For many the very thought of a step back is unthinkable. The Washington Capitals, who seemed primed for greatness in the 2010-11 season, could begin a new year without the perennial contender status they have grown so accustomed to bearing.
No one will admit it, but after watching four consecutive seasons of championship-caliber hockey, there may be a transition year on the horizon for the Caps.
That’s not to say Washington won’t be good. They’ll contend for another Southeast title and win their fair share of games. Yet if they play it safe this offseason, it’s hard to envision them winning it all.
And that’s fine.
It’s tough to judge whether the Caps will attempt to reload or rather play it conservatively and prepare for their next wave of prospects to enter the league. They could splurge this offseason in an effort to become the favorites in the East, but such a ploy would come at the long-term expense of the salary cap, preventing them from tending to certain issues down the road.
Most teams would love to claim they cultivate as much homegrown talent as the Caps have over the years. However, this development comes at a price. Washington is responsible for several hefty contracts with a few more to shoulder in the coming years if they want to retain Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
In addition, several key players’ contracts are expiring this offseason, and with the extensions the Caps handed out to Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Knuble, Jeff Schultz, Matt Hendricks, John Erskine and Tom Poti this past year, they won’t be able to re-sign all their pending free agents.
George McPhee is the key to this offseason for that reason. He has the unenviable task of determining what should be done with seven unrestricted free agents (and two restricted FAs) while also ensuring he gives the Caps some wiggle room within the salary cap.
As I previously mentioned, the Capitals have a few prospects who will be entering the NHL ranks soon, meaning McPhee will have to prepare for financial commitments to them while keeping his current group of core players intact.
Throw in the temptation to reload now through free agency — thus beginning the season as a contender once again — and McPhee has plenty of decisions to make.
If he’s smart he’ll realize the Caps still need that elusive second-line center, a physical power forward and a more productive fourth-line.
In a weak free agent class, that’s asking a lot. The going rate on Brad Richards will likely rival the money Backstrom makes per year and with slim pickings across the board, teams will be overpaying to land mediocre talent.
So it makes sense for McPhee to hold off on the spending spree, re-sign a few of his top players and wait for the trade deadline to see if the Caps have the ability to make a deep playoff run.
That’s not to say a quick fix couldn’t help the Caps this season, but it would severely damage them in the years to come.
In recent years the Capitals have been legitimate contenders without many question marks. But after another underwhelming performance in the playoffs, it’s safe to say they are a flawed team in one way or another. Everyone has their own ideas about what’s wrong with them, but the consensus is they have deficiencies.
These are lean times for DC sports and that only raises the bar for the one team with any talent. While the fanbase expects nothing less than a Stanley Cup, McPhee must maintain his trademark patience and avoid knee-jerk reactions. Any impulsive moves by the front office would destroy the salary cap future of the team and considering how good they could be in one or two years, short-term gain is not the answer.
Good things come to those who wait and for the Caps, the future is just a little ways off.