How Much Time Did The Stanley Cup Buy The Capitals Core Group?

Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

At this point you can pretty much divide the suffering of Washington Capitals fans during the Alex Ovechkin era into two separate categories. Before the Stanley Cup, and after.

Before the Stanley Cup will obviously be worse. That was 2008-2017. That was nearly ten years of failure. Very good teams, some of the best of that time in the entire NHL, and next to no playoff success. Not one game past the second round of the playoffs.

Now here we are post Cup. Here we are, in 2023, the Capitals have still had some very good teams in the years since they hoisted the Cup and they have had even less success than before they won. Since 2018 the Capitals have not won a round in the playoffs. To make it worse, as we all know now, they did not even make the playoffs this year. 

Thank the hockey gods that the Capitals finally broke through in 2018 and we never have to worry again about Ovechkin going Cupless in his career.

But we have to go back to a fact we just mentioned. The Capitals missed the playoffs this season. They missed the dance with a team that is older, as a result more likely to get injured, and they had some key players under perform their expectations. That due to either injury or the decline of their career starting to happen.

This is a team that has been beaten fairly badly in recent playoff series. Instead of moving on they have kept this team and this core together hoping they break through again, even though they have shown they really aren’t even that close to breaking through.

At least in the mid 2010’s they showed they had some chances. While it was awful losing to the Penguins in 2016 and 2017 they showed they could play well and play with those very, very good Pittsburgh teams. The Pens were just that little bit better. The Capitals, in my opinion showed they deserved more chances.

Sure enough, the Penguins come back down to earth a bit and the Caps get them the very next year on their way to the Cup.

What they’re doing now, in my eyes, is different. For the most part, this team has gotten outclassed in at least two of their four playoff failures since 2018. In the other two they had large moments where they were outclassed but overall played a little better. They were outclassed vs the Islanders in the 2020 bubble and vs Boston in 2021. They were ok, if not good in portions of the Hurricanes series in 2019 and the Panthers series last season.

The Hurricanes series you could just tell at certain points in that series that Carolina wanted it more. No more obvious than late in game 7. The Panthers series was pretty good. But I still say Florida did everything they could to give that series to the Capitals and Washington still couldn’t take it. The Cats then went on to get swept by a true contender the very next round.

I think the Capitals core group showed they deserved more shots in 2015, 16 and 17. What have they done in the last four or five years to prove they deserve more shots now? Fact is they have done nothing, and they are four or five years older. Or they are six to eight years older if you go back to the 15-17 days.

This core group is who? Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and John Carlson.

When looking at this core group I think one thing needs to be considered. Since 2015, when this group came together for the most part, they have made it past the second round of the playoffs once. That one time was obviously massive. They achieved what you want to. They did what everyone asked them to do.

Over that time I would argue that this core group, talent wise, is one of the best in the entire NHL. In my humble opinion, there is not a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t be putting this Capitals team up there with the Blackhawks, Kings and Penguins of the 2010’s and the Lightning of the 2020’s. The obvious difference is those talented teams got the job done and won multiple times while this talented team hasn’t.

Winning is one thing though. It is incredibly hard to win like those teams I listed. But what has kept the Capitals from being like the New York Rangers or San Jose Sharks of the 2010’s? Why can’t this core group of Capitals lead this team to results like those teams?

The New York Rangers had conference finals appearances and Cup final appearances. From 2012 to 2015 they had two conference finals appearances and a Stanley Cup final appearance.

San Jose between 2010 and 2019 they had three conference finals appearances and a Cup final appearance.

While those two teams didn’t win Cups, unlike the Capitals, those teams and their cores gave them good runs. Why hasn’t this Capitals team? Those leadership groups of those teams showed they deserved more and more shots.

You could also look at San Jose as a warning sign. That team held on too long, got too desperate with some of their moves and are now at the start of a long and what is looking like a painful rebuild. Don’t do that. Don’t hold on too long to old and aging players with bad contracts whose contracts could only get worse with age and declining play.

That’s where I fear the Washington Capitals are. They have apparently made a promise to Ovechkin to remain competitive while he is on the team. I don’t think that is a good promise to make. That could lead to some bad moves.

That could lead the Capitals to stick with this core group of players that has achieved nothing in half a decade. That could mean the Capitals will remain with a group of players that has advanced past the second round of the playoffs once in nine tries.

You cannot take away what Washington did in 2018. It’s a special thing. There is a banner hanging in D.C. to remind us almost every day. The memories and great moments will be with us for a lifetime.

But how long do you stick with a core group that has proven they can’t take you on long runs? If the Capitals had not won a Stanley Cup would this group still be together? They did win a Stanley Cup. But they have done nothing since. How long did that Cup buy this core group of Capitals?

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More importantly, will that Cup continue to buy this group even more time going forward?