The 2019 offseason has seen the greatest amount of turnover to the Washington Capitals roster in a number of years, with the greatest amount of change occurring on the Caps blueline. Matt Niskanen was shipped to Philly in exchange for Radko Gudas, and backend stalwart Brooks Orpik officially retired. Whether the changes will be net positive or net negative will not be known likely until next spring, however, there are obvious questions now facing the blueline as they begin preparations for the coming season. Here are the top 5 questions facing the Washington Capitals blue line entering the 2019-2020 season.
1. Will Nick Jensen survive and thrive with increased responsibilities at D4? The reviews of newcomer Nick Jensen’s play last season were very mixed, to say the least, depending on who you talk to. He certainly showed periods of weakness defending the eadge, and defending one-on-one down the middle. It’s generally agreed that he will need to improve his overall play on the second pairing this coming season. The evaluation sample size to this point has been relatively small, so in the end, the jury is still out on Jensen. However, his spot at D4 is critical to the Capitals success. We should know by the end of December if Jensen can hold down the D4 spot, or if the Capitals have serious issues ahead.
2. Will Dmitri Orlov return to top-level form this season? There is little debate about Orlovs play last season. It was not a good season for Dmitry. His defense was sub-par, puck handling was at times atrocious, and in some games, it looked like his focus was a million miles away from the ice. (examples here). However, in the end, concern over Orlov’s play for the coming season could be minor. He’s shown elite-level play in the past, and last season was likely an aberration, possibly related to the short off-season. Matt Niskanen was the great “Orlov whisperer”, so it will be interesting to see how Orlov does without “the deuce” on the team.
3. Will Michal Kempny fully recover from injury and return to top-level form? Kempny stated in a recent interview with Czech media that he’s not 100% certain he will be ready to go by training camp, but he is very close. Even if Kempny needs to miss a few games at the start of the season, that’s no big deal in the grand scheme of things. The real issue is how will he play, and can he return to his top level of performance. Detaching a muscle from a bone is a nasty injury, and we’ve seen players in the past respond and recover and some not. We should know by the All-Star break if Kempny can fully return to top-level form.
4. Will the blue line be able to replace the lost leadership and experience? Replacing Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik on the backend will likely improve team metrics in a number of categories, but will the loss of leadership and experience counter that gain. This may take a full season, and possibly the post season to determine the full affect of the loss of the experience and leadership. Can others step up? Developing new leadership will take time, but it can be done.
5. Will the Capitals correct systemic issue with the blueline? Former Capitals bench boss Barry Trotz took his coaches to the Islanders and created the best defense in the NHL last season. New Capitals head coach Todd Reirden and his assistants were unable to fully replicate the team’s previous years successes on the blueline (some issues detailed here). However, let’s give Reirden and company at least one more season to turn things around with the blueline. Remember, it took Trotz, a seasoned veteran coach, four seasons with the Capitals before he won a championship. Reirden is no longer a rookie, so we should see systemic improvements both offensively and defensively, and most likely in his overall game management.
All teams have questions entering a new season and the Capitals are no different. The offense is once again returning a majority of their core scoring, with the exception of Brett Connolly, so there are concerns offensively with the Capitals. However, it’s clear the focus will be on the play of the Capitals defense.
By Jon Sorensen