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.
Now that we’ve tackled each part of the lineup, today we’re looking at some general thoughts, observations, questions and predictions for the upcoming season.
Going into a contract year as a head coach is a precarious position to be in; even more so when your team has failed to get out of the first round in the first two playoffs under your watch. So yes, Peter Laviolette could be on some thin ice if things don’t go well right away, although he may have a bit of leeway given the long-term absence of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson to start the season.
But his GM has done a good job of giving him a pretty decent roster to work with this season, and (for the first time) he should have a steady presence in net, as well. What he does with that will determine whether he sticks around in DC long-term, or is searching for a new gig by springtime.
The Age Factor
It’s the old, wrinkled elephant in the room: the Washington Capitals are not a young team. 16 of their expected regulars, including their starting netminder, are over the age of 30 - which will easily make them one of the oldest teams in the NHL when the season starts.
(Interestingly, the Penguins are projected to be the oldest, with a much more injury-prone core of stars, and yet seem to be getting all of the love for the upcoming season without any of the “but they’re old!” pearl-clutching... but I digress.)
It should be noted, and we’ve noted it earlier this week, that simply being an older team doesn’t mean they can’t have success. What it does mean, though, is that a) Laviolette will likely need to monitor the ice time of some of those older guys - aka most of the team’s most talented players - to keep them fresh over the long season and (hopefully) into the playoffs, and b) injuries are just more likely to happen, again to those key players.
The good news, which we found out last year when the injury bug hit, is that the team has the future talent to fill in should those injuries hit, and a lot of those kids are probably ready to make the leap permanent. But the top guys are still the oldest, and they’ll already be missing one of them for a good chunk of the season (at least) with Nicklas Backstrom out indefinitely. Losing a John Carlson, a T.J. Oshie, or god forbid an Alex Ovechkin, for significant time will put a damper on any postseason hopes.
Backstrom is obviously the biggest one, and we’ll talk more about that in a second, but it’s just one piece of the complicated puzzle. Tom Wilson is the most notable absence heading into the season, as he’s coming off of offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL. Wilson is reportedly ahead of schedule on his recovery, but that still puts him at an early December return - that’s roughly two months of the season that can be key in setting up the team’s playoff positioning, without two of their top-six guys.
The third unknown is Carl Hagelin, and while he’s not a big-minute guy (and could probably be replaced by any of the depth forwards now kicking around DC), whatever his timeline for recovery from his eye injury is will determine what - if any - moves need to be made to get the team back under the salary cap. We of course are hoping he can heal completely, just on a personal level, but from a money perspective... take your time, Carl.
The Implications of Backstrom’s Absence and Potential Return
As alluded to above, that Backstrom issue is a tricky one - and not just on an emotional level that makes some of us want to curl up in the fetal position just to think about a future without him.
Backstrom’s lingering hip injury has reduced his effectiveness over the past few years, but the surgery to “fix” it is not one that is easy to come back from. So there is a very real chance that we’ve seen him play his last game, which would both be heartbreaking and an unworthy ending to an incredible career. But if he does come back, there are a couple of things that make it more complicated.
For one, there’s the pesky business side, namely the salary cap issue. A few moves were made this offseason that not only filled his role for the foreseeable future but used up the LTIR funds - over $6 million - that would then need to be freed up for him to return. For another, if he somehow is able to return this year, he may not be anywhere close to 100% - and it may not be for very long. So the team would have to make moves to clear up the space to bring him back, only to find that he can’t return and now they’ve lost the pieces needed to replace him.
It’s a tricky situation. The best-case scenario is that he sits out as long as he needs to but is able to return in time to get geared up for the postseason, and the team is able to make cap-space moves that don’t harm the overall makeup to bring him back - or hell, even better, they orchestrate a Nikita Kucherov-esque situation where he can come back after the regular season when there is no cap and they can keep the team in tact while allowing him at least one more playoff run.
And there you have it! Training camp gets underway tomorrow, where we’ll start to get some answers to the questions hanging over the team... and likely have even more questions pop up.
Because that’s just the fun part of sports, isn’t it?