Much has been made of what the Capitals did this offseason in keeping their championship roster together, but to what end? Does that really put them at an advantage for next season?
You rarely see championship teams able to bring back the number and high-caliber players general manager Brian MacLellan re-signed this offseason because it is hard to do. When a player on the final year of his contract proves to be a key piece in a championship run, their price tag for the next season goes up. With those players plus the high-price superstar players a team needs in order to win, general managers quickly run out of cap space with which to work forcing a team into trades or letting some free agents walk.
Aside from Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer, however, Washington will return almost the exact same lineup for next season.
On the one hand, you know this roster is capable of winning because they just did it. On the other hand, it took a lot of money to re-sign players like John Carlson (eight years, $64 million) and Tom Wilson (six years, $31 million).
So what does this mean for the Caps’ hopes of repeating?
Let’s look at the most recent example, the rival Pittsburgh Penguins who won the Cup in both 2016 and 2017.
Following their 2016 championship, Pittsburgh lost defenseman Ben Lovejoy and goalie Jeff Zatkoff and made no additions to their NHL roster.
Lovejoy was the only real major departure. He played in all 24 games of the playoffs on the Cup run averaging 17:46 of ice time per night, fourth highest among the team’s defensemen. Zatkoff may have started two games in the playoffs, but that was because of injuries to both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray. His leaving did not affect the No. 1 or 2 spot on the team’s depth chart so you could harldy look at that as a major loss.
The result? Despite fears that a lengthy playoff run and the World Cup of Hockey over the summer would tire out the team’s stars, the Penguins went on to win their second Stanley Cup in a row, the first team to repeat as champs since 1997-98.
While Pittsburgh was able to keep the roster together after the first title, things were very different after the second. During the 2017 offseason, the Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz from the roster. They added Matt Hunwick, Antti Niemi and Ryan Reaves.
This time, the Penguins saw their run end in the second round at the hands of the Caps, a team they had tormented for years.
There are multiple factors that go into winning a Stanley Cup and I am in no way trying to simplify it and say the only reason Pittsburgh was able to repeat was because they kept their roster together. But keeping their championship roster together absolutely was at least a factor.
That’s also not to say that a team can’t repeat without making changes, but those changes have to be the right changes.
Hunwick played only 42 games for Pittsburgh this past season, Niemi was notably terrible and eventually waived and Daley was traded to Vegas. Those three did not come close to making up for the major pieces the Penguins lost.
Washington does not have to worry about that.
With the only notable departures being Grubauer and Beagle, the only questions the Caps face are backup goaltending and who will take the critical face-offs? Those issues both potentially could loom large, but every team in the NHL enters the season with question marks. If replacing a backup goalie and a fourth-line center are the biggest issues facing a roster we already know is capable of winning a Stanley Cup, then you are in pretty good shape.
Keeping their roster together helped Pittsburgh repeat. The Caps look to be taking a similar tactic to their title defense.
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