Washington Capitals

Despite cap casualties Washington Capitals remain contenders

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 08: Washington Capitals left wing Andre Burakovsky (65) celebrates his goal with center Nicklas Backstrom (19) during the third period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round in the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 8, 2017, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. The Washington Capitals avoided elimination with a 5-2 win to even the series 3-3. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)
Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire

A lot has been written about the Washington Capitals and the team’s struggles with the salary cap coming through free agency this offseason. Even general manager Brian MacLellan has spoken on the issue, essentially telling the press that he was forced to trade away Marcus Johansson because of the cost of re-signing key free agents.

MacLellan has also lamented the decision to allow Justin Williams to hit the market on July 1. It was a tough choice, but it was important for the team to re-sign forward TJ Oshie.

There is no question that the Capitals have lost important players since the season has ended, but there is no reason to be reaching for the panic button at this point. The team’s top-six forwards are among the best in the league. Brayden Holtby is still the Capital’s starting goaltender and shows no signs of slowing down after three seasons with 40 wins or more.

MacLellan has shelled out more cash this summer than a big pharmaceutical lobbyist, and that certainly has affected the way that Washington has handled its personnel so far. The spending spree has also led to some prudent deals, though. The Capitals kept backup Philipp Grubauer from the free-agent market for $1.5 million — a bargain-basement price, especially compared to market value. The early hours of free agency saw fellow backups Chad Johnson and Anders Nilsson sign for more than that, and they went to teams that will not likely compete for the Cup next season.

It is important to also note that despite the cost of players such as Oshie and Andre Burakovsky, the move to sign the forwards has kept one of the most productive lines in the NHL together. The pair has sparked a resurgence in Nicklas Backstrom, the likes of which had not been seen in seven seasons, since Backstrom scored 101 points in 2009-10. His 86 points last season was the third-highest in the league, behind only Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane; the latter two tied with 89.

Backstrom owes a lot of the credit to his linemates, too. He led the league in assists per 60 minutes among players with more than 200 minutes of playing time. While the Swedish center is to be commended for his vision, surely his expensive linemates are worth every penny for their finishing abilities.

The loss of key players in Johansson and defensive standout Nathan Schmidt opens the door for young prospects to step into the spotlight. Defenseman Christian Djoos scored 58 points in his 66 games for the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season. He also added eight points in the team’s 12 playoff games.

In 129 AHL games, Djoos has 81 points, 26 percent of which have been goals. At .63 points per game, Djoos will be a welcome addition to Washington’s blue line this season.

Also expected to contribute for the Capitals will be Jakub Vrana. In his 21 games through his rookie season, Vrana had only six points, playing 11 minutes, 7 seconds per game. The left winger may jump up into the second line for Washington, playing alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin. In his bridge contract season, Vrana will have to provide the scoring punch that MacLellan suspects he’s capable of. His role on the team may be the most important at this point; as the last player in the top six, he’s going to have to find another gear in order for Washington to be successful.

In no way is the sky falling in the Verizon Center. Sure, the Capitals have lost some very talented players who have contributed to the team’s success over the past few seasons, but the team’s most important players remain under contract. There are young stars waiting in the wings to fill the gaps left by free agency and the expansion draft. Make no mistake — the Washington Capitals are still a very good hockey team.


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