Where could we possibly find the answer? Let’s ask a GM from across town.
“The chemistry thing, I think, is huge,” said Brian MacLellan, who occupies Rizzo’s corresponding seat with the Washington Capitals — and who went through this very exercise just 17 months ago after winning the Stanley Cup. “I think your team grows together from those losses that we had. You get key guys that have grown from the losses and experienced a win. There’s a bond there that’s going to be there forever, I think.”
That not only means Alex Ovechkin is bonded to Nicklas Backstrom is bonded to Jay Beagle is bonded to Matt Niskanen. That means Anthony Rendon is bonded to Ryan Zimmerman is bonded to Stephen Strasburg is bonded to Howie Kendrick. Forever and ever and ever, amen.
Except those last four names, they all won with the Nationals last month, and they’re all free agents now.
Let’s be clear about this: Hockey is not baseball, and the business of hockey is not the business of baseball. The NHL employs a hard salary cap, so teams know exactly how much cash they’re allowed to spend on a roster. Major League Baseball has only a competitive balance tax, so a wealthy ownership group can spend as much as it damn well pleases — as long as it’s willing to then pay a little more on top of that.
So the simple answer, if the Lerner family — which owns the Nats — wants to pay for, say, both Rendon and Strasburg to the tune of close to a half-billion dollars, then it can pay for both Rendon and Strasburg.
But back to the Caps and the desire to keep the band together. When essentially the same team took the ice again, the message, from ownership to the front office to the dressing room, was clear.
“The group had proven that they could win and get the job done, so there was no reason to believe you couldn’t do it again,” said center Lars Eller, who scored the Cup-winning goal in Las Vegas. “Once you’ve done it once, you know that you can do it. I think that was a positive to keep as many players together as possible.”
The real decision for the Capitals in the summer of 2018 was somewhat analogous to the Nats’ decision on Rendon, the core third baseman in the prime of his career: whether they could bring back John Carlson, a core defenseman in the prime of his career.
“He was a key guy for our team,” MacLellan said. “What he provides, we need. That was priority one.”
MacLellan and his staff projected that Carlson’s market value would be greater than what the Caps could afford. So they got creative, trading backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer and defenseman Brooks Orpik, who carried a $5.5 million salary, to Colorado. That gave them the flexibility to sign Carlson to an eight-year, $64 million deal.
Carlson’s response in 2018-19: his best season, followed by what is shaping up to be an even better one this year, maybe worthy of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.
Would it be surprising if Rendon, who just completed a season in which he’ll finish among the top three in the National League’s MVP race, sets a new standard for his career best in the first season of his next contract? No, it would not.
For the Capitals, there were little adjustments. Grubauer was good enough to be a starter, and that’s what he became in Colorado. Beagle, a fourth-line center and, as MacLellan said, “a glue guy,” was in line to make more money elsewhere, so he left for Vancouver. Such losses would be comparable to, say, Asdrúbal Cabrera or Gerardo Parra or Yan Gomes walking away from the Nats — all likely.
Orpik, though, came back to the Caps at a reduced rate after Colorado cut him — which would be comparable to what could happen with Zimmerman. One’s a wise old defenseman; the other is a wise old first baseman. It mattered to keep Orpik. It matters to keep Zimmerman.
Whatever team Rizzo and the Lerners assemble, it will have an aura unlike any Nationals team before it. The difference: The core guys won’t just be trying to win a championship. The core guys will have won a championship. That colored how the Caps felt about themselves when the playoffs began in the spring.
“I can tell you this: When we went into playoffs last year, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to repeat,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “At that time, I was fully confident that we had the right guys in the room.”
But there were other realities.
“In the end, it felt like that will to win wasn’t quite there in part of our team,” MacLellan said. “Part of it is running out of gas, and part of it is: ‘I don’t know if we want to go through this. I don’t know if I have the energy.’ ”
These are the first-world problems of sports. Win a championship — and then what? Bring everyone back? Spend more in hopes of winning more? Only the Lerners and Rizzo will be able to answer those questions, and they’re not likely to this week or even this month. One other difference between the business of hockey and the business of baseball: Hockey’s salary cap means decisions are implemented in an instant. Baseball’s lack of a cap means recent offseasons have crawled into February and even March, and the entire sport is prepared for that again.
One other item of note to the Nats: This Capitals experience, a year later, is still evolving. After unexpectedly flaming out in the first round of the playoffs this past spring, MacLellan instituted a mini overhaul. Five players who weren’t in the organization when they won the Cup — Carl Hagelin, Radko Gudas, Garnet Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic and Richard Panik — are now part of the regular lineup when everyone’s healthy. That’s not a change to the Ovechkin-Backstrom core. But it’s a meaningful difference, and the early return is a team with more points than anyone else in the league.
The 2020 Nationals could have similar turnover, some combination of major and minor. But whatever’s left of the core — Max Scherzer and Adam Eaton and Juan Soto and Trea Turner and Patrick Corbin and Sean Doolittle and others — they’ll be able to say to any newcomer something other than, “This is how we think we can do it.” They’ll be able to say: “This is how we did it. Follow along.”