Washington Capitals' Biggest Short-Term and Long-Term Problems

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIJune 21, 2013

Washington Capitals' Biggest Short-Term and Long-Term Problems

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    As the Washington Capitals begin to gear up for the 2013-14 season, the franchise has to be keenly aware of its strengths and weaknesses.

    The Caps have been one of the most successful franchises in the NHL—during the regular season at least—over the past five-plus years. Still, things are far from perfect. This coming season might just demonstrate where the team is alright and where improvements have to be made.

    Every NHL team has its share of short-term and long-term problems and issues. The Capitals are no exception. And what has worked for them the past six years will probably not work as well, particularly with the Caps moving to a much more difficult division this season.

    What are the team's biggest short-term problems? What are its biggest long-term issues?

    This article will take a closer look at the sorts of things the Caps will have to deal with in the immediate future and beyond.

Short-Term Problem No. 1: The Salary Cap

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    The biggest short-term problem the Washington Capitals have is their relatively dreadful salary cap situation.

    This one issue is going to define what the Capitals look like in 2013-14, how well they are able to compete and just what sort of impact we might see upon the team's chemistry.

    The Capitals have about $6 million in cap space at the moment—and that does not include the Caps re-signing restricted free agents such as Karl Alzner or Marcus Johansson, never mind trying to sign Mike Ribeiro to an extension or keeping Matt Hendricks in D.C.

    When all is said and done, they might have as little as $2 million to work with once free agency begins. That is not a lot.

    The situation with Ribeiro is of the utmost concern. Without question, the Caps would love to keep Ribs in D.C. But how, exactly, can they do that with, at best, about $4 million to work with?

    Ribeiro absolutely earned a contract extension in 2013. He was one of the most consistent players for the Caps all season long. He was third on the team in goals with 13, second in assists with 36 and second in points with 49.

    And Washington probably will not have the cap space to keep him in D.C.

Short-Term Problem No. 2: An Inability to Compete for Top Free Agents

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    If Ribeiro leaves, the Caps' ability to sign other top free agents will not improve. When you look at the best free agents who might be available as of July 5, none will come cheap. Whether it is Pascal Dupuis, Michael Ryder, Tyler Bozak, Valtteri Filppula or Derek Roy, all will carry a hefty price tag.

    If Washington cannot sign Ribeiro to an extension, and if it cannot afford to sign any quality free agents, then I see big problems for this team as far as remaining competitive.

    On the one hand, the Caps need to develop a more physical presence, especially on defense. They ranked 18th in the NHL in hits last season. Of the team's new divisional opponents, only the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils were less physical as far as hits were concerned.

    Beyond that, the Caps have to try and emulate the style of play that has carried the Boston Bruins to within two wins of the Stanley Cup. The Bruins have stymied the two best offenses in the NHL, first by sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins and now by stifling the Chicago Blackhawks—except for the anomaly that was Game 4.

    The Caps do not have the defensive talent to do anything close to what the Bruins have done and, with their cap situation as it is, there is little chance the team can acquire the right players to change that.

    You can say the same about trying to add some offensive firepower.

    Let's be honest here:  Alexander Ovechkin cannot do it all. You can't say enough about the season that Troy Brouwer or Mike Ribeiro had. Still, Brouwer scored 13 fewer goals than Ovi, and Ribeiro had 19 fewer.

    There is just no balance on the Caps. They desperately need a second significant scoring threat. Alexander Semin was the closest that they had, and he is now in Raleigh.

    The point of all this is obvious: The Caps need to make improvements, and they probably will not be able to do so. Their salary cap situation will hamstring the best efforts of general manager George McPhee and will make it very difficult for the team to remain competitive in what will be a very tough division in 2013-14.

    The salary cap situation—and the direct impact it will have upon the team's efforts to improve through free agency—is the biggest short-term problem the Washington Capitals have.

Long-Term Problem No. 1: Building Depth

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    In many ways, the Caps' huge short-term problem of having no cap space will create a ripple effect that could create the biggest long-term problem I foresee: building the depth necessary to compete with the NHL's elite.

    As mentioned in the previous slide, the Caps just do not have the depth and balance necessary to best the likes of the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins.

    While they are offensively talented enough to match up favorably with most of the teams in their new division, if the goal is to win the Stanley Cup, then they look like they will come up short.

    From a long-term standpoint, how do the Caps begin to build the depth they need to roll four solid lines at the opposition so that they can win the Cup?

    From a salary-cap standpoint, the Caps should be in a somewhat better position for the 2014-15 season, possibly with as much as $5 million extra to spend. That will certainly help; the list of potential unrestricted free agents for 2014 is pretty impressive.

    The Caps might want to just ride things out this season and try to make a serious run at any of those players next season.

    But take free agency out of the equation and the Caps' ability to build depth is somewhat questionable. They traded away one of their best young prospects in Fillip Forsberg. Tom Wilson shows a lot of potential, but he is only 19 years old.

    The draft in general is a hit-and-miss proposition. For every Alexander Ovechkin or Mike Green, there is always a Jeff Schultz or Pat Peake. Relying on the draft to build depth would be somewhat near-sighted.

    Perhaps the answer to all of these issues is Evgeny Kuznetsov, the best prospect in the entire Caps organization. Some might even say he is the best prospect in the world. The 21-year-old center has star written all over him. He can skate with the best of them, pass, score, make plays, has fantastic vision and has even improved his game on defense and as a penalty killer.

    The X-factor here is whether or not Kuznetsov will actually come to D.C. this season. Earlier this year, he stated that he would come and play for the Caps after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

    If he does come to Washington after the Olympics, he has the potential to be an immediate game-changer. He is the type of player who could give the Caps that legitimate secondary scoring threat to complement Alexander Ovechkin.

    If he remains in Russia, though, then the Caps' options to legitimately build depth appear very limited.

Long-Term Problem No. 2: Finding an Identity

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    It is worth noting that all of the prior analysis really just focuses on the offense. Therein lies the other prong of the Caps' biggest long-term problem: They need to find an identity.

    I have been harping on about this for two years now, but the Caps absolutely need to figure out what sort of team they are. Will they focus on offense, or will they become a more defensive and physical team?

    As is so often the case, by trying to do both well, the Caps fail to excel at either.

    They have tried to bury teams with firepower, only to fail, as was the case in the 2009-10 playoffs. They have tried to play more conservatively and take a more defensive approach, only to fall short, as was the case in the 2011-12 playoffs. They have tried to do both equally well with mixed results, as was the case during the 2010-11 playoffs and the 2013 playoffs.

    While I have great faith in Adam Oates to help the Caps commit to a particular playing style and acquire an identity, until that happens, the team will likely continue to struggle. It also makes any sort of strategy, with respect to the draft or free agency, very difficult.

    What sort of players does a team draft or pursue if it is uncertain of its playing style, philosophy and overall team strategy?

    Thus, the Caps' short-term problems have a direct and proportional impact upon their long-term problems. The Caps need to desperately build depth and balance. Without cap space, that will be a difficult proposition.

    Without the proper direction from management and the coaching staff as to the type of team the Capitals are supposed to be, that problem becomes even more difficult to manage over the long term.