COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — Following the Capitals’ offseason exodus, the NHL’s best regular-season team for the past two seasons could have a hard time replicating its recent dominance in the standings.
Due to salary cap restraints, Washington was forced to let Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Williams leave during free agency, and trade Marcus Johansson after a career year. The Capitals also lost defenseman Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft and chose not to resign fourth-line winger Daniel Winnik.
In total, these six players accounted for approximately 23 percent of the standing points the Capitals registered last season. But the team only acquired one fringe NHL player in an attempt to replace their value.
The NHL awards a team two points for a win of any kind, one point for an overtime or shootout loss and zero points for a regulation loss. The Capitals finished last season with 118 points, a league high by seven points.
Point Shares, an advanced metric, estimates the number of points in the standings an individual player contributed to a team. Last season, the team’s 30 players combined for a total of 122.1 Point Shares, according to Hockey Reference. Alzner, Shattenkirk, Williams, Johansson, Schmidt and Winnik accounted for 28.1 Point Shares.
Although past Point Shares are not an exact indicator of how a team will perform, it can underscore the Capitals’ roster deficiencies entering the season.
For the past three seasons the Capitals have been in win-now mode, acquiring high-end talent, while players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov were signed to inexpensive contracts, to help Washington win their first Stanley Cup.
But after the Capitals were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs for a second consecutive year, general manager Brian MacLellan’s self-imposed championship window expired. They entered the summer with nine regular players needing new contracts and not nearly enough money to go around.
In July, MacLellan likened the Capitals’ significant roster turnover to a Stanley Cup-winning team maneuvering around the salary cap post-championship parade. It was an apt comparison, minus the championship part.
“We’ve spent the last three years building that team to where it was last year, and we maxed it out, both player-wise and salary-wise,” MacLellan said. “And I think we were expecting to run into some issues here going forward. I think 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.”
Like the Capitals this year, the Chicago Blackhawks could not afford to retain important personnel after Stanley Cup wins in 2010 and 2015, resulting in major roster retooling.
But unlike the Blackhawks, the Capitals did not have the cap space to replace their departed players with established NHLers. T.J. Oshie and the team’s youngest talent were due significant pay raises, preventing other moves.
As a result, the Capitals’ only summer acquisition was Devante Smith-Pelly, who had a -0.3 Point Share last season, with prospects expected to fill out the rest of the roster.
The Blackhawks maximized their resources en route to their first Stanley Cup in 47 seasons in 2010, and proceeded to gut the roster to stay under the salary cap. Chicago cut ties with 10 players that summer, including future all-star Dustin Byfuglien, losing 32.2 Point Shares.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman’s offseason acquisitions had 18.7 Point Shares in the previous season, with newly-signed backup goalie Marty Turco credited with nearly half of them, but Chicago still suffered a net loss of 13.5 Point Shares. That led to a 15-point decline in the standings, as the team dropped from 112 points in 2010 to 97 in 2011.
After their third championship in six years in 2015, the Blackhawks underwent more roster changes. Eight players — accounting for 24.6 Point Shares — left Chicago, but the Blackhawks were able to recoup 13.5 Point Shares through offseason acquisitions. (They gained an additional 7 Point Shares with mid-season acquisitions).
As a result, the Blackhawks suffered a net loss of 4.1 Point Shares, but still finished 2016 a point better than they did in 2015. The Blackhawks were able to exceed expectations set by Point Shares with the free-agent signing of Artemi Panarin, who went on to register 9.8 Point Shares that season and win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
If the Capitals hope to maintain their typical level of regular season excellence, as the 2016 Blackhawks did, they will need to replace the 28.1 Point Shares they lost in the offseason. But with little NHL-level experience being brought in to recover their loss, the Capitals could take a significant stumble down the standings in 2017-2018.