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Rink Roundtable: Bring on the 2021 Season

With just hours left until the start of the 2020-21 campaign, the Rink crew weighs in on what lies ahead.

Boston Bruins v Washington Capitals Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

And we’re back! A new hockey season is always full of uncertainty - but this year will be unlike any other. So what lies ahead for the Caps over the next 56 games? We offer up some thoughts in our latest Rink Roundtable.

Q1. What do you see as the Caps’ biggest strength and biggest weakness heading into the season?

Peerless: The biggest strength might also be their biggest weakness: Experience, and the flip side, age. In a league notorious for turnover, the core of the team – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson – all dressed for 77 or more games in 2010-11. As far back as 2015-16, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson all dressed for 75 or more games with the exception of Carlson (56 games, the rest missed to injury). There’s a familiarity and a history (and a championship) in that room.

On the other hand, this is also a team with plenty of mileage. Of those core players, Ovechkin, Oshie, Backstrom, and Carlson are all past their 30th birthday; also in that group you’ve got Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd, Nick Jensen, Brenden Dillon, Justin Schultz, and Zdeno Chara. In a season that will be more of a sprint than a marathon (56 games in 114 days, including eight back-to-back sets of games), will this roster be more susceptible, if not to major injuries then at least to minor sprains, aches, and assorted problems that shave a game here or there off their availability? In a 56-game season, every man-game lost could be a big deal.

Greg: Peerless had two really good ones, but I’m going to go a bit more roster-centric in my strengths and weaknesses. For me, the biggest strength of the Caps roster has to be blue-line depth. Before the Chara acquisition, the Caps already had four defensemen who were penciled into roles: Carlson, Orlov, Dillon, and Schultz. However, aside from those guys, the Caps arguably have five more NHL-caliber defensemen battling for two spots, including Chara, Jensen, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That’s just a lot of depth, and I think it’ll pay off during the grueling regular season.

In terms of weaknesses, I’m going to take more of an “unknown” approach. Simply put, the Caps are introducing a new head coach with more system tweaks, and they have all of 10 days to pull it off. That’s not ideal, and I’d fully expect to see some growing pains at the start of the regular season.

J.P.: I’m going to go with weakness first, and I’ll go with one that I hope actually turns into a strength, and that’s culture. Brian MacLellan has noted how the culture has “slipped” here over the past two seasons, and it certainly looked that way by the end of last season. Take “culture” to mean whatever you want - hunger, give-a-shit, identity, etc. - but the Caps need to get back on track there, and here’s hoping that Peter Laviolette (and Zdeno Chara) can help them do it.

As for strengths, I think this is still a highly-skilled team, and that can win you a heck of a lot of regular-season hockey games (see the last two Metro Division champs). I know that there are outlets that are down on the team’s high-end skill guys, but the depth should be good that with a shot in the arm behind the bench, this team should be able have its fair share of two-point nights in 2021. Now, whether or not that success carries on to the postseason is another question…

Geoff: The biggest strength of this team will be their power play. Last season’s mediocre result (17th at 19.4%) will bounce back to an acceptable level within the top ten. Blaine Forsythe will adjust the man advantage to gel with Laviolette’s new systems and he will be able to experiment with new options on the first and second units (Justin Schultz, Connor McMichael).

Washington’s crease makes me nervous and is the weakest part of the roster. Ilya Samsonov was sharp in a limited role last season (22 GS, 16 W, .913 S%) but with only Vitek Vanecek (and/or Craig Anderson) behind him, the young goaltender will need to rise to the occasion. The revamped defense should help Samsonov but he will need to prove his value after missing the Return To Play season.

Bryan: This team’s biggest strength is the level of familiarity with each other. Despite the “big A” (age) that is starting to loom over the team, the fact that they have kept this core intact for so long, and that they have played so many games with one another, to me says that despite the changes and unknowns they have a solid foundation to build upon which will help shorten the learning curve to a new system and the strangeness of another weird year.

In terms of weaknesses, Washington’s inability to perform on faceoffs is a continued source of frustration. Last year they had just one centerman (Lars Eller) who won more than 50% of his faceoffs (scraping by 51.9%, which ranked 46th in the NHL) while Nic Dowd, Nicklas Backstrom, and Evgeny Kuznetsov ranked 65th, 69th, and 97th respectively. This is all with the insult added to the injury of seeing Jay Beagle finish 3rd in that category, having won 59.1% of his draws last season for the ‘Nucks.

Luke: The Capitals biggest strength will be depth. They are deep at just about every position. I define good depth by how many players at the “bottom” of the lineup could easily fill in among the top-six forwards or top-two defensive pairs. For instance, the Capitals’ whole third line (some combination of Lars Eller, Daniel Sprong, Richard Panik, and Conor Sheary) is made up players that I would trust in the top six - perhaps some more than others, but I still consider them capable. We’ve seen what Eller, Panik (with Chicago), and Sheary (with Pittsburgh) have done in the top six and succeeded, while Sprong is full of high-end skill and has had flashes in the top six with Pittsburgh and Anaheim without looking out of place. And though he has zero NHL experience, it wouldn’t be surprising to even see Connor McMichael get some time on one of the top two lines.

As for defense, right now John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz, and Brendan Dillon make up a strong top four. It’s kind of ridiculous that Zdeno Chara and Nick Jensen are the bottom pair, two guys that could play top four minutes and not miss a beat - to say nothing of having Trevor van Riemsdyk and Jonas Siegenthaler, both capable defensemen in their own right, as healthy scratches. Even behind them are guys like Martin Fehervary and Paul LaDue, who may not have a ton of NHL experience between them but have had good showings when they have played. So yes, depth is by far the Capitals best strength.

For their weakness, it’s hard to think of one, but uncertainty is one for sure. Yes they have a strong team but with a new coach who knows how everything will turn out. As others have pointed out, this team is old, how will father time affect them? How will Evgeny Kuznetsov react after two poor seasons? There are a lot of questions and anything could go wrong for them. They’ll have to dig deep and work hard in the toughest division to secure themselves a playoff spot let alone winning the whole thing.

Alex: I agree with everyone who has mentioned depth as a big strength for the Capitals. While I don’t think it is necessarily their biggest strength, I think it is the one that will serve them the best during this condensed season. Players will likely feel more fatigue this season (which I’ll get to in a moment) and the thought of having solid safety nets for both forwards and defensemen is reassuring. The talent of the skaters waiting in the wings is immense, and a lot of them would have spots waiting for them on other NHL rosters. Plus, come on - a team where Zdeno Chara is skating on the third defensive pairing? That’s nuts.

On the flip side, along with the general uncertainty this season brings, the average age of the Caps’ roster is definitely a weakness for them. With 56 games in 114 days, the potential for fatigue and injuries is high for everyone and particularly high for the older members of the team. Their roster depth should help quell some of those worries, but the potential need for some of the older core players to take days off is cause for concern.

Becca: There’s a theme emerging in a lot of these answers and they all come back to the team’s collective age - or experience, depending on your point of view. I’ve decided to see it as a positive, that experience of the core (and their newer friends). Whether they’ve been with the Caps since their rookie season or just joined up in recent months, so many of these guys know what it takes to win; 14 of the 23 players on tonight’s roster have hoisted the Stanley Cup (15 if you count Siegenthaler), and that’s huge in a season that will basically be one long playoff push. And while the short season could increase the chance for injuries, it also means that come playoff time, older legs will be fresher than they might be in an 82-game campaign.

As for weaknesses, I’m going to have to go with goaltending (and hope to be proven wrong). I think Samsonov and Vanecek are capable of surprising a lot of people and joining forces to be a very good goaltending tandem - but there are a lot of unknowns there, between Samsonov’s health and ability to be that #1 guy for a full season, and Vanecek being completely untested at the NHL level.

I don’t think that goaltending will make or break the Caps this season, and I think the team’s investment in a strong defensive group with a lot of veterans will help mitigate any glaring issues... but it’s still a concern and definitely the weak spot on an otherwise solid roster.

Q2. What excites you the most about this upcoming season?

Peerless: The All-Division, All-the-Time scheduling format that resembles that of Major League Baseball, where teams play multi-game series against a club before moving on to the next opponent. That, plus facing each East Division opponent eight times, is going to result in a stew of loathing and orneriness that will make for what I think will be entertaining hockey of the old school, “Patrick Division days” sort of hockey. Of course, the problem here is that this division is so loaded, they will beat one another to a pulp before the postseason.

Greg: I mean, Zdeno Chara is a Capital. Need I say more?

Aside from Chara, I’m really excited about the prospect of an Orlov-Carlson pairing. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Orlov-Carlson have played extremely well together in limited sample sizes, and I’m stoked about the idea of them getting some serious minutes. I’m not as excited about the prospect of a Dillon-Schultz second pair...but as long as they don’t get caved in at five-on-five, it should work out just fine.

J.P.: I’m excited about Laviolette. My thoughts on Todd Reirden are well-documented and don’t need to be rehashed here, but the last time the Caps brought in a new, veteran voice behind the bench it worked out alright, so here’s hoping that a coach that has taken the last three clubs he’s coached to the Final can make it four-in-a-row.

Bryan: I’m also quite excited to see what the Laviolette Caps will bring. The Rierden era was (by design) an extension of the Trotz era, though it amplified all the weaknesses while diminishing the strengths. I’m excited to see how the guys react to a bench boss who is well-respected around the league and hope it can bring them out of a rut. I’m also nervous-excited to see what Samsonov and Vanecek can do in net. It would have obviously been preferable to have Lundquist splitting starts with Sammy as he gets accustomed being being a starting netminder in the league, but I have a good feeling about the Caps’ new young duo in the cage.

Geoff: With another expansion draft looming at season’s end, I am excited to look for T.J. Oshie’s replacement in the top six and first power play unit. Oshie is an appetizing and expected selection for Seattle GM Ron Francis in July so Washington needs to plan for that future. Is that future already on the roster (Vrana, Wilson) or could it be filled by one of the new guys (Leason, McMichael)?

Luke: Originally it was to see my favorite player grace a Washington Capitals jersey, but fate is cruel and The King won’t play this season due to heart issues. But if you know me you know I’m leader of the Daniel Sprong fan club. I think this kid can do some great things so I’m very excited to finally see him play in red after wishing the Capitals drafted him six years ago.

Alex: I am so ridiculously excited to watch Vitek Vanecek play in the NHL. I’ve been a huge fan of his since he started getting regular playing time in Hershey and he has the potential to be a star. AHL success doesn’t always translate to NHL success, but I believe it will for Vanecek. He and Samsonov are also really good friends, which I think could be very valuable to both of them as they adjust to their new jobs.

Becca: I’ll agree with Alex on Vanecek and extend that excitement out to a potential Connor McMichael sighting.

I’m also excited to see what Laviolette can get out of this team and what kind of influence Chara can have on the Caps’ up-and-coming defensemen. I’m excited to find out what John Carlson can do as a follow-up to his career year and whether Jakub Vrana can take that next step (and make it stick). And I’m excited to see Alex Ovechkin do what Alex Ovechkin does best, age be damned.

Gosh darnit, I may just be excited about this season. What is happening??

Q3. Bold predictions. Go.

Peerless: Nick Jensen will break the longest current streak in the NHL of games without a goal (145), and he will do it on Opening Night in Buffalo.

Greg: Maybe it’s the excitement of opening night or maybe it’s a bit too much whiskey, but I’m excited about the Caps this year! So let’s go with a really optimistic prediction: I think this is the year that Jakub Vrana cracks the top 10 in the NHL in goals, and we all start calling him an #elite forward.

J.P.: Evgeny Kuznetsov has a bounce-back year and not only leads the Caps in scoring, but finishes top-five in the League.

Becca: Justin Schultz has a huge bounceback season and puts up at least 30 points.

Geoff: The 35 games Ovechkin skated in during the 2020 calendar year are the fewest of his professional career. He will return rested and as great as ever to take home his tenth (!) Rocket Richard Trophy with 50 goals in 56 games.

Bryan: After building momentum last year and garnering the attention he earned, I think John Carlson wins the Norris Trophy this year.

Luke: The Capitals will start out slow, maybe not by wins, but with their play. Their first 15 games will make people freak out and make it all doom and gloom, but then they will start getting it together and finish the season very strong, right in time for the playoffs.

Alex: Dmitry Orlov will have the best year of his career to date. His defensive play will improve and his offensive totals will spike, largely due to his promotion to the top blueline pairing with Carlson. Orlov will average at least .6 points per game, besting his 2016-2017 record of .4.