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Why The 2016-2017 Season Matters So Much

With the Stanley Cup seemingly closer than it's ever been, Jason Rogers looks ahead to the off-season to give some powerful context to the upcoming 2016-2017 campaign.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The stage is set, the ice has been lovingly smoothed, and the Washington Capitals 2016-2017 season begins tonight at 8pm against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Year 2 of the infamous "two-year window" gets hurled open tonight, and we have a chance to see whether the off-season additions of Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and training camp breakthrough Zach Sanford will be enough to get the Caps over the hump and into the history books.

Age and the salary cap are cruel mistresses, and I wrote about their implications for some of the top teams this upcoming off-season over at Crooked Scoreboard, where I moonlight as the Hockey Editor (go check them out). Included below are my thoughts on the Capitals' unique predicament:

Name a hockey player, any hockey player, not named Crosby. Did you say Alex Ovechkin?

Ovi has been the gap-toothed face of the NHL for more than a decade, smiling that cobblestone superhero’s smile at us on everything from video game covers to insurance commercials. At 31, Ovechkin’s not getting any younger (and if you are, please, my investment group would like to speak with you). But the stopwatch ticking away overhead reads "One Year," and that has far more to do with the cast around him.

The Capitals finally—finally—surrounded Ovechkin with an impressive array of talent last season. Longtime stalwarts Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson were joined by veritable superstars T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, and they got plenty of help from human excitement eruption Evgeny Kuznetsov, just 24 years old.

But the Caps knew from the get-go that this was a "two-year window," and they failed to get it done last season, falling to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. So, what happens after this year?

As a gypsy with an email problem once said, "Outlook not so good."

After this season, forwards Oshie, Williams, and Daniel Winnik, and defenseman Karl Alzner, all will be unrestricted free agents, free to a good home that pays them sufficient millions. Further, bright young stars Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt will be restricted free agents with new, certainly larger contracts to negotiate. Those eight players alone make up nearly one-third of the projected cap space, so suffice it to say that, well, the house will be getting some new furniture.

Of course, winning now would eliminate all those problems and let some players ride into the sunset like action-movie heroes, never looking back at the Capitals’ roster exploding behind them.

There it is. For this group, this is really it. The Capitals' last, best chance begins tonight with the 2016-2017 season opener.

Let's get after it. Go Caps.

Thanks to Crooked Scoreboard.