Caps Smartly Opt Not to Fix What Isn’t Broke

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By Jeffrey Otto

Washington Capitals Writer

Detroit Red Wings Writer

When a team can add a President’s Trophy and a Vezina Trophy to the the trophy case at the end of the season, they’re obviously doing something right; probably a lot of things.  And if you lose in the second round of the playoffs in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, there are over twenty other teams wishing that their season had been that successful.  Imagine how many coaches would still have their jobs from last season if their team had made it to the second round of the playoffs.

Heading into free agency, the Washington Capitals anticipated a quiet July 1st, the day free agency opened up (and boy, did it ever!).  GM Brian MacLellan was in the enviable position of having only one priority this off season:  adding secondary scoring by creating a more offensively reliable third line.  The Caps addressed that on June 24 when they acquired forward Lars Eller in a trade with the Canadiens for a second-round draft pick in the 2017 and 2018 NHL Drafts.

It is also the case that MacLellan didn’t have much salary cap room to go shopping anyway.  Two years ago they made acquisitions to shore-up the blue line, and last year they made moves to address offensive needs (and got goalie Braden Holtby signed to a new five year contract).  What salary cap space there is available right now is earmarked for trying to re-sign restricted free agents Dmitry Orlov and Marcus Johansson.  The latter avoided arbitration at the last minute and signed a new, 3-year contract, making Orlov the lone hold-out as far as re-signings go.

Although most will agree that Washington will no doubt compete for the Cup again this coming season, some insist that the sand is quickly pouring through the hour glass.  Last season many pundits gave the Caps a two season window to make the most of their current roster.  The loss of left winger Jason Chimera to the New York Islanders less than one hour into free agency will no doubt be felt this coming season.  Chimera takes not only veteran leadership from the locker room, but a gritty, go-to-the-dirty-spots style of play that not many players have.  T. J. Oshie’s current contract will expire next summer and it’s unlikely the Caps will be able to offer him the money and term he’ll be seeking.  Recently acquired center Lars Eller is only on the hook for two more years.

On the positive side, Ovechkin, Holtby, Backstrom and Niskanen–all vital elements to the Caps’ game–are inked for several years to come.  But there are other players–those who lack gaudy stats but provide solid, consistent play–who could potentially begin trickling away after the coming season.  And it goes without saying that those four stars mentioned above aren’t going to get any younger.

It’s true that sports teams have their ebbs and flows; we could not speak of dynasties were it not for the droughts in between.  Trading future draft picks for current players can be risky, but so far no one is accusing the Capitals of ransoming the future for the present.  They’ve got some good prospects in the pipeline–their AHL affiliate Hershey Bears competed in the Calder Cup Championship this past season–but nobody like an Auston Matthews or Jesse Puljujarvi.

So if we can agree that the Caps have all the necessary personnel pieces in place to win the Cup and that they’ll be as competitive this season as they were last, what needs to change to get them past the second round of the playoffs?  At the end of last season, T. J. Oshie attributed the end of their playoff run to a reliance on bad habits:  playing lazy offense in front of Vezina Trophy winning goalie Braden Holtby.  I imagine that if we assembled ten Caps fans we’d hear at least five different reasons for their inability to translate the President’s Trophy into the Stanley Cup.  One easy answer is that they were simply bested by a better team.  The Pens’ numbers for out-shooting their opponents in every round of the playoffs were simply obscene; nobody could keep up.
In a similar vein, the word often heard coming from the mouths of fans, coaches and players alike is “execution.”  Simply put, the Caps had what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, they simply didn’t play up to their potential.  They played the Penguins the hardest of all four teams the Pens faced in the playoffs:  five of the six games were decided by a single point, and two went to OT.  So although the Caps lost in the end, it was by about as thin a margin as there could be.  So the fact that the Caps haven’t done much in the way of trades or acquisitions in the off-season is a good thing:  she ain’t broke, she just needs to run better next time.

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