Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.
This past season was another confounding one for the Caps. After the calendar flipped to 2017, they were the NHL’s best team and finished the season with the most wins, the most points, the fewest goals allowed and the special teams units ranked among the league’s best. But they struggled to get past the upstart Maple Leafs, then couldn’t get past Sidney Crosby and Co. And now the Caps’ two-year window has closed, forcing GM Brian MacLellan to retool on the fly.
Today's question: If there’s one area the Caps must address in the coming months, what is it?
Sorenson: It’s pretty tough to find an area that the two-time President’s Trophy winning team needs to clean up. My initial reaction is that the Caps needed more even strength goal scoring. You may recall that the Caps failed to score a goal 4 v 4 the entire regular season, one of only two teams (Carolina) to earn that dubious honor. That is an obvious area that needs to be cleaned up, so we’ll put that aside and take a look at 5 v 5. During the regular season, Washington was ranked third in 5 v 5 goals for, with 178. Pittsburgh was ranked at the top (I know, sorry Caps fans) with 185, and Minnesota was a close second with 183. I realize being in the top three teams in that category is excellent, but unfortunately, to beat a team like Pittsburgh in the playoffs the Capitals need to be better at even strength. Furthermore, the Capitals were 11th in the league in 5 v 5 shots for per 60 minutes. The trend continued in the playoffs, with the Caps scoring only 26 even strength goals. Of all the teams that made it to the second round, only the Blues were worse with 20 goals at even strength. For a team with as much offensive firepower, they need to find a way to shoot and score more at even strength.
Regan: Their mentality. Let’s face it, there is a mental issue holding this team back. When Nashville lost Games 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh, there was no doubt among the team or fans that they would come back in the series. Two games later, the series is tied at two games apiece. When the Caps lost Games 1 and 2 to Pittsburgh, the conversation was whether that series would go four games or five. That’s not completely an apples to apples comparison as Washington lost both games at home while Nashville lost on the road, but you get my point. And don’t try to pin that strictly on the media. We respond to what we see, hear and feel from the team. You can feel the confidence from the Predators. It certainly didn’t feel like the Caps thought they were going to win that series down 2-0. This Washington team was one of the best teams on offense and defense heading into the postseason. They won’t be as good next season, but that’s okay, Nashville was the 16th team to make the playoffs and look where they are. The biggest thing the Caps need to fix is not on the ice, it is in their heads. That’s the task facing head coach Barry Trotz next season.
El-Bashir: My biggest concern heading into next season is more closely aligned with Jill’s point about the offense, though it’s a bit more general. As in, where are the goals going to come from in 2017-18? We’ve come to take goals for granted in Washington, which has finished 3rd, 2nd and 7th in goals per game under Barry Trotz. But when I consider the players who could be headed out the door this summer—and weigh the cap constraints that figure to prevent quality players from being added—I see more question marks than answers when I look at the roster. I think most people agree that Alex Ovechkin remains a top forward in this league but that his 50-goal seasons are probably in the rearview. T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams finished second and third in goals last season with 33 and 24, respectively, but they are unrestricted free agents and figure to be in high demand. It’s also worth noting that the Caps’ third-ranked offense (3.18 goals per game) was boosted by career years from Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Brett Connolly, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik. Is it reasonable to expect those who do return to put up similar (or better) numbers, particularly if, as expected, a handful of prospects are sprinkled throughout the lineup? That’s a big ask. To me, next season could hinge Trotz’s ability squeeze enough offense out of a lineup that almost assuredly won’t feature as much proven firepower. So while I can appreciate JJ’s answer about being tougher mentally in the postseason, I think the focus needs to be on getting there first.
- What direction should the Caps take this summer?
- Should the Caps re-sign T.J. Oshie?
- Should the Caps re-sign Justin Williams?
- Should the Caps re-sign Karl Alzner?
- Should the Caps re-sign Brett Connolly?
- Can Andre Burakovsky take the next step?
- Is Schmidt ready for a top-four role?
- Which bottom-six forwards should the Caps protect from Vegas?