Tough answer to the Washington Capitals defense problem next year

Many teams in the NHL have issues they need to address each year, and for the Washington Capitals they may have a large one after the 2022-23 season.

The Washington Capitals have struggled to recapture the magic of the 2017-18 season, which saw them finally lift the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and have exited the playoffs in the first round in each of the past four seasons.

The team has remained competitive during the regular season, reaching the 100-point mark in the two full 82-game campaigns that have been played, but their window to challenge for the cup is growing smaller.

The team is beginning to age, with top players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström and T.J. Oshie all being in their mid-30s, and the need to consider the long-term future of the team becomes important.

Where that will be most affected, however, could be on the defensive side of the ice with a plethora of impending free agents who are also beginning to reach an advanced stage of their respective careers.

Washington Capitals defensive corps conundrum

The Capitals have a solid defensive corps, headlined by John Carlson, who is locked up to an AAV of $8 million through the 2025-26 season, by the problems lie with the rest of the corps.

At the time of writing, the Capitals have an average age of 30.1 along the blueline, one of the oldest groups in the entire league, with Dmitry Orlov, Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Nick Jensen all 31, Erik Gustafsson turning 31 next March, and Matt Irwin already 34 years old.

While having an aging defensive corps is certainly an issue for a team looking to remain competitive in the Stanley Cup hunt, the bigger headache is the fact that everyone outside of Carlson is an impending free agent after this season.

Martin Fehérváry, who is the youngest player within the Capitals’ defensive group, is a restricted free agent after the 2022-23 season, while the aforementioned five players are all heading towards unrestricted free agency.

Fehérváry could be set to earn a lengthy extension if he has another positive season in the American capital, but some serious decisions will need to be made on the rest of the group, with the potential for a near-clean slate.

The Capitals have fewer and fewer years to win before their top forwards eventually retire, and the need to provide them with the best support possible becomes increasingly important the further along the seasons are.

While most of the players are still performing to a good standard, they are not likely to maintain this for many more years, limiting their value both in terms of actual contributions and even in possible trade scenarios.

If the Capitals want to continue ‘running it back’, then only short-term deals should be on the table once the season is over. The Pittsburgh Penguins are tied to Kris Letang until he is 41 years old and the Capitals can’t afford to hand any of their expiring defensemen anywhere close to his six years.

Keeping the group around for a further year, maybe even two, should be the absolute limit to all negotiations, with a genuine opportunity to rebuild the group and begin a new era on defense, especially with Vincent Lorio developing well in juniors and likely to be knocking on the door for playing time by then.

With so many free agents, the Washington Capitals could look to make trades or even target other, younger free agents to build a new-look defensive corps that could be the necessary refresh the team needs after multiple first-round disappointments.

It would be difficult to part ways with so many of the existing group, but the Capitals need to find a way to get younger before their competitive window shuts, and next off-season may be the best opportunity to get that process underway.

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