* With a flat salary cap, some expiring contracts and the Seattle expansion draft, this is going to be a busy offseason for the Capitals. To get you ready, Capitals writers Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan are breaking down the biggest offseason questions with their thoughts.
Today's question: When does the clock hit 00:00 on the championship window?
Andrew: There’s not a set date for when this happens, but it will happen the second Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson begin to regress.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup in the NHL without your superstars playing like superstars, as the Capitals just saw against the Bruins. Heck, they didn’t get most of their top six to play at their level of play for the latter half of that series. And while they’ve still got a good roster, it is undeniably aging and there’s not a clear-cut next generation of players coming to take the place of Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Unless Ilya Samsonov turns into Andrei Vasilevskiy and carries the team to a Cup, you need top-end talent to advance in the playoffs. You can survive (as evidenced by these particular playoffs) without a top-flight player like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews but you need to have top players that can contribute at a level on-par with your opponents.
If the Capitals don’t have their best (and most expensive) players playing like it, the run is likely over. As for when, that’s up to them.
JJ: This is the most important offseason question because the answer determines everything Brian MacLellan will do. What worries many Caps fans is the thought that the window may have already closed. What's clear, however, is that MacLellan does not believe that to be the case and he said as much after the season ended.
But they are living on borrowed time.
Andrew is right, when the stars begin to decline, it's over. Connor McMichael, Ilya Samsonov and Martin Fehervary are not enough to bridge the gap from this generation to the next without a major drop-off. The team's best players are all on the wrong side of 30 as Nicklas Backstrom is 33, John Carlson is 31, Lars Eller is 31, T.J. Oshie is 34 and Alex Ovechkin will turn 36 in September.
But, if you are MacLellan, you can't tear it down after a season in which Ovechkin scored 24 goals in 45 games, Backstrom scored 53 points, Oshie had 43 points and Carlson finished tied for fifth among all defensemen in points.
You can't start a rebuild in anticipation of your best players declining, but you also have to make a serious overhaul because the team has been ousted in the first round for three straight seasons. Making any major moves will be difficult considering how tight the Caps are against the cap, but that may be a blessing in disguise as it will not allow MacLellan to just make minor changes around the edges and otherwise keep the team much the same. Any major move the team makes is going to have to include shedding salary and thus shaking up the roster.
You have to give Peter Laviolette a (relatively) normal offseason with a full training camp and preseason to work with and you have to give your veteran leaders another year because they are still playing like top players. But if you are going to go for it, you also have to make significant changes as well. Otherwise, you are just delaying the inevitable with a roster that has shown it is not good enough to make a deep run as it is currently constructed.