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Contending Window Quickly Slamming Shut on Capitals and Alex Ovechkin

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor IMay 26, 2021

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, hoists the Stanley Cup after the Capitals defeated the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals Thursday, June 7, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

Three straight first-round exits in the Stanley Cup playoffs would be reason enough for any team to get introspective. The Washington Capitals, on the heels of a 4-1 series dismantling by the Boston Bruins, have to consider why they've failed to embark on a respectable playoff run since their 2018 Stanley Cup.

Yet general manager Brian MacLellan's dilemma goes beyond recent results. This is not a run-of-the-mill offseason but rather one in which MacLellan needs to stare into the abyss and consider the team's long-term identity.

Captain Alexander Ovechkin is at the end of his 13-year contract signed in 2008 and will turn 36 before the start of next season. Time flies. The Capitals have to ask some uncomfortable questions about the most realistic path, if there is one, for milking one last pursuit of the Cup during the Ovi era. 

Nothing is guaranteed until documents are formally signed, but let's cut to the chase: Ovechkin is probably re-signing in Washington. He has expressed his desire to return to the only NHL team he's ever known. 

That feeling is definitely mutual. With his electric play and rambunctious personality, Ovechkin has almost single-handedly taken an also-ran Capitals team and turned them into one of the NHL's premier franchises. He's the focal point of leaguewide marketing efforts. He's the team leader and the linchpin in the locker room. He is easily the most important figure in franchise, maybe even D.C. sports, history.

Ovechkin might not be the player he was 10 years ago, but he's still very good, and Capitals ownership knows a failure to re-sign him would likely instigate an insurgence within the locker room and among the fanbase. 

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A problem for Washington is that Ovechkin, on the downswing of his career, will join a number of other players who have big salary-cap hits and are also on the wrong side of the aging curve. The core of the team was designed to peak a few seasons ago, and the mission was accomplished in 2018. Three years later, these players are still capable but no longer at their best.

Data via Cap Friendly

The result is a good team but not necessarily a contending one. Per Evolving Hockey, Washington finished 13th by expected goals at five-on-five last season. The power play still has its magic, but the goaltending has left a lot to be desired. As constructed, the Capitals seem primed to make the playoffs the next couple of seasons but also struggle to be a real contender.

Unfortunately for MacLellan, he's already played most of his cards. After he fired Todd Reirden and hired Peter Laviolette last summer, another head coaching change is unlikely. A shallow prospect pool plus no 2021 first-round pick nor 2022 second-rounder won't make trading for difference-makers easy.

And there's a salary-cap dilemma. Most of the roster is under contract for next season, with Ovechkin, deadline acquisition Michael Raffl ($1.6 million) and Zdeno Chara ($795,000) the only notable players coming off the books as unrestricted free agents.

After accounting for restricted free agent Ilya Samsonov's new contract and a $500,000 cap charge from Chara's bonus overage, MacLellan will be left with roughly $8.25 million in cap space with which to re-sign Ovechkin.

He and the Caps have been discreet about what his next contract will look like. Evolving Hockey projects a multiyear pact in the range of $7 million to $8 million. The Athletic's Tarik El-Bashir has speculated it could come in as high as $11 million annually. Cap consultant Idriss Bouhmouch theorizes something in the range of $9 million to $10 million, per El-Bashir.

Every dollar saved is good news for the Capitals, but unless Ovechkin takes a hometown discount of epic proportions, MacLellan will be left with little, if any, remaining cap space with which to improve the roster.

It's unlikely anyone within the organization will be content to sit tight with injections of new blood needed at forward, defense and especially goaltender. For such improvements to happen, MacLellan will have to resort to heavy lifting.

Trading Evgeny Kuznetsov is one option for opening cap space and recuperating assets. There are rumblings that suggest the team has grown frustrated with the Russian and could explore the market for him this summer, per TSN's Pierre LeBrun. While there will be interest, his contract ($7.8 million per year through 2024-25), the potential presence of other centers on the market and his struggles this season will limit the potential return.

Losing a player to Seattle in the expansion draft might ironically offer the Capitals a break. Depending on whom Washington exposes, the Kraken may take a depth player such as Carl Hagelin or Brenden Dillon and give the Capitals an extra $2.5 million to $4 million in cap space. To really open things up, the Caps may even decide to expose T.J. Oshie ($5.75 million) and hope Seattle brings him in.

Samsonov, 24, could be a cap casualty to make a desperately needed short-term upgrade in goal. If the team does that, it better be sure about the incoming goaltender. Samsonov, despite his struggles this season, has as much upside as just about any young goaltender. Giving up on his long-term potential to accommodate a quick fix could backfire severely. 

Moving a player like Kuznetsov or Oshie presents a Catch-22; it opens up cap space but forces the team to then replace those players' contributions. It's possible, but certainly not easy.

The Capitals could use prospects such as Connor McMichael, Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev as trade chips, but getting contributions from young talent on cheap contracts is integral to keeping a contending window open. Trading the few talented prospects they have could be counterproductive.

Washington could keep the shape of the roster with only a few tweaks, banking on a belief that its struggles this season were because of a difficult campaign under unique circumstances. It's a legitimate theory but one that is undermined by similar struggles in two prior seasons.

The team's top players aren't getting any younger, and the Capitals have a mandate to keep their window of contention alive. The team's front office will have to make some major changes under delicate circumstances if it is to rejuvenate the roster and give Ovechkin one more serious run at another Cup in Washington.

           

Salary-cap information provided by CapFriendly

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