Betting markets no longer think highly of the Washington Capitals — or of their chances to play deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. After Washington missed the postseason for the first time since 2014 in the spring, oddsmakers gave the Capitals the third-lowest over/under point total in the Metropolitan Division (85½), which implies the veteran-laden team will face an uphill battle to return to the playoffs.
If you convert the Capitals’ playoff betting odds to a likelihood that they will qualify for the postseason, you are staring at a 26 percent chance that Washington will be one of the eight Eastern Conference representatives. That’s ahead of only the Columbus Blue Jackets (8 percent), Philadelphia Flyers (8 percent) and Montreal Canadiens (6 percent).
“This is the first time … in a long, long time where the narrative in the hockey world has a lot of doubt in this group,” first-year Washington coach Spencer Carbery said in a recent conversation with Washington Post writers and editors. “And if you read any article, not one is saying watch out for the Washington Capitals or this is a playoff team — not one.”
Unfortunately for Washington fans, it is easy to see why the Capitals are not considered a playoff contender. They finished 35-37-10 last season, the worst record for Washington in an 82-game season since 2006-07 (28-40-14). Washington was outscored at even strength 212-197, largely because of a lack of scoring depth, with Alex Ovechkin remaining the leading source of offense. The team’s inability to finish scoring chances in the slot and the crease also contributed to its transformation from contender to pretender.
While Ovechkin remains an offensive force, his defensive contributions have slipped, allowing opposing teams to score at above-average rates while he is on the ice. Last season, Ovechkin was on the ice for 3.2 opponent goals per 60 minutes at even strength. That ranked 114th of the 134 forwards who skated at least 1,000 minutes at five-on-five. If you control for quality of shot — shots closer to the net have a higher chance of turning into goals than blasts from the blue line — he drops to 130th. That has lessened the advantage the team gets from his offense — and from his positive effect on his teammates on offense.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie also have suffered declines.
Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, is coming off a tough campaign in which he had just 12 goals and 43 assists in 81 games. His even-strength points per 60 minutes average dipped to the lowest level since the 2014-15 season, continuing a downward trajectory. Now 31, and with two years left on the $62.4 million contract he signed in 2017, it’s tough to imagine him reversing that trend or becoming a valuable trade asset.
Back issues have plagued Oshie in recent campaigns; the 36-year-old has averaged just 51 games over the past two seasons. The line he was most frequently a part of last season, featuring Kuznetsov at center and Sonny Milano on the other wing, was outscored 6-3 over 89 minutes of play. Swapping out Kuznetsov for Dylan Strome in that group made a huge difference; that trio outscored opponents 9-4 over 86 minutes. That’s another blemish on Kuznetsov’s résumé, illustrating how difficult it might be to trust him in the lineup.
Backstrom said he’s healthy and done talking about his hip, although health limited him to 39 games last season. In fact, Backstrom, 35, has missed an average of 25 games over the past four seasons. His primary assist rate, highlighting the passing skill he has long been known for, is in a free fall, dropping from 0.9 per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time in 2018-19 to 0.6 in 2022-23. His goal scoring has also been on hiatus. We can believe he is on the upswing when we see it, but right now, there is too much performance risk to rate him as a top-six-caliber center.
Fresh off a seven-year, $45.5 million extension signed in August, Tom Wilson is tethered to the franchise for the foreseeable future and is perhaps the successor to Ovechkin as captain. The 29-year-old began last season recovering from an ACL injury he suffered in the 2022 playoffs and did not return until January. His production was decent — 13 goals and nine assists in 33 games — indicating he has yet to start his decline.
Among the forwards, Max Pacioretty, acquired on a one-year, $2 million deal, presents potential upside and minimal financial risk. While he will need some time to return from Achilles’ injuries, Pacioretty’s scoring ability and potential trade value make this a promising signing, contingent on his health and return to form.
Another forward, Anthony Mantha, has the potential to bounce back. The 29-year-old winger, known for his scoring ability, struggled initially with Washington. However, he has taken steps to improve, hiring a mental coach and getting in better shape. With a new coaching staff, Mantha could regain his confidence and become a formidable scoring threat.
“When you go down our centers, and if Nick Backstrom is playing the way that he’s shown thus far [in the preseason] … and if you have Evgeny Kuznetsov, and you have Dylan Strome and you’ve got Nic Dowd, that’s a pretty good forward group,” Carbery said. “And now you put Oshie on the third line, you’ve got three lines that potentially can score that night. You’ve got one of the elite fourth-line centers in Nic Dowd. You’ve got Rasmus Sandin who’s looked great and looks — to my eyes — like he’s taken another step from a defensive standpoint. I’m optimistic.”
Indeed, Sandin has shown immense potential since joining the Capitals. Acquired in a February trade with Toronto, the 23-year-old defenseman quickly displayed his talent with three goals and 15 points in 19 games. Sandin’s ability to contribute offensively was a bright spot; he filled a top-four defensive role and earned top power-play minutes. His performance suggests he’s ready for a more prominent role in his first full season with Washington.
If everything breaks their way in terms of health and production, the Capitals could engineer a surprise return to their familiar place in the postseason. If not, Carbery will discover that preseason optimism only lasts until the first sustained losing stretch.