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On the Matter of Retired Numbers

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Aside from the obvious two, which of today’s Caps’ numbers could someday hit the rafters?

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals Photo by Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images

As we say our fond farewells to the lazy days of summer, and we start looking forward to training camp and a new season, we have one order of summer business to take care of. One of the reliable topics of conversation among fans is that of retired numbers. We have been scribbling about numbers that have not been retired by the Caps over the years, but deserve to be remembered - so now we take a look forward to active Caps and who might show up on the “remembered, if not retired” list in the future.

First, let us assume that among current Caps, Alex Ovechkin’s #8 and Nicklas Backstrom’s 19 are locks for retirement upon their respective retirements. Which leaves us with players who will have their fans…

74. John Carlson does not hold every franchise statistical record for defensemen, but chances are he will before his tenure as a Capital ends. Let’s break down the stats: He is second in games played (809; 174 fewer than Calle Johansson), third in goals (115; 34 fewer than Kevin Hatcher in first place), first in assists (407), first in points (522), third in plus-minus rating (plus-87; 29 points below Rod Langway), third in even strength goals (84; ten fewer than Hatcher), first in even strength points (325), seventh in power play goals (30; 23 fewer than Sergei Gonchar), second in power play points (192; 36 fewer than Johansson), first in game-winning goals (25).second in ice time per game (23:24; 0:32 less than Dennis Wideman), and first in blocked shots.

Whew.

He has also been named to the NHL All-Star Game twice, and was a first-team NHL all-star and Norris Trophy finalist in 2019-20. And of course, he has a Stanley Cup on his resume.

Factors in his favor: Statistically, Carlson is already, at a minimum, on a short list of the best defenseman in team history - and that’s in a franchise with a long history of accomplished defensemen. Where he ends up at the conclusion of his Caps’ career is anyone’s guess, but chances are good that a solid argument could be made for him holding on to the top spot.

One thing that could put him over the top in a close call is the fact that he’s a homegrown Capital, and could be one of the first to have his number retired (depending on where one stands on the matter of Mike Gartner being homegrown, as he was a fourth round pick of the Caps in the 1979 draft but played in the WHA for a year as an underager before heading to DC).

Factors against him: How many players from one era on one team can have their numbers retired? Carlson could get lost in the noise of the retirements of Ovechkin’s and Backstrom’s numbers. He could get there, but it might take a bit of time to do so.

Likelihood of retirement: 50 percent.

77. He might not have started his career as a Capital, but T.J. Oshie certainly looks like a career Cap through and through. His on-ice performance has been superb, a scorer who plays bigger than his size, unafraid to go into dirty areas to score or make plays. While it has occasionally resulted in injury, he has answered the call in 413 of 453 games (91.2 percent).

With four years remaining on his eight-year/$46.0 million contract with the Caps, he’s got plenty of time to rise in the all-time statistical rankings. If he averages 70 games played per year and completes his contract with the Caps, he would finish that deal with 693 games, tying Steve Konowalchuk for 12th place on the franchise all-time list. With 20 goals per season, he would finish with 230, good for fifth place all-time. With 50 points per season, he would finish with 500 points, becoming just the 10th player in team history to hit that mark (or 11th if Evgeny Kuznetsov, who needs 82 points, gets there first). With five power play goals per season, he would finish with 76, good for fifth place all time. You get the picture. Oshie’s body of work as a Capital has been impressive, and it is incomplete.

Factors in his favor: Oshie is that rare combination of player who has high performance metrics and plays with a style that appeals to fans. He is, for lack of a better term, a warrior on the ice - and beyond that, he is active in the community and social media, and has forged a bond with the fan base that could put him in good standing in Capitals Nation as a worthy number retiree.

Factors in his disfavor: Oshie suffers from factors similar to those of John Carlson that could derail or delay his having his number retired. He is part of a cohort of players who share a Stanley Cup run, a player who has very good numbers that are likely to leave him highly ranked in a number of career statistical categories. But will the memory of his performance and style fade with time, and will not being “home grown” be a factor?

Likelihood of retirement: 40 percent.

92. Evgeny Kuznetsov might have had the single most impressive postseason ever assembled by a Capitals skater in 2018 – 24 games, 12-20-32, plus-12, with points in 19 of 24 games and two four-point games. His career regular season stats, while not as eye-popping, are impressive nonetheless. He ranks 14th on the all-time franchise list in points (418) and with a big 2021-22 season could become the tenth player in Caps history to post 500 career points. While he is not an especially prolific goal scorer (129; tied for 21st in Caps history), he has scored them in key situations, with seven overtime goals (fourth in team history) and 24 game-winners (tied for 12th). He has four years remaining on an eight-year/$62.4 million contract, and if he should finish that contract as a Capital, he could finish sixth in team history in goals (with 20 per season) and fifth in points (with 60 per season).

Factors in his favor: A Stanley Cup, especially with the performance Kuznetsov had in 2018, buys a lot of good will. He is also among the most skilled players ever to play for the club.

Factors in his disfavor: With certain exceptions, Kuznetsov’s career has been a head-scratcher. He had 27 goals and 83 points in 2017-2018, but his goals and points have been in decline ever since. There are questions if he has the inner fire to be the player he can be, and he has had off-ice issues that would seem unlikely to endear him to fans.

Probability of retirement: 10 percent.

43. There might not be another player in the NHL who inspires more heated emotion, on and off the ice, than Tom Wilson. But beyond being an agent of mischief, he is also a fine hockey player. His blend of skill and edginess is unique. He is the only active player with at least 75 goals, at least 200 points, and more than 1,100 penalty minutes in fewer than 600 games (569 games; 91-130-221; 1,123 PIMs). He is the player, perhaps more than any other, that 30 teams hate (and Seattle will no doubt make 31 next year), and Caps fans love. He is an underrated defensive player, averaging more than :30 in shorthanded ice time per game in each of the last six seasons. He has been written of as a potential captain for the Capitals at some point.

Factors in his favor: He has that unique blend of skill, grit, and ill humor that has endeared him to Caps fans, and that could keep his name in the conversation for some time.

Factors in his disfavor: Wilson has three years to go on a six-year/$31.0 million contract. Wilson will be 30 when his current contract expires, and whether he gets serious consideration could depend on whether he signs an extension with the Caps. At the end of his current contract, he is likely to have respectable numbers in terms of all-time statistical rankings, but not so impressive to make him a favorite to have his number retired. Even with an extension, unless it is a mega-term deal, he is could crack the top ten, or even top five in some categories, but that is quite an unknown at this stage of his career.

Probability of retirement: 15 percent if he does not sign an extension; 30 percent if he does.

And there you have it. There are no hard and fast criteria for retiring numbers in the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs have 19 retired numbers (not including Wayne Gretzky’s 99, which has been retired league wide), while the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team of some accomplishment in their history, have only two. The Capitals have four, but have not retired a number since Mike Gartner’s “11” was retired in December 2008.

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are locks to have their numbers retired, but other Capitals of this and previous eras seem at least as likely as not to be more a conversation topic than they will see their numbers hoisted to the rafters.