With the expansion draft looming and a potential salary cap crunch on the horizon, there’s no guarantee the Capitals can get the band back together, so now’s the time to go all-in.
The Capitals hung six on the Red Wings Thursday night, and it marked the sixth time in nine games that Washington had scored five or more goals in a single outing. Better yet, it was the 11th time in 15 games that the Capitals have mustered at least five goals and the 16th time it’s happened this season. With the win, Washington found themselves even more firmly atop the Metropolitan Division, in first in the Eastern Conference and as the top team in the entire NHL.
And that’s one of the biggest reasons why this has to be the time the Capitals take no prisoners and go all out in their chase for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Fan bases, especially of rival teams, will surely chuckle at the idea of the Capitals on a post-season run, making jabs about the team really competing just to make it to the conference final, but the truth is that there hasn’t been another Capitals teams quite like this one. From top to bottom, the roster is packed with talent, and the holes in the lineup are hard to find.
Washington has Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as their top-end talent up front, with John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner supporting the backend. This is to say nothing of Braden Holtby, their all-star goaltender, who got a big time, big-money raise to start the 2015-16 campaign and has proven to be worth every single penny since. Really, it’s almost a steal of a deal for the Capitals because it’s bonkers Holtby doesn’t even crack the top five in biggest cap hits for a netminder. He ranks sixth at $6.1 million.
The Capitals are deep, too, getting scoring from third- and fourth-liners. Veteran Justin Williams has chipped in 18 goals and 32 points, Andre Buravkovsky has 11 goals and 28 points and even Jay Beagle, who’s skating less than 14 minutes per night, has 11 goals and 22 points. That’s the kind of depth that helps teams win in the playoffs.
There’s also the matter of the Capitals boasting the league’s best 5-on-5 goals for percentage at 62.5, a sturdy 51.2 Corsi For percentage and the team has been among the best at suppressing shot attempts against at 5-on-5, allowing only 52.5 per 60 minutes. Only seven teams have been better. So, if there was ever a time to go out and add a piece or two, search to fill any areas necessary and swing for the fences, it’s now. The Capitals’ Stanley Cup window is sure to stay open for a few more seasons at least, but Washington’s best shot at a deep push is 2016-17.
It was touched on earlier this week, when we looked at teams who could potentially be hurt by a salary cap that stays flat, but the Capitals are in a position where they’re going to have to make some tough decisions in the off-season, and that could mean saying goodbye to some of the players who have helped make the team so successful this season. A quick look at the Capitals roster doesn’t make the idea of a flat salary cap all that threatening — nearly $22 million in cap space next season, what’s the issue? Right? — but that money is going to go away awfully quick.
As soon as the season ends, the Capitals are going to have to worry about new deals for the following: Kuznetsov, Alzner, Williams, Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie, Daniel Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer. Those nine players have played important roles in the Capitals’ success, and no matter how hard Washington tries, getting the band back together next season is going to be next to impossible.
Based on money alone, there’s just about no way to make it work. Save Winnik, each of those nine players is going to be due a raise. None have taken a step back enough to be worth less money, and they already earn a combined $21-plus million. So something has to give, and when it comes down to it, the most likely pieces who will be jettisoned are the veteran bottom-sixers Williams and Winnik. Beyond that, the Capitals also have to worry about losing one of their young pieces to expansion. There’s no telling who goes once Washington protects its roster and Vegas takes its pick, but a bottom-six piece or depth defender could very well be gone.
And that’s why the Capitals have to go for it now and take a long hard look at what they can possibly do in order to improve their roster. No one is about to suggest another Martin Erat-for-Filip Forsberg faux pas, but shipping out draft picks or middling prospects that can land the Capitals that extra piece would be advisable. Matter of fact, that’s likely exactly what Washington GM Brian MacLellan will need to give up in order to supplement his already strong roster.
Because of the Capitals’ limited cap space — $2.82 million come the deadline, per CapFriendly — Washington isn’t going to have much space to maneuver come March 1 unless a roster player hitting the long-term injured reserve at the perfect time. The cap space is an issue, to be sure, but that’s where the Capitals might need to make a slight overpay in order to land a player who can fit under the cap. For example, should the Blues slide out of a post-season position, is there any way that Patrik Berglund could be a target for the Capitals? He earns $3.7 million, but sweetening the pot to pry an experienced two-way forward out of St. Louis to supplement the bottom-six wouldn’t be the worst move.
The Capitals won’t necessarily have to break the bank, however. They could look at a player like Brian Boyle, and his $2-million cap hit wouldn’t necessitate any retained salary for the Lightning. Boyle might be the odd-man out in Tampa Bay come the off-season, too, and he’s been to the Eastern Conference final or Stanley Cup final in each of the past three seasons. Or if the Capitals want even more scoring depth, Thomas Vanek’s resurgence in Detroit could make him a player worth enquiring about. At $2.6 million, it could work.
Washington likely doesn’t need much defensively, but if they want to add on the backend, there are some options there, too. Johnny Oduya would be one option if the struggling Stars decide to be sellers at the deadline, though Dallas would have to keep some of the salary, potentially increasing the price for the Caps. Cody Franson’s time in Buffalo is nearly up, and he’s had an all right year for the Sabres. Or what about someone like Kyle Quincey from the Devils? He’s not a top-pairing guy, but he can offer something solid for cheap.
There’s no sense in making a move to simply make a move, of course, but if MacLellan thinks there are any areas to improve the team, he would be wise to do so. Underlying numbers support this Capitals team as one of the strongest in the league and you can be sure they pass just about every eye-test possible. Washington’s window isn’t closed and it’s not even quite fair to say it’s closing, but the Capitals will only get so many seasons out of a roster as loaded with talent as this. Best make the most of it when they’ve got the chance.
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