The season is finally upon us! The 2022-23 Washington Capitals will begin their campaign tonight when they hit the ice at Capital One Arena against the Bruins... but before they do, let’s talk about what lies ahead and maybe make a few predictions!
Q1: What is your biggest concern heading into the 2022-23 season?
Peerless: Health. The Caps just cannot afford any more extended absences due to injury. It will be hard enough getting Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom back to 100 percent (or, in Backstrom’s case, as close to it as possible), something that will take some time after so much time missed. And there is what is now the hold-your-breath matter of whether T.J. Oshie can give the Caps 60 or more games.
But there is another dimension to this that does not get a lot of attention. The Caps have an awful lot of eggs in the basket named “Darcy Kuemper.” If he finds himself missing time because he gets nicked up, I don’t see any chance that the Caps make the playoffs. I don’t know what it was that inspired the Caps to give Charlie Lindgren a three-year contract, a goalie who has all of 28 starts in the NHL over six seasons. I don’t pretend to have the scouting data and expertise that led to that decision. I’m just not seeing what evidence there is that he can shoulder the load if Kuemper misses any time.
Geoff.: Considering Washington’s recent history of drafting and developing their own starting goaltenders, it’s Kuemper for me too. Fresh from both a Stanley Cup and a serious eye injury last season he is a wild card until he performs in a Capitals sweater. Kuemper has size and history on his side but after his longest professional season (73 GP), and now at age 32, fatigue might have an effect in 2023. It has been over a decade since a free agent goaltender has taken Washington to the playoffs (Tomas Vokoun) and much of this season’s success falls on the new guy wearing the mask.
J.P.: Peerless is right, of course, but even if this team gets healthy, I’m not sure it has enough offense to really compete or plays sound enough defense to win that way. Maybe they’re “good enough” at both (and I think they may be) that it gets them back to the playoffs, but I’m not sure they’re much of a threat to anyone once they get there as presently constituted. Their greatest strengths in the 2018 run - depth down the middle and secondary scoring - have been decimated by age, injury and the salary cap and they’re patching a leaky ship at this point. All that said, when you have an Ovechkin, you have a chance.
Becca: Age, health, goaltending... blah blah blah. (Please note the utmost respect for my Rink cohorts in those “blahs”.) Those have been talked about to death. For me, an underrated concern is the defensive depth, or lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong - I actually think the Caps’ defensive corps doesn’t get enough respect, and if John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Nick Jensen can continue their strong performances from last season and Martin Fehervary can learn the lessons from an up-and-down rookie outing - and the goaltending proves to be better than last year, as we all hope it will - they’ll be fine... but there’s not a lot of certainty beyond the top five. Erik Gustafsson is something of a wild card in that 6D role and there are questions about who steps in as a defensive callup in case of injuries.
Q2: What are you most excited about in the upcoming season?
Peerless: Two ends of the same spectrum, the old and the new. On the former, it is Alex Ovechkin’s assault on the record books and meeting new milestones in his career. It seems with every passing week he is writing a new entry in the record book. On the latter, last year’s rookies made a meaningful contribution to the Caps’ success, and it will be interesting to see to what degree last year’s rookie class can build on that success. I was surprised that Aliaksei Protas and Joe Snively made the season opening roster, and if could be that others from last year’s rookie class will follow. A preview of what is to come for the Caps, perhaps the difference between having to undertake a “rebuild” and a “remodel” over the next few years.
Geoff: Regular season games and regular season goal scoring. Connor Brown has always scored against the Capitals in his career (0.69 PPG) but now his toolset is on Washington’s side, and that’ll be a treat to see. Also, Anthony Mantha.
J.P.: NHL-caliber starting goaltending (he types with one hand while knocking on wood with the other). The lack of consistency and quality that the last two guys gave them over the past couple of years is demoralizing and tough to overcome; Darcy Kuemper, while probably not an elite netminder, should prove to be more dependable than anything they’ve had over the past half-decade, and that’s overdue in these parts.
Becca: I’m excited about all of the new faces and seeing how they mesh with the old guys. There were lots of positive signs from Dylan Strome, Connor Brown, and Darcy Kuemper in the preseason - and yes, it was preseason, but it’s never a bad thing to see things start to click early on.
Peerless: For me, the wild card is how healthy this team can get over the next two months, whether they can at least stay close, if not hold a slot in the playoff-eligible group of teams in the East, and how well they can sustain their health over the last 50 games. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Tom Wilson returns a bit earlier than originally anticipated, perhaps Veterans Day instead of Thanksgiving (or early-December), and that Nicklas Backstrom does get some regular season minutes over perhaps the last dozen games. They manage to avoid, for the most part, the injury bug otherwise, and they finish third in the Metropolitan Division. I think they are better positioned, at least on paper, to advance past the first round, if for no other reason than they will have more reliably consistent goaltending. I think the chances are a bit better than even that they get to a second round, a bit worse than even that they advance to a conference final.
Geoff.: Washington makes the playoffs, Pittsburgh misses the playoffs. Whatever comes after that is all gravy.
J.P.: Here’s what I said last year:
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.
Lesson learned (yet again): never bet against the Goat. But I’m sticking with that whole “good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round” until they show something different. That said, I think this year will be a bit of a transition year that shows a brighter future than we might have expected. Oh, and keep an eye on Peter Laviolette, who will be coaching in the last year of his current contract… the last time they had a lame duck coach, things worked out alright.
Becca: I’m not sure if they have enough in them to make a serious run, but I also feel like everyone is underrating the team - injuries and all - that will take the ice tonight. The injuries to Backstrom and Wilson are big hits to the roster, but it seems like a lot of people have forgotten that the Caps played some of their best hockey last season when the young guys stepped in for injured veterans. Maybe some of that magic is in there again this year, and if they can put that youthful energy together with some “let me prove you wrong” attitude from guys like Strome and Brown, they’re perfectly capable of getting out to a hot start and maybe making some noise down the road.
...and yes, that’s as far out on a limb as I’m willing to go with my predictions. Happy hockeying!