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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Alex Ovechkin hit 50 goals again?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Alex Ovechkin hit 50 goals again?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. We begin with Alex Ovechkin, for whom 50 goals is always the expectation. But how much longer can the captain keep this up?  

Alex Ovechkin is already back running up mountains and pushing giant tires down tracks. 

It’s become a summer training ritual documented on social media for Ovechkin, who has had more downtime than he would have liked in 2019. Instead of partying with the Stanley Cup well into July, he has already had plenty of vacation time with wife, Nastya, and son, Sergei, and his family all while plotting how to get the Stanley Cup back to Washington.   

That extra time for rest and training is necessary with Ovechkin’s age-34 season approaching. His birthday is Sept. 17. It is his 15thNHL season. The question: Can Ovechkin defy the odds and make a run at yet another 50-goal season?

We’re getting close to the historical limit. Johnny Bucyk scored 50 goals at age 35 for the Boston Bruins in 1970-71. Jaromir Jagr turned 34 toward the back end (Feb. 15) of a 2005-06 season when he scored 54 goals for the New York Rangers. 

But that’s the list Ovechkin is working with. Otherwise, we are in uncharted territory. He could pass Jagr by hitting 50 again during a season he will actually begin at age 34. He can’t yet catch Bucyk, who was 35 for the entirety of that 1970-71 season, to become the oldest 50-goal scorer in NHL history. 

That honor – if it happens - would actually have to wait until 2021-22, which is a year Ovechkin is not even under contract. He has two years remaining on the 13-year deal he signed with the Capitals way back in 2008. We were all so much younger then. 

But looking ahead, a 50-goal season at age 35 for Ovechkin would still fall short of Bucyk, who had a May birthday and was just a few weeks shy of his 36thbirthday when he scored 51 for Boston in 1971. Neither Bucyk nor Jagr even led the league in goals those years – something Ovechkin has done a record eight times. 

Jagr’s 54 goals came in an offense-happy year after a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season. There were five 50-goal scorers that year alone. This entire decade since 2010 there have been five players total who have scored 50 goals, including Ovechkin. And he’s the only one to hit 50 more than once. He’s done it four times this decade and just missed a fifth when he hit 49 in 2017-18. So close.  

"I’m sure he had some doubters out there that think it’s going to stop," Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamos said in March. "But [Ovechkin] just finds a way. He’s motivated. He loves to score goals."

Becoming the league’s oldest 50-goal scorer can wait a while. There’s a big contract negotiation that must take place before then. For now, there’s the small matter of catching Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons all time. They both have nine. Ovechkin has eight. 

It wouldn’t shock anyone to see Ovechkin put together a few more 50-goal campaigns well into his 30s. Who would doubt him at this point? But expecting him to do it is another thing. Bodies age, injuries accrue, skills erode, speed diminishes.

Washington scored 274 goals last season. That was fifth in the NHL. It could probably withstand some erosion from Ovechkin, especially if its defensive play is better. The Capitals gave up 238 goals last season, which ranked 16th. The team made moves to improve its penalty kill and did its best to keep its scoring depth – though it remains to be seen if keeping Carl Hagelin and signing free agent Richard Panik was the right move while letting Brett Connolly walk and trading Andre Burakovsky. 

But this team has for several years now relied on its offensive stars to help carry the freight. That quality up and down the lineup begins with Ovechkin and it’s why the Capitals always seem to out-produce the advanced metrics that peg them as a very good team, but not an elite one. 

There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging at Capital One Arena that proves some teams just have a knack for playing better than the underlying numbers say that they should. History says Ovechkin should be done with 50 goals by now. Do you want to bet against him even at age 34? 

There are other milestones ahead for Ovechkin even if he falls short of 50 this season. A 42-goal season would get him to the magical 700 mark. Only seven players have ever done that. On the way, he’d pass legends like Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694). A 50-goal season on the nose would tie Ovechkin with Hall-of-Famer Mike Gartner, who scored 397 of his 708 career goals with the Capitals. 

If that happens then the Gretzky watch will begin in earnest. Gretzky’s record of 894 career goals still seems impossible to reach. But one more 50-goal season would pull Ovechkin to within 186 goals before age 35. Suddenly the implausible seems possible then. 

“I don’t think it’s crazy. It’s going to be tough," said Stamkos who scored 60 goals in 2011-12 and is one of those five players with Ovechkin to top 50 this decade. "But the longevity he’s had in his career is pointing in his favor going forward. He’s always going to have that shot. I think there’s a chance. It’s going to be tough, but I do think there’s a chance for him to break it.”        

The greatest goal scorer of his generation then could make a final assault on history. But it all starts with one more big year before the aging curve really kicks in. Does Ovechkin have another 50 in him?  

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Capitals officially lose defensive prospect and draft steal Chase Priskie to the Carolina Hurricanes

Capitals officially lose defensive prospect and draft steal Chase Priskie to the Carolina Hurricanes

Former Capitals defensive prospect Chase Priskie has agreed to terms with Metropolitan Division rival Carolina Hurricanes, the team announced.

Priskie was a sixth-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2016. Despite being a late-round pick, Priskie developed into one of the top college defensemen in the country at Quinnipiac and was named one of the top 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player in 2018-19.

"Chase was one of the best defensemen in college hockey last season," Carolina general manager Don Waddell said via a statement. "We believe he has a bright future in the NHL, and we're thrilled that he has chosen to come to Carolina."

The move is a blow for Washington. While the team has an abundance of left-shot defensemen, Priskie is a right-shot. Finding such a valuable player with a sixth-round draft pick was a coup for the Caps and its scouting staff...or at least would have been had the team been able to keep him.

“My dream is to play in the NHL and I feel like I've given myself every advantage to achieve that goal,” Priskie told NBC Sports Washington in March. “I think with the right motivation this summer, having a good summer, good training, I'm going to go into training camp and try to earn a roster spot.”

Priskie informed the Caps that he intended to become a free agent on Aug. 15.

Priskie joins a crowded blue line in Carolina as defense was certainly one of the team’s strengths last season. There is room in just about any NHL roster, however, for a right-shot puck-moving defenseman. If Priskie pans out the way he is expected to, he will be playing in the NHL, and against the Caps, sooner rather than later.

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Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. No player has a bigger effect on a single game than a goalie, so teams better make sure they have a good plan for who can lead them in the crease heading into each season.

The Capitals have been set at goalie for several years now, but heading into the 2019-20 season there is some question about what the team’s goalie tandem will and should look like. Luckily for general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden, they have plenty of options.

Here are the four goalies who could see playing time this year, along with the case for each of them.

Braden Holtby

Why there is an argument: In terms of being a starting NHL goalie, Holtby has proven himself time and again. If he remains with the team, he is the No. 1 next season without question. That is not the issue. But Holtby is heading into the final year of his contract, and the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie. Wouldn’t it be smart to trade Holtby now to avoid losing him for nothing next summer?

The case for Holtby: Trading away a player on the final year of his contract can be smart business, but not always. Circumstances ultimately dictate whether a move like this makes sense, and the fact is it would not make sense for the Caps.

The team’s mentality heading into the season is the championship window is still open. That’s why a team with serious cap constraints still went out and added pieces like Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway in order to make the roster better. If the goal this season is a Stanley Cup, then you have to keep the goalie who brought you there two years ago, instead of entering the season relying on a starter with zero NHL experience.

There are plenty of examples of teams that have held onto prominent free agents and were burned by them the following year. John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets just saw both of its top players, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leave this offseason. But this does not mean teams should trade away players every time they reach the final year of their contracts. The mistake the Islanders and Blue Jackets made was keeping those players despite having no reasonable chance of winning a Cup.

The Islanders did not even make the playoffs in Tavares’ last season, and a Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series decided it was a good idea to go all-in for “one more run.”

The Caps, on the other hand, are just one year removed from winning the Cup with the same core. They will not be the favorites heading into this season, but it is not unreasonable to think they still have a chance. That chance would fall between “slim” and “none” if they traded away Holtby before the season started.

Plus, while Samsonov may be considered the future of the franchise, that can change. What if he stinks this season? What if Holtby is great? It seems pretty clear right now this will most likely be Holtby’s last season in Washington, but will it still look that way midway into the season? Keeping Holtby for now at least gives the Caps a chance to talk with him about next season and keep that door open just in case.

Pheonix Copley

Why there is an argument: The Caps are still over the salary cap and need to find ways to save money. A backup goalie with a cap hit of $1.1 million may be just too expensive considering there are two cheaper alternatives.

The case for Copley: Backup goaltending is an underrated factor in a team’s success, but it is extremely important. There was a question of whether Copley was even good enough to be an NHL backup heading into last season, but a 16-7-3 record on a team that struggled defensively last season shows that Copley is absolutely a serviceable backup.

While there is certainly a case to be made for each of the team’s younger goalies (more on that later), both goalies remain unknowns at the NHL level and there may be some growing pains when they reach the big leagues. Washington’s backups are going to play in 25 games this season at a minimum and probably closer to 30-35. The team is going to need points in those games against an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

Copley’s skill set is far from elite. His ceiling is as a backup, and there are plenty of times when he seems to struggle even making reasonably easy saves. Many of his best saves last season came from him having to make up for his own mistakes. Having said that, you know Copley can get you points, and those will be at a premium.

Also, unlike Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Copley is not waiver exempt, meaning if the Caps want to send him to Hershey, they risk losing him. The Maple Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers last season and...yeah, they regretted it.

Ilya Samsonov

Why there is an argument: Samsonov is widely considered the future starter for the franchise, but he has yet to play a single NHL game and struggled immensely in Hershey at the start of last season, his first in North America. You do not want to bring him up too soon, only to sit him on the bench behind Holtby and mess with his development.

The case for Samsonov: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard by now that Holtby is on the last year of his deal, and it seems unlikely he will be back next season. If that's how it plays out, presumably the plan going forward will be for Samsonov to take over. If he does, you have to have at least some idea of what you have in him.

Is Samsonov ready to be a No. 1 next season? Is he even ready to be a full-time NHL goalie? Is he as good as we all think he is? We ultimately won’t know unless we see him in the NHL.

It is unlikely Samsonov plays enough next season to give us answers to any of those questions -- it does not make sense for him to play 20 games as an NHL backup and sit on the bench behind Holtby instead of getting 40-50 games in the AHL -- but MacLellan is going to have a much better idea of what the team’s situation in net will be next season if he at least gets a few looks at Samsonov in the NHL. He has to get some NHL time, even if it is limited.

Vitek Vanecek

Why there is an argument: The ceiling is not nearly as high for the 23-year-old prospect as it is for Samsonov. While Samsonov is seen as a future starter, Vanecek is either a high-end AHL goalie or possibly an NHL backup. After a strong season in the AHL, however, has he earned a shot?

The case for Vanecek: Of the four options, Vanecek is certainly fourth on the team’s depth chart. He is not an NHL starter like Holtby, there is no real buzz around him as a budding starter like there is with Samsonov and he has not established himself as an NHL backup the way Copley has. Having said that, Vanecek is also a more polished, finished product than the still-developing Samsonov and had a better season in Hershey last year.

But the real case for Vanecek comes down to money.

Currently the Caps remain over the salary cap and will have to find a way to get under before the start of next season. They have options for how they can do that, but Vanecek provides an intriguing possibility. With a cap hit of only $716,667, if the Caps used Vanecek as Holtby’s backup and waived Copley, then the only other move the team would have to make to get under the cap would be to waive Chandler Stephenson.

Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, Stephenson was underwhelming last year and his new contract is just low enough that the entire salary can be buried in the AHL.

This is the simplest solution to solving the team’s cap issues. Keeping any other goalie combination will force the team to get creative in order to make the money work. If the team has faith in Vanecek as a backup, then this would make MacLellan's job before next season a heck of a lot easier.

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