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Scott Cullen

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The Washington Capitals finished with 105 points in the regular season, after averaging 119 in the previous two years, but this time they didn’t lose in the second round of the playoffs – this time they won the Stanley Cup!

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Capitals team that finally got over the hump, for a long-awaited victory, and now have to figure out if they can keep this squad together.

There are a couple of major decisions facing the Capitals in the aftermath of their Cup win. First off, head coach Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract for next season. If that gets worked out, Trotz can return and everything continues as normal. If not, associate coach Todd Reirden would likely take over, but most reporting since the end of the season makes it sound like only one of the two will be on the Washington bench next season.

Beyond that, the top unrestricted free agent defenceman on the market, John Carlson, played a big role in Washington’s Cup win. It will undoubtedly be expensive for any team to sign Carlson, and the Capitals don’t have tons of cap room, but they might have enough, especially if they could get out from under the last year of Brooks Orpik’s contract. A buyout might work, or maybe Washington could create even more room by attaching a first-round pick or goaltender Philipp Grubauer to a possible Orpik trade.

No matter how those situations are resolved, Washington figures to have a competitive team in the coming years. They still have superstar talent at the top of the roster, and that goes a long way. Or at least it does eventually.

HOCKEY OPS/COACH

Brian McLellan/Barry Trotz

HEROES

Alex Ovechkin – The Conn Smythe trophy winner led the league in goals, for the fifth time in the past six seasons, finishing with 49 goals.

Evgeny Kuznetsov – Followed up a career-high 83 points in 79 games with a playoff-leading 32 points in 24 games.

John Carlson – With unrestricted free agency looming, the 28-year-old scored a career-high 15 goals and 68 points while playing a career-high 24:47 per game.

ZEROES

Madison Bowey – A full-time opportunity was there for the taking, but the 22-year-old rookie struggled, getting outscored and outshot, and the Capitals had to seek out other alternatives.

Brooks Orpik – Holes on the Washington blueline forced the veteran blueliner to increase his minutes over the previous season, and he was outshot (as usual), but also outscored 52-36 at 5-on-5, easily the worst goal differential of his career. To his credit, the goal differential (15-6) turned in his favour during the playoffs.

 

RETURNING FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Alex Ovechkin 82 49 38 87 50.6 4.0 102.0 58.3 20:09 $9.538M
Evgeny Kuznetsov 79 27 56 83 47.8 -0.5 102.4 56.3 18:49 $7.8M
Nicklas Backstrom 81 21 50 71 51.3 4.9 103.5 51.6 19:40 $6.7M
T.J. Oshie 74 18 29 47 50.2 3.2 102.0 48.9 18:25 $5.75M
Lars Eller 81 18 20 38 47.9 -0.1 98.6 47.5 15:18 $3.5M
Jakub Vrana 73 13 14 27 50.1 2.6 99.6 61.5 12:30 $863K
Brett Connolly 70 15 12 27 46.8 -1.7 103.0 54.0 12:00 $1.5M
Andre Burakovsky 56 12 13 25 52.4 5.1 101.2 54.7 13:50 $3.0M
Chandler Stephenson 67 6 12 18 43.8 -5.1 103.8 40.0 11:57 $650K
 

 

FREE AGENT FORWARDS

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Tom Wilson 78 14 21 35 50.5 3.3 102.2 60.1 15:59 $2.0M RFA
Jay Beagle 79 7 15 22 39.1 -10.7 101.9 25.7 12:27 $1.75M UFA
Alex Chiasson 61 9 9 18 43.5 -5.1 102.0 45.7 11:46 $660K UFA
Devante Smith-Pelly 75 7 9 16 44.1 -4.8 99.4 43.1 12:21 $650K RFA
 

After spending most of his career maligned for not winning the big one, or even advancing beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Alex Ovechkin can finally lay claim to being a champion. The 32-year-old remains an elite shot generator and goal-scorer, and while his hit rate went down during the regular season, he was a physical presence once again in the playoffs. He’s the greatest goal-scorer of this generation, if not ever, and got a huge monkey off his back, so it seems like he’s enjoyed himself in the post-Cup celebrations. Good for him.

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Definitely can't win with that guy as your leader. Er, never mind.

This was only Evgeny Kuznetsov’s fourth full season in the league, so he didn’t have quite the same history of coming up short in the playoffs, but he also had 19 points in 39 playoff games before dominating in the 2018 postseason. He’s a special talent, a playmaker whose passing should help extend Ovechkin’s window as the game’s top goal-scorer.

Nicklas Backstrom has been a premier player for a long time, both as a two-way performer and exceptional setup man, yet the 30-year-old finally reached his Stanley Cup goal following a season in which he recorded 71 points in 81 points, his lowest points-per-game since 2010-2011. In the past three seasons, the Capitals have outscored the opposition 155-94 with Backstrom on the ice in 5-on-5 situations.

It was a mortal lock that T.J. Oshie wasn’t going to shoot better than 23% again in 2017-2018, so he was not likely to match his 33-goal season of 2016-2017, and he didn’t. He scored 18 goals and 47 points, but rose to the occasion in the playoffs, putting up 21 points in 24 games and, as always, played the game with a physical edge that belies his size.

29-year-old Lars Eller recorded a career-high 38 points during the regular season, and added 18 points in 24 playoff games, stepping up to fill the void when Kuznetsov and Backstrom missed time with injuries. He’s a steady performer, but the 2018 playoffs may have been the apex of his career.

Talented rookie winger Jakub Vrana found himself in the doghouse at times – he did go 25 games without a goal in the middle of the season – and was even a healthy scratch in the first  round against Columbus, but he was ultimately a key contributor and if the Capitals are going to keep their window open, they need the 22-year-old to develop into an offensive threat.

Hopes may have been higher for Brett Connolly when he was the sixth overall pick in the 2010 Draft, but he’s been solid in a depth role for the Capitals, scoring 25 of his 30 goals over the past two seasons at even strength.

Injuries got in the way of Andre Burakovsky having an anticipated breakout season, but the 23-year-old winger has shown enough flashes of talent while scoring 50 goals in 252 career games that it’s still easy to see him as a 20-plus goal-scorer.

Rookie checking forward Chandler Stephenson didn’t play much centre last season (he took more face-offs in the playoffs than he did in the regular season), but held a regular spot on the fourth line, and rode favourable percentages (103.8 PDO) to a positive (26-18) goal differential. He’ll continue in a relatively thankless job.

Tom Wilson is a predatory hitter who will hover around suspensions unless that aspect of his game changes, but he established himself as a major contributor last season, compiling a career-high 14 goals and 35 points, including 33 points at even strength. Sure, he rides the coattails of linemates Ovechkin and Kuznetsov when it comes to that production, but his playoff performance, which included 15 points in 21 games, is surely going to prompt some teams to seek out their own answer at power forward.

After a regular season in which he was outshot and managed seven goals in 75 games, winger Devante Smith-Pelly notched seven goals in 24 playoff games, making an impact in his limited role, which is probably enough to keep the restricted free agent in the plans for next season.

Given Washington’s salary cap situation, they aren’t really in position to add significant talent up front. If they need to fill spots on the depth chart, prospects and bargain free agents would seem to be the most likely solutions.

 

RETURNING DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2018-19 CAP
Dmitry Orlov 82 10 21 31 49.0 2.5 101.2 46.2 23:08 $5.1M
Matt Niskanen 68 7 22 29 48.6 0.9 103.2 45.0 22:36 $5.75M
Christian Djoos 63 3 11 14 51.8 5.0 102.7 60.4 14:02 $650K
Brooks Orpik 81 0 10 10 44.3 -5.5 99.4 49.7 19:22 $5.5M
 

 

FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN

 
NAME GP G A PTS CF% RelCF% PDO OZS% ATOI 2017-18 CAP STATUS
John Carlson 82 15 53 68 49.0 1.7 101.7 49.0 24:47 $3.967M UFA
Madison Bowey 51 0 12 12 44.8 -4.0 99.9 54.6 13:43 $703K RFA
Michal Kempny 53 3 7 10 51.1 0.3 102.6 51.4 15:55 $900K UFA
Jakub Jerabek 36 2 6 8 49.4 1.1 99.1 53.8 16:19 $925K UFA
 

Dmitry Orlov had a standout season on the Capitals blueline, logging a career-high 23:08 per game while dressing in all 82 games for the third straight season. Not only is he capable of getting the Capitals out of trouble in the defensive zone, thanks to his ability to skate with and pass the puck, but Orlov also plays a solid physical game, too.

Matt Niskanen has played at least 22 minutes per game in each of his four seasons with the Capitals, and Washington has outscored the opposition 222-174 during 5-on-5 play with Niskanen on the ice in those four seasons. For a player tasked with taking on tough defensive assignments, that’s a significant advantage.

Rookie Christian Djoos was sheltered in his usage, but effective in his limited role. He’s a good skater and smart with the puck, but the question is whether he’s physically strong enough to handle more defensive responsibility.

37-year-old Brooks Orpik hasn’t scored a goal in the past two seasons, and appeared to be better suited to a third-pair role, but had to play more than that on a thin Capitals blue line last season. He’s a designated hitter, but with one year left on his deal, might also be a trade or buyout candidate this summer if that’s what is needed to secure enough cap space to keep John Carlson around.

After a couple of seasons in the AHL, Madison Bowey was expected to make the jump to the Capitals last season, and he did, but the results left something to be desired. Do the Capitals give the 23-year-old another shot in a regular role next season, or would they look to find another cost-effective answer on their third pair?

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The Capitals face a big decision when it comes to John Carlson this summer.

The biggest offseason decision facing the Capitals, at least in terms of their roster, will involve John Carlson, their unrestricted free agent defenceman. If Washington wants to keep him, they will have to pay through the nose because he’s a right-shot defenceman who plays 24 minutes per game, and yet it’s fair to wonder if that’s the right move, even after Carlson led all defencemen with 68 points last season. Could the Capitals reasonably expect to contend for a Stanley Cup next season without him? That’s a question for which they will soon have to have an answer.

Lost on the fringe of the lineup in Chicago, Michal Kempny took advantage of the opportunty presented by a trade to Washington at the deadline. He emerged as Carlson’s partner, filling a role in the top four, and at a bargain price. Presumably, the Capitals would like to keep him around if the price is right, and while Kempny’s possession stats in 103 career NHL games have been positive (53.6 CF%, +3.5 CFRel%) overall, his regular-season impact with Washington was suspect.

Similar to the forward situation, Washington doesn't look like they're going to be a big player in free agency, unless they lose Carlson and need to find a top-four replacement. Otherwise, prospects and bargains are the way to go.

 

RETURNING GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2018-19 CAP
Braden Holtby 54 34 16 4 .907 .914 $6.1M
 

 

FREE AGENT GOALTENDER

 
NAME GP W L T SV% EV SV% 2017-18 CAP STATUS
Philipp Grubauer 35 15 10 3 .923 .934 $1.5M RFA
 

Normally a consistent top-tier puck-stopper, Braden Holtby endured the worst regular season of his career, finishing with a career-low .907 save percentage and losing the starting job. However, after a couple of overtime losses to start the playoffs, Holtby was thrust back into the starter’s role and he took the Capitals to the Stanley Cup. It’s not a surprise that he performed well in the playoffs, since he has the best playoff save percentage among active goaltenders, but that it happened after such an atypical regular season goes to show how difficult it can be to forecast hockey in general, and goaltenders, specifically.

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Of course, this would be the season in which Braden Holtby backstops his team to a Stanley Cup.

With Holtby reclaiming his place atop the depth chart, it appears that Philipp Grubauer will be an off-season trade chip. He has a .923 save percentage in 81 games over the past three seasons, which is enough to warrant a shot at a starting job, but given how the playoffs went, that opportunity is going to have to happen somewhere else.

One of the reasons that the Capitals can move Grubauer is that their top prospect is 21-year-old Ilya Samsonov, a 2015 first-round pick who has been starring in the KHL. He’s headed to North America next season.

 

TOP PROSPECTS

 
PLAYER POS. GP G A PTS +/- TEAM (LEAGUE)
Ilya Samsonov G 26       .926 Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Jonas Siegenthaler D 75 6 6 12 -20 Hershey (AHL)
Lucas Johansen D 74 6 21 27 -13 Hershey (AHL)
Connor Hobbs D 44 3 13 16 -11 Hershey (AHL)
Beck Malenstyn LW 42 17 15 32 +12 Swift Current (WHL)
Axel Johnsson-Fjallby LW 42 7 9 16 +11 Djurgardens (SHL)
Garrett Pilon C 69 34 46 80 +22 Everett (WHL)
Travis Boyd C 61 15 32 47 -24 Hershey (AHL)
Shane Gersich LW 40 13 16 29 0 North Dakota (NCHC)
Tobias Geisser D 38 2 4 6 -5 Zug (SUI)
Riley Barber RW 60 20 18 38 -13 Hershey (AHL)
Nathan Walker LW 40 9 13 22 -8 Hershey (AHL)
Tyler Lewington D 71 2 9 11 -2 Hershey (AHL)
Brian Pinho C 40 12 20 32 +11 Providence (HE)
Juuso Ikonen C 49 12 14 26 +1 Brynas IF Gavle (SHL)
 

DRAFT

31st – Jake Wise, Jonathan Berggren, Nils Lundqvist, Ty Dellandrea

FREE AGENCY

The Capitals have approximately $63.8M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 16 players.

NEEDS

Depth forwards, two top-four defencemen, depth defencemen

WHAT I SAID THE CAPITALS NEEDED LAST YEAR

Two top-nine forwards, depth forwards, one or two defencemen

THEY ADDED

Jakub Vrana, Alex Chiasson, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey

TRADE MARKET

Andre Burakovsky, Brooks Orpik, Philipp Grubauer

 

PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART

LEFT WING CENTRE RIGHT WING
Alex Ovechkin Evgeny Kuznetsov Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky Nicklas Backstrom T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana Lars Eller Brett Connolly
Tim Schaller* Chandler Stephenson Devante Smith-Pelly
Nathan Walker Travis Boyd Riley Barber
Shane Gersich Garrett Pilon Brian Pinho

 

LEFT DEFENCE RIGHT DEFENCE GOALTENDER
Dmitry Orlov Matt Niskanen Braden Holtby
Michal Kempny John Carlson Pheonix Copley
Christian Djoos Madison Bowey Ilya Samsonov
Lucas Johansen Connor Hobbs  
Aaron Ness Tyler Lewington  

Many of the advanced stats used here come from Natural Stat TrickCorsicaHockey Viz, and Hockey Reference.

Scott Cullen can be reached at scott.cullen@bellmedia.ca