Entering last season, many picked the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup. They responded by dominating the regular season, but then lost to the eventual Cup-winners in the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. Caps’ management responded by saying they thought they had a good enough team to win it all, and hardly did anything over the summer. Here to answer some questions for us is Becca H from Japers’ Rink.
1. Most people thought the Caps were in pretty good shape after last year, and just needed to tweak and gear up for another Cup run. Do you think acquiring Lars Eller and otherwise standing pat was the right move for the Caps?
It definitely was. A lot of the elements that made the Caps so successful in the regular season last year were, on paper at least, the same elements that go into building a playoff contender - forward depth and secondary scoring, elite goaltending, stellar special teams, a decent amount of physicality, etc. That it didn't translate into a Cup was as much about running into a Penguins team that got hot at the right time than anything else, and even with that it was an incredibly close series.
Really, the one weakness the Caps had going into that series against Pittsburgh was their group of bottom-six forwards, who had produced at a somewhat reasonable level as a group during the season but were no match for "third-liners" like Phil Kessel on a good day... and there were no good days for that group in the second round. A player like Lars Eller helps to address that going forward; obviously he's not a 30- to 40-goal guy, but he provides much-needed depth. And considering how he's been woefully misused by Michel Therrien, there's a chance that the offensive side of his game could flourish with better linemates and a system/coach better suited to his playing style. That's the hope, anyway.
2. Brooks Orpik seemed to show his age as the pressure mounted in the playoffs. How much longer do you think he can be a contributor, or is he already past that point?
To be fair (?) to Orpik, he's never been the speediest of players even in his younger days - but I do think he can still be a contributor for the Caps, albeit in a somewhat reduced role (which seems to be what will happen next year).
A lot gets said about his lackluster stats and his age, and his contract is going to look worse every year as we all knew it would, but there's just something about Orpik being on the ice that makes the defense seem more solid as a group. Heck, there's even a chance that the team as a whole plays better with him in the lineup (http://www.japersrink.com/2015/12/15/10142424/the-possession-impact-of-brooks-orpiks-injury; http://www.japersrink.com/2016/4/19/11459118/the-capitals-with-and-without-brooks-orpik). His presence just gives the rest of the defensemen the ability to fill roles for which they're much better suited, even if his numbers take a hit (as they often do), and that alone makes him somewhat valuable. For how much longer really depends on how healthy he is going forward, but I'd imagine he has at least another year of being a contributor on some level.
3. Brian McLellan has said pretty clearly he expects this season to be the last one of the Caps' Cup-contending window. Do you agree, or do you think the team can manage to keep enough of the talent together for 2017-18?
I don't know if the window will necessarily be completely closed, but there will be a lot of factors making it difficult for the Caps to be contenders after this season - at least with the current roster mostly intact.
For one thing, both Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie will be UFAs after this season. It can't really be overstated how much Williams and Oshie have brought to the team's forward group, and how important they have been to the team's overall success - and it's unlikely both will be able to be retained. That on its own is a potentially huge blow to the team's chances of contending if they can't replace one or both, internally or otherwise.
Beyond that, there are some other big names that will be needing new contracts next summer. Karl Alzner could potentially join Williams and/or Oshie in unrestricted free agency, while Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and the team's backup goalie, Philipp Grubauer, are all set to be restricted free agents. They'll also need to find room for top prospects Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey (among others). Add in the fact that neither Alex Ovechkin nor Nicklas Backstrom is exactly young anymore (Ovechkin turns 31 next month and Backstrom will be 29 in November), and it looks like there are going to be some tough decisions that need to be made over the next year.