As different Capitals came in and out of the lineup with injury as the regular season wound down, their age became apparent.
Several players, including Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Lars Eller and Nicklas Backstrom, were dealing with injuries as the Capitals were brushed aside by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. The condensed schedule had slowly taken its toll on the league's oldest team. The first three games of the playoff series were tightly contested. All of them went to overtime. The final two games of the series was not as kind.
In overtime of Game 3 and for the entirety of Game 4, the Capitals were the slower and less dangerous team. In Game 5, while the Capitals racked up shot attempts, they didn’t create the high-danger chances they needed to in a 3-1 loss. In the final 145:48 of the series (when Game 3’s overtime started) the Capitals managed just two goals — one of which came on the powerplay.
With an aging core group of players, general manager Brian MacLellan knows Washington has to get a bit younger this offseason. That’s, of course, a task easier said than done.
“We will be looking to add younger players, yes,” MacLellan said earlier this offseason. “I think you just can't force that into your lineup. I think we had a gap where we didn't have players to fill in so we tried to fill with outside players, free agents. I think we've got some guys coming that we can consider. We'll look for opportunities.”
The Capitals were the league’s oldest team at 30.8-years-old in the regular season, but unlike a few teams at the top (like the Maple Leafs), the Capitals have a core that is all on the wrong side of 30. While there can be a few easy moves to get younger, like replacing 44-year-old pending UFA Zdeno Chara, the way the Capitals are going to get younger is by moving players out of the lineup or off the roster entirely via trade.
Washington has 11 forwards, not including Ovechkin, signed for next season. That forward group (with Ovechkin) is 30.1 years old, per CapFriendly. Ovechkin will be 36 by the time the next regular season rolls around.
There are a few options for the Capitals to bring youth into the lineup up front, including Connor McMichael (20) who is the team’s top prospect and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (23) and Garrett Pilon (23) could slide into bottom six roles.
But MacLellan made it clear he wouldn’t force youth into the lineup if he didn’t have to, even as it relates to the team’s best prospect.
“I think (McMichael) finished up the year well,” MacLellan said. “I think it's going to be how his offseason goes, what improvements he makes. He's a young guy that we're not going to force into the lineup. We'll see how he does in camp and what he can handle, but he had a really good year. I think he finished up the year on a high, improved in all areas. So we're going to look for opportunities to play him, but we're not going to force him into a situation he can't handle.”
The expansion draft for the new Seattle Kraken next month will provide the Capitals an opportunity to replace an older player with a younger (and potentially cheaper) player. The blueline, which has an average age of 31.4 right now — including Chara — is a place where the Capitals could get younger, too.
Washington’s six defensemen under contract next year are 31, 29, 30, 30, 30 and 29 years old. Michal Kempny, who will be available after recovering from an Achilles injury, is also 30. If one of those players leave for Seattle, the Capitals can replace them with a younger internal option. Otherwise, they’ll have to make at least one move on the blueline — which they might be forced to do for salary cap reasons anyway.
The likeliest option to get younger is the elevation of Martin Fehervary (21) to the NHL roster, but Alexander Alexeyev (21) isn’t far behind.
“I think Marty is ready,” MacLellan said. “I think he's ready to be a full-time player. How high he plays in the lineup, will be up to him. I think we're counting on him to play right away and we'll make adjustments after that.”
But fans wanting a major change to the roster to get younger are likely set to be disappointed. The team’s four top scorers (Backstrom, Carlson, Oshie, Ovechkin) this season were all over the age of 30 and, pending something drastic, all will be back in 2021-2022.
The Capitals were tied for first in the East Division this year and were a tiebreaker away from avoiding the Bruins altogether. Even with their age, they were a mightily successful team and by all indications, the Capitals are set to run a majority of the 2020-21 team back for another run. The added youth will come on the fringes.
The question now is how young the Capitals want to get, and what they’re willing to do to get there.
“If you knew these guys like I did, I don't know it matters how old this core gets,” T.J. Oshie said. “We're going to be right there, we're going to be battling, we're going to be contending and we have a real shot. I think as long as this core's here, we have a real shot to win the Cup.”