With the 2022-23 season just around the corner and training camp kicking off at the end of this week, we’re taking a look at what the Caps look like heading into this new campaign, get to know some of the new faces, and talk about the questions facing this squad. First up? The forwards.
The Caps’ forward group prior to this summer’s free agency shopping spree was already pretty stocked with talent, but it wasn’t without question marks.
Alex Ovechkin will of course be the focus again this season as he continues his chase for Wayne Gretzky’s record, and he enters this season just 21 goals back of Gordie Howe for #2 on the all-time goals list, and 114 behind Gretzky. Ovechkin is coming off yet another 50-goal season and continues to defy the odds. But at 37, how much more does he have in the tank? As always, the Caps’ long-term playoff hopes largely center around their captain.
That doesn’t mean it’s a one-man show, though, nor is he the only aging beauty in the lineup. While the team boasts talented teammates like Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha, 10 of the 15 incumbent forwards are over the age of 30 - not ideal in the young man’s game of hockey, but not necessarily a sign that they can’t make any sort of run. Injections of youth from guys like Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, and the eventual return of the relatively spry (post-recovery) Tom Wilson, could - and will likely need to - give the team a boost. A fully healthy and focused Mantha couldn’t hurt, either, as the lanky forward put up 23 points in just 37 games last year.
Of course, the overall squad looks very different with Wilson and a healthy Nicklas Backstrom in it... so it remains to be seen how each of their recoveries progresses, and what they look like when (and in Backstrom’s case, if) they return.
GM Brian MacLellan and the Caps’ front office were very busy at the beginning of the summer, bringing in some solid depth pieces to complement the existing lineup.
The signing of Dylan Strome was probably the move that made the most waves. The former ‘Hawk/Coyote was available after Chicago somewhat surprisingly walked away from him in the offseason, and he signed a budget-friendly one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Caps just a few days later. He joins the team with the expectation of filling in at second-line center in Backstrom’s absence, and while no one can ever replace someone like Backstrom, he’s a pretty good back-up option to have:
Dylan Strome, signed 1x$3.5M by WSH, is a playmaking top six centre with a good shot. Has a knack for delivering high-danger passes off the rush and making good decisions under pressure around the net. #AllCaps pic.twitter.com/tODaUHxMSC— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 14, 2022
As exciting as the Strome signing was, don’t sleep on one of the team’s other moves this summer, which was the trade for Connor Brown from the Senators. Brown’s not going to challenge Ovechkin for the goal-scoring title, but he’s a strong depth player who is capable of putting up 20+ goals a season (and did just that in only 56 games back in 2020-21).
As for the third forward addition, Henrik Borgstrom, he could be a project, and isn’t necessarily a lock to even make the opening-night lineup... but he’s also got potential to be a solid defensive forward, and is coming off a season where his relative stats were almost all positive (on a not very good Chicago team).
Our SBN pals over at Second City Hockey summed it up this way (and their season recap of him is a good breakdown of just what the Caps are getting):
[T]he Blackhawks had better possession of the puck — in terms of quality and quantity — when Borgstrom was on the ice. And that comes despite Borgstrom having an offensive zone start percentage of 39.5, which is 10th among the 15 Blackhawks forwards who skated 250 minutes at 5-on-5 last season.
The Dark Horse
Connor McMichael. McMichael was easily the most anticipated piece of the puzzle last season, but results in his rookie campaign were somewhat mixed - and because those mixed results haven’t earned him the trust of the coaching staff just yet, there was a smaller-than-expected sample size to look at when assessing his first NHL steps.
None of that is to suggest, however, that McMichael can’t or won’t take big steps forward this season. With Backstrom and Wilson on the sidelines indefinitely and some other unproven pieces waiting in the wings, the Caps will need him to do so.
Can Nicklas Backstrom return to the lineup - and if he does, at what capacity? Who gets the nod while Backstrom/Wilson are out to start the season? How much does Alex Ovechkin have left in the tank? After an up-and-down rookie campaign, is Connor McMichael ready to make the leap to the full-time lineup?
There are a lot of unknowns facing the Caps as they head into this season, and most of them center around their forward situation. There’s not a ton of competition for actual lineup spots, but there will be competition for ice time and plenty of discussions about lineup configurations, which should make camp pretty fun to watch.
So what does the season ahead hold for the forwards? At best, on paper, they can overcome the age issue and ride stellar campaigns by their top talent - complemented by the strong depth pieces in the system and added this summer - to be a playoff team with a chance to be a dark horse for a long run. At worst, they struggle without Backstrom and Wilson, the new guys don’t mesh, and the kids aren’t able to make up the difference.
The fun part about sports, of course, is that we don’t know which it’ll be (or if the reality will fall somewhere in the middle, which of course is the most likely).
At a glance, though, this group could surprise some people.