The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Monday. Instead of gearing up for Game 1, however, the Washington Capitals are gearing up for the offseason. While fans in Washington will be watching in the hopes of seeing the Pittsburgh Penguins lose, Cap scouts will be watching to see if there is anyone they can add to their ranks next season to bolster the roster.
The Penguins are a team loaded with talent as evidenced by the fact that they are playing in the finals for the second straight year looking to be the first team to repeat as Cup champions since 1997-98. Like the Caps, they also have a handful of expiring contracts.
Is there anyone wearing the black and gold who could help the Caps next season? Josh Archibald, Brian Dumoulin, Conor Sheary, Justin Schultz and Oskar Sundqvist are all restricted free agents meaning most if not all will be off limits to Washington, but there are still plenty of unrestricted free agents they could perhaps target this summer.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 29
Last contract: 3 years for $5.7 million, $1.9 million cap hit
Season stats: 18 goals, 19 assists in 80 games
It was Pittsburgh’s HBK line (Carl Hagelin, Bonino, Phil Kessel) that really exposed Washington’s lack of bottom-six scoring depth. As Bonino was the guy centering that line and given the fact that scoring depth is still an issue for the Caps, you would think he would be an enticing piece for Washington to potentially add. If there is one position in which Washington appears set, however, it is center. Unless something unexpected happens with Evgeny Kuznetsov’s restricted free agency or someone is plucked in the expansion draft, the Caps will return Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle next season, all four of their centers from 2016-17. If they lose one, Bonino could be a potential target for a depth center, but otherwise he is not a great fit.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 40
Last contract: 1 year for $1 million, $1 million cap hit
Season stats: 13 goals, 18 assists in 72 games
Cullen has been an incredibly productive fourth line player for Pittsburgh given his age, but the Caps need to get younger and faster. I have a hard time believing Cullen will not hang up the skates after this season, but even if he doesn’t he is not someone Washington should pursue.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 33
Last contract: 6 years for $19.8 million, $3.3 million cap hit
Season stats: 5 goals, 14 assists in 56 games
The Capitals have four defensemen they will need to protect in the expansion draft in John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, but if they take the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie – which they are expected to do given their offensive depth – they risk losing a significant blue liner and someone the team had penciled in for a top-four role next season. Bringing in a player like Daley in free agency could soften the blow. Daley has proven to be a key piece of the championship puzzle for the Penguins, but let’s not forget how much he struggled in Chicago ultimately prompting the trade to Pittsburgh. He is someone who needs the right fit to be productive. Given the success he has had in Pittsburgh, I have to imagine he will try to remain a Penguin. If he does become available, the question becomes how much will he cost? Washington may be in need of a top four defensemen, but they may not have much money to spend and, at 33 years old, it is fair to wonder just how long Daley can continue playing well enough to justify that big of a role. Age, price and fit are too many question marks for my taste.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 36
Last contract: 3 years for $8.5 million, $2.83 million cap hit
Season stats:4 goals, 13 assists in 72 games
In addition to Washington’s top two defensive pairs, the third pairing is also a question mark for next season. Are Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos ready to step into a full-time role? Will the Caps consider buying out the remainder of Brooks Orpik’s contract? Depending on the answers to these questions, Washington will need to find one, maybe two defensemen for their third pair. If the Caps want to plug a prospect onto the bottom pair, they would do well to pair him with a veteran presence to help show him the ropes and make up for inevitable rookie mistakes. Could Hainsey be that guy? The only way this move would make sense is if the team bought out Orpik and signed Hainsey as a cheaper alternative. The more likely scenario is that they keep Orpik and use him in that third-pair mentor role.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 38
Last contract: 3 years for $11.55 million, $3.85 million cap hit
Season stats: 9 goals, 20 assists in 71 games
Kunitz was the hero of the Eastern Conference Final as he scored twice in Game 7 including the overtime winner. Do you know the last time Kunitz scored before Thursday’s game? February. Sure, you could argue he has veteran leadership, but so does Justin Williams. Kunitz is older than Williams, far less productive and even had a bigger cap hit this season. If you like what Kunitz could potentially bring to Washington, then re-sign Williams.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 27
Last contract: 1 year for $575,000, $575,000 cap hit
Season stats: 2 goals, 8 assists in 34 games
With Taylor Chorney still under contract for next season, the Caps have no need for another No. 7.
Age at the start of the 2017-18 season: 39
Last contract: 4 years for $21 million, $5.25 million cap hit
Season stats: 6 goals, 21 assists in 68 games
If the Caps are in need of a veteran defenseman to anchor their third pairing, Hainsey would be the better option from Pittsburgh over the 39-year-old Streit.
MORE CAPITALS: 20 questions: Should the Caps re-sign Williams?
If you had doubts about the 2016-17 Wizards once they flumped out to a 2-8 start back in November, you weren't the only one. Head coach Scott Brooks will even admit, that as confident as he and his team remained during that early season tumble, it wasn't easy.
"The thing that I look back at, is that the start was tough. Let's face it," he said. "We were 2-8 and I didn't really know what I was getting into."
What happened after those 10 games might be Brooks' greatest achievement in his first year in charge of the Wizards. Washington went 14-8 to get back to .500 and then never really looked back. From January 6 until the All-Star break, the Wizards won 18 of 21 games and firmly established themselves as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Brooks recalls those trying times with an appreciation for how his team responded. John Wall was coming off two knee surgeries and limited by a minutes restriction. The Wizards had turned over most of their 15-man roster. And Brooks was installing a new system with the help of a new coaching and training staff.
Yet, they ultimately righted the ship and put in the best season for the Wizards/Bullets franchise since 1978-79.
"The thing that I really appreciated is that our guys really stuck together, kept believing in one another and kept believing in our system and wanted to keep working for each other," Brooks said. "And our fans stayed with us. That's not always easy to do, either."
A lot can be leanred through difficult times and Wizards players didn't need long to find out what Brooks was about. Through that dreadful start, he remained steady and never panicked. That resolve did not go unnoticed.
"Just to never quit. Even when we were going through tough times, all of us - the coaching staff, video staff and players - we all came together," Wall said. "We all came in and kept working. Never point the finger at anybody. He always gave us courage and told us that we can compete through anything, through adversity.
The adversity didn't end once they recovered from the 2-8 start. There were other times where Brooks had to bring out what Bradley Beal once described as his "dark side." Often, it would come out at halftime and almost always because of his team's defensive effort.
Brooks is gracious and affable to the media and fans, and is easily to get along with for players as well. But he can set players straight when he needs to with intensity and a fire to win.
"He made us a better defensive team when we showed it and when we didn't, he let us know," Wall said.
The best coaches can find a balance between those sides, to have players generally like them but also dread making them angry. Beal summed up Brooks' approach well.
"I think as a team we respect him," Beal explained. "On the outside of coaching, he's a really down-to-earth guy. He has a relationship with everyone on the team. I think everybody loves that. He holds everybody accountable. Me, I loved him. He granted everybody confidence and freedom on both ends of the floor, especially offense. At the same time, he knows when to have fun and when to be serious... I think we did a good job responding to him whenever he got on us about things."
Brooks, 51, signed a five-year contract worth $35 million to coach the Wizards last April. He replaced Randy Wittman, a coach who had led the Wizards twice to the second round of the playoffs, but missed the postseason entirely in his last year before getting fired. Brooks got the Wizards back to the second round, and by losing in Game 7, took them one game further than they had been in decades.
Over and over during his first season, Brooks was effusive in praising his players and the bright future ahead of them. He loves the opportunity to coach young and improving players like Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and others.
He says working with the players is part of what he missed most in his one year off after the Oklahoma City Thunder fired him following the 2014-15 season.
"I love this game. I missed everything. When you sit out, you enjoy having time spent with your family and you get to do things that you don't normally get to do during an NBA season. I appreciated that year off and I appreciate being with them, but I missed the competition. I missed being around the players. The players, when you have a good group of guys, you love to come to work. You come to work excited and you have enthusiasm for the day. That's one thing that I missed. When you're not on the bus going to a game, that's not a good feeling. It's great when you have a group of guys that are committed to winning every game. That's fun and something that I don't want to be without," he said.
Brooks is back where he belongs coaching an NBA team. And through one year, so far so good.
[RELATED: 10 best games of the Wizards' 2016-17 season]