Look around the roster of the Washington Capitals — the squad that was just bounced from the first round of the playoffs for a third straight year — and it’s easy to see: There’s no shortage of experience.
Many of the key contributors in that group helped the Capitals break through in 2018, winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. But the dropoff since has been severe. The veteran-heavy club has won just five of 17 playoff contests since earning the title.
After its latest first-round fold, losing to the Boston Bruins in five, the big question for Washington entering the offseason is whether its core group can realistically challenge for another Stanley Cup.
The answer, according to those in the organization, is yes, though adding a few younger pieces to the mix will certainly help, the Capitals say.
“I believe that this team can still win,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I believe that we can win rounds in the playoffs. That’s what’s disappointing and frustrating for us, is that we didn’t get it done.”
Alex Ovechkin will become a free agent this offseason, but both sides have expressed their interest in a new contract to keep him in Washington. Beyond the 35-year-old goal scorer, the Capitals should also return T.J. Oshie (34), Nicklas Backstrom (33), John Carlson (31) and Dmitry Orlov (29) as the backbone of the team.
Laviolette has stressed it’s that group of veterans who helped Washington clinch the No. 2 seed in the East Division and finishing with the seventh-best point percentage in the NHL.
They also still produced. Oshie, who could be a candidate for the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft, scored 22 goals in 43 games — one of his most productive seasons. If 2021 had been an 82-game season, Ovechkin was on pace for a 43-goal year, which would have made him the fifth player in NHL history to reach that mark at age 35 or older. Backstrom’s 0.96 points per game was his highest since 2016-17.
Those players helped make up the oldest team in the NHL, with an average age of 30.3.
“I really don’t think the age of the players are that much of a factor,” said center Lars Eller, who, at 32, finished with the third-highest single-season points per game average of his career (0.52). “I think you shouldn’t put too much into that, but more that you look at the way they’re still capable of playing and the numbers they can put up and all that.”
The top six forwards didn’t produce as well in the five playoff games, though, part of the reason Washington crashed out again. So while there’s a belief that the veteran core should be around for at least a few more seasons, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan acknowledged the need to get younger and faster.
“I think we’ve got some guys coming that we can consider,” MacLellan said. “We’ll look for opportunities.”
He pointed to Daniel Sprong, who at 24 produced 13 goals and seven assists in 42 games. Martin Fehervary, a 21-year-old defenseman selected in the second round of the 2018 draft, “is ready,” MacLellan said. 23-year-old center Garrett Pilon and 21-year-old defenseman Alexander Alexeyev could see time.
And while MacLellan said they won’t force 20-year-old center Connor McMichael into the lineup, the top prospect made the AHL All-Rookie Team, with 27 points in 33 games.
“I think there’s opportunity to add youth into the lineup,” MacLellan said. “We’ll get younger, but we’re still going to have a veteran team because that’s our core.”
When the idea that the playoff window might’ve closed on Washington was presented to defenseman Brenden Dillon, he pointed to the work ethic and leadership among his teammates as evidence there’s more left in the tank.
With Ovechkin, one of the best goal scorers in NHL history, there always seems to be a shot for a playoff run. Keeping him with the Capitals could be the first major piece of business this summer, before MacLellan and Co. look to fill holes around Ovechkin and other veterans with younger talent.
But either way — if Washington gets younger or not — there’s still belief on the inside that winning is very much within reach for this group.
“I think we have top-tier caliber players up and down our lineup,” Carlson said. “Obviously, we underperformed and didn’t even reach close to anyone’s expectations. But with that said, I think we have the horses in there to win again.”