Can a team that’s never won a Stanley Cup suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Of course, according to Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan. The 2016-17 Capitals swung for the fences, struck out and now they’re in the same situation other top-heavy teams like the Chicago Blackhawks have found themselves in: Making excruciating financial decisions on players they don’t want to lose, and then scrambling to spackle over the holes in their lineup.
OK, it’s not exactly the same situation.
Those teams won.
The Capitals didn’t.
“We spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year. We maxed it out player wise and salary wise, and we were expecting to run into some issues here, going forward,” said MacLellan. “It’s no different than the teams that have won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover, but we haven’t won a championship. And we’re dealing with it now.”
If any Pittsburgh Penguins fans have been waiting for the right moment to pour the rest of their salt on the Capitals’ wounds, please commence with the pouring: Not only did Pittsburgh eliminate Washington for the second straight season, but they did so in what MacLellan admits was their all-in, must-win postseason before having to re-conceive much of this roster in the summer.
“It hurts. We spent three years trying to get back to that lineup last year, and I thought it was a complete lineup. We knew were going to lose people that we really like,” he said.
So far, the Capitals lost RFA defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft; they saw defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk and forward Justin Williams walk away in free agency; on Sunday, they stunned the NHL by trading 26-year-old winger Marcus Johansson, who was coming off his best offensive season, to the New Jersey Devils in a cost-saving move in order to re-sign star forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight-year deal.
The Kuznetsov deal was one of several decisions that broke the wrong way for MacLellan and the Capitals this offseason, including the fact the cap only rose to $75 million.
His eight-year deal carries a whopping $7.8 million cap hit, the second-highest on the team. It’s higher than that of Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues ($7.5 million), also 25 years old, a top line winger with a 40-goal season to his credit.
But Kuznetsov leveraged the Capitals by using the KHL – threatening to leave for two seasons, make boatloads of money, and then return to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent. That threat effectively took away the option for arbitration with the restricted free agent as well.
“I think we went a little above where we wanted to be. Just because of the situation we were in with Kuznetsov, and his ability to play in Russia for two years and earn more money than he’s making here and then come back as a UFA … he had leverage,” said MacLellan.
“We had to comply with his demands.”
That meant making the difficult choice to trade Johansson, whose $4.583 million hit would be folded into Kuznetsov’s salary spot.
“He was making the money that we needed to shed to sign Kuznetsov. So the decision in the end was do we let Kuznetsov walk to Russia and become a UFA in two years, or do we trade Marcus?” said MacLellan.
But the Johansson trade was a misplay by the Capitals. By waiting this long, the number of trade partners they fit the parameters of what the team needed on a Johansson deal had dwindled: Washington needed a team with an open roster spot, that had the cap space and would only swap picks because the Capitals couldn’t take any salary back.
The Devils were one of few options.
Could they have traded Johansson around the expansion draft or the NHL Draft? Perhaps. But the trade market as a whole wasn’t what MacLellan was expecting, even with the Golden Knights entering the fray. There wasn’t the frenzy many expected.
Of course, there are other ways to open up salary space. Like buying out the declining play of 36-year-old Brooks Orpik, which would have saved $3 million against the cap in each of the next two seasons, and the cost them $1.5 million in dead cap space for the following two.
But MacLellan said the Capitals had no appetite to do that.
“I don’t know that we really considered that. I thought Orpik had a good year last year. I thought him and Schmidt played well together on our third pair. We value what he brings to young defensemen. He was very good for Schmidt, and Schmidt was good for Orpik. We have a bunch of young defensemen that are coming up: 10 or 12 guys that are under 22. They’re all pretty good players. We’re going to value the ability of Orpik to mentor these guys,” he said.
“So I didn’t want to buy out on our salary cap going out four years. I didn’t think it made sense for us.”
For a lot of Capitals fans, this team has stopped making sense, but that’s because it thought it had all the answers last season.
There’s this clear “it was now or never” vibe about 2016-17 from MacLellan, and one wonders how much that vibe infected (or will infect) the rest of the roster. It’s not he’s saying the window’s shut, because this is still a playoff lock and contender in the East. But it’s inarguable that he’s saying last season was the Capitals’ best shot at a Stanley Cup, and they didn’t even make the conference final.
And so now there’s a championship hangover for a team that didn’t win a championship.
The other big difference between the Capitals and the teams that did win a title and then suffered the salary cap fallout? Those teams had the utmost confidence that their star players, coach and management could be relied on to guide them through tumultuous changes.
The Capitals are not those teams.
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