The Capitals Road Back To The Playoffs Just Got Tougher

Erik Karlsson (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Erik Karlsson (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

To make the playoffs the Washington Capitals are a team that needs to improve. At least that was the thought coming into this offseason. How could you have another thought? After all, this was a team that last season missed the playoffs by twelve points. To make things look a little worse they missed qualifying for the playoffs in their own division by twenty-seven points.

I would have liked to see the facial expressions of people who follow this team closely if I had told them before the season the Capitals would be twenty-seven points out of a divisional playoff spot at seasons end.

Why did this team struggle so much and take such a big step back? That has been talked about a ton, both here and on other sites. We won’t be talking about that today. We’re talking about the next season right now. Today we’re talking about the Capitals chances at returning to the playoffs in 2024. Thanks to some recent news, that just got a little tougher.

Now we can all sit back and easily say something like, “Well this is still a good Capitals team with a lot of talent on it and they should improve next season!” which I would agree with. But sports is not played on paper with one team. It’s played on the playing surface with, in the NHL’s case, thirty-one other teams.

We have to go back to the facts. The Caps missed the playoffs by twelve points. There were five teams between them and the final playoff spot. In my mind, that is where this gets tricky. This is a Caps team that in 2023-24 is going to have to jump over five teams to make the playoffs.

Can they?

Lets look at the “easier” teams. Looking at last seasons standings. Can the Capitals jump over Detroit, Ottawa and Buffalo? I feel like they can and should. All of those teams are up and coming teams and had some success last season. Some more than others and some not as much as they would have wanted. But at the end of the day those are all teams at the back end of rebuilds and last season they were knocking on the playoffs door.

Will one of these teams take another step up next season? Well, the Capitals better hope not. That will just muddy the waters even more. However, based on what we know, based on what last season told us and what has happened so far this offseason I think the Caps should be able to jump over these three teams.

Now this is where things get difficult. To get into the playoffs, who are you taking out, so you can put the Capitals in? Right now we have ten teams fighting for eight spots. And again, that could be more based on what the three teams we already mention might do.

Lets first talk about the team that caused me to write this in the first place, the Pittsburgh Penguins. They obviously made some news in the last several hours acquiring Erik Karlsson from San Jose. Karlsson is coming off one of the best seasons from a defenseman in a long, long time. Last season he scored 25 goals and registered over one hundred points, finally landing at 101.

You’re now adding Karlsson to a team that already finished above you in the standings. The question becomes, how much does Karlsson really help the Pens?

I have no idea. I am not a fortune teller, I don’t want to be and I don’t pretend to be. In my mind, it helps some, but not a ton. I think overall as a team the Penguins have gotten better. On top of Karlsson, this is a team that has added Reilly Smith, Noel Acciari, Ryan Graves, and a Captials old friend Lars Eller. This feels like a much deeper Penguins team. Now, you obviously add Karlsson and it looks like a solid team.

They feel like a playoff team to me and last season they did not even make it. The Capitals also finished behind them. Can the Capitals jump over an improved Penguins team? I wouldn’t bet on that right now.

So, in my eyes, that is one team that Capitals are already behind.

Are the Capitals better than the Florida Panthers?

Who the heck are the Panthers? Will they continue to be an average regular season team then turn into a playoff beast? If that’s the case they might not make the playoffs and have the opportunity to turn into beasts in the playoffs. But, I think we all have to give them a playoff spot, at least right now. I don’t know how you can seriously say they won’t make the playoffs next season.

Will the Caps be better than the Panthers? Based on the playoffs last year, no. I don’t think right now we should put Washington over Florida.

The Islanders are a weird case. I personally cannot get much of a read on this team. Just looking at that team I think this is maybe a case where the Capitals could jump a team that made the playoffs last season.

That being said, in terms of goals allowed last season they were one of the more impressive teams. Last season they allowed 217 goals against, which was fifth best in the league. This is a team that also employs one of the leagues best goalies in Ilya Sorokin, and when you have one of the best goalies, that can change a whole lot.

They will also have Bo Horvat for an entire season and a healthy Matthew Barzal. That should help the offense.

Can the Capitals jump the Islanders. Overall, on paper, I think the Caps are better. But you never know. I think this could be a team to jump though.

Is that all of the teams we should seriously look at? I think it probably is.

Just for fun I suppose we can look at the top three teams in the metro last season.

Do you really think the Capitals are going to be able to have better seasons than the Rangers or Hurricanes? Quite frankly, at least in my opinion, those are the teams to beat in the metro going forward for a while. It used to be Washington and Pittsburgh towards the top. Those teams have now been passed and it’s New York and Carolina’s turn to rule the division.

The Hurricanes won the division last season with 113 points. I think they probably only got better. They did add Dmitry Orlov to their team, another former Cap.

The Rangers had maybe a worse year than some thought, and then you look up and realize they still secured 107 points on the year. They added Blake Wheeler, and Nick Bonino and two former Capitals Erik Gustafsson and new head coach Peter Laviolette (a lot of former Capitals coming back to the metro division this season). This is still a really good Rangers team.

Based on what we know about the Hurricanes and Rangers, I’d be shocked if the Capitals finished above them.

The Devils are a little bit of a curious case. First off, I think you have to say this. New Jersey finished 32 points better than the Capitals last season.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Devils took a small step back next season. But what does small mean? Instead of finishing with 112 points they go back to, what, 102? I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case.

That still means the Capitals have to have a 22 point jump from season to season to even tie New Jersey. That is not easy for anyone. Especially for a Capitals team that, at least in my opinion, has not made any drastic changes that you can point to and say, this will definitely, 100% make the team much better.

Even if the Capitals have a nice 15 points improvement of a season, in my mind, they would still be behind the Devils, even if the Devils took a pretty nice step back. Closing a 32 point gap will have to be both a bad season from NJ and a very good season from Washington and I’m not sure both are going to happen at the same time.

So what does all of this mean? When looking at the standings from last season, taking note of what teams did this offseason, where do we think the Capitals land in the eastern conference?

Lets just look at it this way.

I doubt the Capitals make the playoffs in their own division. Like we said, right now this division belongs to Carolina and New York. After them I think you will probably have New Jersey and Pittsburgh fighting it out for that third and final spot. Then comes Washington?

I put the Caps over the Islanders, and the Isles made the playoffs last season. So even that is a big question mark in my eyes. At best the Capitals are the fifth best team in their own division going into the new season, but they could be sixth.

Then you have to look at the other division. What will the Atlantic look like? What is Boston going to be. Is Florida going to be as good as they were in the playoffs? Does young and up and coming teams like Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit take another step up making the wild card race even scarier?

This is a Capitals team with a ton of questions. One of the biggest questions you could ask is what are the teams around them going to do. How many teams are they clearly better than?

We can’t talk with hopeful eyes here. When trying to guess how things will play out we have to guess with what we know. Can the Capitals stay healthy? Based on what we know I can’t say they can. Will the veterans stay at the top of their games? Again, you hope. But I can’t say for sure they will. Can the goaltending improve? Maybe. Will it? I don’t know. Based on what I saw last year I’m guessing they will get similar goaltending. Will some young guys step up this season? Well, again, based on what they have shown us so far, I can’t say they will. They might. But there is no evidence to that yet.

Those are just some of the questions the Capitals face. And they are going to need those answers to end on a positive note to get back into the playoffs. Because they have a lot of teams to jump over next season.

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If the Capitals can’t get some positive answers on most of their questions, and considering what the teams around them have done, this could easily be a sixth place team in the division.