When the Washington Capitals look back at their 2020-21 season — marred by injury, a suspension, coronavirus problems and disciplinary issues — there is no mistaking the feeling of another missed opportunity.
But after Washington was ousted in the first round for the third straight season after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals are left with a burning question: Where do they go from here?
Any such question starts, as it often does, with Alex Ovechkin. The captain will be 36 when the puck drops on the 2021-22 season, and he is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 28. Ovechkin, who has been negotiating with General Manager Brian MacLellan, did not want to comment on contract talks Sunday night.
Other issues include the goaltending situation, what to do with the inconsistent Evgeny Kuznetsov and July’s Seattle Kraken expansion draft.
After Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie are the biggest names with uncertain futures.
Kuznetsov, 29, just finished the fourth season of an eight-year, $62.4 million deal, and there is frustration in the organization over his lack of on-ice production coupled with off-ice problems, according to those familiar with the situation.
He was absent from 15 of the team’s 56 regular season games and had only 29 points (nine goals and 20 assists) while missing time for violating covid-19 protocols and for disciplinary reasons. He was a non-factor in three playoff games after he was unavailable for two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus for the second time this season.
If the team decides to move on from Kuznetsov — either via trade or by making him available in the expansion draft — it would open up a spot at center, perhaps making room for a prospect (such as Connor McMichael) or to bring in another top-level forward in a trade or free agency.
Oshie, who suffered an injury near the end of the regular season that appeared to linger into the series against Boston, has long been the subject of speculation for the expansion draft because of his costly contract.
For the July 21 expansion draft, teams can protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender, or they can protect any combination of eight skaters and one goaltender.
While Ovechkin would be a lock to shield under contract, there has been speculation the team could let him go unsigned heading into the expansion draft. That would allow the Capitals to protect another forward. Seattle could select Ovechkin, but there is a risk of losing him in free agency when he is allowed to negotiate with whatever team he wants starting July 28. The Capitals left Oshie exposed in the 2017 Vegas expansion draft; he signed an extension with the Capitals days later.
Oshie, 34, has four years remaining on his contract, which carries an annual salary cap hit of $5.75 million. Oshie, who had 22 goals and 21 assists this season, showed he can still play at a high level, but there could be concerns about pairing his production with his contract. His heart-and-soul impact on the team, however, is widely acknowledged as crucial to the culture and core of the club.
The decisions on Ovechkin and Oshie — and other expansion draft moves — also will have ripple effects on the roster and salary cap.
The biggest pending unrestricted free agents are Ovechkin, Michael Raffl, Zdeno Chara, Daniel Carr and Craig Anderson. Ilya Samsonov is the team’s lone marquee restricted free agent, and he also has arbitration rights.
It is unknown whether Chara, 44, will keep playing. The contract he signed before this season was a one-year deal.
Samsonov’s restricted free agent status opens the goaltending question. The 2015 first-round draft pick has long been dubbed the team’s goaltender of the future, but the 24-year-old missed extended periods after numerous off-ice issues that mirrored Kuznetsov’s.
Like Kuznetsov, he was also unavailable to start the postseason after landing on the covid-19 protocols list May 4. He started Games 3, 4 and 5, the first time in his NHL career he had made three consecutive starts.
He was 13-4-1 with a 2.69 goals against average and a .902 save percentage in the regular season. He was 16-6-2 with a 2.55 goals against average and a .913 save percentage in the 2019-20 season while backing up Braden Holtby.
When on the ice, he was the team’s best playoff goalie — despite his miscommunication with defenseman Justin Schultz that ended Game 3 in double overtime.
Moving forward, management will have to decide whether Samsonov’s continued progress makes him worthy of being the team’s starter or if the Capitals need to look externally to find their No. 1. Washington also could look for a veteran to pair with Samsonov next season — similar to last offseason, when it signed Henrik Lundqvist.
Rookie Vitek Vanecek, injured early in Game 1, remains an option after he demonstrated his ability to fill in as the No. 1 goaltender early in the season after Samsonov went on the covid-19 list in January. But Vanecek was the team’s third option heading into the season, and he could be exposed in the expansion draft.
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