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 four 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. Today, we look at a team with most of its top players either in their 30s already or turning 30 at some point before the NHL All-Star break in January. Could age finally catch up to Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals this season?
Age is the bane of all hockey players.
One day they are putting on an NHL jersey for the first time at the draft and seemingly the next some reporter is calling them a veteran and soon after that words like “grizzled” are tossed around.
Experience is a good thing. But once a player hits 30, all eyes are watching for signs of decline. Fans. Media. Coaches. Executives. Even teammates. The Capitals are relying on plenty of stars in their 30s as they head into the 2019-20 season and that can be a concern.
Before the season even starts, Alex Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17. He’s defied the aging curve for so long as one of the game’s great goal scorers, you can’t help but wonder when the 50-goal seasons become a thing of the past, when one of the league’s most durable players finally starts to show the wear and tear of years of physical hockey.
Ovechkin’s running mate, Nicklas Backstrom, turns 32 on Nov. 23. He is still an elite center, but he’s had more physical problems than Ovechkin over the years, including concussions and hip issues. Backstrom has long made up for a lack of high-end speed with an ability to see the ice at a level most players can’t. But at some point physical diminishment will come and that vision won’t matter quite so much.
T.J. Oshie has a history of concussions, too. He’s a hard player, relentless on the puck and unafraid to use his creativity to make opposing defenders look silly. But he turns 33 on Dec. 23 and has missed 35 games the past three seasons. Just in year three of an eight-year contract, the Capitals hope Oshie has a few more 50-point seasons left in him.
Meanwhile, top blueliner John Carlson turns 30 on Jan. 10. He got tons of love in the Norris Trophy voting the past two seasons. But he’s played heavy minutes and enters his 10thseason as a minutes-eating workhorse. Carlson’s been in the NHL since he was 19. Does he have a few more elite seasons or was last year his peak? These are the uncomfortable questions that must be asked. This is just year two of an eight-year contract for Carlson. The Capitals absolutely can’t afford to see his game slip.
Goalie Braden Holtby enters a contract year at age 30 on Sept. 16, the day before Ovechkin hits 34. He has won a Stanley Cup and been a reliable presence in goal for Washington most of the past seven seasons since taking hold of the No. 1 job. But the past two regular seasons have been a struggle for Holtby. He wasn’t the Stanley Cup playoff starter in 2018 and his numbers were well below average last season (.911 save percentage) compared to the rest of the NHL.
Maybe that is in large part to a declining defense in front of him. And he was brilliant in the playoffs in 2018. But Holtby needs a strong year to ease any concerns that his game is slipping and that he deserves the long-term contract that Oshie and Carlson received already. Again, after 30 the scrutiny grows.
Add in center Lars Eller, who turned 30 in May, and forward Carl Hagelin, who turns 31 later this month, and you have an older third line. Hagelin’s game, in particular, is built on speed. He missed time with a knee injury last year. What happens if he loses a step? The Capitals just gave Hagelin a four-year contract.
None of this would be such a concern if this list of older players didn’t include Washington’s best winger (Ovechkin), defenseman (Carlson), goalie (Holtby) and two of its top three centers (Backstrom, Eller). A decline in play from any of them - or an ever-more-likely injury - could quickly turn this group from a Stanley Cup contender to a team just trying to make the playoffs or worse.
It’s hard to bet against any one of these individual players continuing to shine. They have done it so long, after all. But in aggregate the odds are at least one or two of them will show signs of decline as soon as this season.
The advantage Washington has is there is a built-in group of mid-20s players who can help take the load off Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Holtby and Oshie. Tom Wilson is in his prime at age 25 and a staple on the top line. He won’t be 26 until March 29. Evgeny Kuznetsov needs to be better this season, but he’s just 14 months removed from a brilliant playoffs and is still just 27. Jakub Vrana had a breakout season (24 goals) in 2018-19 and at age 23 could score 30 goals. Those players will ease any aging concerns if they perform as expected.
The rest of the blueline remains in its 20s – if just barely. Michal Kempny, Radko Gudas and Nick Jensen all turn 29 before the season and Dmitry Orlov turned 28 last month. Only Jonas Siegenthaler (22) and Christian Djoos (25) are in their early or mid-20s.
Fourth-line center Nic Dowd is also 29 and third-line right wing Richard Panik turns 29 on Feb. 7. Age is creeping all across this roster.
The Capitals have invested heavily in the draft the past two years, but many of those players will be at AHL Hershey most of this season or still in juniors. An injection of youth could be on the way soon, especially on the blueline with prospects Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary and Lucas Johansen, but probably not this season.
The forward group could be even further away with 2019 first-round draft pick Connor McMichael likely playing two more years of junior hockey in the OHL. Second-round pick Brett Leason should play at Hershey, but he is a late-bloomer with work to do to even establish himself at that level. Kody Clark was a second-round pick in 2018 and Riley Sutter was taken in the third round that summer. Both should also be at Hershey this year, but are a long way from becoming NHL regulars.
The Capitals hope to squeeze a few more elite years out of their stars before reinforcements arrive. Age gets every player in the end, but a team that won a title last season is eager to get back to that level. It’s hard to bet against them, but preparing for some regression would be prudent.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: