The Washington Capitals believe they have another legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup with their veteran core, before some big changes need to be made. Here's everything you need to know about the Capitals heading into the 2019-20 NHL season:
The big question: Could this be the end for the core?
Alex Ovechkin, 34, is under contract for the next two seasons, so we have at least a year until speculation begins on whether he wants to re-sign or head home to Russia. However, Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and Braden Holtby, 30, are both free agents next summer; they both would like to stay in Washington but have yet to work out extensions. The Capitals are still expected to be a dangerous team in 2019-20, but the next few months will be telling for GM Brian MacLellan's long-term vision for his franchise, and if he's ready to embrace a more youthful movement.
Offseason comings and goings, cap situation
The Caps made a few tweaks to their lineup this summer. Perhaps the biggest came on the blue line, where Washington swapped top-four regular Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas; it was mostly a salary-saving move, though Gudas does add a good amount of grit. Brooks Orpik retired, which leaves an opportunity for Jonas Siegenthaler to earn a regular spot in the lineup. Andre Burakovsky was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for draft picks. Brett Connolly signed in Florida as a free agent and the team didn't extend a qualifying offer to Dmitrij Jaskin, who signed in the KHL.
Meanwhile, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic signed as depth forwards. The Capitals need to get under the salary cap, though the early season suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov buys them a bit more time.
The Capitals will have a top-10 penalty kill. The penalty kill was a major point of weakness for the 2018-19 season. Things began to improve when the team added Carl Hagelin midseason. We're expecting a much better unit for 2019-20, and don't underestimate Panik's presence.
Breakout candidate: Richard Panik
Panik seemed as if he were on the cusp of something big when he put up 22 goals and 22 assists for the Blackhawks in 2016-17. He hasn't been able to sustain that momentum. A dreadful start to the next season -- despite a top-line role -- facilitated a trade to the Coyotes, and now he gets another new start in Washington. His 53.5% expected goals rate ranked third on Arizona's roster last season; he has potential to be a steady secondary contributor in the Capitals' middle six.
A roster with very few glaring flaws. When we think of the Capitals, we think of their star, offense-producing forwards (mainly Ovechkin). And it's true; there's plenty of talent in the top six, and specifically on Ovechkin's top line. But the blue line is deep, and there aren't any weak links there either. The bottom six improved through free agency. Goaltending, led by Holtby, should be solid.
Pressure to win. It took a decent amount of time for Washington to win its first Stanley Cup. There's more of a time crunch to win now. Most of the star players are on the other side of 30, which includes the 34-year-old Ovechkin, who might be eyeing a return to Russia when his contract expires in 2021. When Ovechkin leaves, a full-on makeover might be necessary.
Capitals in NHL Rank
6. Alex Ovechkin, LW
33. John Carlson, D
46. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C
49. Braden Holtby, G
While the NHL roster is still one of the league's best (No. 6), there are significant concerns about the prospect pool (No. 30), along with the cap/contracts situation (No. 23). The owner/GM/coach round out the rank with a middle-of-the-road No. 16 finish.
Pipeline ranking: 27
67. Ilya Samsonov, G
77. Brett Leason, C
83. Connor McMichael, C
Honorable mention. Martin Fehervary, D
Fantasy facts to know
Holtby is a mercurial goaltender. He had a horrible 2017-18, then won the Stanley Cup that season and followed it up with a ho-hum 2018-19. I'm not convinced I want Holtby on my fantasy squad.
Kuznetsov didn't have the greatest offseason, and his suspension will take out the first three games of the regular season. Still, what he does in the stat columns can't be ignored. If the NHL is letting it go with a three-game suspension, we can let it go as fantasy players and still take him in the second or third round.
I know it was a good showing, but 47 points still feels like Jakub Vrana is leaving something on the table. He is in a position to turn in a Jake Guentzel-esque goal total, but just hasn't put it together yet, despite the regular ice time with some combo of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov. -- Sean Allen