Summer will come early for the Washington Capitals, who have not qualified for the playoffs for the first time in nine years. The 2018 Stanley Cup champions are suddenly non-factors in the league, despite an avowed promise to compete for the Cup every season through 2026.
Between them and regaining competitor status is a long list of concerns that must be sorted through and sussed out. And they need to get started on it right now.
These worries come in priority order, which in this case just means the order in which I think they should be addressed – not necessarily how critical each worry is. You can tell me I’m wrong in comments.
The head coach’s contract is up after this season, and negotiations for an extension have “gone cold.” Laviolette’s tenure as coach has at times been troubling, and his reputation for depressing his teams’ offenses is well established. There are a number of players in Washington’s pipeline who could get bigger opportunities with the club next season – Alexeyev, Lapierre, McMichael, Sgarbossa, Frank, etc. – but if Laviolette is unwilling to use those players, then there’s no point in calling them up, and the team should shore up ranks through free agency.
Personally, I think there’s some amount of team improvement that would come simply by replacing Laviolette with a coach who has just a neutral impact on his offense. But how the team executes its “retool” – whether primarily through free agency or through prospect auditions – depends on who writes the lineups every night. The Capitals need to figure out what they’re doing with Laviolette first and foremost.
According to my Promise Strategy hypothesis, the Capitals will try to compete for the Stanley Cup next season. The cursed 2022-23 season would be filed away as a fluke, an anomaly driven by having some of the worst injuries in the NHL. I think that’s an oversimplification – the Capitals’ best stretch of the season came before Wilson and Backstrom returned from their injuries – but general manager Brian MacLellan’s reading of the situation will be determine how the offseason proceeds.
If 2022-23’s failure was due to injury, then MacLellan can proceed with confidence that recovery time alone will deliver some improvement to his team. That would give him the justification to trade early draft picks for players who fit a win-now strategy. If MacLellan chalks up some underperformance to the head coach, he’d be even more inclined to step on the gas once that coach is replaced.
But there’s also the possibility that MacLellan sees Washington’s problems as deeper than just injuries and the coach. Age is a progressive and structural problem for any roster, and the Capitals are one of the oldest teams in the league. A problem like that would take longer to fix – we’ll talk about it below – and might require MacLellan to renege on the Promise Strategy. That would be… interesting.
By now it’s apparent to everyone that Anthony Mantha’s time in Washington has not been successful. A nominal top-six forward, Mantha has just 11 goals this season has missed time both to injury and to healthy scratches. His name has appeared in trade rumors since last year.
Mantha has one year left on his contract, earning him $5.7 million against the salary cap. I could see this going a bunch of different ways. The team might cut ties, trading the player while his value is lowest, but I don’t know how certain that is.
Mantha is still provably good at the things in hockey hardest to hang adjectives on. He’s got the team’s second highest relative shot-attempt percentage (plus-2.3 percentage points, behind Protas) and rates well in defensive microstats like puck retrieval and zone exits. And yet he’s undeniably frustrating to watch.
Could Brian MacLellan give Mantha one more shot – if it’s under a new head coach? Wipe the slate clean and try it again. If in the fall Mantha can get a bit more physical and a lot more score-y, maybe this relationship is salvageable. If not, there would still be a lot of time to make a trade.
Backstrom, 35, had hip-resurfacing surgery last summer, which kept him out of action until January. Since then, Backstrom has not played well, particularly on offense. The Capitals attempt 51.8 shots per hour when he’s on the ice, lowest among Caps forwards and a rate that would place the team around the league’s bottom five.
HockeyViz estimates Backstrom’s impact hurts the team’s offense by 15 percentage points during even-strength play. In the heatmap at left below, blue means the Capitals take fewer shots from that location, so a blue blob right in front of the opponent net is bad.
We have, however, seen contexts in which Backstrom can be successful. With Aliaksei Protas and Sonny Milano on his flanks (admittedly two of Washington’s strongest possession players), Backstrom has controlled play much better — earning 62.2 percent of the total expected goals in his 163 minutes with Milano. Then again, they’ve been outscored 13 to six in actual goals.
If I were forced to evaluate Backstrom’s ability to compete at this point his career, I’d be very pessimistic. It’s possible he’ll improve with more recovery time or succeed in a narrow context (i.e. with strong linemates and in the bottom six), but I think it’d require some faith to say so.
This worry is not immediately actionable by anyone except Nicklas Backstrom himself. It’s first up to him to decide if he’s able and willing to play at the level he wants. Then, with his wishes in mind, the Capitals can react. In either case, full-fledged retirement seems unlikely. It’d be trivial to fail a physical at the start of next season, if that’s what everyone wanted. This is the NHL.
I wrote an excruciatingly detailed summary of Kuznetsov’s career a couple weeks ago, so I won’t belabor the point again except to say that he’s been terrible in 2022-23 – simply one of the worst players in the league defensively. For a player who had previously been excellent without the puck for long stretches, Kuznetsov’s apparent inability to give a shit has been discouraging. He’s not qualified to be a first-line center. He’s been poison for Ovechkin in particular; opponents score 3.8 goals per hour against them, the equivalent of about the fifth percentile for forwards.
Kuznetsov reportedly has requested trades multiple times over recent years – a report he did not exactly deny when asked about. The Caps had been unwilling to honor that request in the past. After a season as bad as this one, they should reconsider. Kuznetsov’s trade value has never been lower, but the same is true for his on-ice value.
Tom Wilson had ACL surgery in May of last year, which kept him off the active roster until January of this year. Since his return, he’s been very bad, a fact masked by his ten goals in just thirty games. According to HockeyViz, when Wilson is on the ice the Capitals offense is nine percentage points below average and their defense is 19 percentage points worse than average. Out of 418 forwards who have played at least six hours of five-on-five play, Wilson’s opponent goal rate ranks 418th. (Goalies are saving .860 percent behind him, but the expected goal rate for opponents still ranks 402nd.)
I was pessimistic about Wilson’s performance until my more deeply sportspilled friends told me that players with ACL/MCL injuries generally take a full year to get back to where they were. Megan Rapinoe and Tom Brady both returned to elite status after undergoing knee surgeries, but it wasn’t immediate. I hope Wilson can have a similar return to form. As of right now, he’s not an NHL-caliber player.
Alex Ovechkin needs 73 goals to take the the all-time NHL goal-scoring record, which he could presumably do in the next two seasons barring a major falloff. But he can’t do it alone. To unlock his talent, Ovechkin needs linemates that can get the puck back in the defensive zone and get into neutral. He needs linemates who can reliably enter the offensive zone with control and serve him high-danger passes. He needs linemates who can forecheck.
I like Ovechkin’s main linemates, Dylan Strome and Conor Sheary, but I don’t think anyone would consider them his ideal partners.
Ovechkin needs a complementary player – sort of like what Sidney Crosby has in Jake Guentzel, but in reverse. Ovechkin can deliver the one-timers, deflections, and rebounds, but he needs a guy-behind-the-guy for the other stuff.
I think the Capitals have this guy in Aliaksei Protas, but the current head coach has paired them for just 30 minutes this season. A new head coach might be more open to the idea, and in either case the general manager should search the free-agent market for an Ovechkin whisperer.
Up until recently, TJ Oshie, 36, had been something of an iron man. Before 2021 he missed an average of seven games per season, an impressive accomplishment given how tenacious he is on the ice (i.e. he falls down a lot).
But 2021-22 was miserable year for Oshie. He missed time due to a lower-body injury, an upper-body injury, COVID, and a non-COVID illness. At the top of that season, he broke his foot in a game against the Detroit Red Wings. Oshie tried to play through the injury and developed back-related complications as a consequence. He missed 38 gamed that year and 21 (and counting) this year.
Oshie was once a secret ingredient in Washington’s top-six offense, giving them a secondary scoring threat without defensive liability. But for two years running, he’s been less effective and less reliable.
The team needs to know what they can expect from Oshie next season, if anything. Their free-agency strategy depends on it.
The trading for Connor Brown, 29, last summer seemed like a signature Brian MacLellan move: high relative value, very low risk, high upside. He was supposed to slot in for Tom Wilson during his recovery, but Brown suffered an ACL injury just four games into the season.
I’m very curious what Brown’s intentions are going forward. He had been a good utility player in past and would have used Washington as an opportunity to build value for free agency. Would he be interested in trying that same plan again next season? Does he even keep his stuff in Washington? He wasn’t in town for the team photo.
Brown would need a new contract for next season, and $3.6 million would no longer be a fair price, but Washington may want to entertain the idea given how unstable their top-six ranks are right now.
The Capitals have four defenders locked up for next season: Carlson, Jensen, Sandin, and van Riemsdyk. Their youngest defenders, Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev, are restricted free agents who will require new contracts.
I cannot imagine a scenario in which the team does not reach a deal with both players, but I’m not convinced of either’s value. Fehervary has been over-leveraged since fall of 2021, and Alexeyev has not demonstrated an ability to drive play. Of Fehervary’s ten most common on-ice partners, nine have seen the Capitals control play better without him – the exception being Alex Ovechkin faring 0.04 percentage points better with Fehervary. Meanwhile, The Capitals have taken 49.5 shots per hour when Alexeyev is on the ice, which ranks him 189th out of 219 defenders who have played at least 400 minutes.
While the coaching and banged-up forwards grab the most attention, Washington’s weakness on the blue line shouldn’t be discounted either. I think it’d be a mistake to start next season without upgrading the defense.
I do not think this is an urgent concern for Brian MacLellan, but the Capitals should get a new logo.
This was a long list.
The Capitals are at a very delicate part of their cycle. There’s a potential reality in which every forward comes back healthier and more resolute, under a new coach, with some free-agent reinforcements, and the team suddenly is a competitor once again. There’s also a reality in which Backstrom, Oshie, Mantha, and Kuznetsov are all no longer active roster players come October. The team’s age and injury problems would effectively be solved but in its place would be a sheer lack of top-end talent.
Whatever path we’re heading down, it starts with the front office gathering information. They need to know what they have, and they need to figure it out now.
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