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Reasons to be Optimistic About the 2023-24 Caps

Photo courtesy of the Washington Capitals

Inhales copium…

It’d be safe to classify the 2022-23 Washington Capitals season as a horror movie. It wasn’t a slasher film rife with jumpscares and gore, but more of a slow-paced psychological thriller that gradually got more depressing the further it went along. 

After that trainwreck, and with an aging core adding another year to its odometer, writing this team off is a pretty safe prediction to make. Analytics-based models have the team finishing comfortably in the draft lottery, and even most of the oldheads feel the same. It takes a herculean effort to get those two schools of thought to agree, and the Caps managed to do it without breaking a sweat.

I’m looking at this upcoming Capitals season a bit differently from most, however. I’m not viewing this year as a horror movie. I don’t quite think it’s the Shakespearean tragedy many are expecting. Rather, I prefer to picture these Caps as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. There are so many questions regarding this season that we simply do not have the answers for yet, with plenty of reason to guess one way or the other. This year’s squad is worth watching simply to figure out what choices end up taking shape for Washington as they burn all the tape from last year. With the season opener tomorrow, I’ve narrowed down three specific areas that we’ll have far more information on in the coming months than we do now.


When the Capitals ousted Todd Reirden as head coach after an unsuccessful run in the Bubble, a common sentiment among fans and ultimately management was that prior experience was a must in determining the next coach.

With Peter Laviolette unable to carry his success from every other stop over to DC, the front office shifted their approach and bet on an emerging assistant with fresh ideas hoping to teach old dogs new tricks. Enter Spencer Carbery, who has already felt like a breath of fresh air with promises of playing more to the roster’s strengths, and showing more of a willingness to ice players not old enough to remember Y2K. 

Many coaching changes are, of course, accompanied by this honeymoon phase where players speak glowingly of the differences they see under their new boss. With how many players seemed to tune out Laviolette (some being more open than others about it), I think there could be more to the positivity regarding the switch than just mere lip service. Seeing how this is the organization’s third head coach in the last five seasons, we’ll get more clarity on a specific question here; how much of this core’s decline is on the roster, and how much of it truly was on poor coaching fits? Believing it’s the latter is fair, but the possibility of Carbery being the long-term answer at head coach as the organization transitions into a new era is something every Caps fan should be rooting for. 

Shuffling the deck at forward.

Since the end of last year, the stated mission for the Capitals’ offseason was simple: acquire a top-six forward capable of lifting what became an anemic offense last season. Some major names were moved throughout the summer such as Alex DeBrincat and Pierre-Luc Dubois, with many more being named in rumors. None of them became Washington Capitals. On the surface, watching last season go as far off the rails as it did and still remaining static with the roster is pretty uninspiring.

The Capitals didn’t remain static however. Since becoming general manager in 2015, one area where Brian MacLellan’s front office has excelled at has been getting production out of previously unheralded talent.  It was one of the factors that propelled them to their 2018 Stanley Cup, with signings such as Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly playing key roles in clutch moments. 

 This was also the source of most bright spots for a rough 2022-23 campaign. Sonny Milano and Dylan Strome were both picked up deep in the offseason after being undervalued by their previous teams, and in a year where virtually everything went wrong, they parlayed strong performances into multi-year extensions that made them a part of the Capitals’ future.

This offseason saw the Capitals take another low-risk gamble in Matthew Phillips. Outside of Alberta, where he starred for the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate, the move was met with little fanfare. After a strong training camp and preseason, there’s much more intrigue around his name as the undersized forward forced his way onto the Caps opening night roster.

Phillips is joined by a slew of forwards with a good deal of professional experience still trying to establish themselves as NHL regulars, such as 2019 draft picks Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas who have both put together strong underlying numbers in the limited time they’ve had with the main club. Waiting in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber is Max Pacioretty, who has considerably more tread on his tires than the names listed above, but (when healthy) does add that scoring touch the Capitals spent all summer scouring the earth for. 

 While the Caps weren’t able to make a big swing to match some of the emerging powers in the East, they’ve quietly built a deep forward group with many young players that have strong cases to be legitimate contributors at the NHL level. Maybe these names wouldn’t crack anyone’s top prospects list, but there are plenty of examples across the league of teams with “no name” players that became more than the sum of their parts and accomplished more than anyone expected them to. The depth of this forward group gives Carbery plenty of room for creativity in finding a combination capable of doing something similar.

In the Best Shape of His Life™

Any positive scenario for this upcoming season hinges on bounceback seasons from several members of this Capitals’ core roster, such as Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom; all of whom put up some of the worst results on the team via Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) model last year:

This is the time of year where every veteran player is, according to all reports, In the Best Shape of Their Life™; the professional sports equivalent of going to the gym more often as a New Year’s resolution. There’s been no shortage of that talk in most interviews featuring players who’ve been maligned for their performance last year. Given how long this group has been around, it’s understandable why many would put more stock in the age curve than offseason workout videos in determining how far this team can go.

However, there’s legitimate reason to believe these players can rebound. Wilson and Backstrom were both one year removed from major surgeries, and came back to a roster that had largely given up for the most part. The (very) early returns this year have shown promise as the two posted strong results in preseason play, with Backstrom in particular looking far more mobile than he did last year.

The most important domino to fall on this front would be Evgeny Kuznetsov, who, in theory, should be this team’s unquestioned top-line center. In practice, that level of production waxes and wanes sporadically, doing far more of the latter last season. His talent being muddied by an inconsistent effort level has been a trend Caps fans have tired of, but after nothing came of reported attempts to move him, there’s no choice but to give him another chance.

Now, while comments in support of Carbery’s philosophy compared to Laviolette and his own motivation to have a strong year might draw eyerolls from the growing section of the fanbase ready to move on from him, this level of apathy towards him is nothing new. It was just two offseasons ago where he similarly was the subject of trade rumors as frustrations with his play had peaked. He responded by putting up the second highest point total of his career as he earned a temporary pass back into the fanbase’s good graces. I don’t think anyone would be naive to believe in Kuznetsov’s potential to bounce back more than anyone else’s on the team. He has an abundance of talent to do it, and more importantly to some, no excuses if it doesn’t translate on the ice this time.

On a collective level, yes, there’s plenty of wishful thinking in expecting a group five years removed from their last playoff series win to suddenly turn back the clock and dominate as they did in years past. Even the rosiest outlook on this team isn’t assuming a 23 year old Nicklas Backstrom is skating at MedStar Capitals Iceplex right now. On a micro level however, each individual player has a plausible case to be given one more shot to prove they’re still capable of heading a formidable lineup, as they have in seven of the eight years they’ve been together. Is it that much of a stretch to think they can go 8 for 9?

There have been many definitive conclusions made about this team since last season ended. Conventional wisdom says that an aging (and increasingly oft-injured) core supplanted by lower-profile prospects should have zero business contending for a playoff spot. Not in a division with buzzsaws like the Hurricanes or Devils. Not in a conference featuring younger teams with much more obvious contention paths that should be able to pass the Caps on the NHL’s food chain if they already haven’t. The last twelve months have raised plenty of questions about the future of this Capitals team, and if there’s anything worth pursuing here outside of Alex Ovechkin’s hunt for goal #895.

What gets lost in the discussion of this year’s team is the fact that those questions, while concerning, have yet to be answered. Relative to the rest of the league, this franchise has enjoyed plenty of stability in the bulk of the Ovechkin era. This season sees the Capitals dip their toes in the foreign waters of the unknown. To many, that’s (understandably) reason to worry. For me, that makes them appointment viewing, even if they deliver a sequel of last year’s psychological horror that nobody asked for.


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