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The Hangover Part 2021

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What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas?

Washington Capitals v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

A lot has changed since June 7, 2018.

Now there’s a raging pandemic, a different President, and Kate Beckinsale and Pete Davidson broke up (really thought that one was gonna last). Heck, they’ve even handed the Stanley Cup out - not once but twice - to teams that aren’t the Washington Capitals.

What has the world come to?

As we try to piece a broken country and planet back together (call me, Kate!), let’s take a few minutes to look at those 2018 Cup champs and what’s happened in the interim (roster-wise, not fountains-wise).

So here’s what we’re going to do - we’re going to look at the roster for each year since that magical night in Vegas and see where they’ve improved, where they’ve slipped, and where they’ve held steady. For convenience, we’ll basically be using healthy, post-trade deadline rosters, generally keeping holdover players in the same roles (unless it really makes no sense), and giving each slot (not necessarily player) since 2018 one of five designations: straight up or down for significant upgrades or downgrades, angled up or down for smaller up/downgrades, and even for, well, even.

For the last two years, those assessments will be mostly performance-based; for 2021, we’re going on what they’ve done so far, but also what we expect for this season. And “Overall” is a general assessment of where the team stands now (when healthy) versus when they skated the Cup nearly three years ago.

Note: this is very much not science. Really, it’s not even history. Maybe it’s social studies.

Get it? You will. Let’s jump in with the forwards...

Right off the bat, we’ve got Alex Ovechkin, who led the League in goals during the Cup season and won the Conn Smythe. Not bad. He also led the League in goals the following season. And the one after that. But there are signs of him slowing down ever so slightly and whether you want to put that slight down arrow last season or on this one, he’s not quite the same player he was in 2018, which is okay and natural and Father Time marches on undefeated. I know. It sucks.

Know what else sucks? How much Evgeny Kuznetsov has fallen off from being arguably one of the most exciting players in the world (and arguably the more deserving Conn Smythe winner) to <waves hands around wildly> this. In the preseason following the Cup win, Kuzy was asked about a possible run at the Hart Trophy as League MVP. He replied, “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that. I want to have fun[.]” Is this fun? This doesn’t feel like fun.

Rounding out the top line is Tom Wilson, who has only gotten better since his rough NHL start under Adam Oates and has probably been the Caps’ best skater so far this season. Up arrow.

The second line features another up-and-comer in Jakub Vrana, whose progress has been a little frustrating at times, but who is a bona fide elite finisher in the making (if he’s not there already). Consistency is the name of the game for Jake, and it’s impossible to overstate how important his continued growth as a player is to the Caps’ success over the next handful of years.

And here we are at Nicklas Backstrom. If Alex Ovechkin is the Caps’ heart over the last 15 or so years, Nicklas Backstrom is their soul. But whether he’s been hampered by injury, coaching, linemates, age or some combination thereof, Backstrom hasn’t been quite the same player over the past year or so. At $9.2 million per year over the next four seasons after this one, Backstrom is looking like a bit of an albatross a little earlier than expected and a lot earlier than hoped for. That said, his 13 points in 10 games leads the Caps and is right up there among the League leaders (non-Oilers category), which says a lot about the type of veteran savvy he has.

On the right side of the third line is old reliable, T.J. Oshie, who doesn’t seem to age. He may be off to a slow start this year, but he’s also been playing center (?!) and is just as much of a honey-badger as ever. Seattle could do a hell of a lot worse than making this guy an organizational tent pole.

When the Caps made their Cup run, the third line was one of the engines that powered it. Brett Connolly scored six times. Andre Burakovsky provided more than enough offense to torpedo Tampa in Game 7. And Lars Eller... well, we know what he did, both early and late (with the trio combining on the Cup-winning tally). Eller has basically been Eller since, but Ilya Kovalchuk was a failed experiment, Richard Panik’s moments have been few and far between, and the jury is still out on Conor Sheary. For the Caps to contend, they’re going to need more from the third line than they got last season.

If there’s one place the Caps do seem to have improved overall up front, it’s at the bottom of the depth chart, with improvements nearly across the board. Garnet Hathaway is a fine replacement for the Chandler Stephenson the Caps had (who is not the one that the Golden Knights apparently got), Nic Dowd is an upgrade over Jay Beagle (search your feelings, you know it to be true), 2021 Carl Hagelin is a better player than 2017-18 Devante Smith-Pelly (although not June 2018 DSP), and Daniel Sprong as a 13th forward is probably the best player they’ve had in that role in a while. The current fourth line is a very good fourth line... and possibly a decent shutdown line.

On to the blueline...

Michal Kempny was an absolute revelation after having been acquired for peanuts in mid-February 2018. He quickly fit in alongside John Carlson to fill out the Caps’ top-four defensemen and gave the Caps nearly 18 minutes per night of solid en route to the Cup. He picked up where he left off in the fall of 2018 and was having a very solid season before suffering a brutal hamstring injury in late March of 2019. Do the Caps beat Carolina a few weeks later with a healthy Kempny? Who knows. More tragically, Kempny wasn’t the same player when he returned and is again out long-term. It’s a real shame for a guy - and a team - who had found a perfect fit.

Brian MacLellan acquired Brenden Dillon at the trade deadline last year to fill that top-pair void and Dillon did... fine? Well enough to earn himself a contract extension, at least. But he and John Carlson didn’t and haven’t meshed the way that Kempny and Carlson did, and it remains to be seen who the Caps’ top left-handed defenseman will be going forward.

Speaking of Carlson, here’s a guy who played 25-plus minutes per night and racked up 20 points in 24 games when the Caps won the Cup, and has only gotten better since. His offensive output last season earned him a second-place Norris finish and, frankly, he’s off to a better all-around start so far this season. Given the backlash he faced in 2018-19 due to perceptions of the defensive aspects of his game, he may somehow be underrated at this point.

Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen may not have been the Caps’ top pair, nominally, in 2017-18, but they were probably the most reliable. Both, however, took a step backwards the following season, and then the Caps traded Niskanen to Philly for Radko Gudas. So, yeah.

For Orlov’s part, there’s a lot of promise there and he’s already a heck of a player, but it seems like his game should take another step forward because it’s probably now or never for the 29-year-old. He could be the answer alongside Carlson in the top pair, or he could anchor a second duo, but the clock is ticking on a guy who can look both great and awful... on the same shift.

When the Caps acquired Nick Jensen, it appeared that they thought they had a top-four defenseman (and they inked him to a four-year contract extension before he’d even taken the ice for them). They were wrong. But the team may have gotten it right this time around with the signing of Justin Schultz, who has been terrific in the early going. If he can stay healthy and keep up the level of play he’s shown so far, that’s a top-four NHL defenseman.

Brooks Orpik. Radko Gudas. Zdeno Chara. That’s some serious beef on the left side of the third pair over the years. Chara is probably, even at his age, the best of the lot, though that’s somewhat damning by faint praise - Gudas wasn’t good and Orpik was... well, a hell of a leader. The other side of the pair is probably where a guy like Jensen fits best, though it also blocks Jonas Siegenthaler and Martin Fehervary from getting ice time. Djoos is gone, Kempny is cooked and Trevor van Riemsdyk has looked okay in limited action. But whatever combination the Caps throw out there in their third set of rearguards, it’s going to be serviceable. Oh, and if anyone ever tells you that winning a Cup doesn’t involve a lot of luck, tell them that the Caps won one with Jakub Jerabek as their seventh defenseman.

Goalie time!

Real talk: no one has any idea here. How good is Ilya Samsonov? What about Vitek Vanecek? Beats me. The latter appears to be “solid backup who can take over for a stretch if need be or he gets hot,” a la Michal Neuvirth, but the former? Hopes are still high, but on- and off-ice warning signs are there for sure.

What we do know is that 2017-18 Braden Holtby wasn’t great (until he was!) and it didn’t get much better from there. Philipp Grubauer played well enough to earn the start in the first two playoff games that spring, so perhaps he was better than Vanecek is now, but there’s a lot of uncertainty there. As for Samsonov, the Caps and their fans had better hope that he’s going to be better than 2017-18 Holtby, or that’s going to be one problem they thought they’d already addressed.

Finally, the men behind the bench...

Transitioning from the guy who followed up back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy seasons with a Stanley Cup in the last three of his four years in D.C. to a rookie head coach didn’t go exactly as the organization would have hoped, to put it mildly. Barry Trotz was the NHL’s Coach of the Year in 2019 and the Caps’ title defense ended after seven postseason games; a year later, Trotz’s Islanders dismissed Todd Reirden’s Caps in a second-straight disappointing first-round exit for Washington.

But maybe it wasn’t as bad as we remember (or perhaps the way the 2017-18 season ended has us suppressing the regular season that lead up to it a bit). To wit, the Caps’ underlying five-on-five numbers actually improved in each of Reirden’s two seasons in town:

via Evolving Wild

Still, it’s hard to characterize the switch from Trotz to Reirden as anything but a significant downgrade (even if it was the right move at the time).

The Caps improved in some respects in Reirden’s second season, but they struggled leading up to the pandemic shutdown and were a shell of their formers selves in the bubble once play resumed, so “more of the same” earns them an even arrow here and earned Reirden a pink slip.

That brings us to Peter Laviolette. Laviolette is an experienced head coach (only the second such bench boss of Alex Ovechkin’s NHL career) and has taken his last three teams to the Stanley Cup Final. He’s a proven winner, and we’re reasonably confident that even in this bizarre season, once he and his team get healthy and find their footing, he’ll prove to be an upgrade over Reirden (if he hasn’t done so already). Heck, he may well be as good as if not better than Trotz.

But for now, let’s put it this way: if Laviolette isn’t a clear upgrade over Reirden, the Caps are in big trouble.

The Bottom Line

When you look at the past few years the way we have here, there’s nothing really surprising, but rather confirmation of what we already knew - the real areas of concern (at least relative to the Caps’ Cup team) are the top two centers (and a couple of other aging skill forwards) and the third-line wings. Bright spots include a couple of young guys getting better, a better fourth line, and back-end depth.

So on paper, perhaps the 2021 Caps aren’t as good as the 2017-18 squad... then again, that team wasn’t as good, on paper, as the two squads that preceded it, and look what they did. After all, games aren’t played on paper - they’re played in empty arenas.