-for percentage.
That’s an unusual place for Washington, long one of the league’s best possession teams, but it’s been by design. The Capitals went all in last year, and they’re paying the price this season.
Facing a salary capocalypse, Washington let Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik walk in free agency, lost Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft, and traded Marcus Johansson to New Jersey for salary cap relief.
They still re-signed Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie, but they’re facing what Chicago has so often. They just don’t have the trophy to show for it.
Look no further than their salary cap situation. They currently have just over $800,000 in space, and assuming the cap remains flat, have just over $16 million to sign 11 players next summer.
By contrast, the Sharks currently have a little over $6 million, and will have just over $17.5 million to sign five players next summer.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson hasn’t gone all in the same way his Capitals counterpart, Brian Maclellan, has. San Jose’s kept their window ajar by kicking the can down the road, structuring their contracts in a way where decisions on major players are spread out.
Their roster is not as deep as the Capitals’ last season, but the Sharks have enough cap flexibility to get there without going all in. Yet, no matter the differences in their respective approach, San Jose will continue to be linked to Washington as long as they also don’t succeed.