The Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins have been league powers over the last decade-plus, but the two rival teams both missed the playoffs last season as the average age of their rosters were 30-plus.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said his goal was to make the Capitals younger over the offseason, but his only significant moves on the first day of free agency were bringing in two injury-prone players who are 30 or over. The Capitals signed 34-year-old Max Pacioretty, who will not be healthy for the start of the season, and dealt two draft picks for 30-year-old defenseman Joel Edmundson, who missed 21 games last season and has never played in more than 69 games in a single campaign.
“I think we’ve had an aggressive approach at the draft and nothing’s panned out,” MacLellan said of making a bigger, impactful trade like moving Evgeny Kuznetsov or Anthony Mantha. “We’ll continue to have the conversations going forward. I’m assuming you get to mid-July and things will quiet down and then back in the training camp things might pick up again.”
With their aging core one year older and none of their major issues addressed as of now, the Capitals will enter training camp much like last year — with no open center spot for top prospect Connor McMichael to slide into and few open spots for developing minor league players who just won the Calder Cup in Hershey.
My friend and elite beer-league goaltender, Mercer, did a mockup of what he thought the team’s Opening Night roster would look like. Barring things unforeseen, this is the most reasonable way to interpret the team’s depth chart currently.
opening night as of right now
Ovi – Strome – Willy
Mantha – Kuz – Milano
McMike – Backy – Osh
Pro – Dowd – NAK
Marty – Carly
Sandin – Jensen
Eddie – TVR
AA, Snively, Beck
there’s gotta be something else coming. middle six is rough
— Mercer (@Tarps_Off) July 2, 2023
The Capitals will go into the season with Dylan Strome, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Nic Dowd up the middle once again, pushing McMichael to the wing or perhaps Hershey. On Breakdown Day, MacLellan said that Backstrom would “have to make a decision on his career” over the summer, but that has been pushed back to training camp.
Protas, a center in junior and arguably the Capitals’ best process player last season, would be relegated to fourth line wing duty again while players like Joe Snively, Back Malenstyn, or a wildcard like Ethen Frank would be healthy scratches, lost on waivers, or in Hershey. And that’s before Pacioretty, who was given a no-trade clause, comes back.
On defense, Edmundson’s acquisition will presumably push first-round pick Alex Alexeyev out of the lineup every night and potentially push a player like Lucas Johansen, Hershey’s best overall defensemen during their Calder Cup run, back to the AHL.
These decisions come after hiring a new head coach in Spencer Carbery, who is known as a developer of talent. Carbery will bring a new pair of eyes to the lineup and could help MacLellan make some tough decisions with the roster ahead of Game One of the regular season. This year’s training camp should bring huge competition.
But as of right now on paper, the Capitals’ transition into being a younger team is taking baby steps despite results last season that suggest a bigger organizational commitment to their youth is needed both for success now and in the future.
There’s an opportunity and ample reason to begin developing a new core — subtly in the middle/bottom lines and pairings — for a quick transition after Alex Ovechkin’s career ends. The question is: Will this process ever start?
Brian MacLellan answered questions on Sunday about his moves on the first day of free agency. Here are his answers that are pertinent to this column.
Could Connor McMichael, Beck Malenstyn, and Aliaksei Protas make this year’s roster?
Brian MacLellan: Yeah, I do. I think they all had a good playoff. They’re all getting better. All going to add different elements to our lineup. I would more than likely pencil them in for next year.
What does Edmundson mean for Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen?
Brian MacLellan: I think he brings an element that the other guys don’t. I think you need more than six defensemen to go into the year with. You need eight, nine that I would count on using. I like what Lucas has done at the end here in Hershey. So I mean, I think we’re open. Guys will come in at camp and we’ll make a decision based on that.
So Lucas Johansen has a shot of making the team?
Brian MacLellan: I do, me personally, yes. I thought he played well.
How did Hershey’s Calder Cup run affect your confidence in these guys?
Brian MacLellan: Before that, I think we thought they might, but I think you get more assurance to see them do well at that level of play. The Finals and them winning a championship, I think that just solidifies their development.
Will those young guys bring down the average age of the roster?
Brian MacLellan: I think we added young guys last year. We added young guys this year. I thought we had a good draft. I think some of the guys that are playing at Hershey this year are good young players that’ll be a year away, two years away. So I think our pipeline is filling up with some good possibilities. And we’ll continue to look for opportunities [for] younger, or that age group of players available to trade; we’ll pursue it.
Headline photo: Ian Oland/RMNB
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