DALLAS — Forward T.J. Oshie was appreciative of the chants he’d heard throughout the afternoon, from “Let’s go Caps” to “We got the Cup,” but as he stepped up to the microphone at the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup parade last week, he suggested a new one for the fan base: “Back-to-back.”
The 2017-18 NHL season closed with the league’s awards ceremony on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, and the offseason begins with the NHL draft in Dallas on Friday night. The Capitals will get to hold onto the Stanley Cup throughout the summer, and they’ve grown so attached to the trophy that, along with celebrating a first franchise championship, players have started to discuss spending more time with the Cup next summer following a repeat bid. The front office’s work toward that goal heats up this weekend at the draft, where the Capitals have typically been active.
Two years ago, Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan traded for third-line center Lars Eller on the first day of the draft in Buffalo. In Chicago last summer, the Capitals announced an eight-year extension for Oshie. MacLellan plans to meet with the representation for Washington’s pending unrestricted free agents, most notably defensemen John Carlson and Michal Kempny, while in Dallas, and unlike in the last draft, the Capitals have a pick in each of the first three rounds. The team could add to that stack if it trades goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has expressed a desire for more responsibility elsewhere.
Washington won’t return the same team next season — the Capitals are already looking for a new coach after Barry Trotz’s sudden resignation Monday — but the expectations remain.
“It’s got to be, I imagine, one of the hardest things — just think about how hard it was for us to just get this one,” Oshie said. “But we found something in each other during these playoffs that we weren’t able to find before. Now we know it’s there. It’s not a question of if, it’s just a question of — I don’t even know what the question is. Like, when? When can we get back to the playoffs and try to do this again?
“I’ve been talking about it with a couple of the guys, and you just kind of think, how can you go from this excitement and what we’ve been able to do together to losing again in the second round? It just doesn’t seem like something this team will let happen again.
“It just feels like with this group of guys and the nucleus we have that we could do something special here for a while.”
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ recent back-to-back championships marked the first time a team repeated since 1998. Salary cap constraints present a challenge, as does the wear of an extra quarter of a season worth of games. Washington will benefit from a salary cap expected to rise nearly $5 million to be in the neighborhood of $80 million, and that could help the team keep Carlson, one of the longest-tenured players on the team and a member of that “nucleus” Oshie referenced.
The team didn’t pick until the fourth round at the draft last year, so the Capitals could replenish the prospect pool in Dallas, potentially selecting an impact forward with the 31st overall pick. Though the Capitals were banged up by the end of the season, they were fortunate that no players are expected to require surgery.
Washington will also have to deal with a spotlight and pressure the team avoided this year with low external expectations.
“The last couple of years we’ve kind of been favorites, but this year we were underdogs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “As the year went on, we progressed as a team. Anything is possible. All the guys believing in ourselves, that’s a big key. Absolutely, teams [will] want to beat us, and we look at it as a challenge. But the good thing is we have a couple more months to think about that.”
Said Eller: “It’s hard to comprehend all that right now, cause it’s only a couple of days [since the Cup win]. But this team is a bunch of winners. Winning attitude, winning culture, winning mentality. When the season starts again, we are going to be hungry to win everything again, game by game. The only thing that’s better than winning one is winning two, but that’s not something I am going to think about the next couple of months.”
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