The Washington Capitals made some big changes after their second consecutive first-round exit and allowing an average of 3.44 goals-per-game after December 22, the highest among teams that participated in the NHL’s return-to-play format. After making some moves on defense, in goal, and behind the bench, this looks like a team that very well could do damage but there are still questions nonetheless. NoVa Caps takes a look at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in the midst of the NHL offseason.
5. Should age be a concern?
Captain Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, forward T.J. Oshie, center Lars Eller, and forward Carl Hagelin; defenseman John Carlson, Brenden Dillon, and Justin Schultz will all be at age 30 or older by the time the season starts in January or February. That accounts for half of the Capitals’ top-six forward group and three of the team’s top-four defensive corps.
Ovechkin turned 35 on September 17 and after a down season in 2016-17, he has scored 148 goals in 231 games over the last three seasons and shows no signs of slowing down while Oshie’s 26 goals last season topped his 25 in 2018-19 and Eller and Carlson are each coming off the best seasons of their respective careers. However, Backstrom and Schultz appeared to decline last season as Backstrom’s production dipped from 74 points in 2018-19 to 54 in 61 games in 2019-20 and Schultz is coming off of a year where he played only 46 games and was a -13 last season.
While age might become a concern for a few players, it is less so for others.
4. Who will skate at right-wing on the third-line?
After the Capitals traded for forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the NHL Trade Deadline, Richard Panik dropped down to the fourth-line and appeared to fit better there as he recorded two goals and seven points in the seven regular-season games after posting seven goals and 15 points in 52 games prior.
Kovalchuk is currently an unrestricted free agent and will almost certainly not return. The Capitals would be better off trading for a middle-six forward before the start of the 2020-21 season but that is easier said than done as they are already a little over $1 million over the NHL salary cap.
Unless they clear cap space, the Capitals are expected to fill that hole from within, which could mean forwards Daniel Sprong, Beck Malenstyn, or Brian Pinho, who appeared in Games 3 and 4 of the first-round series vs. the New York Islanders when Backstrom was out as he was in concussion protocol. Pinho recorded 20 goals and 37 points in 62 games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season while Sprong posted a goal and two points in eight games with the Anaheim Ducks and 12 goals and 33 points in 44 AHL games. Malenstyn got three NHL games under his belt in November and posted seven goals and 15 points in 46 AHL games last season.
3. How will the defensive lineup look on opening night?
NovaCaps already touched on this last month. To summarize, the Capitals currently eight defensemen on a one-way contract for this season (Carlson, Dillon, Schultz, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Nick Jensen, and Paul LaDue). In addition, 21-year-old Martin Fehervary should challenge for playing time after impressing with a 53.64% Corsi-for percentage and an assist in six NHL games last season.
The fact that they acquired three right-handed shot defensemen in free agency likely spells the end of the line for Jensen, who appears to be the seventh blueliner and struggled for much of last season until after he was a healthy scratch for the first time as a Capital.
LaDue has spent most of his playing career in the AHL, where he played 48 games last season. However, the Capitals indicated that they see him more as an AHL defenseman as they signed him to a one-way contract. The good news for the Capitals is that they have plenty of depth on the backend after struggling defensively for much of last season. Now, they have to see where everything fits together. It would also make sense to trade a right-handed defenseman before the start of the season with five on the NHL roster.
2. How will Peter Laviolette mesh with Ovechkin?
The Capitals hired Laviolette after back-to-back first-round exits in the Stanley Cup Playoffs despite winning the Metropolitan Division each year. One of the biggest questions is how he will impact Ovechkin.
Laviolette is only the second coach in the Ovechkin-era to be behind the Capitals’ bench with prior NHL head coaching experience (Barry Trotz). While Trotz is one of the NHL’s top coaches, Laviolette has won a Stanley Cup and took three teams to the Stanley Cup Final. In his 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, Trotz never got them past the second round.
Ovechkin has led or co-led the NHL in goals in each of the past three seasons but will have played under his third coach in four seasons. Laviolette is known to get his teams off to a fast start after getting hired, which could set the stage for a hot start for Ovechkin, who enters the 2020-21 season with 706 career goals, two behind Mark Gartner for seventh in NHL history. With some motivation to make up for lost time and Laviolette’s reputation to get his teams off to strong starts, Ovechkin should come out of the gates hot this season.
- How will Ilya Samsonov respond to a higher workload?
The 23-year-old goaltender shined during his rookie season as he went 16-6-2 with a .913 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average, and one shutout, but he faded at the end as he went 1-4-1 with an .873 save percentage and a 4.11 goals-against average after the All-Star break. Samsonov was a 15-2-1 with a .927 save percentage, a 2.06 goals-against average, and a shutout before the All-Star break.
Samsonov appeared well on his way to grab the No. 1 job before he dropped off in February. The key for any young player, especially goaltenders, is consistency, and Samsonov was not as good as he was before the All-Star break.
With Braden Holtby gone, Samsonov is the clear No. 1, and while Lundqvist is a solid goalie, he is coming off the worst season in his NHL career where he went 10-12-3 with a .905 save percentage, a 3.16 goals-against average, and one shutout in his final season with the New York Rangers and is 38-years-old. Lundqvist will be there to help along the way but the net is Samsonov’s and he will need to play like he did in the first half of the 2019-2o season for the Capitals to be successful. Samsonov has only topped 30 games once in his career and until he does so with proficiency, there will be questions regarding his ability to do so especially after he missed the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a tweaked nerve.
By Harrison Brown