In December, ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski spoke to Washington Capitals principal owner, Ted Leonsis, about the future of the team. Leonsis was clear: the Caps are not rebuilding.
“We’re not going to rebuild the team [while Alex Ovechkin is here],” Leonsis told Wyshynski. “To me a rebuild is when you look the players, the coaches, the fans in the eye and say ‘we’re gonna be really, really bad.’ And if we were really, really bad, I don’t think Ovechkin would break the record.”
I think that quote perfectly encapsulates Washington’s strategy, which we’ve seen enacted in recent weeks. And we’ll see it much more starkly this summer. I call this strategy the Promise Strategy.
In that same interview, Leonsis paraphrased something Alex Ovechkin said to him. “Promise me you’ll keep the team competitive [and] a playoff team,” Ovechkin said, as recalled by Leonsis.
We’ve since heard that promise cited by reporters like Tarik El-Bashir and Elliotte Friedman, and that promise is crucial to understanding how the team is operating right now. No other team in the NHL is running quite like this. Here’s how I understand the strategy, in its major tenets.
But not too competitive. I could put competitive in scare quotes here. The team is not good enough to win a Stanley Cup, nor will they be for basically the rest of the decade. But they have promised Alex Ovechkin that they will try to be a playoff team.
That puts them in a precarious spot. If the best place in the league is winning the Stanley Cup, and the second best is getting a first-overall draft pick to become your new franchise star, then the worst spot in the league has to be narrowly missing the playoffs while also missing a good first-round draft pick. Micah McCurdy of HockeyViz calls this “sadness,” and the Capitals are inside its bullseye.
I imagine that, in this one season, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan might prefer the Caps to miss the playoffs by more than a few standings points. Except that outcome would require bolder steps at this deadline than he’s going to make — because he is bound by the Promise.
That Washington is a seller at this deadline is made possible by the league-high injuries they have suffered. Here are just the most significant injuries to the most significant players:
It is too simplistic to chalk up a bad season to bad luck, but regardless, these injuries provide a convenient pretense to the front office, who can use it to improve the team for next season without having to honor the Promise right now.
“While this season has proven challenging with injuries to our significant players,” MacLellan said in a statement accompanying the Orlov trade, “we are in a position to use some of our current assets to retool our club and build a competitive team moving forward.”
Think of the injuries as an exhaust valve, venting the pressure of the Promise, built up from nearly a decade of going for it: trading futures (although, to MacLellan’s credit, mostly not first-round picks) for NHL players that could and did help with playoff pushes in those short terms. Critics will call that approach “mortgaging the future,” which is concerning because that’s not how mortgages work, but I still take their point, and anyway they’re not doing it now. For once — and for the first time in many fans’ memories, the Caps are not deadline buyers, and all those awful injuries made it possible.
On the 32 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman explains Capitals GM Brian MacLellan’s approach for his unrestricted free agents on expiring contracts. “[I]t’s pretty clear that what he’s doing right now is he’s talking to all his UFAs and saying ‘Can I sign you or will I trade you?’,” Friedman says.
This is not a full-scale selloff like you’d see in an earnest rebuild. Washington seems happy to extend their NHL-tier players as long they meet the near-term goals of the Promise Strategy. More on that in a moment.
The team’s expiring UFAs are as follows:
The worst-case scenario is for these players to remain through the end of the season without an extension, departing in free agency without a return for the team. The optimal scenario is the players either re-signing with the team or getting traded for players and picks before Friday at 3 PM.
We would see any seller operate like this at the trade deadline. What makes Washington unique in this moment is their considerations for extensions and what they’re looking for in a trade.
This will be frustrating for some fans. If you’ve been unhappy with Washington’s draft strategy during Brian MacLellan’s administration, I don’t think you’re going to like this part.
The Capitals have five picks in the 2023 draft, one in every round but the third and sixth. They have eight picks in next year’s draft, including three picks in the third round. Under the tenets of the Promise Strategy, they will not keep all of these picks.
The Caps previously held the Boston Bruins’ first-round pick, acquired in the Orlov/Hathaway trade, but they subsequently traded it to acquire defender Rasmus Sandin. I think we will see more moves like this under the Promise Strategy — flipping picks for ready-to-go players.
Draft picks are exciting, but if a pick’s value is realized only through developing the player, then the process will take several years. Alex Ovechkin doesn’t have that long. His team has holes in their lineup now. They have deficiencies now. And they’re all going to get worse next season. For the Capitals to become competitive again next season, they will need to convert futures that might not mature until 2028 into players who will help the team in October.
Ovechkin’s chase for the goal-scoring title is the team’s primary concern today. It sucks to say this, and it’d be impossible to get any team official to admit it, but it’s undeniable. It’s also the right decision for the health of the franchise. Winning a Stanley Cup is a magnificent feeling and it’s the ostensible goal of every team in the league, but Washington is in a different place. A Cup would be nice, but it’s not realistic right now. They have won their Cup, and now they’re trying to make history for a legendary player, synonymous with the team, who is worth a lot even when he’s off the ice.
But when he’s on the ice, he’s going to need help. These are the only players currently signed through the end of Ovechkin’s contract:
Restricted free agents like Aliaksei Protas, Martin Fehervary, and Rasmus Sandin are likely to remain as well. Sandin is a perfect example of who the Caps want to acquire for Ovechkin’s run: young players who are already NHL-tested, who have some term on their deals (Sandin is signed through next season), and whose contracts are team-controlled as restricted free agents.
I suspect we’ll see more attention paid this summer specifically to complementing Ovechkin as linemates. His most common opposite winger this season has been Conor Sheary, an expiring free agent who might leave the team as early as this week. Both of Ovechkin’s most-common centers from seasons past (Backstrom, Kuznetsov) are suffering major career downturns. Ovechkin remains a prolific shooter with unrivaled durability, but he will need support getting the puck back in the defensive zone, activating through neutral, and setting up high-danger passes. I’m not convinced there’s a player on the roster today who can do that.
Washington has been exceptionally good at finding value at the time when most teams overpay for players.
The Caps signed Dylan Strome after his relationship with Chicago turned sour. He’s become the team’s best center. The Caps signed Sonny Milano in October after the player lost his place in Anaheim and went unsigned after a tryout in Calgary. Milano has ten goals in 49 games. The Caps signed Erik Gustafsson to a deal near league-minimum with expectations of him filling a 7D role. Gustafsson’s contract was considered among the most valuable in the league this season. The Caps signed goalie Charlie Lindgren to a three-year deal despite his limited NHL experience. He’s become a reliable backup.
You can criticize Brian MacLellan for a lot of things, but his eye for value on the open market is impressive. He’ll need to get creative again this summer to shore up thinning ranks — within limits.
Dmitry Orlov reportedly wanted seven years on his contract extension. This was way too much for Brian MacLellan’s appetite, who reportedly wanted three years. That’s an important demarcation, perhaps implying the team’s plans following the end of Alex Ovechkin’s contract and the fulfillment of the Promise. We know there is a real rebuild coming, and the team does not want to be tied to declining veterans on big deals when it happens.
That’s where the three-year rule comes in. Orlov’s partner, Nick Jensen, signed a deal for exactly three years at $4 million. That deal follows the rules of the Promise Strategy, but it does not exceed it. There is a horizon for Alex Ovechkin, and beyond it the Capitals are unwilling to commit much.
Not without exception. Before Washington’s qualified selling began, they reached terms with Dylan Strome. Strome’s deal keeps him under contract until 2028, the longest for any Caps player. At five million and for a player at age 25, that’s not a large risk. Along with the team’s RFAs, Strome will be one of the few to see what a post-Ovechkin team looks like.
The Capitals are old. With an average age of 31, they’re the oldest team in the league. In this sport, with the exception of the late-00s Blackhawks, old age is an unambiguous liability. We saw it in Washington’s league-worst injuries, and we’ll continue to see it in players who can no longer be considered stars.
Nicklas Backstrom, 35, has two years left on his $9.2 million AAV contract. His hip-resurfacing surgery has not rejuvenated him. He still has defensive merit, but his impact on offense has evaporated. His viability at this point is in a bottom-six role, at best.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, 30, has two years left on his $7.8 million AAV contract. He’s having the worst season of his career, somehow falling short of his already-disappointing post-Cup performances.
TJ Oshie, 36, has two years left on his $5.8 million AAV contract. When he is on the ice, the Capitals control a lower share of expected goals (47.3 percent) than any other forward except Kuznetsov. (Kuznetsov is Oshie’s most common linemate; Oshie performs much better away from Kuznetsov.) Oshie has missed multiple weeks of games on two separate occasions this season as he struggles with lingering back issues.
Washington’s core is no longer its main asset. Instead, they may stand in the way of Alex Ovechkin reaching the goal-scoring title. The Promise Strategy has to address this somehow, but I am not sure the team could do so unilaterally.
You may not agree with this strategy. I am not sure if I do either, but at least now I think I understand it.
The Promise Strategy means the team is probably not going to win a Stanley Cup anytime soon. It means they’re probably not about to get a young star player either.
The Washington Capitals are a wagon, running at high speed, trying to keep the wheels from falling off. They won’t win the race, but they won’t go into the ditch either. They’re just trying to get across the finish line: 895 goals.
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