While it may not be time to panic, an honest assessment of the Capitals heading into November certainly shows signs of concern. With a 5-4-2 record through 11 games, Washington’s 12 standings points have them in sixth place in the ever-competitive Metropolitan division (although they are tied with two other teams and just two points out of first).
More troubling than their spot in the standings is the composition of their roster in light of an ever-compounding list of injuries to key players up and down the lineup. While Washington knew that they would be heading into the year without the services of Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Carl Hagelin, the addition of John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, and Beck Malenstyn to the injured reserve and Connor Brown to long-term injured reserve have stretched the Capitals’ organizational depth to fruit-leather thinness.
Filling in for their injured compatriots are Garrett Pilon and Lucas Johansen, who both were drafted in 2016 and saw their first NHL action in 2021, and the recent organizational addition, Sonny Milano, all called up from Hershey yesterday.
Pilon’s organizational stock has remained steady after having been drafted in the third round in 2016 and leading the Hershey Bears in goals in 2021-22, and the move to Washington could potentially be considered a stretch absent the extenuating circumstances. Johansen, a former top-round pick, has thus far not lived up to his draft pedigree. While he did notch career-best marks last season for points, goals, and plus/minus, prospect watchers had hoped that he might make the leap in training camp this year to a full-time NHL defenseman on the team’s third pairing. Instead, it was Erik Gustafsson, acquired in the offseason via free agency who beat him out for that spot.
Finally, Sonny Milano has also struggled to live up to first-round hype, having further seen his star fall after not getting a free agent deal this past offseason and being let out of his PTO with the Calgary Flames prior to the start of this season.
While necessary to have enough healthy players to fill an entire roster plus black aces, the elevation of these three players does suggest that the Caps’ brass is breaking the glass to hit the emergency button. All three players are waiver-eligible and would need to be made vulnerable to claims if and when they need to be sent back down to Hershey following duties in Washington.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Connor McMichael, who, while eligible to be sent to Hershey without having to clear waivers, has remained a highly-touted spectator for the majority of the season despite hopes that he could both secure and maintain a spot on the game-day roster. Because of the team’s insistence that he be slotted in at his natural center position, it remains entirely possible that despite the team’s body count, that he still may not earn that chance to play.
The elephants no longer in the room are Axel Jonsson-Fjällby and Brett Leason, who combined for 10 points over 59 NHL games last season and were claimed off waivers for no return prior to the start of the 2022 season. This year, Jonsson-Fjällby has tallied one goal in seven games with the Winnipeg Jets while averaging 8:20 of ice time, while Leason has no points in four games with the Anaheim Ducks. While it’s easy to harbor resentments that these two players could have filled the forward-depth roles open due to injuries, it is dubious if they could have served as plug-and-play alternatives that are markedly better options for Washington given the circumstances they find themselves now in.
Nerves and anxiety around the end of Washington’s ability to contend are nothing new around these parts – in fact, the ever-present narrative has been that the Caps’ window has been shutting, or is already shut, for years (including prior to their 2018 Cup run.) These prognostications have continued to be thus far untrue; while they have not regained their championship success, they have continued to field competitive playoff-bound teams that are routinely among the top 10 squads in standings points year in and year out. The hope now is that the Capitals fill-ins are capable enough in their training and pedigree to keep the ship afloat until their services are no longer required.
The next few weeks and, potentially, months ahead may be lacking a veteran presence that has been the hallmark of this club for several years. However, while the window may not have fully shut, we are sure to get a taste of what the future holds in Washington sooner than anyone could have reasonably imagined.