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As almost mirror images, Penguins and Capitals take divergent paths in rebuilding on the fly

The Pens and Caps have a lot in common, including the ultimate goal. But they went about business differently this summer

NHL: Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals make for a fantastic comparison. If only starting with the natural recoil both teams and fanbases will feel to be held up against each other as peers.

But the two teams have a lot in common right now. There’s the three straight tremendous second round playoff series from 2016-18, where the winner emerged on a Stanley Cup winning trajectory.

Both teams are fully in “win now” mode. Both have among the most wins in the regular season in the past decade or more. Both have star-studded cores, who are probably aging to the point where the end is closer to the beginning.

It obviously starts with the captains and iconic franchise center-pieces who are the most impactful individuals in this generation of hockey players in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Crosby turns 32 before next season starts. Ovechkin, 34. It hasn’t limited them much — Crosby was an MVP finalist, his 2.92 5v5 Points/60 last year ranked only behind the winner Nikita Kucherov. Ovechkin won his eighth career Rocket Richard trophy for leading the league in goals.

From there we have other similarities:

  • World-class support for the captains, in the form of Jake Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin for the Pens, and their counterparts are Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov
  • A right-handed puck moving, big-time point producing #1 defenseman that crushes a ton of ice time in all situations (Kris Letang and John Carlson)
  • A heart-and-soul right wing that carries a high cap hit and has injury concerns to go along with a long contract (Patric Hornqvist and TJ Oshie)

Add in success on the power play and we have about as close to mirror images as possible.

Which also makes how the 2019 season ended all the more interesting. There was no fourth straight Caps-Pens playoff series, since both lost in the first round. Washington seemed to not have enough gas or the same spark as the year prior, falling in seven games to Carolina. Pittsburgh was even worse, flaming out in four games to the New York Islanders.

With losing, comes changes. Both teams have made significant changes. While the Pens’ were more sweeping in trading Phil Kessel, both teams have worked to rebuild their bottom six forward group.

However now the paths diverge - with Evolving Hockey’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in parenthesis

Penguins OUT: Matt Cullen (0.1) Garrett Wilson (0.2), Phil Kessel (0.4)

Penguins IN: Brandon Tanev (0.4), Dominik Kahun (0.8), Alex Galchenyuk (-0.3)

Penguins RETAINED: Teddy Blueger. (-0.1), Zach Aston-Reese (0.6)

Total WAR difference: +0.7

Capitals OUT: Andre Burakovsky (0.7) Brett Connolly (1.3), Dmitri Jaskin (0.1), Chandler Stephenson (-1.1)*

Capitals IN: Richard Panik (1.1), Garnet Hathaway (1.1), Brandon Leipsic (1.1)

Capitals RETAINED: Carl Hagelin (1.2)

Total WAR difference: +4.3

*Stephenson is expected be waived/traded for salary cap purposes.

Due to offseason moves, at least according to the WAR metric, the Capitals have strengthened their team far more than the Penguins have. That of course is based on last year’s results, with new faces in new places there’s always the possibility for fluctuations (good and bad) in performance.

But going off the data it looks like Washington has made significant strides forward making their team and depth much better. The Pens are better, but most of the +0.7 comes from retaining Zach Aston-Reese.

Pittsburgh isn’t salary cap compliant either and may need to trade a player like Bryan Rust (0.5 WAR) which would wipe out just about all the progress made, a scary thought to consider indeed.

There’s also a matter of defense as well. The Capitals bid adieu to Brooks Orpik (retirement, 0.9 WAR) and welcome one of Christian Djoos or more likely Jonas Siegenthaler (0.4 WAR in just 26 games) to the regular lineup. The Caps then traded Matt Niskanen — a player whose performance has faded in recent months and years (-0.3 WAR) — to Philadelphia for rough and tumble Radko Gudas, whose advanced stats have been better lately (1.0 WAR).

Put all these changes together and the Caps’ WAR from defensive changes is +0.8 WAR. Washington also recently traded Madison Bowey and a draft pick for Nick Jensen in another clear upgrade for their team.

The Pens...well, haven’t done much. They traded Olli Maatta for Kahun. They’ve re-signed Chad Ruhwedel and Juuso Riikola for depth but figure, as of now, to bring back the same six lineup defenders who were overwhelmed by the Islanders’ aggressive forecheck, barring any future moves.

Pittsburgh and Washington aren’t quite identical twins, but they’re about as close as it gets for the way each are built, the ages of most of their key players, and coincidental windows of competing for championships. This is nothing new, it’s pretty much been the case since both exploded onto the scene in 2007 and 2008 for the Pens and Caps, respectively. It’s only ratcheted up in the past five years when they’ve been placed in the same division, and now have a playoff format that conspires to match them up sooner than later.

All these decisions on the periphery of the lineup matter, especially in playoff series when stars cancel each other out. It comes down to which team’s Lars Eller or Nick Bonino steps up in key moments.

The Pens better hope their stars can carry them though, because the offseason decisions don’t look to have really upgraded the team all that much at all, and certainly not as much as the team that eliminated them in the 2018 playoffs and has won the division the last four seasons.