The Washington Capitals have suffered playoff heartbreak after playoff heartbreak in the Alexander Ovechkin era — but they broke through and won the Stanley Cup in 2018, so all past failures have been forgiven. But this has been a perennial regular season juggernaut that has failed to advance past the second round every season except the incredible run five years ago.
That is, until 2022-23. The Capitals were unable to overcome a hip injury to Nicklas Backstrom, a freak head injury to John Carlson and a down season from Evgeny Kuznetsov, ultimately missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14. For the first time in a decade, the perennial powerhouse showed cracks. It'll be an intriguing season in the nation's capital as the Capitals look to return to playoff contention, and win another Stanley Cup before the Ovechkin era is over.
An aging core
But to do that, the Caps will need to reckon with the fact that they are one of the oldest teams in the league. When the 2023-24 campaign kicks off, Ovechkin will be 38, Backstrom 35, Oshie 36, Carlson 33 and Kuznetsov 31. Like the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals were awful before selecting their franchise cornerstone No. 1 overall, and they figure to be bad again once he retires.
There are only a few chances left for this team to win a second Stanley Cup in the Ovechkin era before things inevitably get blown up without him. Last season was a mess, punctuated by long-term injuries to Backstrom and Carlson, and a forgettable season for Kuznetsov. The above five players mentioned will need to be back to their old selves if this team hopes to compete for a top-three spot in a very difficult Metropolitan Division.
Kuznetsov, Backstrom crucial to success
That starts with two cornerstones in Kuznetsov and Backstrom. After a near point-per-game career for the Capitals all-time leader in assists, Backstrom has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons, and he only got into 39 games last year. He put up just 21 points, far and away the lowest total of his career. He's scored just 52 points in 86 contests dating back to 2022-23, and that's just not the kind of production the team is used to from the Swedish star.
But it looks like the 35-year-old will enter training camp healthy, which is huge for the team. What is crucial is ensuring he stays healthy throughout the year.
“I think a lot of us are really excited to be back,” Backstrom said ahead of training camp last week. “We're disappointed about last year. We also don't want to miss playoffs. That's not acceptable. I think I see a lot of fire in guys in the locker room and how we approach this season. I think it's going to be an important year.”
As for Kuznetsov, his name has been swirling in trade rumors after one of the worst seasons of his professional career. Far removed from his playoff-leading 32 points in 24 games in the 2018 Stanley Cup run, Kuzy scored just 12 goals and 55 points in 81 games last year. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan was unable to trade the Russian due to his steep $7.8 million AAV for the next two seasons, and it looks like he will at least start the season with the only NHL franchise he has ever known.
For the Capitals to return to the dance, increased production from both Backstrom and Kuznetsov will be an absolutely crucial first step.
No Pacioretty to start the year
That's especially true with offseason signing Max Pacioretty out indefinitely as he continues to rehab from an Achilles injury that cost him most of the last two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. At 34-years-old and signed for just one year at $2 million, it's easy to predict that the once-superstar will be unable to crack the team's top-six, if and when he gets healthy.
Still, there is hope in the nation's capital. Ovechkin is still a superstar and goal scoring machine, Tom Wilson will be motivated after he earned a lucrative contract extension this offseason, and a full season of John Carlson and Rasmus Sandin will help to alleviate the defensive woes from last season. If Stanley Cup champion goaltender Darcy Kuemper can put together a solid season, and Kuznetsov and Backstrom bounce back, there's no reason this team can't compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
To actually return to the dance, health will be a critical factor, especially with a core as old as this. So will the kind of production they get from the key pieces of the Stanley Cup team who are all now on the wrong side of 30. On paper, the Washington Capitals are still a playoff team. But in a daunting Metro division that produced four playoff teams last season, it will be a tall task for this team to win a playoff series for the first time since defeating the Vegas Golden Knights to win hockey's ultimate prize five years ago.
Final projected roster
Forwards: Alexander Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dylan Strome, TJ Oshie, Anthony Mantha, Nic Dowd, Sonny Milano, Joe Snively, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Aliaksei Protas
Defensemen: John Carlson, Rasmus Sandin, Nick Jensen, Martin Fehervary, Joel Edmundson, Trevor Van Riemsdyk
Goalies: Darcy Kuemper, Charlie Lindgren