Today’s essay topic comes to us from John D., who writes:
What happens if the Caps don’t win a cup within 3-5 years with the current crop of players that will be 30-35 or older by then? When does the purge begin? Are there any thoughts of a purge if needed?
Ah yes, the perennial question of the Championship Window, the period during which a team is most likely to win a Cup, and whether it is currently open or closed– or opening or closing.
I guess I’ll start with this: The Washington Capitals’ window is open, but it won’t be for long. And when it closes, there may be a reckoning.
It probably bears noting that the Caps had their best chance to win a Cup between 2008 and 2011. There is some disagreement about when exactly the window first closed (when Fedorov left, when Boudreau went to the trap, when the Caps hired Hunter), but we can all agree that the Caps under Adam Oates would never win a Stanley Cup.
So it was open, and then it was closed, and now it’s open again. With Barry Trotz at the helm and the best defensive corps the team has had since the 1990s, the Capitals have a chance to win– but not for long.
Alex Ovechkin will turn 30 before this seasons starts. His goal-scoring peak was 8 years ago, when Ovi was 22. Ovechkin will continue to decline, just as all aging players do, though we can argue about how steep that decline will be (I think it’ll be pretty mild).
That was all a long walk for me to say that I agree with your conceit that the Caps (as currently constructed) have a limited window in which they can win it all. I’ll guess that window will close 2-3 years from now, barring a miracle.
Before I move on to the gloom, allow me to say that the Caps might have their best shot in years at a Cup in 2015-16. They took a big loss on the blue line in losing Mike Green, but they’ve got a promising crop of young players and they made some astonishing moves to deepen the forward ranks this summer. I’m excited.
But let’s say they blow it in the early rounds in the next two seasons, probably in heartbreaking, game-seven losses because Caps.
And all of a sudden we’re in the summer of 2017. Alex Ovechkin, age 32, is no longer a top-line talent during 5v5, and the league watches him like a hawk during the power play. Brooks Orpik’s contract is eating big into the salary cap without much on-ice value. Brooks Laich is getting paid 4 million dollars a year for bottom-six performances and some decent special teams. Nick Backstrom is still making plays, but he can’t stay healthy through the spring. Two much-vaunted young forwards who were projected to be top-tier scorers have turned out to be, at best, third-line talent. It’s not the worst-case scenario, but it’s close.
The purge begins then– in May of 2017. Or maybe in 2018.
Would Washington buy out its greatest player of all-time who also happens to be on the biggest contract of all-time? I sincerely doubt it, but they might trade him to an expansion team and hold onto some salary. Personally, I am more confident Ovechkin will play out his contract in Washington– at least compared to some of my peers and to my own self circa three years ago.
But Orpik might become a buyout candidate in 2-3 years. At his age and with the entire thrust of player evaluation moving in the opposite direction, let’s just say I consider Orpik to be a less than fungible asset: he ain’t getting traded. Laich, on the other hand, I think could be movable (if the player allows it). There’s always a nosediving team looking for a veteran who can raise both team morale and the team’s spending to the salary floor– though he’d probably depart the Caps along with some draft picks.
But I consider an Ovi trade, an Orpik buyout, or a Laich move to be edge cases. Far more likely, I’d guess, would be the Caps moving middle-tier guys– like Johansson, Alzner, Kuznetsov, and Wilson. It would be an evisceration, but I’d think the team’s figurehead (and this site’s namesake) remains unless he expressly and publicly says that he wants to leave. Either way, the columnists would have fun with that– if the job of columnist still exists in 2017. They might all be jetpack repairmen by then.
But that’s all speculation about a low-percentage hypothetical. While the window is indeed closing, I think the Caps will accomplish a lot before it does. I expect a conference final appearance in the next two seasons. If the Caps can pull that off, I wouldn’t expect them to do anything we could fairly call a “purge” or even a “rebuild.” They would move some guys, sure, but they’d call it a “retool,” and they’d be right.
Thanks for the question, John.
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