The focus around the Capitals since they were eliminated by the New York Islanders in the playoffs has been what this team needs to do to continue to compete for the Stanley Cup before the championship window closes. Peter Laviolette was hired as the new head coach and the focus when the offseason officially begins and in free agency is expected to be improving the team's current roster in order to make what could be its last run at the Cup. But what if the window has already closed?
The Caps have been eliminated in the first round in each of the past two seasons. What if that was not a reflection on the coaching and actually evidence that this team has turned the corner, the veterans have grown too old and the Cup window for the core group in which this team is built around has passed?
It's a fair question and really is the most important question facing the team in the offseason. The goal for every team in the NHL is to win the Cup and obviously if the window remains open, that should be the focus. But if the team's chances at competing for the Cup have passed, then continuing to push is simply delaying the inevitable and whatever moves general manager Brian MacLellan makes in the offseason could actually prove detrimental in the long-run to the team's eventual rebuild.
So how would one determine if the team is still good enough or not?
Had Washington never won a Stanley Cup, the last two years of first-round exits could be seen as evidence enough that the team is nowhere close to good enough to be a contender. But 2018 did happen and the team saw firsthand what it takes to win. A good way to determine if the team is still a contender then is to see if those basic components of that championship formula either remain intact or are fixable in the offseason.
Let's break it down.
Do the Caps have elite top-six offensive skill?
Alex Ovechkin is coming off his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy-winning season with 48 goals so yeah, this seems pretty set. It's not just about Ovechkin obviously but that's the biggest piece. Evgeny Kuznetsov has not been able to tap into that 2018 form that saw him score 32 points in 24 playoff games, but the skill remains there even if it is inconsistent. Tom Wilson continues to evolve as a player and has easily earned his place on the team's top line. I am hopeful that Nicklas Backstrom's struggles last season were largely due to injury and not him taking a step back, but his two-way skill remains valuable to the team nonetheless. Jakub Vrana's postseason was disappointing, but finishing tied for 11th in the NHL in even strength goals is no small feat. T.J. Oshie, meanwhile, was on pace for a 58-point season which would have been one of the best of his career.
The biggest concern here is age with Ovechkin 35, Backstrom 32 and Oshie 33. Ideally, you would like to see a general manager pull the plug on a team right before the decline hits, but I don't think we can say the Caps' window has closed just out of anticipation of their veterans' eventual decline. We have to see it start first.
There's also a question on whether the team can get the most out of its top-six forwards after lackluster postseasons for Kuznetsov and Vrana, but that's what Laviolette is for.
Do the Caps have depth offense?
When you look at the stats from the 2018 postseason, the contribution the team needed from its depth players is pretty shocking. Lars Eller was one of the playoff heroes with his Cup-clinching goal and his season-saving Game 3 overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He had seven total goals in the playoffs. Brett Connolly had six, Devante-Smith Pelly had seven, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson both had two, Andre Burakovsky had two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Alex Chiasson scored Washington's lone regulation goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Want to know how many goals the bottom six scored for Washington in five games against the Islanders in 2020? A big, fat zero.
Verdict: No, but it is fixable. You would much rather enter an offseason needing to add depth than add to the top six.
Do the Caps have three go-to defensive pairs?
No one is going to mistake the Caps for a defensive team. It's just not their strength based on their makeup. But that was true in 2018 as well and Washington was still able to limit opponents to 2.54 goals against per game in the playoffs. The reason for this was three set defensive pairs that all were in-sync.
Injuries are one thing, but it generally is not a good sign when a team has to constantly shuffle defensive pairings during the postseason. Two games into the 2018 playoffs, Barry Trotz replaced Jakub Jerabek on the third pair with Christian Djoos and the pairs remained essentially the same for the rest of the playoffs:
Michal Kempny - John Carlson Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen Christian Djoos - Brooks Orpik
In 2019-20, the Caps looked horrendous on defense. I can't really tell you what the top pair will be in 2020-21, let alone the second and third. Maybe the team re-signs Brenden Dillon to play on the top pair (which they should), but the team needs to bolster the blue line on the right side as well.
Verdict: No, but maybe fixable with the re-signing of Dillon and the addition of a top-four right defenseman if they have the money.
Do the Caps have strong goaltending?
With Ilya Samsonov the presumptive No. 1 starter heading into next season, the answer to this question is we don't know. Samsonov has only 26 games of NHL experience, but even with the small sample size, it looks like he can be a No.1.
Verdict: Yes...I think. The team needs a backup goalie, but Samsonov has the skill to be a No. 1.
Do the Caps have veteran leadership?
Washington is missing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, but otherwise still has the same basic core as it had in 2018 with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie and Carlson. The same leaders all now with Cup rings means this should not be in question.
Do the Caps have strong coaching?
For me, Laviolette was the best coach on the market with a proven track record of winning. He has a Stanley Cup and led two other teams to the final. Whether he is the right fit in Washington remains to be seen, but it certainly appears on paper that he is a home run hire.
Overall, you can see the Caps have enough pieces in place for the team to continue pushing for the Cup, but they have to improve defensively. But those superstar pieces other teams struggle to find, the Caps already have. Until age finally catches up to them, which it hasn't yet, there's no question the window remains open.