Let’s assume for a moment that the Washington Capitals are done with their offseason moves. I’m not sure that’s the case, but let’s assume. Chris Cerullo took a stab at what the team’s opening night roster might look like, which means for the first time we can begin to imagine how the Capitals of 2022-23 will look compared to the team of 2021-22.
The changes, in short, go like this: Oshie will slot in for injured Wilson. Brown in turn will take Oshie’s spot, as Strome covers for injured Backstrom. Larsson’s out, but AJF will fill in, as Gustaffson swaps in for Schultz on defense, and the Kuemper/Lindgren duo are the new goalies.
All that, plus one more gigantic factor, can tell us what to expect from next season’s Capitals.
I’ve spent the offseason trying to understand where Washington’s flaws are and how they might fix them without being me being megadorky and unapproachable. If I combine Chris’ projected roster with our sloppy model of Washington’s positional strengths, I get an approximate understanding of the improvements (or not) that I can color-code and emojify like this:
In this case, green means the position is stronger and red means the position is weaker, with up and down arrows comparing the change from position’s former occupant. Shrug and old man emojis, I hope, are self explanatory.
Now let’s go through Washington’s offseason moves by position need and see where we ended up and how we got there.
Without Tom Wilson for at least a couple months, the team needed at minimum a warm body on the right side. They got way more than that in Connor Brown, acquired via trade from the Ottawa Senators. Brown can score, but more than that he’s an effective puck-mover and passer. It’s those skills that make me think he’d be a better fit for a top line that badly needs speedy passage through the neutral zone. Chris’ projected lineup has Brown on the second line, which is fine, except for asking TJ Oshie to be Ovechkin’s off wing. At 35, Oshie doesn’t have the durability or dynamism of Wilson, and even Wilson’s skillset doesn’t seem to be a good match for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s shortcomings. But Connor Brown could be exactly that.
Further, the Caps avoided paying a free-agency price for an unremarkable slate of available right wingers (though Elliotte Friedman said the Caps were in the hunt for winger Mason Marchment, which would have been very cool).
Overall, I think MacLellan handled this situation as well as they could have. Now it’s up to Peter Laviolette not to blow it.
I think the team’s weakness at this position is worse than popularly believed. Nick Backstrom’s future is – at best – uncertain, but I also worry about Lars Eller’s ability to handle 3C assignments at this point in his career. So middle-six center is where the Caps could have swung big in free agency, except that’s not what they did. Instead they signed Dylan Strome, who wasn’t even supposed to be available this summer.
Strome did not receive a qualifying offer from Chicago, who are trying to suck on purpose, but he’s actually a perfectly suitable second-line center, ticking all the boxes you expect of that position: driving play and generating scoring chances. Considering the Capitals were in an untenable situation with Backstrom playing (poorly) through a significant injury, the one-year deal for Strome at a fair price is a major upgrade.
The Caps will miss Johan Larsson, who was one-third of the team’s most competent line and who could have flexed to third-line center if and when Lars Eller sputtered. I was underwhelmed by the team’s options to replace him in free agency, but yet again the team opted to fill the position by other means. Chris projects the team to go with Axel Jonsson-Fjallby as fourth-line left wing, which will be just fine, if not on the same level as the Larsson-Dowd-Hathaway trio.
I could also see the team using Marcus Johansson (technically a UFA signing, I guess) on the fourth line if they get good results from AJF or Connor McMichael. I admit that this would be a very happy and equally unlikely contingency: the team successfully developing a young forward and giving them commensurate ice time.
But here’s the point I really need to underline: The Capitals avoided paying free-agency premiums for all three of their 2RW, 2C, and 4LW needs. Very savvy.
Given that Justin Schultz’s contract had expired and that Martin Fehervary had disappointed in the back half of the season, I had hoped the team would be ambitious in filling their need with top-end talent. Instead, they were quite cautious — signing depth defender Erik Gustafsson to a cheap, one-year deal.
Chris and I both assume this means the team believes Martin Fehervary can justify his top-pairing assignment. I think that’s a bit… aspirational as far as roster management goes, but I get the reluctance to make a bigger move, and even Gustafsson represents an upgrade from Schultz, who was the biggest weakness on last season’s blue line.
The Caps also have a number of good options on the farm: Alexander Alexeyev, Matt Irwin, and Lucas Johansen could each get jerseys at some point. If needed, Gustafsson and his $800k salary cap hit would be perfectly acceptable as a healthy-scratch seventh defender.
So far I’ve been describing a free-agency session from Washington that has been conservative and frugal. That’s over now. Having acknowledged that their goaltending situation flat-out sucked for two seasons, the Caps wiped the slate clean and got new guys on the open market.
The big name is Darcy Kuemper, a very good goalie as long as his eye isn’t all goofed up. The Caps paid less than I expected for the Cup-winning goaltender, the supposed result of two factors: hesitance over Kuemper’s not-great playoff performance during that eye injury, and Kuemper actually wanting to play in DC. Player enthusiasm is a market inefficiency.
The other name is Charlie Lindgren, notorious among hockey analysts as the guy you filter out of reports because his number of games played is too low. Lindgren reportedly slayed for AHL Springfield last season, and his recent appearances at the NHL level have been encouraging, though he certainly did not fare well with the Montreal Canadiens a few years back. I consider Lindgren an open question. His value is not yet fixed, and he could end up being a big boon, especially compared to the players he replaced.
But if we’re talking about how the Caps look heading into next season, we can’t just talk about the new names in the lineup. The bigger impact as I see it is the ever-increasing age of the team’s core.
On most teams, the most common age for players based on their ice time is around 27. Last season in Washington it was closer to 31. From HockeyViz:
The Washington Capitals are an old team, and that’s critically important.
Before he joined the Colorado Avalanche, analyst Dawson (“Don’t Tell Me About Heart“) Sprigings helped us understand how NHL players decayed as they age. Below is Evolving Hockey’s graph of the aging curve using Sprigings’ data. I’ve defaced the graph by noting the current ages of some of Washington’s older core players to give you an idea how of players like them tend to drop off.
Again: This does not have to mean these players are in decline. It just means they are in the part of their careers where similar players decline. And those players represent about one third of Washington’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR, according to Evolving Hockey) last season.
As much as reinforcements help, Washington’s fortunes are ultimately determined by their core players and how those core players resist the pull of time – or don’t. Washington is an old team getting older every year. For those returns not to diminish requires constant, escalating vigilance of an uncommon variety.
So, uh, good luck!
An earlier version of this story previously appeared on the RMNB Patreon page.
Screenshot courtesy of @Capitals
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