The window was closed.
They made their run and came up short. It was still one hell of a run, all things considered - three Presidents’ Trophies in eight years, seven division titles in ten years, all while watching the greatest goal scorer of all-time in his prime rejuvenate a fan base, a rivalry, and, to an extent, the sport.
They spent to the salary cap to “win now” in a self-described two-year window, but they didn’t win then. They had the Stanley Cup hangover... without the Stanley Cup.
And then a funny thing happened. They won.
Improbable as it was, the team with the lame-duck head coach, the team whose franchise goalie had lost his starting job as he struggled through his worst season as a professional only to regain it when the club dropped the first two games of the playoffs at home, the team that was a hit-post (or two) away from being down 3-0 in that first-round series... that team won.
It was all pretty great of course, unquestionably the greatest moment in the history of the franchise, the careers of nearly all of the people involved, and the lives of many of their supporters (and not just their lives as sports fans).
But it also laid the groundwork for everything we’ve seen on the ice since then, and that has been... less great.
See, the Caps weren’t wrong about their so-called “window” - it was closed. The 2017-18 Caps were not a great team (until they were for two months). They were by no means a real contender (or even favorite in the first round) in more than an “anything can happen” sort of way.
Then anything did happen, and they’ve been chasing that good fortune ever since with blinders on, to the detriment of the franchise.
To be fair, the Caps were pretty good about not handing out massive “thanks for the memories” deals to guys like Jay Beagle or Brett Connolly or Braden Holtby (or Barry Trotz). But their regular season success and recent “what if?” memories have deluded them as to what they really are, and has led them to try to make short-term fixes rather than restructuring with an eye on long-term success.
A Carl Hagelin here, a Radko Gudas there. Maybe a Brenden Dillon or a Justin Schultz or a Zdeno Chara. All defensible moves on their own. But they’ve also come at a cost, be that draft picks, cap space and/or players.
They’ve watched players like Nate Schmidt, Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Philipp Grubauer and Jakub Vrana find measures of success elsewhere, and have Anthony Mantha and some cost certainty to show for it. Again, all defensible moves on their own.
A massive five-year contract extension for Nicklas Backstrom that kicked in this year. Huge deals for Evgeny Kuznetov and T.J. Oshie that were inked before the 2017-18 season (i.e. post “window”). John Carlson’s eight-year pact signed in the wake of the Cup win. That’s four contracts for a total of $30.75 million (roughly 38 percent of the cap) for players with an average age of nearly 30, and only Backstrom’s (which will expire when he’s 37) for fewer than eight years... with Alex Ovechkin’s new deal yet to come.
Those five named players combined for zero even-strength goals in this year’s playoffs. Kuznetsov didn’t register a point (yet that might be the least of his problems this past season), Carlson hasn’t scored a playoff goal since the Cup run, and Backstrom just posted his second-straight no goals/one assist playoffs.
The Caps didn’t have second- or third-round picks at last year’s draft, and moved their first-rounder in the upcoming draft (as well as a second in 2022) in the Mantha deal. There are promising prospects on the horizon (Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev among them), but, with the exception of Ovechkin, every Caps forward and five of the six defensemen (plus Trevor van Riemsdyk) that suited up for Game 5 against the Bruins is signed through at least next season. They’ll lose someone to Seattle in the expansion draft, but it’s hard to see how the general roster construction of this team changes meaningfully in the short term without something drastic and dramatic.
Even the best-constructed teams have a shelf life. The true contenders of the early-to-mid 2010s have come and gone. The Kings, the Blackhawks, the Sharks, the Rangers, the Red Wings, the Bruins, they’ve all bottomed out and most are on their way back up (or there already, as is the case with Boston). Only the Caps and Penguins have plowed through without really rebuilding and, frankly, neither is a true contender among teams like Colorado, Tampa, Vegas, Carolina and maybe Toronto.
In a way, the Caps (and Pens) are victims of their regular-season success, never really getting the wake-up calls that those other teams in their cohort did by missing the playoffs for a couple of years in a row. But the Caps haven’t been “building” anything since around 2016; they’ve been patching tires and hoping to be able to drive another hundred miles or so. Michal Kempny was a hell of a patch. Ilya Kovalchuk? Not so much.
To be sure, there are also different priorities at play - how much is simply making the playoffs worth (in actual dollars, morale, etc.)? Every single Caps fan would agree that that “anything can happen” chance in 2018 was priceless... and now, to an extent, we’re paying for it.
So the Caps are what they are right now - older and slower, capped out and over-committed. Unless the Caps are willing (and able) to take 60 cents on the dollar to move the guy who finally exorcised so many franchise demons with an overtime goal in Pittsburgh or let the NHL’s newest franchise take the guy whose on-ice moment with his father moments after winning the Cup had us all choked up (or get even more creative), they’re pretty locked into their current roster. There are no easy answers here, and, barring something unforeseen, it’ll likely get worse before it gets much better. The Caps’ last three years have been based on misplaced hope; the next three need to be based on a solid plan.
Here’s the thing about windows: whether they’re opened or closed, you should be able to see what’s on the other side. It doesn’t appear as if the Caps have. And now the view isn’t so great.