Ever since the Capitals drafted Alex Ovechkin and the Penguins got Sidney Crosby, the teams have been staging a competition to see which of them becomes a dynasty first. The Pens took the early lead by reaching the Stanley Cup Finals last season, but this year they’re barely above .500 and Sunday they fired their coach, Michel Therrien.
Which raises some questions, such as:
- Is this what it’s going to be like in the NHL now that there’s a salary cap and more player movement? Is it going to be harder to hold teams together, harder to sustain excellence?
- Is this what’s going to happen to the Capitals in the not-too-distant future, once some of their younger guys - guys not named Ovechkin - become eligible for arbitration and free agency? Alex is locked up from here to eternity, and Mike Green, the goal-a-game defenseman, is signed through 2012, but what happens when the contracts of Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and others are up? Will Ted Leonsis and George McPhee be forced to pick and choose? Will there be enough money for everybody?
I bring this up because the good times have returned to Verizon Center, and no one wants to see them end anytime soon. Ovechkin is already the greatest player in franchise history, and the club being assembled around him might, in the next few seasons, develop into the best in franchise history.
Put it this way: The Caps were 37-17-7 under Bruce Boudreau last year, and this year they’re 36-16-5. That’s the level they’re playing at - and they’re still ascending.
So… is there any reason for Capitals fans to be alarmed? Is the Penguins’ situation at all similar to the Caps’ - a preview of coming attractions, so to speak?
Not really. Here’s why:
The Pens got hamstrung last summer, capwise, because they have TWO players making “Ovechkin money” - Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They also have a goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, pulling down $5 million a year. This is what can happen when, in consecutive drafts (2003 to 2005), you have the first, second and first overall picks. If you hit on those picks - and Pittsburgh did - it can be expensive to hang on to the players.
As a result, the Penguins weren’t able to re-sign forwards Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone, two key cogs in their playoff run. They just couldn’t make the numbers work. And without them - and because of injuries to defenseman Sergei Gonchar and others - the Pens have fallen hard, so hard they might miss the playoffs.
(Worse, they paid heavily for Hossa in a deadline trade a year ago, giving up two players, a prospect and a first-round draft choice. So their inability to satisfy the high-scoring winger’s demands was doubly damaging.)
Now let’s look at the Capitals’ finances. For starters, there’s no Second Ovechkin on the payroll, so that simplifies matters some. Green and Semin, combined, earn about what Alex does (13 years, $124 million) - and No. 52, as previously stated, is under contract for three more seasons.
As for Semin and Backstrom, the team’s other stars-in-the-making, their deals won’t be up until the summer of 2010 - and by then several well-compensated veterans (Michael Nylander, Sergei Fedorov, Jose Theodore, Chris Clark) figure to be off the books or close to it. That should give Leonsis and McPhee enough cap room to make competitive offers to anybody they want to keep.
It’s a juggling act, sure, but the Capitals feel they have a handle on it, feel they know how to make the new system work for them. During the lockout year, Leonsis and McPhee spent much time studying how franchises in other sports dealt with the salary cap. They also learned from their own unhappy experience with Jaromir Jagr that taking on other clubs’ high-priced players definitely wasn’t the way to go. As Boss Ted has said on any number of occasions, “If you pay the wrong guy for the long term, you’re in jail.”
That’s why the Caps are built the way they’re built - with young, mostly affordable, homegrown players… and with plenty of potential replacements in the pipeline (Karl Alzner, Simeon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth). If they get to the finals, as Pittsburgh did, it should be the beginning of something, something lasting. The ice shouldn’t melt beneath their skates the very next season.