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Rink Roundtable: Let the Games Begin!

The Rink crew looks ahead to another thrilling season of Caps hockey!

New York Rangers v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s that time again! The Capitals are preparing to kick off another season - and for the first time in two years, it should be (we hope) a full, 82-game season. So what does 2021-22 have in store? What are we looking forward to... and what concerns us? And of course, predictions both bold and not so bold.

Q1: What is your biggest concern heading into the 2021-22 season?

Luke: I’d say Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov’s impact, who will be second pair left side on defense, and general health. If Kuznetsov and Samsonov don’t pick up their game, no one takes a hold of that second pair, and they get nailed with injuries there’s a legit chance of missing the playoffs. Of those three, health is definitely the most concerning.

The Capitals will probably be the oldest team in the NHL again, or close to it. Nicklas Backstrom is already going to miss the start of the season due to injury. What are the chances he finishes completely healthy? Probably not super high. Alex Ovechkin, John Carslon, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller all got hurt last season as well and missed some time. Injuries happen but the Capitals will need to pray they are very limited when it comes to their top players - and that when injuries do inevitably strike, everyone else is firing on all cylinders.

Peerless: Endurance. This is a team that has played 69 and 56 games in the last two regular seasons and didn’t play a game west of Pittsburgh last season. We are back to a normal schedule of 82 games this season, and it will include participation in the 2022 Winter Olympics. There is a break in there (February 3-22) to accommodate the Olympics and the All-Star game, but for those participating in one or both events (Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson perhaps participating in the All-Star Game, and perhaps a larger number of Capitals representing their respective countries in China for the Olympics), it will not be a break. The Caps didn’t look spring blossom fresh when the postseason rolled around the last two seasons. The issue this time around might end up being whether they have enough in the tank in the last dozen or so games – games they did not play the last two seasons – to even reach the postseason. This is, let’s face it, an old team whose “best by” date seems close. And it could be an issue as the league returns to a regular schedule.

Rob: It’s been a top-heavy team for years now but that top end isn’t among the elite cores in the league anymore and they haven’t been able to stay healthy enough to make a run in several years even if they were. They’re going into the season injured and with less depth than last year. Hard to see where they are better on paper than last season... and last season was only good enough for a five-game first round defeat.

Becca: I’m going along with the crowd on the age thing, mostly because starting the season with injuries to Backstrom and possibly Ovechkin just feels like a bad sign after the injury-riddled (and therefore brief) playoff run last spring.

Greg: Agreed with everyone on age-related endurance being a key concern, but let’s go in a slightly different direction to say that the goaltending also gives me pause. Both Samsonov and Vanecek were below-average in almost every advanced metric, and Samsonov is apparently already nicked up (at least it’s a hockey-related injury this time). If we’re going to accept that the Caps core is going down an age-related slope, I’m not sure their goaltending is in a position to bail them out. Even worse, teams like the Devils and Flyers got better skill and the Caps don’t have the Sabres in the division again…so there might not be many easy games for the pair. This could end poorly.

J.P.: Age-related concerns (such as health and endurance). Offensive fire-power. Goaltending. You guys are all right. But one concern (albeit not my biggest concern) heading into 2021-22, as a fan, is that the Caps will be… boring. Granted, every game that Alex Ovechkin plays between now and when he breaks Wayne Gretzky’s goal mark will be damn-near must-see TV for that element alone. But the Caps have the potential to be an exceedingly “meh” team otherwise, given their systems and personnel. A reinvigorated power play and an infusion of guys like McMichael and Lapierre into the lineup could change that a bit, but take a look at the pace of (both teams) shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals at five-on-five (via NatStatTrick) for the the years we have data:

Now, more shots and whatnot aren’t necessarily a good thing, per se (the Caps’ percentage of those shots is more important to winning games), and, given the current roster, perhaps parking the bus gives the Caps their best chance at winning games. But from the perspective of an entertainment consumer getting ready to sit down to 82 (or more) of these games this year, the club’s current style of play isn’t necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing. Granted, the Caps have above-average finishers (and below-average stoppers) to help keep things interesting, but life’s too short to watch boring hockey.

Q2: What are you most excited about in the upcoming season?

Luke: Seeing Kuznetsov so happy and playing the game has been great. We all know his skillset and how much he can control games when he’s on. It’s been easy to tell the last couple seasons the joy hasn’t been there for Kuznetsov, but according to his interviews he’s happy again and ready to hit the ice and prove his worth. The Capitals need him to sniff anything near a deep playoff run, and it would be an exciting thing to see 70+ point Kuznetsov again.

Peerless: Youth. Paradoxically, for a team as dependent on older players such as the Caps, we might get a glimpse – or more – of what the future looks like for this club. It is uncertain if the Caps will dress any rookies for 60 or more games at any position, but there are youngsters who could get a long look (Connor McMichael, Martin Fehervary), and others who might get a taste of NHL action (Alex Alexeyev, Hendrix Lapierre, Garrett Pilon, Brett Leason, for example). One of the hardest things to do well is integrate youth into a veteran roster that still has an urgency in chasing a Stanley Cup. That could be one of the subplots to this season, and it will be interesting to watch.

RP: Ovi chasing Gretzky. That’s what we’re all here for right? The team would need an absolute stroke of luck to hang with the top teams in a best-of-seven, should they manage to survive a first round, so let’s see some history.

Becca: I am super excited about the infusion of youth on the roster, which to be honest was a little bit of a surprise inclusion (to me, at least). Obviously the injury to Backstrom isn’t ideal, but there are silver linings to it, as much as I miss having him in the lineup. It lets him get fully healthy and avoid the grind of a full 82-game slate season (to say nothing of offering a little cap relief, a la Tampa) - and has the happy side effect of allowing kids like Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael to get a decent run at the NHL level. A full year of Fehervary - we hope - should also be fun, and how great is the Beck Malenstyn story, after his injury last year?

Greg: Surprised to see Luke not mention Daniel Sprong here, particularly given that he might be in line for top 6 minutes! That said, I’m honestly just excited for a normal(ish) season of hockey. We’ve all battled through a horrible pandemic and some unusual circumstances over the last two seasons, and it’ll be a relief to see a full Capital One Arena in under a week. In what might be a tumultuous season for the Caps, let’s try not forget how lucky we are to be able to enjoy a hockey season again.

J.P.: Most excited for an 82-game slate of playing every team and being able to attend a game in person at some point this year after the past 19 months or whatever it is. Get yer jabs, people!

Q3: Predictions?

Luke: It’s so hard to tell with this team. For years they have been a lock to make the playoffs, but if things don’t break right, the Capitals will miss the playoffs. On the flip side, if everything goes their way, they could be Cup contenders. My gut feeling is, at the very least, we see a better team than last season - but we’ll see how it goes from there.

Peerless: The Caps are on a seven-season streak of earning at least 60 percent of the standings points available to them (66.8 percent overall). The last time they did not was in 2013-14, when they went 38-30-14 (54.9 percent) and missed the playoffs under the unparalleled leadership of Adam Oates. On paper, and factoring in a significant loss of time for Nicklas Backstrom, this might be the neighborhood of performance in which the Caps find themselves in 2021-22.

They do have the advantage of Peter Laviolette being a much better coach than Oates, and I think he has enough in his bag of tricks to get the Caps over the line and into the postseason. Somewhere in the low-forties in wins might be a ceiling for this team, and they seem likely to be a third or fourth seed in the opening round of the postseason. And there, it is all a matter of who they draw. I think they will get past the first round, but not the second.

RP: I think they’re still good enough to lose in the first round.

Becca: Always a fan of following Rob’s eternal pessimism with my naïve optimism - I think they’re still good enough to get past the first round. How far they go beyond that of course depends on the usual trio of suspects - health, goaltending and pure dumb luck (the last of which has been perfected by the Isles in recent years, and the Pens before that).

...but that’s not my *official* prediction. My official prediction is that Anthony Mantha will have a big year, offensively speaking. His best goal total so far is 25, back in 2018-19, and he hasn’t played a full 82-game slate since 2017-18... and never with the kind of talent he’ll be playing with this year.

Greg: Whether it’s by force or choice, I think this could be the year where the Caps try to engage in load management (Ovechkin exempted, of course). I bet that we see an extended look at both Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre on the roster, and that the Caps try to give the occasional game off to different members of their older core. If they do, we might be in for a fun and surprising season.

What’s that? You want a specific prediction? Fine… I’m all aboard the Kuznetsov is Back train. Let’s pencil him in for 20 goals and 50 assists while maintaining above-average possession metrics.

J.P.: My bold prediction last year was that Kuznetsov would lead the team in scoring and finish top-five in the League. I’m going to recycle the first part of that for this year, and predict that the team once again makes the playoffs and exits early… only this time, it won’t be as a favorite.