What Should We Make of this Caps Season?

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AP Photo/Nick Wass

There were plenty of tornado warnings that have happened in the DC this afternoon, but none expected a Hurricane to whip out the delirium the Caps have delivered over the past year. The dream is dead. There won’t be a “back-to-back” that a now-injured T.J. Oshie promised at last summer’s championship parade. After all, only one team has done that since Red Wings did so in 1998.

Penguins fans can long rejoice and continue to trash talk their southern neighbors as if they know everything. The Islanders fans and mainstream media can keep spewing lies about how Barry Trotz would’ve done better; forgetting how much he poisoned Nate Schmidt’s, Andre Burakovsky’s, and almost Jakub Vrana’s Capitals careers in the process. Oh, should we bring up top-line DSP, top-line Jay Beagle, or even playing with seven-D in the 2017 playoffs as well?

The point is, this city got back to reeling again. That is until the pro football team looked smart for a change after drafting Dwayne Haskins and highly-touted defender Montez Sweat last night. But back to thinking about the greatest team this city has ever had in some time, you still couldn’t help but feel like the this was the end of something.

The good news is that the fanbase wasn’t so much mourning, but more so looking back at how great last year was. It was amazing seeing the DC and Baltimore areas finally come together in the most utopic way after so many years of pain. A generation of fans that don’t even know what it’s like to root for a champion finally realized what it felt like after all that suffering. The problem is, even after winning just one title, it doesn’t erase all the memories of failing to do so beforehand.

That’s sports. That’s life. Eventhose those from Philadelphia don’t feel comfortable watching their teams after breaking their own respective curses. New York is just in a complete convulsion after not seeing anyone of their teams win a trophy for some time now. Boston and Pittsburgh? They’re so spoiled they don’t have a clue what the true meaning of failure is anymore.

This NHL postseason is a perfect proof of that discomfort as well. The President’s trophy curse is alive and well in the most historic fashion imaginable thanks to Tampa getting swept. Last year’s finalists, Las Vegas, suffered their first ever choke by blowing a three games to one series lead and a 3-0 advantage in Game 7. Calgary remembered that they still had an untrustworthy goaltender and lost their series in five games in the process. After being repeat champs, the Penguins all of a sudden got swept by Robin Lehner and nobody else. Washington can make an excuse of how their rivals underachieved much worse, but that doesn’t make it feel better that they blew an opportunity that was so massive. The sport still hasn’t found its proverbial Golden State Warriors now that Chicago, Los Angeles and maybe Pittsburgh are past their primes. The Stanley Cup was theirs and so many others’ for the taking, but they didn’t get it done.

That said, was there even an opportunity to begin with? With 48 hours to collect some sort of logical thoughts, here are mine in seven bullet points:

1. For starts, it was beyond obvious the losses to T.J. Oshie and Michal Kempny hurt this team. In the postseason, Washington was forced to move Carl Hagelin, a foe-turned-enemy, from a bargain value piece in the bottom six into Oshie’s spot on the second line. As a result, the team faltered to get any scoring from their depth; with game four being the lone exception.

On the backend, youngster Jonas Siegenthaler was given an eye-opening experience playing on the top-pair next to John Carlson. However, this came after the should-have-been Norris Trophy finalist was playing on his off-hand while paired with Nick Jensen. Either way, the partnerships in defense were just not good enough all year and something needs to be done to bring back the prosperity.

2. That is because we need to stop thinking this group of seven or eight defensemen is good anymore. In the regular season, this unit gave up the 20th-most score-adjusted shot attempts at even strength. In the postseason, a much faster and younger Carolina team, that number was getting into the mid-60s. That’s downright awful and can’t be acceptable anymore.

A good chunk of the blame does go towards the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana and the rest of the non-core forwards not scoring when it mattered most, but when you give up goals in bunches, such as the 21 conceded in seven games, that’s not a good look either. We all know Brooks Orpik is gone as there is just no reason why you have to keep a 39-year old that doesn’t deliver much anymore other than the off-ice comradery.  But another issue is probably the most critical that Washington will have to deal with this offseason…

3. Matt Niskanen is done. Simply put, the 32-year old looked tired and slow in comparison to the previous season, and it really showed in his puck possession. According to Natural Stat Trick, Niskanen had 47.9% of the score-adjusted shot attempts to go in his favor. Only Madison Bowey was worse in this department and he’s a Detroit Red Wing right now. The American seriously should be thankful he has a right-handed shot: an area Washington is scarce in talent. Otherwise, everyone and their mama would be begging to get traded this offseason. But at the end of the day, his $5.75 million cap hit is a complete nuisance now and it has to get off the books.

Now some will say that Niskanen’s 2019 was a blip after being so dependable for so long. But I can point two examples to the contrary. The first is Karl Alzner where once he started to suffer a few niggling injuries couldn’t get his mojo back anymore. Before you know it, he was no longer a Capital and may or may not be out of the league entirely. Another example is the most telling of all, and that is Brent Seabrook of the Chicago Blackhawks. After being such a force in Chicago’s last three titles, the now 34-year old has suffered sub-50% puck possession in three of the previous four seasons, including a miserable 46.9% marker this season. Add in a $6.875 million cap hit to the misery and you can see why the latter is such a good comparison. You just don’t know when players’ careers plateau once they go past their prime, and when it does happen, it happens really fast.

Let’s keep this reasoning simple for those who are still against Niskanen leaving. Would you rather have him, or soon-to-be free agents, Hagelin or Brett Connolly, back next year? The correct answer has to be the latter two and with Washington being so up against the salary cap and with so little guaranteed top six talent waiting in the wings, there has to be a way to free up some money to keep the two to Washington. Let’s not forget the amount of money Jakub Vrana is to be paid this summer after becoming a restricted free agent. With Niskanen gone and maybe having Kempny out injured to start the regular season, you could get away with having the following defense pairs on opening night.

Jonas Siegenthaler-John Carlson

Dmitri Orlov-Tyler Lewington

Christian Djoos-Nick Jensen

Connor Hobbs

Yes, we’re back to having another pair that forces someone to play on their off-hand and the maligned Christian Djoos suffers that fate this time around. But that’s what happens when a franchise stockpiles the living tar out of left-handed shots from the blue line. That’s the sole reason why 22-year old Connor Hobbs is the seventh defensemen and not Lucas Johansen, Aaron Ness, or Alexander Alexeev who are both lefties. This is nowhere near the most ideal scenario in defense, but like what happened with the Sedin-era Vancouver Canucks, there just isn’t enough room for that many expensive defensemen. But it wasn’t just the skaters that were at fault for this postseason failure.

4. Are we sure Braden Holtby is good? I just mentioned the defense being so porous nowadays, but it’s not like the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner looks like he can play well without Mitch Korn either. Since Scott Murray has come in as goaltending coach, Holtby’s numbers have dwindled to a 90.9% save percentage and a 56.3% quality start percentage and no seasons where he’s saved two goals above league average. This comes after having a 92.3% save percentage, a 61.7% quality start percentage and all three seasons where he’s saved at least twelve goals above league average while Korn was coaching him.

As I’ve theorized before, starting goaltenders usually peak at 350 games. Holtby is at 420 right now. There’s no denying he’s probably leapfrogged Olaf Kolzig as the best netminder in team history, but you can’t just ignore almost losing your starting job to Philipp Grubauer and giving up two stinkers (the Aho shorthanded tally and the Jordan Staal game-tying marker) in this past game seven anymore. And with a contract extension in demand, Brian McClellan and his front office have to make the correct decision once Holtby’s current deal runs out.

5. Don’t worry forwards, you guys aren’t blameless either. Yeah man, whoever thought to keep going with that fourth line was ever a good idea? I don’t think Devante Smith-Pelly is a valuable goal scorer to make up for his awful puck possession, right? When will Kuznetsov ever be a good defender instead of being aided by others? And can Tom Wilson be anywhere near as good if he is no longer on the top line or is he literally the next Alex Burrows? If not, just how bad does that contract look right now? And what happens if Oshie starts to age as much as the injuries that keep piling up on him?

Even if there are good individuals on this team, the collective just isn’t working anymore. And it’s been predictable since that infamous 2017 offseason where Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, and Justin Williams were let go. All four of these guys brought a two-way game that is so hard to replicate that there is no way to replace it internally. Once again, since the Caps have no cash to work with, it will be a complete struggle to get a like-for-like substitute elsewhere. Thus…

6. Now we really know how good Brian McClellan is as a general manager. There’s no denying the man has done wonders bringing in the final pieces to make a Championship team. And he’s taken risks to finally get that job done where George McPhee couldn’t. But now those options are drying out for an aging team, especially for a handful of those old guys looking for contract extensions soon.

Alex Ovechkin will be 34. Oshie and Niskanen will be 33. Nicklas Backstrom will be 32. Hagelin will be 31. Holtby, Carlson and Lars Eller will soon be 30. That’s eight of Washington’s 23 skaters getting a bit too long in the tooth with only Vrana, Burakovsky and Siegenthaler as players under-24 that still have potential. Which comes to this part of the program: where are all those draft picks?

This next season might finally be the time to see them, but it’s not like any of them have been wowing so much in Hershey. Only Garrett Pilon is averaging close to half a point per game while still being under 24 years old. Is that good enough to have a long-term career in this league or is this a Travis Boyd situation all over again? What about Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, or Shane Gersich who have been languishing in the minors for too long. Are their potentials gone like Madison Bowey’s was? And what about all those stud defensemen that have been stockpiled all those years? Why aren’t we hearing the same praise for them as John Carlson and Karl Alzner received back in 2010? Lastly, are we sure an 89.8% save percentage in the AHL is good enough for Ilya Samsonov to eventually usurp Holtby in goal?

My permanent belief has always been that McClellan has been a great GM when it comes to the NHL side of the roster, but McPhee has beaten the tar out of him in prospect development. Where’s that Mathieu Perrault who goes from late round pick to NHL veteran? We just haven’t seen it at all and I doubt that it is all just because there were too many veterans on the Capitals roster that have prevented giving them opportunities. Again, this team is getting old, and a younger Hurricanes team beat them in a track meet. The only to get back to being fast again is to see if the kids can do something for a change. If they can’t do something, can McClellan pull another Houdini move once again? I just don’t know if those moves are as feasible as they once were.

7. On to Todd Rierden: I feel for the man. It’s quite obvious his demeanor won’t be better than Barry Trotz’s in terms of Tony Robbins-ing his team towards a title, but there’s no denying the guy has the players’ backs and he’s a smart tactician. The evidence was truly there after McClellan didn’t interview anyone for the head coaching position after Trotz left. It was the right decision at the time and it is still the right decision now. Who was to say they Trotz was ever going to deliver a repeat as well? What if he just fell in the best environment to work within 2019? Just watch out for recency bias and ignoring outside circumstances as to why things become the way they were in this matter.

Anywho, those are my thoughts on the Caps in the long term. To be honest, it’s quite grim and something dramatic has to happen in order for this team to get back to being a contender instantly. The best case scenario is that they can be like San Jose and Boston in which they’ll have to miss a few postseasons and maybe fire the coach, but they keep their old core intact while finally finding the right amount of youth to gel with them. The point is, realism has regained its place over fantasy, but that doesn’t mean the memories died along with it. Be happy that those glorious 13 months happened and live to fight another day. Let’s all hope more dreams come true somewhere else in this city now that the Caps delivered some magic not that long ago.

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