After a(nother) disappointing early playoff exit and a shorter-than-usual offseason, the Washington Capitals are back and ready to take another run at the Stanley Cup.
While the last three seasons have all ended in similarly depressing fashion – and roster turnover from last year’s squad has been minimal – there’s still plenty to be excited about, plenty to question, and plenty to discuss as we look ahead to opening night and a new season.
Storylines to Watch
When the Caps take the ice on October 13, they will do so with what is likely the oldest roster in the NHL for a second-straight season (although that average age should go down a bit with the offseason departure of 44-year-old Zdeno Chara).
On its surface, the “oldest team in the NHL” moniker is not necessarily the red flag people make it out to be – after all, there isn’t usually a huge difference between that team and the majority of their opponents. But with age comes injury, and having your best players also fall on the older end of the spectrum and therefore more likely to be injured can have catastrophic circumstances… as we saw during the Caps’ ill-fated first-round series against the Bruins. Injuries absolutely decimated the lineup, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, and Lars Eller all limping to the finish line before being ousted in five games.
There’s no question that the injury bug that attacked the Caps during the playoffs was something of an anomaly; it’s rare that so many key players all get hit at the same time, and the Caps have actually had fairly good injury luck in general over the last few years. Their luck ran out in May, though, and the timing truly could not have been worse.
Its impact isn’t contained to last season, either, as Backstrom has missed all of camp so far and will likely miss the start of the season with a lingering hip injury. That’s one huge piece that the Caps really can’t afford to be without for a long stretch of time (although his absence has opened the door for an exciting camp battle between prospects Connor McMichael and surprise contender Hendrix Lapierre).
If that’s the only major injury hit, and if Backstrom is able to make a full recovery, those elder statesmen should still have the legs (and certainly have the talent) to take on any team in the league come playoff time. It’s a tall task, and it’ll be up to both the players and coaches to tread cautiously when injuries of any kind strike. The team is good enough to make it through the regular season with any one of these guys missing a few games here or there, but not the postseason.
Again, one of the major storylines from last season becomes one to watch this time around, as well… although at least this time around we’re prepared for it, knowing that the team is going into 2021-22 with a very young and talented but occasionally inconsistent goalie tandem.
Heading into this season, the consensus is that the starting netminder job was Ilya Samsonov’s to lose, with Vitek Vanecek stepping into the backup role (albeit likely in more of a 1a-1b situation). Between the two of them, they have the equivalent of exactly one full season of NHL experience, with Samsonov appearing in 45 games over the last two seasons and Vanecek playing 37 last year. That’s not a ton of experience to go on, and while both have shown flashes of brilliance and stretches of solid play, neither one has really taken the ball and run with it – although you could make the case that Vanecek was doing that before he got injured in the first period of Game 1 against Boston last spring.
For better or for worse, the team’s management has put their trust in this young duo for the upcoming season, opting not to go out and get another veteran backup in the vein of Henrik Lundqvist or Craig Anderson. And while this is a decision likely largely informed by the salary cap situation – Vanecek has the lowest cap hit of any goalie right now at just over $716K, and Samsonov is on a “prove it” one-year deal of a manageable $2M – this is also a great opportunity for the team to really see what they’ve got in their two young goalies. Both are due for a new deal after this season, and their performance this year could go a long way to determining who sticks around going forward.
Of course, that’s a tough ask in the present for the duo and a bit of a challenge for a team that still considers itself a Cup contender, but we’ve seen in the past that a Hall of Fame-caliber goalie is not necessarily a must-have for teams with Stanley Cup hopes (the Penguins certainly proved that time and time again). They just need to be good enough – and hope that it’s good enough.
Laviolette at the Helm
The start of Peter Laviolette’s tenure behind the Caps’ bench was a tricky one to say the least, with plenty of obstacles and odd circumstances surrounding his first year in DC. Between the abbreviated training camp, the COVID protocols, the goalie issues, and the strange schedule consisting of just seven opponents, the deck was stacked against Laviolette.
Given that, it’s pretty incredible – and something that is probably not talked about enough – what he was able to achieve in his debut. Despite those challenges, the Caps finished in a tie for the division lead with the Penguins, missing out on the Metro title by just one ROW. They had their lowest GA/GP of the last four seasons (2.88) while still putting up a ton of offense (3.36 goals/game, tied for fourth-best in the league) and sported the third-best power play (24.8%) and fifth-best penalty kill.
So that’s what Laviolette was able to get out of this team in an obstacle-filled and shortened season (and granted, it wasn’t a perfect season and those numbers don’t tell the whole tale by any means)… what can he do with a full camp, a full season and (knock on wood) a healthier lineup come playoff time? Definitely something to keep an eye on.
Alex Ovechkin is always reason enough to watch the Capitals, and his ability to bring you to the edge of your seat every night is both unmatched and relatively unchanged from his rookie season to today. Just having the privilege to watch him rack up achievement after achievement, year after year, is more than enough to make Caps fans among the luckiest in the NHL.
That said, there is that one achievement that still eludes him, one that will take an enormous effort to accomplish - but is definitely doable - over the next few years, and that is the chase for Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring record.
Now obviously Ovechkin won’t be able to beat it this season (...probably), but he can make a dent in the remaining gap with another strong campaign. Should he retire from the NHL at the end of his new five-year contract, he’d just need to average 33 goals a season over that span to hit Gretzky’s mark of 894. Considering he’s averaged about 45 goals a season, and only failed to crack the 30-goal mark once in his career (last year, when he played in only 45 games), it seems within reach.
Still, as he gets older, the expectation would be for his goal-scoring to slow down at least a little - so the more he can pile up now, the more likely it is that he can catch the Great One.
The quest starts this season.
Player to Watch: Evgeny Kuznetsov
2018 gave us all a glimpse of what Evgeny Kuznetsov is capable of doing, and he was without a doubt a huge reason why the Capitals were able to capture the Cup. Since then, his drop-off has been both noticeable and widely discussed, by fans and media alike.
So it boils down to this: The Caps need him to find that 2018 magic again if they’re going to be contenders this year. Period. Strength up the middle has always been a requirement for teams hoping to win a championship, and Kuznetsov is crucial to that equation... especially if Backstrom misses a significant amount of time.
Getting out the old crystal ball to make a couple of (probably bold) predictions for the season ahead:
- The Capitals will make the playoffs and get out of the first round. It feels like sort of a low bar, but after drawing the worst-possible opponents, some bad coaching pre-Laviolette, and a swath of injuries to key players, it would be the team’s first venture past the opening round since winning it all. They’re due.
- Alex Ovechkin will score 40+ goals this season but will not lead the team in power play goals. Last season was just the second time in his career that Ovechkin did not lead the Caps in power play goals... but it may not be the last.