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The Washington Capitals Are Stuck…For Now

Photo courtesy of Jess Star (

I’m in the market for a new video game console. I’d prefer to get a PS5, but I’m willing to settle for an Xbox Series X if need be. Feel free to contact me if you happen to have a spare one for sale. I can only offer you about 50 dollars and a worn-down Jason Campbell jersey from 2008 in return, but I’m sure we can reach a deal. 

Any takers?

Since his exit interview, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan has prioritized upgrading a forward group that produced one 20 goal-scorer not named Alexander Ovechkin in 2022-23. He reiterated this on Monday while speaking with reporters on Tom Wilson’s recent contract extension. With names such as Alex DeBrincat, Pierre-Luc Dubois, William Nylander and more floating in the rumor mill, it seemed like those upgrades could be made in very short order.

Recently our Luke Adomanis made the case for the Capitals avoiding such a swing, correctly citing how many questions this team has that will (hopefully) be answered through their play this season. Can Evgeny Kuznetsov develop a rapport with Spencer Carbery he never could with Peter Laviolette? Are younger players such as Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas ready to become fixtures in the lineup? How quickly can this young defensive group gel? Regardless of any additions, the Capitals’ success both this year and beyond hinges on several major unknowns that need to be sorted out before they can fully commit to a direction.

While this is all very true, the Capitals’ relative inaction this summer could be due to a more pressing matter; they simply don’t have anything to give in the first place.

Washington has spent the last several years straddling an awkward line between maintaining a contending team while at the same time refraining from being too aggressive and mortgaging the future for another Cup run. They didn’t jump on any of the major swings we’ve seen in recent offseasons and trade deadlines, opting to stand by core players such as Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom. They stayed idle, making moves along the margins with an aging core instead of aggressively shaking up the roster for short-term success.

While this approach was reasonable at the time, a years-long salary cap freeze and sharp declines from several key players has taken the Capitals to uncomfortable territory–five years removed from their last playoff series win, carrying several contracts that teams around the league wouldn’t want on their books without Washington adding sweeteners.

For the Capitals to acquire anything of value in a trade, they would have to give up something of value, which they do not have. There was a time when Kuznetsov’s name being on the trade block would have triggered a bidding war. In a league where the salary cap has grown by just 2.4% since the pandemic? That $7.8 million cap hit carries more risk than teams are willing to take on. Every team in the league would love to have T.J. Oshie from a few years ago on its roster…but not a 36-going-on-37-year-old version who’s missed significant time due to injury his last two seasons. The Anthony Mantha trade that everyone was clamoring for this season? There’s a reason why everyone was clamoring for it.

While there is a lot of merit to Wilson’s extension, it also compounds this problem as a byproduct. A full-scale rebuild was always off the table with Ovechkin on the roster. They rightfully promised him that when he signed his contract in 2021. However, running things back to the extent they have might prove to be counterproductive if the goal truly is to compete in Ovechkin’s twilight years. The core they’ve committed to hasn’t come close to recreating their 2018 magic in the five years that’ve followed, and with their last semi-realistic trade chip now taken off the table, a move for any player that could seriously move the needle is much less feasible. It’s an approach that’s left them with a low ceiling and an increasingly lower floor.

So yes, the Capitals absolutely need to upgrade the top-6 if they want to be serious about competing this season. With the “assets” they have that they’re willing to give up, they have as good a shot at doing so as I have of getting a PS5 for my Jason Campbell jersey, which I haven’t worn since second grade. The players you’d want to move off of have little to no value in this environment, and the players who would bring back what you’re looking for are ones that would inspire 2011 Vancouver-style riots throughout the area if the Capitals were to ever let them leave. So for now, it seems they’re stuck.

Of course, there’s always a chance that Nikolaj Ehlers spawns at Dulles International Airport the second this article is published…but it’s more likely that the Caps ride things out with this core and bank on the development of several forwards in lieu of adding help from outside. While McMichael and Protas have the inside track on filling these roles, recent AHL signees in Matthew Phillips, Pierrick Dube and Ethen Frank are worth paying attention to. All three starred for their respective AHL teams in 2023, and one of them replicating the shot in the arm Sonny Milano gave to the lineup last year isn’t too far-fetched. Relying on this collective youth movement from unheralded talent isn’t the most attractive option, but it’s the only one the Caps have left themselves with.

Looking further ahead, the 2025 offseason is where things get interesting. The Capitals currently have just four forwards signed through that season, coinciding with a projected salary cap increase up to $92 million. Depending on the state of the team by that point, that’s where they can be creative and try to get everything they can out of what could potentially be Ovechkin’s farewell tour. Until then, this core has taken Washington to the highest heights in franchise history, and for better or worse, the Caps have chosen to ride with them until the wheels fall off (assuming they haven’t already).

If you were hoping to see more urgency after what happened last year, by all accounts it’s been there–they just simply don’t have the resources to follow through.

Talking Points