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Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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Key Caps questions: Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: At 33 years old, can Alex Ovechkin challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top-goalscorer?

Tarik: By scoring 49 goals last season, Alex Ovechkin didn’t just defy Father Time, he also did something historic: at 32 years old, the Caps’ captain became the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Phil Esposito did it at 33 in 1974-75.

Which brings me to today’s question.

I see more reasons Ovechkin will challenge for a record eighth goal-scoring title rather than reasons he won't. (By the way, he’s currently tied with Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, who led the league in goals seven times).

Consider:

  • No. 1—Ovechkin, who turns 33 on Sept. 17, has shown no signs of breaking down physically, despite logging some hard miles over the course of 13 seasons. And if you’re going to lead the league in goals, you’ve got to play, and play a lot. Last season, in fact, he averaged nearly two minutes MORE per game (20:09) than he did the previous year.
  • No. 2—Something tells me that now Ovi has done a keg stand from the Stanley Cup, he’s more determined than ever to take another swig next summer. I don’t have any stats to back up this bullet point. It’s just a hunch from someone who’s covered a lot of his career.
  • No. 3—From an Xs and Os standpoint, not much is expected to change in 2018-19. His line will be centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov. If things go stale, new head coach Todd Reirden will have the ace-up-the-sleeve option of reuniting Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom. Meanwhile, the power play—where No. 8 does so much of his damage—will have the same structure and pieces.

To me, the only thing that could prevent Ovechkin from challenging Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and Co. for another goal scoring title will be complacency. And I just don’t foresee that being an issue.

Ovechkin has an opportunity to help the Caps make up for some lost time. But there’s no way they’ll be contenders if their best player isn’t at, or near, the top of the league in goals once again.

And he knows it.

JJ: Ovechkin has shown people throughout his incredible career that you should never doubt him. He only scored 32 and 38 goals in 2010-2012. Think he's not going to reach 50 again? Well, he did it three times. Think Ovechkin's 33-goal season in 2016-17 shows he's on the decline? Well, he just led the NHL in goals for the seventh time in his career. Think Ovechkin can't lead his team to a Stanley Cup? Well, we all know how that turned out.

Ovechkin was challenged at the end of the 2016-17 season by Brian MacLellan who noted Ovechkin would have to change the way he trained in order to keep up with the quicker NHL. He took those words to heart and showed up for training camp a little earlier and little lighter than usual.

After his day with the Stanley Cup, Ovechkin sent it off with the words, "See you next year." He knows what it takes to be successful and he will be extra motivated to once again come into camp ready for a big season.

Having said all of that, Father Time will always be undefeated.

As Tarik noted above, the 32-year-old Ovechkin was the oldest player to lead the league in scoring since Esposito in 1974-75. It's hard to do. Plus, there are a lot of young players like Laine and McDavid who are only getting better. While they're hitting thier prime, Ovechkin is fighting a losing battle with time.

That does not mean I expect Ovechkin's production to fall off a cliff. I still think he can surpass 40 goals, but the league's offense is trending up with the league average for goals per game per team climbing all the way up to 2.97 last season. That's the highest it has been since 2005-06. I am of the opinion that the offense is going to continue trending upward and it is going to take more than 49 goals to win the Rocket Richard this year.

Can Ovechkin score 40+ goals this season? Absolutely. Can he score more than that? I'm not so sure.

The Great 8 will remain a great goal-scorer and the Capitals' best offensive weapon, but I do not foresee him earning his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy or even finishing in the top three among the league's goal scorers.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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