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Just how much longer will the aging Capitals’ contending window remain open? (Getty Images)

NHL 2022 Offseason Guide: The Washington Capitals

Just how much longer will the aging Capitals’ contending window remain open? (Getty Images)

NHL 2022 Offseason Guide: The Washington Capitals

There comes a time where every great team has to pay the piper. It’s basically impossible to not just stay on top, but stay competitive forever in a salary capped league. And the warning signs are starting to blare louder than Capital One Arena’s goal siren for the Washington Capitals.

Washington was fortunate enough to make it to the top for the first time in franchise history, led by one of the league’s greatest home grown cores in Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, and more. That run erased the group’s previous legacy as a great regular season team who could never get rid of the playoff hump. But the Capitals haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since, pushing the Florida Panthers to discomfort but never the brink of elimination after convincing defeats to the Bruins and Islanders in the two years prior. Major questions surround the 34-year old Backstrom’s future after undergoing a major hip surgery. And Washington remains one of the league’s oldest team, with their five highest paid players age 30 or older.

That doesn’t mean the Capitals are going away for good. Underestimate Ovechkin, Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and others at your own peril. But it does emphasize the importance of a successful offseason for GM Brian MacLellan. Pull the right strings, and the Capitals can hang around in the playoff picture longer still. But time is running out for the Caps to avoid wasting the golden opportunity to build off the incredible heights they reached in 2018.

The Roster

The Capitals are largely a team built on its veteran stars, particularly up front. The duo of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstorm have lit up the NHL for a decade and a half now, meshing together like peaches and cream. The bad news for Washington is that duo’s may be numbered… if they’re not already up. After the Capitals season ended, Backstrom underwent surgery on his left hip that leaves him with a “lengthy recovery process,” per the team’s press release. The impact of losing a top-six center is obvious and almost impossible to understate. Before last season, Backstrom has consistently scored at around a point-per-game clip; even in his “down” 2021-22 campaign, Backstrom scored at a 54-point pace. Losing him would be a huge blow to the Capitals both on the ice and in the locker room.

Of course, the Capitals still have plenty of talent, even if Backstrom isn’t available. Ovechkin also has tremendous chemistry with Evgeny Kuznetsov, with whom Ovechkin has played with even more frequently than Backstrom over the last few years. Ovechkin still remains one of the game’s top snipers, and last season scored his highest point total (90) since 2009-10. He remains an elite scoring threat. And his line with Kuznetsov and the controversial but effective Tom Wilson is a strong one. And Washington should undoubtedly benefit from full seasons from top-six caliber wingers T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha, who played just 81 games combined last season. And the Capitals also have solid veteran depth, too. Lars Eller is a solid third-line center. Conor Sheary chipped in 19 goals and 43 points last year. And their fourth-line of Carl Hagelin-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway generated a 51.86% expected goals share while outscoring opponents 13-6.

The same goes for Washington’s defense, which finished top 10 in shots against and expected goals against (per 60) last season. The rise of youngster Martin Fehérváry has helped balance the rest of Washington’s blue-line, which is led, as usual, by the productive John Carlson. The Capitals will have to replace the outgoing Justin Schultz, though. Having a good defense is even more important given the precarious state of Washington’s crease. The Capitals were just 23rd in all situations save percentage last year, the lowest mark of any playoff team. The once highly hyped Ilya Samsonov has regressed from a solid rookie season. Both he and Vitek Vanecek are RFAs. Elite goaltending would go a long way to extending their contention window. But that would almost certainly have to come externally.

For the first time in a while, though, the Capitals have some young talent to be excited about. Connor McMichael got his feet wet last year, playing in 68 games plus four in the playoffs. Hendrix Lapierre got a brief trial at the start of the year, too, before being sent back to junior and scoring at a nice clip. 2018 1st round pick Alexander Alexeyev made his NHL debut, too. The more holes those cheap youngsters can fill, the better off the Capitals will be; and the more money they’ll have to spend this summer.

Team Needs

If the Capitals are going to pull off another deep playoff run, they’ll need stronger goaltending. And with Samsonov and Vanecek in their mid-20s, the Capitals may feel the need to make a move in net. Fortunately for Washington, there are quite a few goaltending options this offseason. It would be tough for the Capitals, who are low on young talent, to pay up to acquire John Gibson. And even if that’s not the case, that may not be the best idea given Gibson’s regression over the last few seasons. But he’s still an option, as are several free agents. The Capitals could spring for a veteran like Darcy Kuemper or (if he’s willing to join his once biggest rival) Marc-Andre Fleury. Or they could buy high on someone like Jack Campbell or Ville Husso, who are less proven but coming off strong years (a few, in Campbell’s case).

The Capitals will probably need to add at least one defenseman this summer. Whether that’s simply re-signing Schultz or adding a new piece remains to be seen. The one silver lining to Backstrom’s injury is that Washington could put him on LTIR and open up $9.2 million in cap space. They would need to add another center in that case. But allocating, say, $6 million of that to Backstrom’s understudy and using the rest to upgrade the defense or/and goaltending might work out best.

Cap Situation

As I just alluded to, this is in flux because of Backstrom’s murky future. As of now, the Capitals have just under nine million dollars of cap space, per CapFriendly. That’s with a roster of 13 forwards, five defenseman, and no goaltenders under contract; again, Samsonov and Vanecek are both restricted free agents, both with arbitration rights. Those are Washington’s only two major RFAs, and would probably combine to eat up about half of Washington’s cap space, although both may not be back. If Backstrom is a no-go to start the season, Washington could more than double its cap space. Although that would only last until whenever Backstrom returns, assuming this isn’t a 2021 Nikita Kucherov situation.

The Draft

For a veteran team near the end of its best days, the Capitals have a surprising amount of — wait for it — draft capital. Washington has a pick in every round this year except the fourth. They don’t have their own second rounder, but do have Winnipeg’s via the Brenden Dillon trade. They don’t have their third or sixth next year, but have every other pick of theirs going forward. Washington has pick No. 20 in this year’s draft. Defense is probably a slightly larger need in the pipeline than forward. Although Washington did take defenseman Vincent Iorio with its first pick (No. 55 overall) in last year’s draft. The Capitals could also get aggressive and look to trade the pick for immediate help. Or perhaps they could trade back to gain more picks to replenish their system.

Perhaps Washington’s solution for second-pair left defense could come in the form of a former Ranger in Ryan McDonagh.


For an aging team, the Capitals have a fair bit of flexibility. They have a decent amount of cap space; more than that if Backstrom is out long-term. They have a decent array of draft picks and some young talent providing help as well. Combine that with a great coach in Peter Laviolette, and Washington’s downfall may not come as soon as some thing.

But that downfall will come, and probably sooner rather than later. And the injury to a still star center in Backstrom may be too much for an already declining Capitals team to overcome. Like with their rivals in Pittsburgh, few will believe their demise until they see it. Washington still has some solid pieces, both old and young. But they have a lot of work to do to return to the game’s truly elite teams. Even more harrowing, they don’t have much time to do it. That doesn’t mean MacLellan and Co. can’t get the job done. But nailing this offseason is vital to keeping the Capitals hopes of another short-term title run alive.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick

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