Maybe the clean break from the Stanley Cup, for you, came in April with that loss in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes, which still seems a ridiculous thing to type. Maybe it came in June, when the St. Louis Blues skated around with the chalice on Boston’s ice, setting up their own summer of absurdity. Both are reasonable assessments. The Washington Capitals won the 2018 Cup, but that is in the past, slipping further away each day.
For me, though, it took until the past few weeks, even the past couple of days, for the Cup run to seem more distant. Last summer, General Manager Brian MacLellan spent time, effort and money — Ted Leonsis’s money — to keep the team that won the Cup almost completely intact, save for the coach, which is a separate matter. This summer, he has spent time, effort and money — not a ton of money — in exchanging some of those pieces for new parts.
This isn’t blowing it up, because the backbone of this team is still Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson and Braden Holtby — all here, for now. The changes afoot feel minor, even as fully a third of the roster has been overhauled. And they serve as a prelude to the major decisions afoot, which are, to borrow Leonsis’s term, monumental. We’ll get to those.
Think about what’s different, though. The Caps who won the Cup had defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, once MacLellan’s signature free agent acquisitions, now retired and traded away, respectively. The Caps who won the Cup had forwards Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, the former quietly consistent, the latter consistently maddening, both departed. And it’s still inescapable that the Caps who won the Cup had Barry Trotz as the head man behind the bench, the same Barry Trotz who was last seen collecting the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year — for the New York Islanders.
Minor moves? Maybe. But of the 20 Caps who will be in uniform for opening night of the 2019-20 season, at least seven will be different from the 20 who wore Capitals sweaters on June 7, 2018 — Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals in Las Vegas.
“I think the core remains the same, and that’s the strength of our team: the core players,” MacLellan said on a conference call with reporters Monday. “I think it’s just a natural evolution. I think we were fortunate last year to bring most of the guys back. When you have a successful team and guys [are] playing well, they’re going to get paid for that success, and players move on.”
Natural evolution, in this case, means feeling even further from that unforgettable night in Vegas. In the fall, we’ll get to know Richard Panik, who effectively will replace Connolly as the third-line right wing, as well as fourth-line forwards Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway. MacLellan seems pleased with his tinkers even as some Metropolitan Division rivals took much bigger swings.
“I think the guys we brought in are really good players,” he said, “so I think our team’s situated well.”
Given that MacLellan’s most heavily criticized offseason, the summer of 2017, led to a Stanley Cup, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Amazing how winning changes the lens.
But this summer is just the overture. However we end up evaluating, say, Panik, whose only four-year offer came from Washington, vs. Connolly, who got $3 million more over four years from Florida, it will eventually seem secondary to the upcoming discussions with Backstrom and Holtby. Both are central characters not just on that Stanley Cup-winning team, but to hockey in Washington. Both are due to be free agents after this season.
Panik for Connolly? That’s window dressing for the scary stuff to come.
“I’ll sit down with Backstrom and Holtby here as the summer progresses, probably in August sometime, and just talk to them both and talk about the situation in the organization and what the possibilities might be going forward,” MacLellan said. “All we can do is communicate with both the players and see how it plays itself out.”
Here’s a guess as to how it will play itself out: The Caps will work something out with Backstrom, the Robin to Ovechkin’s Batman all these years, at least in part because it’s inconceivable to think of him in another sweater.
Backstrom: We’ve spent so much time in Washington discussing how criminally underrated he is that it’s a wonder he’s not overrated by now. Yet he’s not. Since he came into the league in 2007-08, here is the list of players who have recorded more points than No. 19: Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin. All will be Hall of Famers — as will Backstrom, it seems apparent by now.
By next summer, Backstrom will be 32. He is due to make $8 million in this, the final season of a 10-year, $67-million contract. It seems impossible to envision the two sides saying, “Sorry, but it didn’t work out.”
Holtby? It’d be nice to say the same, both for his goaltending and for his thoughtful involvement in the community. But here’s a little comparison the Caps have made: Sergei Bobrovsky, the two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie with the Columbus Blue Jackets, has a save percentage of .921, a goals against average of 2.41 over a nine-year career, and he turns 31 this fall. Holtby, with both a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup to his credit with the Caps, has a save percentage of .918, a goals against average of 2.47 over a nine-year career, and he turns 31 next fall.
“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said. “It’s a peer, and they look like pretty similar players.”
The issue: Bobrovsky just agreed to a seven-year, $70-million contract with Florida. The Capitals have Carlson signed through 2025-26, Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie signed through 2024-25, Wilson signed through 2023-24 — and that’s before deciding what to do with the iconic Ovechkin, who is signed through only this season and next. Seven years and big money for Holtby would put them on the hook through 2026-27. Yikes.
There are two other factors: First, the development of goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov, still just 22 . Second, the 2021 expansion draft to fuel the new Seattle franchise, in which each existing teams can protect only one goalie. If Samsonov develops as he should, and Holtby is an expensive free agent, the hard decision could become easy: protect the cheap up-and-comer rather than re-sign the (really) expensive veteran. Plus, if Bobrovsky set the market — and he did — why should Holtby take less? He shouldn’t.
So, have another good year, but goodbye, Braden?
This is all, of course, some form of natural evolution. The result of that evolution, though, is the Stanley Cup feels further in arrears this morning than it did a week ago. At this time next summer, it will be an experience that’s just two years old — but might seem far more distant than that.