There really is only so much preparation you can have for a season, but when your management team has pieced together a pair of the top forwards in the NHL today, throw in another young star in the making, one of the top two or three goalies in the game today and the defense can play a rough and tumble game, you would think that this team would have it all, wouldn't you?
The Washington Capitals had all of this going for them, including a coach that had reined in one of those big personalities in the game today and all was going really, really well. A President's Trophy for the best record in the regular season, a good first round exercise against the Philadelphia Flyers, but it was their rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that ended the dream too soon. The dream ended in only six games, the Penguins had an answer for just about everything the Capitals threw at them, as their experience in the playoffs paid off in spades in that round and knocked off the favourites.
Now the Capitals have to look at what they have, assess what went wrong, what they can learn from that loss and see where the tinkering needs to be done. In some cases, these sort of losses add to the experience, experience needed to overcome rival teams, so maybe that's the positive they take from 2016.
But as we look at the last team in the entry draft to not make the Conference Finals, I am reminded that we are looking more at their feasibility at being picked in the regular season hockey pool and I say to myself, "of course they will be."
The Washington Capitals were an average team at the draft, in terms of overall numbers, but they were one of few teams to have more than one player taken in the 1st round, as both Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin were taken 7-8 to start the year. The Capitals had some injury concerns, which saw a couple players get dropped in Week Nine, but one was picked up to fill in, and then the Week Eighteen push saw three Capitals players picked up, as the bandwagon was steaming down the road to the end of the season. The end of season total for the Capitals in the pool was 15 players, which was tied for 3rd among NHL teams when the final horns sounded.
Holtby turned out to be a bargain pick in the 8th spot, as he finished atop the goalies with 48 wins (tying an NHL record), 3 shutouts and 1 assist for a 103-point season, 2nd overall to Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks. This makes back-to-back seasons of finishing 2nd overall in pool scoring and he's only 26-years old. He's still got some time to realize his full potential yet.
Being the sort of team they were, it is surprising to note that including Holtby, the Capitals only had 13 players who were finishing as pool worthy players in their position. Now, they did have three 1st round worthy players and another 2nd round worthy player, so it wasn't all bad. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera and Andre Burakovsky were all worthy forwards, while John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Karl Alzner were worthy from the blueline.
It feels like there should have been more, but looking up and down that roster, it was filled with that depth that was out to eat minutes, while the stars did the bulk of the scoring.
What I Said Last Year, At This Time...
For 2016, it all begins in the off-season and the potential Holtby deal, which may be tough to get done with a cap-friendly number. Saying that, the other RFA's will play a big factor as to what kind of depth the team can afford afterwards as well. If the team's reasonably green management can get everything done with some hometown discounts, goes out and picks the best of what they can from the free agent market, this team is definitely going the right way for a deeper playoff appearance. It's a lot of ifs and buts, but that's the nature of the beast. The Capitals will be playoff bound, they should still have plenty of scoring, but their off-season dictates how far they get.
I don't think the Capitals did anything wrong, necessarily, in their off-season last year. They did well with Holtby, they acquired Justin Williams through free agency, things were really starting to look great on paper. They were playoff bound, as the best team in the NHL, but they ran into the experience of those pesky Penguins and it went South for them. It was a real shame that this season went for naught, but "that's why we play the game."
2017 Pool Outlook
|Alex Ovechkin||9.538||Matt Niskanen||5.750||Braden Holtby||5.100|
|Nicklas Backstrom||6.700||John Carlson||3.967|
|T.J. Oshie||4.175||Karl Alzner||2.800|
|Daniel Winnik||2.250||Brooks Orpik||5.500||Philipp Grubauer||0.750|
|Jay Beagle||1.750||Nate Schmidt||0.813||Vitek Vanecek||0.745|
|Riley Barber||0.925||Jonas Siegenthaler||0.751||Adam Carlson||0.705|
|Travis Boyd||0.925||Christian Djoos||0.712|
|Jakub Vrana||0.894||Madison Bowey||0.695|
|Chandler Stephenson||0.726||Tyler Lewington||0.665|
There isn't a shortage of players that the poolies can look at from Washington, they are rich in options, especially in the elite range. If you're ending up with a high pick in next season's pool draft, you can comfortably look at some of these Capitals and feel confident that your opening pick(s) are not going to waste. After that, you should tread somewhat carefully, as some of these guys may look really good on paper, but could burn you, if you take them too high.
Finding a pool-worthy rookie in next season's Capitals class might be somewhat difficult, as they don't boast much in the top-end freshman class next year. This team will be looking at their Cup window of opportunity and they will be looking for a player that gives them confidence moving forward and not a lot of rookies can provide that. If there are kids that are going to get long looks at camp this year, I would think that Jakub Vrana up front and Madison Bowey on the blueline, both 20 years old, will get those looks, but they'll have to dazzle to make it. If they do crack the roster, believe that they're there for a reason and gamble on them late.
Needs at the 2016 Entry Draft
The Washington Capitals are another team that did well not to mortgage their 1st round pick this year, although you could argue that moving that pick could have turned into that asset that put them above and beyond, but that's not the argument here. The Capitals need to boost their system and the best player available will do nicely for them. A kid like Brett Howden of the Moose Jaw Warriors seems to have a good well-roundedness to his scouting report and that's something that any team can use down the line. He's got size, plays down the middle and he tends to play a full 200-foot game, something the coaching staff could really appreciate.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap
The Capitals don't have a lot of problems spending a lot of money and this Summer might be more of the same, as their free agent class will have some guys looking for a raise. Marcus Johansson and Dmitry Orlov highlight the restricted free agents, while if they want Jason Chimera to stick around, he might need a boost too or else he heads to the open market. The Capitals don't necessarily have a lot of work to do with their current crop of free agents, rather, they could be a fun team to watch as they shop the open market, looking to attract pieces for their championship puzzle.
Their current crop of 10 pool-worthy players is coming in at $45.2 million, throw in a few of those non-worthy contracts for depth and they're already getting up there in cost. The final salary cap number, which won't likely be known until around the entry draft will be the pivot point for this team, as they find that right balance of skill and sandpaper to go with their elite goaltender.
I don't think I can bet against the Capitals having another big year in the 2017 season, especially given how they look on paper today. Any team with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Carlson and Holtby on it, signed and ready to be delivered, has an optimal chance of being tops in any conference and/or league. Unless the unforeseeable happens, which the Montreal Canadiens proved, this team can be a top team in the league again. They have to be considered Cup contenders and it will be how the management team tinkers with this lineup, which will determine their fate again. I believe that they're very close and they need to believe that they can be there in the end.