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Rink Roundtable: Another Season Awaits

The 2019-20 season is mere hours away... and the Rink Crew has thoughts on what to expect.

NHL: APR 24 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round - Hurricanes at Capitals Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The puck drops on another exciting season of Washington Capitals hockey tonight - but before it does, we need to get in some last-minute thoughts about the summer and the season ahead...

Q1: How well do you think Brian MacLellan did in addressing the team’s needs this offseason?

Jason: I love the addition of Richard “Widespread” Panik. As I talk about below (keep reading!), Washington’s bottom-six scoring was more lethargic than me after eating a plate of ribs last season. He adds veteran experience and an energetic jump that could revitalize the reserves.

Then there’s Radko Gudas. An interesting move, to be sure. Setting aside the enmity many Capitals fans have for the long-time, oft-suspended ex-Flyers defenseman, he is undeniably tough and aggressive. But I feel like Todd Reirden has been giving something of mixed signals about the big bruiser. On one hand, Reirden frequently says that he wants skaters that are quick on their feet and can move the puck swiftly. On the other, he sometimes says that he wants players who aren’t afraid to get to the dirty areas, and make opposing forwards pay the price for that primo real estate. Could it be that Gudas was added so that an increasingly important Tom Wilson will no longer need to play the role of enforcer, and stay on the ice more? We’ll see, but I wouldn’t count out that possibility. And if it works, it will more than likely be worth it.

Peerless: It seems that every year Brian MacLellan has a plan. Not a subtle plan, either, but a plan (or at least an objective) that is clear to anyone who follows the team. This offseason it was upgrading the bottom-six forwards. The bottom-six performance over the last three seasons has been a reasonable indicator of team success. Back in 2017, the Caps got little in the postseason from the bottom six, and they didn’t do much in the opening series loss against Carolina last spring. In between, in 2018, the bottom six had a fine run in the playoffs, and we saw what happened.

The common thread with what MacLellan seems to have done was to allow disappointing, limited, or one-dimensional forwards go (Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly) and replace them with two-way players who might not contribute as much offense but will not be a liability on those nights when their offense is not there. They can contribute skating, defense, and penalty killing. Those are attributes that are as much will as skill and can be brought to the rink every night. It indicates a desire to make the Caps harder to play against on a more consistent basis. In that respect, I think MacLellan, on paper, met that objective.

Becca: Peerless brings up an excellent point about MacLellan’s plans, and it almost seems like there are two ways to analyze the moves he makes - how well he sticks to the plan he clearly set out at the start of the summer, and how good those moves were on their own. In both cases it seems like he has once again knocked it out of the park, bringing in relatively low-cost options to boost the team’s defense, penalty-killing skill and depth among the bottom-six forwards.

It wasn’t just the arrivals, either - this offseason was as much about the guys MacLellan let go as it was about the ones he brought in. Matt Niskanen’s hefty contract and declining play was shipped out for a younger, cheaper option for the blueline in Radko Gudas. Andre Burakovsky wasn’t finding his way in DC so he was sent to Colorado and the Caps got some value back in return. Brett Connolly’s career year netted him a contract that was well-deserved on his part but one that we’re all glad is being bankrolled by the Panthers and not the Caps. Gone are the days of “loyal soldier” contracts and overpayments - when change is needed and money is tight, he’s making the tough decisions.

Luke: There are a lot of offseason grades and predictions out there that have the Capitals ranked mediocre or even pretty poorly because they lacked big moves in the offseason. And that’s true, that the Capitals didn’t have a big offseason, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have a good one. Sure the players MacLellan added such as Richard Panik, Garnett Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic, Radko Gudas (along with extensions to Carl Hagelin and Nick Jensen) aren’t “sexy” but they are exactly what the Capitals needed.

The Capitals were one of the worst defensive teams last year in terms of giving up high danger shot and scoring chances, so what did MacLellan do? He went out and got himself a slew of good to great defensive players to pepper throughout the lineup. Washington finished with the fourth most points in the league, even with their bad defensive play allowing (tied) the 13th most goals. Imagine what they can do with the defensive injection that doctor MacLellan has administered mixed with their deadly offensive skills?

J.P.: As the Cup team slowly but surely disperses itself around the League and there remains some measure of uncertainty regarding two of the team’s big ticket (and big impact) stars, I think Mac acquitted himself nicely in terms of shoring up a few spots about as well as could be expected. What they’ve lost in depth scoring (Connolly, Burakovsky), they’ve partially replaced (Panik) but also gone a different direction on in terms of defensive ability (re-upping Hagelin, trading for Gudas, signing Leipsic and Hathaway, etc.). Presumably the thinking is that the impact on goal differential will offset that drop in goal-scoring and put the Caps in a better position for postseason hockey, but we’ll have to wait until April to see how the latter part of that equation pans out. It’ll be interesting.

Maddie: Like many I wasn’t particularly high on any of the offseason moves, but that’s kind of the point here. When you have a team like the Capitals who are consistently within striking distance, you’re simply not going to have the space or willingness to give up guys at your disposal that lesser teams will. My fellow Rink writers will probably not like this comparison, but I see a lot of overlap with how the Boston Bruins organization operates in this regard. It’s just a bunch of incremental gains. I certainly think that the offseason moves this year were (on paper) decent at addressing at least one of the concerns heading into this season – defensive ability of the team.

Q2: What is your biggest concern heading into the 2019-20 season?

Jason: The big D and the little O.

Wait-...that came out wrong.

What I mean is that several of the Capitals’ defensive “stars” took a step backwards like a constellation in retrograde last season. Dmitry Orlov, the guy Todd Reirden has been grooming for years to be Washington’s eventual bona fide number one defenseman, looked decidedly flawed and mortal at times. When the Caps signed him to a six-year extension before the 2017-18 season, it was to lock down opposing teams’ top lines while contributing to the offense with his big slapper and slick skating. Last season, he got pylon-ized by those same forwards far too often.

Then there’s Matt Niskanen, who played so poorly with the increasingly-heavy yoke of age that the Capitals literally traded him to a division rival and said “he’s your problem now.” Washington signed Radko Gudas to help replace him, but with injury question marks to Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos on waivers, and Jonas Siegenthaler still a fairly unproven commodity, the Caps’ defense will be the boat by which the entire team either sinks or swims this season.

And on offense, it’s the same ol’ refrain. Say it with me: SECONDARY SCORING. With the exception of Brett Connolly, who was a stone-cold stud (and who now plays for the Florida Panthers, whoops), not one forward on the bottom-six besides Lars Eller managed more than 30 points last season. As Washington’s top-heavy lineup gets older, the young third and fourth lines will need to kick in the juice to keep this cocktail cookin’.

Peerless: Off-ice issues and their power to distract. Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are playing under expiring contracts. Alex Ovechkin is one year out from his walk-year. Evgeny Kuznetsov will miss the start of the season and could have the matter of his “inappropriate conduct” stemming from his use of a controlled substance hanging over him when he does return to the ice. I would put injuries into this category as well, to the extent missing players create chaos in the forward lines and defensive pairs. The focus there is on Michal Kempny and how quickly he returns to the lineup (and how effective he is after that) and T.J. Oshie, who had his season ended with a broken clavicle that required surgery. But this is also a team that will dress six skaters plus a goalie who have passed their 30th birthdays. Will injuries be an issue there?

Becca: It’s tough for me to narrow it down to one big concern, to be honest, because I’m not that concerned about the team as a whole. I think as constructed it could be a very good team with an excellent chance at making another run. Smaller concerns, though? I’ve got plenty.

Holtby’s play hasn’t been as consistent in recent years as I would like it to be, which is a bit of a concern given the unknown that is his new backup, Ilya Samsonov. The power play hasn’t been as sharp as it once was (and god help us, that “it’s not a slingshot” slingshot thing really is sticking around, isn’t it?). Oshie’s health is always something I worry about, especially considering the way he flings himself around the ice, and Kempny’s coming back from a lengthy injury recuperation during a very tough early part of the season.

And then there’s just the fact that the Metropolitan Division is likely to be so tight and insane this season - so many little things could be the difference between a playoff spot and a tee time.

Luke: An organization-defining moment for the Capitals will be what they decide to do with Braden Holtby. If they sign him to some big, long-term deal, they’ll be hindering any chance the team has at being competitive for years to come. However, if they are smart and let Holtby go to let Ilya Samsonov take the reins, they open up a whole lot of cap space and the ability to keep being competitive for years to come.

Holtby is the best goalie in Capitals franchise history and he will always be in our hearts, but there’s no debating that signing 30-year-old goalies to large contracts is a good idea. It will handcuff the Capitals going forward, shutting their window earlier than it should. So the biggest worry I have is if they let emotions define their future or do the right thing to preserve the Cup window for as long as possible.

J.P.: Biggest concern? That Todd Reirden isn’t a great coach. Maybe he is! Maybe he isn’t! But his squad had surprising (to me) defensive issues all season long and he was clearly outcoached by Rod Brind’Amour in last spring’s one-and-done. Without question, taking over the situation he was handed presented a unique set of challenges, but I’m not sure he (or his team) was up to it in Year One. That’s fine. But this season will likely be revelatory, and given the club’s “window,” the more clarity we get on his ability behind the bench and the sooner we get it, the better.

Maddie: I would agree with J.P. – I’ll admit that I was a Todd Reirden skeptic all of last season, and especially in the playoffs.

Kevin: My biggest concern is that 2017 Evgeny Kuznetsov was the fluke, and 2018 Evgeny Kuznetsov is the new normal. It’s not that I think that’s the case, but entertaining the notion that it is, I must acknowledge that the gap between those two versions of the same player represents more variability in overall team success than turnover from any of Mac’s offseason moves. If the team gets 2017 Kuznetsov, they have two lethal top lines capable of carrying the load through the Spring. If the team gets 2018 Kuznetsov, they have a liability at a critical spot in the lineup where they expect it to be a strength.

Q3: What are you most excited about in the upcoming season?

Jason: I mean, we get to watch Alex Ovechkin attempt to once again kick Father Time in the ol’ cojones as he continues to try to chase down Wayne Gretzky and Lord Stanley. If that ever stops being an utter joy and delight for you...well, I’ll pray for you.

Peerless: Capitals hockey. That might sound a bit too vague, but I look forward to a team that is comfortable playing with one another, a team, when it is playing its hockey, is oblivious to what the opponent is or is trying to do. The Caps could dress 12 skaters and a starting goalie from among the 17 skaters who appeared in at least 20 games in the 2018 Stanley Cup run and number one goalie from that team. That is as close to “stability” on the roster as exists in the NHL these days. It is a skilled team, a balanced team, an experienced team, and a team with enough new blood to make the prospect of watching Caps hockey a pleasant one this season. Tampa Bay might be better on paper, but they have been disappointing when it counts. Pittsburgh has some gaping holes on defense. Carolina might not be ready. This is a club built for a deep playoff run, and knowing that the window is closing on it, I can be excited about it for this year.

Becca: I’m excited to see how all of the new pieces are able to mesh, from the free agent signings and trade pieces to the NHL debut of Martin Fehervary. I don’t necessarily think last year’s squad was complacent after winning the Cup, but I do think the long season and postseason and summer took its toll on a team that experienced very little turnover. Sometimes turnover is a good thing - so now the remnants of the Cup team have had a (too) long summer to recuperate, and there are enough new guys coming in who are hungry for a run of their own. That could all come together to make something really exciting in DC.

Luke: As stated before, a lot of people think the Capitals are on the decline, but it’s very possible the Capitals have a better, deeper team than they did when they won the Cup two seasons ago. With a much better defense and penalty kill, while still bringing the offense with the skill, the Capitals should, at least on paper, be one of the top teams. Being able to prove everyone wrong is something I’m most excited about.

Outside of that, it’s always fun to watch Ovechkin fight for the Rocket Richard trophy and will be thrilling if he makes it at least close by the end of the season. Also excited to see how Reirden does in his second year after a rocky first season. Finally, to see Wilson play a full season without incident and put up 50+ points.

J.P.: Jason nailed it: Ovechkin. This has been the correct answer to this question for 15 years running, now - no need to overthink it!

Maddie: I have always been Team Chaos, so I think one thing that is exciting for me is having a Carolina team that competes. I think they add a lot of chaos and fun to the Metropolitan Division. Plus, a little bit of enmity never hurt the game. I would love to see a playoff rematch between these two squads.

Kevin: The answer is Ovi. Has been forever, will be as long as he’s here. So I’ll tell you something else I’m excited to watch: the evolution of Tom Wilson. Entering his 7th year in the NHL (jesus, already?), Wilson has improved his point production in every year but one, and put up a career high 40 points in a career low 63 games. Assuming Willy can stay on the ice, the opportunity will remain for him to continue his evolution into one of the NHL’s most effective power fowards.

Q4: Predictions?

Jason: The Metro Division got much tougher this offseason. With the additions of Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds (New Jersey Devils), Jake Gardiner (Carolina Hurricanes), and the continued growth of Barry Trotz’s tenure with the New York Islanders, the Capitals find themselves right in the thick of a murderers’ row of a division. I think the Capitals will make the playoffs, but it may be as a wild card.

Peerless: Washington is the class of the Metropolitan Division, on paper. I’m not sold quite yet of Carolina, particularly in goal. I think Pittsburgh, who reached competitive status earlier in the beginning of the Crosby-Ovechkin era, is seeing their window close earlier as the era approaches its end. New Jersey and the New York Rangers will be good at some point, but this isn’t their year. The Atlantic will look like the Atlantic last year, and I think the Caps and the Lightning have a date for a conference final rematch in their futures. In that instance, the Caps have done it, while the Lightning have not. Until that changes, I can’t pick the Lightning. Who the Caps would meet in a final is a crap shoot – the Western Conference seems to be more balanced at the top.

Individually, Alex Ovechkin will get to 700 goals (he needs 42). For the record, I’m penciling in March 22nd at Pittsburgh in what appears to be scheduled (noon) as a national broadcast. Braden Holtby will not get to 300 wins (he needs 43), but he will get the one shutout he needs to become the all-time leader in Caps history (he and Olaf Kolzig have 35 apiece). John Carlson will pass Rod Langway to take second place in all-time games played by a defenseman (he needs 38 to tie Langway at 726 games, leaving him behind only Calle Johansson with 983), and will challenge Johansson for most career points by a Caps’ defenseman (Johansson has 474, Carlson has 403). I’ve got him catching Johansson this season. He will also get the ten goals he needs for 100 in his career, the fifth Caps defenseman to reach that mark.

Luke: As for standings, as long as the Capitals stay healthy, I think they will be a top five team again that will win another divisional titles. But the margin of error is small now that the Metro has gotten even tougher with the Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, and New York Rangers vastly improving. So a big injury or two for a long stretch can mean a lot by seasons end; can be the difference between first and wild card spot.

J.P.: The Caps return to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Maddie: I think if Taylor Hall can bounce back after a rough injury last season, plus the offseason additions that the team made, the Devils could be a sleeper team – or at least a thorn in the side. It seems easy to say that the Hurricanes and Caps would likely be one and two in the Metro, but I’d say goal gives the Caps an edge. All this being said, I would like to see Team Chaos Playoffs 2.0 so like……..whatever, Connor McDavid single-handedly wins the Cup with a roster of a bunch of Goon 2 extras.

Kevin: Ovi hits 50. Again. Like the God he is.

Becca: Because I’d like to end this on the cheesiest of final notes... I predict lots of happy hockey hugs.