The Capitals have been singing “My Neck, My Back” all summer: fact. Winning the Stanley Cup back to back is a tremendous ordeal: fact. Our boys can do it: for now, as we wait on the 2018-19 season, that remains an opinion.
Only seven teams have managed to win back to back Stanley Cups since the Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1915 — the Montreal Canadiens (’30 and ’31, ’56 through ’60, ’68 and ’69, ’76 through ’79), the Detroit Red Wings (’36 and ’37, ’54 and ’55, ’97 and ’98), the Toronto Maple Leafs (’47 through ’49, ’62 through ’64), the Philadelphia Flyers (’74 and ’75), the Edmonton Oilers (’87 and ’88), the Pittsburgh Penguins (’91 and ’92, ’16 and ’17), and the New York Islanders (’80 through ’83). Of those seven teams, only the Pittsburgh Penguins have repeated as Stanley Cup Champions since the implementation of the salary cap in the 2005-2006 season.
So, to mirror the story we’ve been telling for the better part of a decade now, the Washington Capitals are up against the Pittsburgh Penguins once again, aiming to replicate a nearly impossible feat that stacked teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks of the early 2010s couldn’t accomplish.
THE 2015-2016 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Regular Season Record: 48-26-8
Goals For / Goals Against: 245 vs 203 (+42 goal differential)
Returning Leadership Group: Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz
Salary Cap Room At Start Of Season: -4.02M
Notable Additions: Phil Kessel (July 2015, Trade), Nick Bonino (July 2015, Trade), Eric Fehr (July 2015, FA), Matt Cullen (August 2015, FA), Sergei Gonchar (August 2015, FA), Trevor Daley (December 2015, Trade), Carl Hagelin (January 2016, Trade), Justin Schultz (February 2016, Trade)
Notable Losses: Ben Lovejoy (July 2016, FA), Jeff Zatkoff (July 2016, FA)
Players Returning for 2016-17 Season (>10 GP): 27/33 (81.8%)
The criteria for a “notable” addition or loss was that the player had played 10 games or more for the NHL club over the season, in order to try and reduce the background noise of rookies or infrequent callups who weren’t essential to the run, but still may have made a difference.
Seen enough? Here are last year’s Capitals.
THE 2017-2018 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
Regular Season Record: 49-26-7
Goals For / Goals Against: 259 vs 239 (+20 goal differential)
Returning Leadership Group: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Orpik
Salary Cap Room At Start Of Season: 39K
Notable Additions: Devante Smith-Pelly (July 2017, FA), Alex Chiasson (October 2017, FA), Michal Kempny (February 2018, Trade), Jakub Jerabek (February 2018, Trade), Nic Dowd (July 2018, FA), Sergei Shumakov (September 2018, FA)
Notable Losses: Marcus Johansson to New Jersey (July 2017, Trade), Philipp Grubauer (June 2018, Trade)
Players Returning for 2018-19 Season (>10 GP): 21/24 (87.5%)
On the surface, the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2017-18 Washington Capitals found themselves in polar opposite positions — the Penguins, having added Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Eric Fehr, and Sergei Gonchar, among others, entered the 2015-16 season with more depth than they knew what to do with and acquired more along the way, in the form of Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin and Justin Schultz. The 2017-18 Washington Capitals, reeling after what felt like a mass offseason exodus, found themselves hunting in the cupboards for prospects and potential AHL graduates that could fill the holes left behind by players like Nate Schmidt (lost in the Vegas Expansion Draft), Marcus Johansson (NJD), Justin Williams (CAR), and Karl Alzner (MTL). Thankfully, in those cupboards, they found Jakub Vrana, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, and Chandler Stephenson, which is a pretty great selection, if you ask me.
Between their two cup runs, the Penguins lost six players who had played more than ten games in the 2015-16 season — Pascal Dupuis, David Perron (traded to Anaheim and then signed with St. Louis), Beau Bennett (lately of the KHL), Jeff Zatkoff, Sergei Plotnikov and Ben Lovejoy. Those spots were claimed by five new additions — Chad Ruhwedel, Cameron Gaunce, Mark Streit, Carter Rowney and Jake Guentzel — despite going negative in cap space at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, a fate the Caps thankfully avoided this summer, however barely.
The Capitals, by comparison, lost only three roster players to free agency this summer — Alex Chiasson (PTO with the Oilers), Jay Beagle (VAN), and Jakub Jerabek (EDM).
Jerabek, a left handed offensive defenseman, was a trade deadline add from the Montreal Canadiens, meant to shore up the Capitals’ defensive depth for a deep playoff run, and did exactly that, though fellow countryman Michal Kempny eclipsed him to crack the lineup as a regular. Thankfully, the Capitals are not lacking for left-handed offensive defensemen — Christian Djoos certainly proved his worth this past season, though he often found himself paired with notoriously offensive defenseman Brooks Orpik, scorer of one whole goal during the 2017-18 season (and, thankfully, on a substantially less ridiculous contract now, thanks to the Grubauer trade).
Alex Chiasson, a bottom six winger that often found himself scratched during the playoff run and didn’t suit up for a single game during the finals, did provide some helpful, though unexpected secondary scoring — nine goals and nine assists for eighteen points (fourteen of which came at even strength, despite spending quite a bit of time on the penalty kill), but that could easily be attributed to a 15.3% shooting percentage. The league average last season was around 9.2%, indicating that, in another year, Chiasson may not have been so lucky. With familiar and capable faces like Travis Boyd, Shane Gersich, and Nathan Walker chomping at the bit for more ice time to show off the skills they’ve been honing this year, Chiasson’s time in Washington was up. (An unnecessary but fun bit of trivia: If Chiasson makes Edmonton’s team out of training camp, they will be his fifth team in seven years.)
Jay Beagle, fan favorite and noted penalty kill specialist, leaves large shoes to fill in the fourth line center role, shoes that look to be filled by Travis Boyd (who’s only making $800,000 for the next two years) or recent acquisition Nic Dowd (league minimum for one year), further highlighting the Capitals’ advantage, going into this season — all of their losses were replaceable depth players and they had the prospect pool depth to cover things nicely.
The 2016-2017 Pittsburgh Penguins opened the season like they had something to prove, and although our Capitals fell to them in the second round that year, like some ancient prophecy was compelling them to, they didn’t this year. Something was different about the 2017-18 Washington Capitals — maybe it was the players, maybe it was the coach, and maybe it was the rookies, but the good thing is that the Capitals have locked up all the people they can, brought in a new head coach in Todd Reirden, and put on a hell of a show at Development Camp and the 2018 NHL Prospects Showcase. Whatever that change was, hopefully the Capitals can rely on the magic of the Cup (or the rager they threw afterward) to keep it going.
This time last year, no one thought the Capitals would be Stanley Cup Champions. This year, Caps fans are singing a different tune: if Pittsburgh did it twice, we can do it too.