A short nine months ago we took an EKG of the Caps’ organization, and it felt closer to flatline than to pulsing. Todd Reirden was three games away from his eventual ousting, the on-ice product was visibly incoherent even to the untrained eye, the roster was old, the contracts expensive, and even the power-play, vaunted for so many years, was languishing. Fast forward to May 2020, the tail end of the 2021 NHL regular season, and it looks like maybe the Caps were just working through a spot of arrythmia.
The totality of evidence suggests that first-year bench boss Peter Laviolette, who was ostensibly brought in to instill the structure, discipline, accountability (and any other characteristics that might be a symptom of a good coaching staff) that was missing, has succeeded. His team is three games away from finishing first in the NHL’s deepest division, with their own destiny firmly in hand. And Laviolette has gotten them there navigating a gnarly thicket of unfortunate and seemingly ceaseless obstacles.
Before the season even began he lost one of the team’s exciting new acquisitions – Henrik Lundqvist – who, as fate would have it, would have been the perfect answer to the team’s biggest persisting problem. Then, before the season was a week old, the looming specter of Covid coiled its tendrils around the team. Core players like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov would all miss at least four games for violating the League’s Covid protocol. Samsonov, the presumed starter in net with Lundqvist out for the season, went more than a month between starts as a result, thrusting Vitek Vanecek, who wasn’t even meant to be on an NHL roster this season, under a starter’s workload.
In the meantime, the injuries piled up, and when it wasn’t injuries it was suspensions. The Caps have spent meaningful time without every day starters like Lars Eller, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, and now Alex Ovechkin and Justin Schultz. In spite of this, all they’ve done is win. They’re the best team in the League at scoring goals at 5v5. The power play is suddenly back - it’s the third-best unit in the League. The seventh-best penalty kill isn’t far behind. They’ve seen a new face (to this team, anyway) celebrate his 1,600th game. They’ve seen a more familiar face celebrate his 1000th game and notch his 700th assist. The organization made the tough decision to ship Vrana, one of the team’s most dynamic young players, out of town in favor of Anthony Mantha, who is supposed to be a better puzzle piece for Laviolette’s brand of puzzle. The team hasn’t missed a beat. All the guys in their thirties - Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson - are still producing like they’re in their twenties and showing no signs of slowing down. And it’s not just the big guns, either. Far from it.
In one offseason, General Manager Brian MacLellan went out and signed Daniel Sprong and Conor Sheary, in what would become two of the most cost-efficient (as measured by goals per dollar) contracts in the entire NHL. Also on that list? Nic Dowd, who has notched a hefty 11 goals from his slot as fourth line center. He signed his current low-dollar deal in 2019, so let’s give MacLellan credit for finding at least three diamonds in the rough these last two offseasons. Between those three guys you’re looking at 36 goals and 18 assists in 53 team games played, with most of that production coming from roles in the bottom half of the lineup, and you’re getting it at an aggregate pricetag of $2.2m. That’s some serious bargain hunting from the organization’s top hockey man.
And if ever you saw the scrappy, next-man-up, roll with the punches spirit of this team in action, you saw it last night. Surrounded by controversy, knowing the opening puck drop would instigate an evening of sustained vitriol and malevolent targeting, missing their captain and top goalscorer, with Kuznetsov and Samsonov also unable to join the team for disciplinary reasons, with enough other depth players unavailable that the team only even dressed 11 forwards, one of whom was brought up presumably for his skill of possessing a warm body, and what did they team do? They powered through their opponent’s ulterior motive, and generated their most memorable, emotional, feel-good win of the year on the back of T.J. Oshie’s hat trick in his first game back since the passing of his father.
This team has skill and size in abundance. It also has heart. They’re real contenders, and make no mistake about it. But they’re also going to be entering a playoff tournament with other real contenders lining up across from them right from the start. Likely, they’ll go as far as their goaltending will take them. If either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek can rise to the level that the occasion of the Stanley Cup Playoffs commands, they’ll be cooking with gas. Not just a contender, but an odds-on favorite (like they already are in some places). If not, they’re still a contender, but they’re gonna need the coin to land on heads more often than they prefer.
Regardless of the outcome, the evidence is clear. There’s a new a sheriff in town, and in less than a full-season he’s rearranged the furniture in a way that should make you confident in knowing the state of things, at least in the near term, is greatly improved.