Picking Splinters: Now or Never for the Caps?

Entering last season, many believed 2009-10 was the Washington Capitals’ time to win the Stanley Cup. After a steam roller-like regular season, it appeared they were correct. And they were … until they weren’t.

After refunding a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens with a Game 7 loss in Round 1, the robust praise the team had enjoyed dried up and in its place lingered the question of whether or not the Caps were capable of winning in the playoffs. It’s the same stain that’s sullied the reputation of regular season juggernaut San Jose, and after failing to advance past Round 2 since emerging as an NHL power (and taking every playoff series seven games), it’s starting to set.

The salary cap era has greatly reduced dynasty potential, leaving most to believe the Capitals have only a fixed window in which to win the Cup. That window opened two seasons ago when they blew a 2-0 Round 2 lead to the Penguins. And next season, with youngsters Karl Alzner and Semyon Varlamov due for a raise and the expiration of Alexander Semin’s contract – as well as those of Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann – many believe it will begin to close.

Given the circumstances – the choke artist rep, the cap restrictions, the expiring contracts – it may seem like this is the year the Washington Capitals must win the Stanley Cup. I’m here to tell you that this season is most assuredly not do or die for the Caps.

Since overhauling the roster in 2004, Washington has based its rebuild on the principal of sustainability. Owner Ted Leonsis didn’t want to just win one Stanley Cup and walk away. He wanted to contend on an annual basis. And the way general manager George McPhee has reshaped the organization, the Caps have positioned themselves to do just that.

Washington owns two of the NHL’s top players in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In fact, the 2010-11 projections of hockey think tank Puck Prospectus rank them as the NHL’s best and third-best players, bracketing Sidney Crosby. What’s more, the Caps have the duo under contract through 2020 (2021 in Ovechkin’s case). That’s one heckuva foundation for the next 10 seasons. Even the youthful Blackhawks will have to renegotiate with young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane after the 2014-15 season. Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal will need to be re-upped before the start of the 2013-14 campaign and Evgeni Malkin’s deal expires a year later.

The expirations of those contracts could force those Cup contenders into some very tough choices regarding their core players, just as the Devils face after this season when star Zach Parise is up for a big salary bump New Jersey may not be able to provide after inking Ilya Kovalchuk.

With their stars signed for the duration of their prime years, Washington’s decisions will deal with the players on the periphery, players who (right now at least) are extremely talented, but not irreplaceable. There are already those that suggest Alexander Semin and Mike Green, the team’s next highest paid players after Ovechkin and Backstrom, aren’t pieces to the Stanley Cup puzzle. (I disagree on Green. Experience and wisdom are the only things that separate him from realizing the full potential of his elite skill set.)

And if Fleischmann leaves (and heck, he could be moved by the trade deadline), the next generation is ready to step in. The Caps’ draft savvy has provided a rich pool or prospects that will pay dividends for years to come. Already 2009 first-rounder, 20-year-old Marcus Johansson has made this season’s squad, with past picks Karl Alzner (2007) and John Carlson (2008) stepping into full time roles this season as well. Waiting in the wings is 2010 top choice Evgeny Kuznetsov, who could come over to North America after the expiration of his contract in the KHL.

Another playoff heartbreak will undoubtedly be a crushing blow to Caps fans, but this team is positioned well for the long haul. So yes, if Washington loses in the first round again, you may see some changes. If the Caps fail to reach the Cup finals, you may hear more comparisons to the Sharks. But as soon as the 2011-12 season starts, the Washington Capitals will again be Stanley Cup contenders.

Now or never? Hardly. Washington’s window will be open for many seasons to come.