It seems like just last week that the season ended, doesn’t it? But camp is kicking into gear and the Washington Capitals are getting ready to play their first regular season game in just under three weeks.
For years it was a given that the Caps were going to make the playoffs and be a threat in the postseason - but with an aging core and some teams in the division getting better, nothing is certain this time around. Heading into this season, there are three questions that need to be answered by the Capitals, and how they answer them will determine just how successful or unsuccessful the team will be.
Will Ilya Samsonov and Evgeny Kuznetsov play to their potential?
A million stories have been written about these two Russians. Kuznetsov has been inconsistent since being one of the best players en route to the Cup, and getting COVID not once but twice last season didn’t help perceptions of his off-ice commitment (especially since the second stint had him miss the start of the playoffs).
Meanwhile Samsonov came off a summer where he injured himself away from the ice and he also had COVID issues, coming down with the disease once and going on the protocol list a second time. It was his year to take the reins as the number-one goaltender, but with the missed time he was never able to do so.
Both of these players have huge potential that they need to hit this upcoming season. We all know the game-changing talent that Kuznetsov can be with his speed and elite passing ability. Samsonov is raw but has all the ability to be a top-five goalie in the NHL. He’ll need to stay healthy and not undercut himself to show what he can become.
If they can do those things, the Capitals will be in great shape. If not, that leaves them with a question mark in their top-six center spot, a question mark in net... and the combination of the two would be a huge blow to the Capitals chances of getting into the playoffs, let alone going deep in the playoffs.
Can one, or both, of Michal Kempny and Martin Fehervary fit themselves into the second pair left side?
The left side of the defense was once considered a huge strength for the Caps, but with the injury issues to Michal Kempny, then the trade of Jonas Siegenthaler and Brendan Dillon, it’s all of a sudden the biggest positional question mark for the Capitals. With Dmitry Orlov the only lock right now on that side, that leaves Kempny and Fehervary to battle for the two bottom pairing spots behind him.
Kempny last played a game in August of 2020 and missed the whole 2020-21 season - and that was after rupturing his hamstring at the end of the season before. He also just turned 31 years old, which combined with his recent injury history makes it hard to see him coming back to be a top-four player in the NHL. The good news is that he does look like he’s in great shape to start the season and he’s motivated... so don’t count him out just yet.
Fehervary, on the other hand, is a favorable young player with smooth skating ability, a great hockey brain, and a nice physical toolkit. He has the ability to be a high-end shutdown defensemen in a team’s top four - but he also has all of six NHL games of experience, which he played two seasons ago. As promising as he looks there’s no guarantee he can jump into that second pairing this season and be effective. I wouldn’t bet against him but nothing is certain until it’s proven.
If Fehervary and Kempny don’t work out then the Capitals’ second pairing could be in some big trouble, unless players like Alexander Alexeyev or Bobby Nardella can step up (or Brian MacLellan works his magic with the salary cap and brings in a fresh body or two). Barring that, it’s critical that Fehervary or Kempny snag that second pairing spot. If both can prove their worth the Capitals will be deep and strong on that left side.
How healthy can the Capitals stay this season?
The Capitals have been blessed with great health for the last decade or so. Rarely were they hit with big, long-lasting injuries to an important player, going back to when Nicklas Backstrom missed almost 40 games due to a concussion in 2012. But it seems that blessing faded last season when almost all of the Caps’ top players suffered injuries right as the playoffs got underway, as Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller all limped into the postseason.
With the team’s core getting older, it’s likely that those types of injuries will become more common - but their severity will be what determines how deadly the boys in red can be.
Backstrom is already going to miss preseason and possibly the start of the regular season due to his hip injury, but hopefully that’s the worst they’ll see this year. Because if their top players consistently get injured throughout this season it will be really hard for them to stay afloat, especially given the team’s salary cap constraints. Should they manage to weather any health storms that come their way in the regular season, the goal is to be fully healthy going into the playoffs. The Caps are still an incredibly talented team when healthy, but their age and cap issues make any injuries both likely and much tougher to overcome.