Photo: NBC Sports
With the start of Capitals’ training camp set for September 13th, NoVa Caps takes a look at the major concerns of this team going into camp. The team started out last year going 11-10-1 in their first 22 games. Here are eight major concerns for the Capitals this season:
Are we ready to go?
Fast starts are not essential, as the Capitals proved last season and the Pittsburgh Penguins have proven in seasons prior. However “readiness’ will be important when Todd Reirden and the coaching staff “go to the whip” at some point mid-season. Will the team respond when it’s “go time”?
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan did a fantastic job keeping the championship roster mostly intact. Center Jay Beagle and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer were the only departures in the offseason, which is amazing for a championship team. It’s doubtful any one player will step in and match Beagle’s value to the Capitals. Faceoffs and leadership will be the two primary voids Reirden will be looking to fill, with solutions likely coming from a combination of players. Keep an eye on the faceoff stats in the early part of the season, particularly defensive zone draws.
New Coach, New Ways
The transition from Barry Trotz to Reirden will likely go fairly unnoticed at the beginning of the season. Reirden has been in the Capitals trenches for more than four years now, and coach-player relationships are already well-rooted. Keep an eye on the second half of the season, and the culture of the organization. Trotz’ best asset was changing the culture and creating an environment where players wanted to play. Reirden could be even better at that, but we just don’t know yet. Any issues will likely take a while to surface.
Fourth Line Center
With the loss of Beagle, the Capitals have a hole on their fourth line. The team signed center Nic Dowd to a one-year, one-way contract on July 1 but he only has nine goals, 28 points, and a -24 rating in 126 career NHL games. The Capitals’ other options include Chandler Stephenson, who played on Beagle’s wing last year, and Travis Boyd. The Capitals will almost certainly have a younger center than Beagle but no matter who it is, he will have to play a big role on the penalty kill, win important faceoffs, and score clutch goals like Beagle did in Washington.
The Capitals return their entire Stanley Cup-winning defense thanks to long-term extensions for John Carlson, who led NHL defensemen with 68 points last year, and Michal Kempny, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline. The team also retained Brooks Orpik on a one-year deal after the Colorado Avalanche bought out the final year of his contract once they acquired him. Now that Orpik has received a significant pay cut and is 37 years of age, the Capitals may have a rotation with him and Madison Bowey, who signed a two-year contract with the team this summer, and even Christian Djoos.
The weakness of the Capitals’ roster at this point is the backup goaltender position. Let’s face it, the Capitals were spoiled having Philip Grubauer. Those days of good fortune are gone, and the backup position is now a big question. Pheonix Copley will likely get the nod to start the season unless another tender shines in camp, but he struggled with the Bears last season and has a history with injuries. Ilya Samsonov, the Capitals’ top prospect, will likely begin the season in Hershey. The Capitals could also sign a free agent backup goalie to a PTO for a safety net and to push Copley. The most appealing options include Steve Mason and Kari Lehtonen, who each have at least 475 games of NHL experience.
The Capitals are used to having four months of summer before going to training camp but have only three this year. Will the short summer affect their start like it has with previous teams, most notably the Blackhawks and the Penguins? And even if it doesn’t play a role, the team has probably spent a lot of time partying over the summer so their focus could be worse heading into training camp this year than it has the previous few years.
The Capitals have been relatively healthy for the past handful of seasons but it will not stay that way forever. Eventually, players will get injured and the Capitals will go through slumps because of it. Even though the Caps were relatively healthy last season, they had some big injuries like Matt Niskanen‘s upper-body injury in October, Andre Burakovsky‘s hand injuries in October and April, T.J. Oshie‘s concussion in December, and Nicklas Backstrom‘s broken hand in the playoffs. Were these a sign of things to come for an injury-plagued year for the Capitals?
By Harrison Brown and Jon Sorensen