What Is the Capitals Number One Priority Following Backstrom’s Surgery?

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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I don’t think it is unfair to say that coming into this off-season the Washington Capitals had a lot of questions to answer. It has now been a month since the Capitals have been eliminated from the playoffs and not much has been answered. If anything, more questions have arisen.

To be fair, it is hard to get things done when the playoffs are still going on. More times than not teams don’t really get to work on their teams until all the teams are done playing and the Cup has been rewarded.

That time is quickly coming up for the Capitals however. At the most there are only four games left in this NHL season as I write this. After that the off-season goes into full swing.

Coming into this off-season I felt that the number one priority was pretty clear. Goaltending. While the Capitals goaltending has not been awful, it can ben pointed to when you try to figure out why the team seems to go on streaks of struggling.

There are at least a couple of goaltenders out there that the Capitals could go after. Would these goaltenders be a clear and obvious upgrade from what Washington already has? In name yes, probably. But performance remains to be seen.

However, with the recent news that Nicklas Backstrom has undergone hip surgery, does the list of priorities change? I think you would have to say yes, it does.

Even with the up and down goaltending the Capitals were a 100 or 100+ point hockey team. Both of their goalies still have that upside as well. While I still wouldn’t go into the season with both of them I’m not sure they are the number one priority any longer.

Can this Capitals team remain a “contender”, I use that term loosely when speaking of the Capitals right now, with the center depth that they currently have minus Backstrom?

Right now the center depth looks something like this.

Kuznetsov

Eller

McMichael

Dowd

Here is my problem with that list. You’re banking on Kuznetsov having two straight great seasons. Is that impossible? No. But I wouldn’t bet on it either. That’s just the kind of player Kuznetsov is.

Eller has been a good player for the Capitals since coming over from Montreal in the summer of 2016. Last season was a down season for him. He probably had a couple of good reasons for struggling. But, he is also 33-years-old. He is not getting any younger and maybe we have seen the best he has to offer?

McMichael is young. He showed some promise last season. I think he was a lot of the time one of the Capitals best forwards on the ice. He just didn’t finish on his chances enough. You can chalk that up to being young for now. Oddly enough when he set up chances his teammates did not finish those either. Can’t blame him for that.

He also has very little center experience at the NHL level. Mostly he played on the wing last season. Are you happy and comfortable with him at 3 or maybe even 2C?

Dowd at the 4 isn’t an issue at all. But I’m not moving him up either. Not much to say there. On a good or great team, he is a terrific fourth line center.

In my eyes you have questions for all of your top three centers. Those questions range, but they are questions nonetheless. Consistency, age and production,

and is he ready. Those are the questions.

With a healthy Backstrom you allow Kuznetsov to regress, at least a little bit. Then you have possibly the very best second line center in Backstrom, you have a great third line center in Eller, also when healthy. And the same can be said for Dowd at the four.

So with all of these questions, the priority has to be shifted from goaltending to center. If the Capitals want to remain competitive the center position has to be addressed. But who, and how?

If Backstrom is out for the season that frees up about $9 million in cap space. Well, at that point you can go out and get anyone you want. Long term who knows what you do.

I don’t think you go out and sign Nazim Kadri to a big and long contract. He probably is the off-seasons biggest prize, but does it fit for Washington’s both short and long term future?

I would say he fits the short term easily. The long term is a giant question mark. You have to assume Backstrom’s big contract will come back into play at some point. With that being the case can you fit Kadri after next season? The Capitals are going to have to spend money in other areas as well. Goaltending, defense and forward depth. Sure it’s easy to spend it all on one big name, but Washington has other needs too.

Would Kadri want to come to the Capitals? It’s been an attractive destination for a long time, but the Capitals are clearly on the way down, while others are on the way up. For instance, right now, ask yourself this. Would you rather sign a long contract with the Capitals with aging vets, or the New York Rangers? One team can’t get past the first round since they won it all four years ago. The other is a young team with a lot of talent. That talent also being locked up for several years. That talent also taking them to the conference final this season, seemingly ahead of schedule.

Which team do you sign with? Los Angeles is another team that is on the rise with come cap space. You will also be competing with those cities, both places players seem to gravitate towards.

It’s not just Kadri on the market. There are some names that can come in and help the Capitals. If not Kadri though you will likely not get another two, leaving you striking out on three great players. What are the odds of Evgeni Malkin coming to D.C.? Probably not great. Who knows, maybe Ovechkin can convince him. Patrice Bergeron is a Bruin, either that or he’s retired, you won’t get him either.

That’s three of the top four gone. Claude Giroux is still out there as well. The Capitals seemed to be in on him during the trade deadline. You would think they would check in on him in free agency.

Other names out there on the UFA market. Vincent Trocheck, Ryan Strome, Dylan Strome, maybe a Nick Paul from TB? Those could be some of the guys the Capitals could look at.

Bottom line, the priority has shifted. The Capitals have proven they can be a good team, at least in the regular season, with the goalies they have. Can they be a great team with the center depth they currently have?

To me, there is too many questions at center. It won’t be easy fixing it either in my opinion. You can go out and get a high priced guy, but what happens when Backstrom tries to return?

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The Capitals are in a weird and tricky spot here. How do they fill the void that Backstrom leaves? If they do how do they operate going forward? Do they focus on center or is the main goal still improving the goaltending?