The Direction of a Champion:
The First Championship Off season for the Washington Capitals
By: Michael Aaron Chase Jr.
With it being several weeks since the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup Finals in franchise history, the awe of a championship in D.C. has somewhat subsided. Now the focus has shifted to a very important off season with many key personnel and coaching staff decisions to make. This challenge always occurs for many teams the off season after a championship run. With teams having to make tough decisions on determining the balance between how to supplement losses, and figuring out what moves are high priority. These ideals combined with setting up for the future all play a key role in the coordination of moves for a “Championship Off season.” Thus for the Capitals this will be a brand new experience for the organization heading into uncharted territory.
The past couple of off-seasons the Capitals have dealt with significant change to their roster. Because of their toeing of the salary cap line they have watched as quality players like Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk and others depart for others teams. This offseason could have been another scenario where significant losses are felt. With players like Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelley, Tom Wilson, John Carlson, and others in need of new contracts. Thus the first key step in the direction this franchise must take begins with managing their own free agents.
The Caps in order to position themselves to have a fruitful off season the team first had to shed major salaries to free up more money. So they traded defenseman Brooks Orpik and Backup Goalie Phillip Grubauer to Colorado to free up the cap space to begin signing their key pieces. The major piece of their group of free agents was the first to be taken care of, that being John Carlson.
The Capitals paid the star Defenseman 64 million dollars over 8 years which means Washington has him locked up through his age 36 season. The money and term are both deserved, coming off a career year with career highs in goals (15), assists (53), and points (68). Along with breaking the franchises playoff record for points by a defenseman, with 20 points on their postseason run. Thus the first domino in the Capitals offseason has fallen leaving them to tend to the other pieces. These other pieces include Tom Wilson, Michal Kempny, Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelley, Travis Boyd, Madison Bowey, and Alex Chaisson. Each of these players played a role in the Capitals regular season success as well as aided them on their way to the Stanley Cup. Now it comes down to the Capitals with their over 13 million dollars in cap space to figure out which of these players to bring back and hopefully at the right price. Thus next two free agents the Capitals have moved onto sign were Devante Smith-Pelley and Michal Kempny.
Starting with Smith-Pelley he came into training camp as a non-roster invite not expected to make the team. Thus it is only right he went on to score 7 postseason goals after scoring just 7 in the regular season. Including scoring 3 in the Cup Final and was given a 1 year contract worth 1 million dollars. Basically after this breakout season he is getting now a, “prove it type deal” to see if the Caps will keep him in there long term plans. As for Kempny he started slow after being acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Though once he got accustomed to the Capitals system he flourished. He became John Carlson’s regular partner on the Caps top defensive pair and showed terrific skating and defensive ability. Thus he parlayed this breakout Cup run into a 4 year contract worth 2.5 million per year. Thus he and Smith Pelley have now gone from castoffs to key pieces on Washington’s Championship team. Now with these three key players signed the concern shifts to deciding on their other important free agents.
Starting with forward Tom Wilson he elevated him game to a new level this past regular and postseason. Posting career highs in goals and points in during both seasons. Wilson showing the ability not only to hang in but be a significant contribute in the top six was big. This breakout year and huge step in his development has certainly bumped up his price tag. Though Wilson because of his now progressing all-around game should now with Carlson, Kempny, and Smith-Pelley signed should be top priority to lock up long term. Jay Beagle who had developed into one of the best 4th line centers in hockey also remains out there. Though recent reports seem to point to him departing the possibility remains to retain him. While other players like Alex Chaisson, Madison Bowey and other also are looking for raises or new deals. This now leaves the Capitals in a slight dilemma with determining if they should pay these players and for how much. While both deservedly should get raises it needs to come at the right price. While both played phenomenal especially in the postseason the Caps should not over pay them for just one half season stretch. They should certainly try to keep continuity by retaining these players but at affordable prices. Especially with young players like Christian Djoos, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky coming up contract years in the near future. Thus these three players are certainly the most important of their free agents, but they have to be at the right price so they can have cap some cap flexibility in the future. Though they have done a good job thus far retaining their own with solid deals tough decisions lie ahead.
Now the other big key to the direction of this Washington Franchise going forward depends on how they handle their coaching situation. With Barry Trotz off to coach the division rival New York Islanders the Capitals needed to decide on who will coach the team the season after its first championship. Thus the franchise elevated Todd Reirden from assistant coach to head coach.
This move makes sense because of the 2 year extension he signed this year with the team. It also provides continuity and puts a respected voice the players know and trust in now a big leadership role. While also the scheme that helped them win the cup this year will not change much at all with this in-house hire. The Capitals in the end continued this offseason trend of taking care of their own and rewarding individuals within the organization. Thus this will hopefully help maintain the high character and championship culture they have formed now in D.C.
The final thing that will be to watch with the Caps is what young players either make the team or take a huge development step next year. Do we see young defensemen like Madison Bowey, Lucas Johansen, Jonas Seignhalter, and Connor Hobbs make the team and big impacts? Or do young forwards like Riley Barber and Shane Gersich become key contributors? Maybe kids like Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky have their true breakout seasons? Certainly a lot of interesting storylines as it pertains to young players that can be a part of a successful future.
Overall this Washington Capitals are in the midst of the most interesting off season in franchise history. With this franchise working through their first championship off season they have thus far made sure to retain the key players that spurred their Stanley cup run. It will be interesting to see if they bring back all of their remaining free agents and what other moves are made on the coaching staff.
But overall what will become of the Capitals remains to be seen. Though the good thing is with their tremendous core including Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and others still intact for the foreseeable future it is just up to the organization to develop their youth and bring in the right depth. Thus the team can have sustained success and maybe build on this Championship taste for years to come.