It won’t be pretty, but Capitals can still contend
Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan admitted that his team is experiencing a championship “hangover” without the benefits of a Stanley Cup, which sounds even worse than a headache without the party.
And, no doubt about it, this last swing for the fences was the mightiest they could muster.
MORE: MacLellan on the championship hangover without the championship
Still, it’s easy to linger on this letdown and forget that sports can be pretty strange. Sometimes a big run happens well after people expect it.
Who, in their right mind, expected Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to shock LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011? Hockey has plenty of examples of surprise runs, including the Predators going from the 16th-ranked playoff team to two wins from a title.
No doubt about it, the Capitals will feel the sting in losing Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, and maybe a little confidence in Barry Trotz.
Even so, the very Pittsburgh Penguins team that torments them can also be a beacon of hope: you don’t need a perfect regular season to win it all.
The Capitals are no longer in a position to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy each year. Instead, they just need to make the best of things like ... you know, just about every salary-cap era contender.
An aging core ... but not an old core
Look, the most important members of this team no longer qualify as spring chickens. Alex Ovechkin’s gray hair stands as a reminder of our mortality, really.
Rather than being a reason for panic, the ages of their most important players emphasize the notion that they need to keep hammering away:
Andre Burakovsky: 22
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 25
John Carlson: 27
Braden Holtby: 27
Nicklas Backstrom: 29
Matt Niskanen: 30
T.J. Oshie: 30
Alex Ovechkin: 31
Sure, some of those important contributors might slip, but that’s still a core group most franchises would envy. They still have an elite goalie, dangerous scorers, two strong centers, an experienced head coach, and some capable defensemen.
One key development might be the rise (or fall?) of Jakub Vrana.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed solid - though not spectacular - success in the AHL, and also got his feet wet at the NHL level. He didn’t go wild for Washington, but with that first-round pedigree (13th pick in 2014) and solid numbers in Hershey, there’s some reason to believe that he could at least be a meaningful contributor.
Vrana could ease the sting of losing one of those key forwards.
In defending keeping Brooks Orpik around, MacLellan points to a similar possibility among Washington’s defensive prospects:
Diving into the bargain bin
Here’s some advice for MacLellan: as painful as times are now, don’t go on vacation just yet. The Capitals should take advantage of a free agent market that is low on stars but potentially high on value.
The Capitals could go with veteran forwards such as Jaromir Jagr,* Thomas Vanek, or Jiri Hudler. All three of those guys aren’t that far removed from success.
They can also take on some interesting “reclamation projects.” Nail Yakupov and Brandon Pirri are just a couple of players who could be this year’s answer to Sam Gagner.
And, yes, the pickings are slimmer on the blueline, but Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles could provide solid depth help.
MacLellan seems aware that these options are out there, at least broadly speaking.
MacLellan: "We're looking for ways on the bottom end of our lineup to add cheaper players or develop cheaper players."— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) July 3, 2017
Is this situation perfect? No, not really.
Still, the Capitals have suffered despite seemingly boasting championship rosters on paper. Maybe they can win ugly after all these painful times losing with the prettiest roster?
* - Yes, he had a bad stay in Washington, but that was approximately a billion years ago.