The hangover is obvious. You can still smell the whiskey on the Washington Capitals’ breath, feel the throbbing in their heads. The new season is here. The Caps can’t shake the last. They’re lamenting the opportunity past, the guys who are gone. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Game 7, and the pucks that didn’t go in during that first period and the air sucked out of the building and . . . it’s all still here in October. Shouldn’t be. But it is.
For all the kvetching about the departures of Marcus Johansson and Karl Alzner and Justin Williams and Nate Schmidt, the Capitals’ most significant moves of the summer revolved not around whom they let go but around whom they kept.
“Obviously,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said this week, “we bet on a couple guys here.”
With the bet comes a burden, one that can be spread around. Start with MacLellan, the man who built back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners the past two years and now brings a lesser version of that roster into this season. The bet was on Oshie’s intangibles and Kuznetsov’s skill. And it was MacLellan’s to own: eight years and $46 million for Oshie, eight years and $62.4 million for Kuznetsov.
The stakes are simple, and MacLellan knows it. In explaining the deal for Kuznetsov, he said: “If he’s good, I’m good. If he’s not, it was nice meeting you guys.”
Only an executive’s career on the line, then.
The contracts, though, have an impact on the players, too. They are no longer identified by the numbers 77 and 92, the digits on their jerseys. No, they now are linked inextricably to their salaries: Oshie and $46 million, Kuznetsov and $62 million. And they will be judged by those numbers above all else.
“There’s a responsibility,” Oshie said.
“It’s about how a player is going to handle it, right?” Kuznetsov said.
As the Caps barreled through last season, with a Stanley Cup the only goal that mattered, Oshie, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and Kuznetsov, who would be restricted, knew what awaited them. The goal of the Cup is unifying and dominating, but there’s a lot of idle time on the road to sit and think, too.
“It never got in the way of my decision-making on the ice or my preparation,” Oshie said. “But it creeps in. I thought about it. You have to. It’s your future. I have a family.”
As does Kuznetsov. Now those families are taken care of — and then some. How does a player respond to such security?
“I think it’s tough because the player plays for the contract, and then he has a big year, and then there’s a natural letdown,” MacLellan said. “And then it becomes the pressure of the contract.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to hockey. (Paging Albert Haynesworth.) Jayson Werth will finish his seven-year deal with the Nationals at some point in the coming weeks — he hopes, very late this month or very early next month — and is being warmly embraced by the fan base as he reminisces about helping turn a loser into a winner. But his first season in Washington was a dud, one in which he hit .232. He knew the fans were thinking, “We paid $126 million for this?” It bothered him, so he pressed. It was counterproductive.
Oshie and Kuznetsov need look only across their own locker room to find an example of how to handle their newfound riches, lifelong security — and the weight that comes with them. Nicklas Backstrom is entering the eighth year of a 10-year, $67 million deal. Find someone who thinks Backstrom has taken a shift or a practice off because of his contract, and I would like to meet him.
“Somehow you got to try to put that aside and be the guy you normally are,” Backstrom said. “You know you can be a good player, and that’s why they signed you for that number.”
Simple enough. But also, this: “It’s a lot mentally, too.”
So MacLellan’s bet is that Kuznetsov’s talent, which has produced 97 assists the past two seasons combined, will continue to develop to the point that he is a perennial all-star candidate. His bet is that the production from Oshie’s career year — 33 goals playing alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin — won’t drop off significantly and more importantly that his leadership, experience, work ethic and competitive spirit will infiltrate the locker room even if he never scores 30 times again.
He is betting on the human beings wearing the skates.
“You try and do your homework,” MacLellan said.
His homework showed that Mr. $46 Million and Mr. $62 Million — uh, Oshie and Kuznetsov — could handle all that comes with all those zeros. Each now knows what’s ahead not just for himself but also for his family. Oshie’s children are 3 and 1, and he and his wife love the fact that there are so many little ones “on the team,” as Oshie said. There’s a comfort level knowing his daughter is in the same preschool as Backstrom’s little girl. Kuznetsov has one daughter and said he and his wife likely will have more children, so he can plan his life accordingly.
The contracts bring comfort, security and pressure, maybe in equal parts.
“Before I signed that deal, I knew it was going to be some pressure on me,” Kuznetsov said. “But sometimes players need it. I think it’s going to be even better for me.”
Shake off last season, Caps fans. Shoot, shake off last season, Caps players and coaches and execs. There’s a present here that matters. More than that, there’s a future — a future that’s tied to two players on whom the organization has placed a $108 million wager. Odds are, given the people to whom those numbers are attached, they will be fine.