Seven of the Washington Capitals’ ten best point producers during the 2021-22 season were 30 years of age or older.
Save Evgeny Kuznetsov and Conor Sheary (who both turn 30 within the next month) and 28-year-old Tom Wilson, Washington’s aging core seemed to defy father time yet again, as each of those 30-plus players took a step forward on the ice despite some getting hit with injuries.
That Capitals core has not dropped off in terms of production yet, but the team’s front office will need to make some tough decisions over the next few years. The window to compete for another Stanley Cup with the veterans of the 2018 championship is closing.
Alex Ovechkin is the undisputed bell cow of the bunch, having just topped 50 goals for a record-tying ninth time in his career. Ovechkin still has faith in Washington’s veteran core despite a fourth consecutive first-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I think the experience, what we have, it helps,” Ovechkin said to reporters on Sunday. “It's not my job to decide who's going to stay, who is going to be out. But yeah, how I said, this group of guys is tremendous, you know, unbelievable atmosphere in the locker room.”
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Veteran leadership came to the forefront in the postseason, despite Washington losing three consecutive winnable games to drop its first-round series to the Panthers. T.J. Oshie seemed to save his best hockey for the biggest stage, pacing the Caps with six goals in six games, followed by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom who tallied six points each in the series.
Now the front office must decide what it needs to tweak to give Washington's older core a boost heading into next season.
“Yeah, but I'm pretty sure, you know, there's going to be hard decisions," Ovechkin said. "Hard, hard summer for us, but, you know, it is what it is. I'm pretty sure, you know, I want to win. You guys want us to not end the season like that, and fans. So we'll see what's going to happen.”
It’s true, looming questions about Washington’s core heading into the future do hang heavy over GM Brian MacLellan and the rest of the Caps’ front office. Head coach Peter Laviolette, though, echoed Ovechkin’s sentiment that he believes in his veteran team and thinks they still have what it takes to push deep into the postseason for years to come.
“I thought the core — and the guys that you're talking about — played really well this year. I thought they played hard in the playoffs,” Laviolette said. “There were games where we won and there were times I thought we played well enough to win but we didn't. And that doesn't mean anything. So I think the core is a group that can still be successful.”
Injuries, though, plagued the team throughout the year. Ovechkin dealt throughout the playoffs with a shoulder injury he sustained in late April. He won’t need surgery, he said, but it did nag him a bit.
“I don't think it's a matter. If it hurts, you have some injections to do and they have some magic pill,” Ovechkin joked.
Laviolette noticed Ovechkin plowing through his injury too, to the point where the Great 8 even supplied some of Washington’s biggest hits in the absence of Tom Wilson. But, even though the Capitals were able to fight the injury bug and have season-long success to make the postseason again, it’s no secret that their chances to hoist another Cup are dwindling.
“Every year, you know, you fight for playoffs and then you fight for a Cup,” Ovechkin said. “I mean, we’re not getting younger, you know. It’s hard, you know, it's hard time right now, but, nothing to do right now. All you can do is just get better for next year and try to try to win next year.”