Photo: NBC Sports
After a First Round exit in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Washington Capitals, it’s time to look ahead to the 2019-20 season and see what the team needs to do to put the team in a good position for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons. The NoVa Caps’ staff shares their thoughts on what changes that the Capitals need to make before they take the ice again for training camp in September.
The Capitals will bring back most of their core to make a run for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons but will likely see a lot of changes in their depth with forwards Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly, and Devante Smith-Pelly set to become unrestricted free agents. The Capitals should try to re-sign Connolly, who recorded 20 goals for the first time in his career in 2018-19, and Hagelin, who improved the penalty kill and added speed to the bottom-six after the team acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings on February 21. The top priority will be to re-sign Connolly as 20-goal scorers are hard to replace. If one of them leaves, a trade to acquire another forward may be necessary. Smith-Pelly will almost certainly leave.
The team is pretty much set on defense but could look to add a seventh defenseman as Christian Djoos has missed significant time due to injury the past two seasons and Brooks Orpik likely heading into retirement. As long as Michal Kempny is healthy, their top-four defensive corps is solid. They could look to trade Matt Niskanen to free up cap space and re-sign Hagelin or sign another forward as he is on the wrong side of 30 and his play started to decline this past season. While defenseman Erik Karlsson will be the top unrestricted free agent, there’s no way the Capitals could afford him if they want to ink center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby to contract extensions as both can hit unrestricted free agency next offseason. The two can sign contract extensions on July 1 or beyond.
With Karlsson almost certainly off of the Capitals’ radar, some of the top defensive free agent targets include Anton Stralman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tyler Myers of the Winnipeg Jets, and Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Though their defense looks pretty good on paper as their top-four defensemen from their Stanley Cup winning team will be on the roster in 2018-19, they could use more depth in case of injury. Djoos and Nick Jensen make up a good third defensive pair if they are healthy and improve after struggling this past season but Djoos could be bumped out of the lineup if the Capitals go after some more depth on the backend.
Some better, more experienced coaching would help too.
The Capitals’ defense was one of the biggest issues that hurt them throughout this season. Between inconsistency and sloppy play, the blue line was also plagued by several major injuries (Orpik, Djoos, Kempny) that, in the end, affected the team’s ability to repeat a Stanley Cup Championship.
The Dmitry Orlov-Niskanen pairing was probably the most disappointing production from the Capitals’ defense. Despite playing all 82 games, Orlov only posted 29 points (three goals that were all on the road). The last time he had a three-goal year was back in the 2013-14 season when he was coming back from an upper-body injury that kept him out for all but five games. Niskanen played 80 games and recorded 25 points (eight goals). In the Capitals’ short run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, neither defensemen scored any goals but combined for six assists (Orlov accounting for four of them).
As I said prior, inconsistency and messy play factored roles in the decline of depth from that duo. Could a Niskanen trade be possible this summer? I would not be surprised if it did. Since the Capitals signed him as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, Niskanen has been beneficial to the team; however, this season was not one of his best and it showed.
Another feature the defense lacked was speed. This was evident, especially during the postseason. The Carolina Hurricanes’ defensemen were quick, which led to managing the puck better; it was something Washington defensemen could not keep up with.
Not only do the Capitals have an unrestricted free agent and restricted free agent forwards, but also defensemen. Orpik (UFA) and Djoos (RFA) will be players to watch this summer. Washington needs younger, faster defensemen who can provide the consistent production the team needs. Physicality was average from the blue line this season. With the acquisition of Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings near the NHL Trade Deadline, the physical aspects of the game were fair when scraps broke out at the net.
It will be interesting to see what changes General Manager Brain MacLellan makes during the offseason. Power play and penalty kill struggles must be addressed. The face-off win needs to improve. I even think more experienced coaching could help the Capitals for an overall better and productive 2019-20 season.
The Capitals must improve their special teams. The power play, once a solid strength, struggled at inopportune moments late in the season. The penalty kill, dreadful for most of the campaign, is below championship caliber. Washington’s deficiencies on special teams directly correlate to the team’s larger weaknesses: a dearth of team speed and aggressiveness, defensive breakdowns, lousy faceoff stats, and lack of coaching adjustments. Some of these problems are tactical and some are personnel issues. Properly addressing these flaws can prime Washington for another Cup run.
The Capitals’ vaunted power play short-circuited to the point of being unreliable this Spring. The most glaring example was the failure to cash in during overtime of Game 7 versus Carolina. Gifted with a rare overtime man advantage, the Caps failed to generate a single shot on goal, let alone pot a series-clinching goal.
Despite a respectable 20.8% conversion rate, good for twelfth in the league during the regular season, the Caps’ power play is flawed. About midway through the season, teams figured out being more aggressive could break down the Capitals’ slick-passing man advantage. Nick Backstrom, a patient, masterful puck protector along the wall, was challenged to move the puck faster with less open space to survey the ice. The defensive aggressiveness led to too many passing breakdowns and easy clears. Tactically, the Caps could give teams different looks to slow the pursuit of the penalty killers. In Game 1 against Carolina, Washington moved Backstrom down low near the crease which paid immediate dividends. Yet, as the series progressed the team reverted to moving the puck around the top of the umbrella and force-feeding Alex Ovechkin.
Another tactical change fans begged for was abandoning the “slingshot” zone entry. Opponents, again upping the puck pressure, stacked four skaters along the blue line. Reluctant to dump the puck, even with ample evidence the slingshot was not pushing defenders back, the Caps cost themselves valuable zone time. Both the stagnant power play and slingshot are coaching decisions that can and must be fixed. Personnel-wise, it may be time to move Evgeny Kuznetsov off the top power-play unit. As skillful a passer as he is, it might be more productive to have a more dogged pursuer of the puck skating with the first unit. Tom Wilson, who saw some top unit time in T.J. Oshie’s absence, Lars Eller, or even a fourth line grinder with speed might all be better options to chase down dump-ins and do the dirty work in the corners. Failure to win puck battles and, of course, failure to win offensive zone faceoffs frequently made power player entries “one and done” forcing the Capitals to burn precious seconds chasing easy clears by the defense. Altering the unit’s design and personnel could restore Washington’s power play as a dominant weapon.
I think the word the Washington Capitals need to focus on this offseason in order to improve is “speed”. I know it’s been the hot word for the last five years, but it has been for a reason. The Capitals are a physical team, but they also have (or had) speed, it’s what made them so deadly for years and ultimately won them the Cup. But the Capitals lost in the playoffs the day Michal Kempny got hurt weeks before the postseason even began. Kempny was their best defensive skater and losing him for a seven-game series against the fastest team in the league was their ultimate doom. That series really showed that the Capitals really lacked speed or enough speed to keep up with the likes of the Carolina Hurricanes. Specifically, that series really showed that the Caps need to get faster on the backend.
They were consistently beaten to the puck on the forecheck, which resulted in a lot of Hurricane scoring chances. A good start to fix this would be letting Brooks Orpik go. Everybody loves him, but his speed, or lack of, is a hindrance on the ice. Hopefully, he retires so the Caps don’t have to make a choice about him. A second move the Capitals should look into is moving Matt Niskanen. This would be good on two levels: saving cap space and speeding up the defensive core. Listen, no one is saying Niskanen is bad, he isn’t, but with Nick Jensen now in the mix, he can do the same jobs Niskanen is doing but at a much faster pace and a cheaper price. Replacing Orpik and Niskanen with Jonas Siegenthaler (a revelation this season) and Jensen would be a huge boost to the speed on the back end. A Kempny-Carlson, Orlov-Jensen, Djoos-Siegenthaler defensive core is arguably the best core in the Alexander Ovechkin era. Every pairing has speed (Kempny, Jensen, Siegenthaler) and skill (Carlson, Orlov, Djoos). That’s a core that could get the puck in the defensive zone, get it out of the zone, and into the offensive zone all at a very quick pace.
For the forwards, the issue with speed is that three of the top players (Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ Oshie) are not fast. They aren’t slow, but they aren’t fast. Luckily they can surround them with speedsters like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, and Lars Eller. So what the Capitals could do is separate all three of those “slower” players by line, allowing to spread out not just speed but skill. I know seeing Oshie on the third line may turn someone off, but if it makes three fast, highly skilled lines it certainly seems worth it. The next big question is who will be the final two forwards to fill out the top-nine lineup? Brett Connolly is coming off a career year, but could he repeat it? Carl Hagelin was a fantastic addition, but he certainly doesn’t brim with offensive ability. Andre Burakovsky has the whole package of skill, speed, and smarts, but can he put it together for the Caps full time? Speedy, skilled unrestricted free agents like Mats Zuccarello or even fan favorite Marcus Johansson would be fantastic additions. It’s not worth really speculating yet who could stay or go, but think it should be definite that whoever the other two players are that make up the top nine should have speed and skill. The Capitals really don’t need to make too many changes to improve. It really comes down to trimming some fat and spreading out the skill around their lineup. They still are very much a Cup contender and should be for years to come… with the right moves.
First, let me start by reiterating that this Capitals team is still rich with talent and will likely be in that state for years to come. Any real gasp by the fan base should come if and when the Capitals do not make the postseason. Having said that, the Capitals have given ground to a number of teams around the league, including Metro teams (Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders). A team with the core talent such as the Capitals can immediately shift its attention to making the final step, a championship, and that’s where the Capitals need work.
GMBM stated on the teams breakdown day that he’s not opposed to unloading some salary in order to fortify the forward corps, so you have to assume another middle/bottom six forward is on his to do list. If the Capitals lose Connolly (second on the team to Ovechkin in 5-on-5 points), that will leave a sizeable scoring hole in the Capitals lineup, that will have to be addressed. The bottom-six will also need to be fortified. If Burakovsky is let go, the Capitals would need to find a replacement. Look for Garrett Pilon to be the only Hershey Near likely to challenge for a bottom-six spot in this year’s training camp. He drew an extended look from the coaching staff in training camp, impressing Capitals brass. But he still may need another year in Hershey.
I am probably one of the minority who feels the defense needs serious attention. If Orpik and Niskanen are not back, that leaves 25 years of experience gone from the team. The Capitals will need at least one new (young and fast) defenseman this coming season. After watching 85 Bears games this season, it’s fairlyclear no defenseman is quite ready to make the leap to the Capitals. Djoos and Siegenthaler have proven to be fringe defensemen (so far), meaning they are better suited for the 7 spot. When Siegenthaler was returned to Hershey mid-season, Reirden stated that he felt Jonas had fallen off as time wore on. His time in Hershey both at the start of the season and mid-season was tremendously underwhelming. Maybe he wasn’t motivated, but he wasn’t the best defenseman in Chocolate Town at the time of both callups. Jensen was seriously exposed in his short time with the Capitals, particularly in the playoffs (on the edge, and down the middle) and Djoos was essentially benched. Djoos was rebounding from a serious injury, so hopefully their in improvement following his sophomore slump. Free agency seems to be the only route here, if the Capitals want to make another serious run next season. Otherwise go with the kids and look to use the season to improve their game (hopefully).
Finally, I think the power play needs changes to the overall system, and possibly coaching. The core players are the same as when they where the best in the league, so it seems fairly obvious the need here. Something changed from the previous year. That needs to be overhauled.