The Capitals have 15 players under professional contracts that are free agents this summer, with six being unrestricted. The only one the team needs to resign is Justin Schultz. Yes, he’s 31, and only a year younger than the aging core. He didn’t show it at all this year and can be part of Washington’s top D pairing with Carlson. As nice as the reunion with Marcus Johansson was, the team could get a younger, cheaper and better player easily.
Of the nine restricted free agents, a few should be back with Washington, the biggest being llya Samsonov. He earned the No. 1 spot in net going into next season. Was he phenomenal in the playoffs? Absolutely not. Was the 25-year-old Russian the reason the Capitals lost the series? Again, absolutely not. Blame the lack of effort from the guys in front of him, and Florida being an all-time resilient team. The Capitals should bring back Vitek Vanacek as well as Samsonov’s backup. Neither one is the permanent solution in goal if they don’t improve but keeping them together is the best short-term option.
The most relevant thing about the Capitals is (and has been since 2004) Alex Ovechkin. The greatest goal scorer in the history of hockey will chase down Gordie Howe for second all-time on the NHL’s all-time goals list early next season, then he starts the long road to Wayne Gretzky. The Great 8 will be 37 the next time he plays in an NHL game. You see the gray beard. He still hasn’t lost a step. And this playoff exit doesn’t sit on his shoulders more than anyone else on the team, and doesn’t define his legacy.
It can be true that it’s a disservice to Ovechkin that the Capitals made one run past the second round thus far in his tenure with the team, while concurrently correct that Ovechkin doesn’t carry the trait of playoff disappointment with him. These exits would hurt Ovechkin way more without that 2018 Cup. He was spectacular in that postseason. It shows he can do it.
The concerning trend for Ovechkin and the core of Washington’s team that surrounds him is how the next man up isn’t in place. Even worse, who is the candidate to be the next marketable star for the franchise? There isn’t a good one. Connor McMichael was the only forward under the age of 27 to play for the Capitals in the series, only got his spot due to Wilson’s injury, and was nearly invisible. Maybe Hendrix Lapierre? He needs a world of development before taking on that spotlight.
Without that set superstar or set of All-Star-caliber players in the organization, the Capitals relevancy in the NHL will fade, if it hasn’t started to do so already. Washington has been one of the most consistent teams in the league since the turn of the century and has been an ideal destination for free agents to sign and try to win a championship. That clear path isn’t so pristine anymore. And it puts the Capitals in a tough spot with no clear safety net.
The answer isn’t to blow out the core of this team. Ovechkin and Backstrom have clearly stated they want to retire in DC before going to the Hall of Fame. Getting rid of Wilson or Oshie would be mistakes just as big as trading away Forsberg. The answer isn’t to rid the team of Carlson or Kuznetsov, but for the right price, namely a proven in-their-prime superstar, MacLellan would be dumb not to listen. The only issue is, what team would be willing to make that trade? Good luck finding that trade partner.