The concept of “success,” like a well-built skyscraper or particularly classy portrait, is a matter of framing.
The Capitals attained a staggering level of success last season...in a certain manner of speaking. They won the franchise’s first ever back-to-back Presidents Trophies, posted 118 points, and emerged victorious atop the smoldering wreckage of the toughest division in the NHL.
Of course, then they lost in the second-round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a fashion not-soon-to-be forgotten (if freaking ever).
With so much of the juicy, meaty core of the Capitals’ roster departing the team en masse like the sea receding before a tidal wave, which players will be the most difficult to replace, and which roles will be simply re-cast before October’s season premier?
Hmmmmmmmmmmmm, oh, I dunno......
The 27-year-old Swedish winger was Washington’s MoJo for years, but if a hockey team hath lost its MoJo, wherewith shall it be re-MoJonated?
Johansson was one of just five Capitals forwards to play all 82 games last season (plus Backstrom, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Wilson), and anchored Washington’s second line to career-high totals in goals (24) and points (58). He led all Washington wingers not named “Ovi” in assists (34), and he even spawned perhaps the greatest Capitals meme of the last decade with his penchant for serious looks and kinda-sorta dressing like a Civil War general.
Gone to greener pastures in the Garden State (“Greener Pastures” being the name of the latest eye-sore public works project over-budget and over-schedule in New Jersey), Marcus may be missed worst on the Washington power play. He trailed only Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie in power play time-on-ice among forwards, locking down 2:49 per game of man-advantage goodness. He amassed 4.97 points per 60 minutes of PP time (compare that to Nicklas Backstrom, who was 2nd in that category in the entire NHL at 8.45 points/60), and trailed only Backstrom in delicious power play apples among Caps skaters.
Who Could Replace Him?
The obvious answer seems to be Andre Burakovsky, who is certain to step into a de facto top-line role as the Capitals stand poised to deploy a Line 1A and Line 1B this season, splitting Ovechkin and Backstrom and spreading the wealth. Burakovsky, fellow Swede and smiling charmer, averaged just 1:27 of power play time per game last year while demonstrating his ability to utterly dominate possession. Perhaps most promising, Burakovsky is an exceedingly strong, dynamic skater, and may be the best prepared to replace Johansson’s invaluable knack for carrying the puck successfully into the offensive zone. If the big winger can continue to develop into the prototypical skilled power forward the Capitals hope he will, Washington may do just fine on the extra man, even without, well, their beloved extra man.
Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk
Look, I’m not saying that literally half of the Capitals’ starting blue line vanishing into the thin air of expansion and free agency leaves Washington defenseless. I’m simply suggesting that, barring a league-wide ceasefire in the NHL, they should make other arrangements.
It’s no secret that Washington’s defense was utterly cratered this offseason. The Caps lost their defensive leader in penalty kill time-on-ice and goals-against (Alzner), power play time-on-ice and goals-for (Shattenkirk), and even-strength possession godliness (Schmidt).
Schmidt, for his part, led the entire NHL in goals-for percentage among defensemen (65.62%), and was a fixture on offensive zone face-offs with his dynamic puck movement. Shattenkirk, too, drove possession well, leading all Capitals blue liners in CF% (54.3%).
Then there’s Alzner, one of the most controversial departures of the offseason. The Iron Man ate up crucial high-risk minutes like they were steak tartare at the newest Jose Andres restaurant, leading the Caps in penalty kill time-on-ice, defensive zone face-offs, and goals-allowed. He may be slow, he may still be hurt from injury, and he may now be overpaid, but the fact of the matter is inescapable: the loss of Alzner leaves a massive hole in the shape of a mustachioed question mark on the Caps defense, and it will be up to inexperienced, untested, and potentially incapable rookies to find a way to fill it with their supple, youthful bodies.
Who Could Replace Them?
Go outside onto your front porch and whistle for the neighborhood kids. Whoever shows up first, that’s who will be starting for the Capitals on opening night.
Okay, I’m joking. Really, it will likely fall to rookies like Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, or Aaron Ness to somehow try and step into Alzner, Schmidt, and Shattenkirk’s many roles.
Hey, sink or swim, fellas. Welcome to the big league.
He’s more than just jaw-droppingly gorgeous hair, folks.
Williams, the once-and-future son of the Carolina Hurricanes, served admirably opposite Marcus Johansson on the Capitals’ second line for the past two seasons. He was a major reason why Washington dominated possession like an enthusiastic exorcist.
Last season, Williams posted a points/60 rate of 2.24, good for 18th in the entire NHL among forwards. He drove puck possession like a vulcanized Miss Daisy, amassing a CF% of 53.8%, placing him 29th in the league among forwards and first among all Washington attackers. His 24 goals tied him with Marcus Johansson for third on the Capitals, and the 2:04 per game of power play duty he could be counted on for will not be so easy to replace.
But perhaps most importantly, Williams was brought to Washington to be a calming, veteran presence in the locker room. “Mr. Game 7,” “more elimination-game victories than the entire Capitals franchise,” you’ve heard the narrative. Williams was meant to be a flesh-and-blood step stool to help get Washington over the hump. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Williams was (rightfully) criticized during the playoffs for taking an inordinate amount of stick infractions (earning his moniker “Stick,” I’m assuming) and for his sloppy possession play. Indeed, Williams saw his CF% relative to his teammates plummet from 3.3% in the regular season (good for 4th on Washington) to just 0.4% in the playoffs (good for 9th on Washington). This could be attributable to the rest of the Capitals’ skaters improving, but you bring in a veteran like Williams to be the rising tide that lifts all boats, not to be lifted himself.
Who Could Replace Him?
This task is going to fall to either rookie Jakub Vrana, or veteran Brett Connolly. Vrana, whom all indications suggest will start the season on the second line in Williams’ old spot, carries the full weight of the franchise’s expectations on his shoulders. The 21-year-old Czech winger is the top offensive prospect currently in the Capitals organization (with nods to messrs Johansen and Samsonov on defense and in goal, respectively), and with a power vacuum unseen outside of a hostile corporate takeover consuming the Caps roster, this is Vrana’s chance to shine. Critics (and his own coaches) have questioned his mental toughness in the past, though, and with such heavy expectations riding on him, it remains to be seen how he responds.
On the other hand you have 25-year-old Brett Connolly, a 6’3” Canadian winger and fellow former first-round draft pick. Connolly was brought to Washington last offseason on a song to the tune of $850k for one year, and after posting a career-high in goals (15) and having his Best 3rd Line in Hockey™ (along with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky) post the 9th-best possession numbers in the entire NHL at an astronomical 60.19 CF%, Connolly was rewarded with a two-year contact extension worth $1.5 million per year. Connolly has great hands, and showed isolated flashes of offensive brilliance during the season. Whether he can turn that into sustained high-level production - and a regular spot in the top-six - is still unknown.
This Capitals season, and roster, are poised to be an entirely different animal from what we’re familiar with. That could be scary, but with a still-talented cast of players and a still-smart head coach in Barry Trotz, it could also be a whole hell of a lot of fun.