Despite their first-round exits over the last two seasons, there’s no doubt that the Washington Capitals are still a very strong team. They are loaded with talent and have a brand new, proven head coach Peter Laviolette at the helm. There’s no reason not to see them as a top team.
But some major questions remain heading into this season, and how the team responds to them will determine how much success they can have. They can either be a middling team that’s fighting for a playoff spot until the very end of the regular season, or be a top three team that plays a dominant game day in and out.
First, and it’s come up a time or two before, so much rides on Evengey Kuznetsov. The team simply goes the way Kuznetsov goes, and if the Capitals get the guy who put in underwhelming performances the last two years, it will be very hard for them to truly reach the next level. Laviolette must get consistent, elite play out of Kuznetsov if they even hope to sniff the Stanley Cup again.
The second area that has to be addressed is the power play. Given their lineup, there is absolutely no reason that this team’s power play shouldn’t consistently be in the NHL’s top five. They have dangerous shooters (Alexander Ovechkin, Daniel Sprong, Jakub Vrana, T.J. Oshie), elite playmakers (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom), and some great power play quarterbacks (John Carlson, Justin Schultz). And yet they’ve gotten steadily worse each of the last three seasons, going from 7th to 12th to an abysmal 19th last year.
The onus for fixing this once again rests with longtime power play coach Blaine Forsythe, who Laviolette opted to keep in the fold. New defensive coach Kevin McCarthy will also be pitching in with the extra man, but he has never really had a great power play in his coaching career.
It’s hard to see exactly where the fix will be but something needs to happen — because this team simply has way too much skill to have a bad or even mediocre power play. And given the short season in a tough, evenly matched division, that power play could be the difference between clinching a playoff spot and being on the outside of the postseason at the end of the year.
The third area that will be crucial in determining the Caps’ success this season is the goaltending. Ilya Samsonov has the skills to be a top goaltender in the league for a long time, but he’s still relatively unproven and fell off a bit leading up to last season’s pause. He’ll have to show he’s got what it takes to hang on to the starting role (and show that he’s fully recovered from his offseason injury). There would be a little less pressure on him to do so right away if Henrik Lundqvist were stationed behind Samsonov as a reliable veteran backup; unfortunately that’s not in the cards, and the vitally important backup role remains unfilled.
As of now, Vitek Vanecek looks to be the guy who will get the first swing at that job, but he’ll have some competition with Pheonix Copley behind him (and even more if Craig Anderson turns his professional tryout into a contract with the Caps). So fighting it out for that important role are a goalie with zero NHL experience (Vanecek), a goalie with just 29 NHL games experience (Copley), and a 39-year-old goalie whose best days are likely behind him (Anderson). That’s a lot of uncertainty at a position that can make or break a team.
Lastly is the addition of Justin Schultz - and more importantly, the potential offense he can provide. As of now, the only blueliner who is able to produce offensively from the blueline with any consistency is John Carlson. Carlson is an elite offensive defensemen, but he’s also turning 31 this weekend and could use some help, both at even strength and on the power play. Schultz has the ability to jump in the play and create offense - which can give the Caps an extra boost as they slog through a tough, condensed 56-game schedule, and provides a little insurance should Carlson have to miss any time with injury.
None of the areas above could be labeled an absolute necessity - the Caps could have a successful season without stellar goaltending, for example, or with a middling power play. Each of these things that they can check off their list, however, gives them that much more of a chance of a long playoff run and potentially another Stanley Cup.