Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The 2020-21 season appears to be around five weeks away with the NHL and players’ association grinding away at closing out an agreement and it appears certain that this season will be shorter than unusual due to COVID-19. There are obviously some advantages and disadvantages for every team. How would a shorter season impact the Washington Capitals? NoVa Caps takes look.
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 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 defensemen. Even though most produced well last season, the Capitals have one of the oldest groups in the NHL with an average age of nearly 29.6 years old.
While the Capitals only have so many years with this group, they have gotten a lot of rest since March as they were together as a team for around five and a half weeks over the summer. The extra rest they’ve had since the playoffs should help the core players feel refreshed when it is time to get back on the ice, which could be good for the Capitals.
Peter Laviolette Has a History of Hot Starts in His First-Year with Teams
Laviolette is known for getting his teams off to a good start right off the hop as the Nashville Predators started 16-5-2 in their first 23 games under Laviolette in 2014-15 and 30-9-4 in their first 43. In addition, the New York Islanders were 9-0-2 in their first 11 games and 15-5-2 in their first 22 under Laviolette in 2001-02.
In a shortened season, a hot start would give the Capitals a big cushion in the division and conference standings and put them in a good position for the post-season.
The NHL and NHLPA are considering 52- and 56-game seasons. Through 52 games last season, the Capitals led the league with a 35-12-5 record. Through 56, they were just three points behind first place with a 36-15-5 record. They finished the regular season 10 points behind first-place and were in danger of losing the Metropolitan Division lead due to some struggles after the NHL’s holiday break in December. If the Capitals can start strong, they are going to make it harder for other teams to catch them.
Eases Ilya Samsonov’s Growth
After Braden Holtby signed with the Vancouver Canucks in free agency, the 23-year-old has never played more than 28 games in a season. The Capitals signed Henrik Lundqvist to help ease Samsonov’s workload for the upcoming season but he would have likely started somewhere around 45 games in an 82-game season.
With a shorter season, Samsonov will get to ease into the Capitals’ starting job as 45 starts in 82 games equates to 29 games in a 52-game season or 31 in a 56-game schedule. This will further help his development because the Capitals can allow Samsonov to work his way up to a heavier workload without expecting him to play 17 more games than last year.
This may be especially beneficial after Samsonov tweaked his nerve before the return-to-play tournament over the summer and was unable to participate. He is healthy but this will still help him.
Fewer Miles Traveled and No Time Changes
The Capitals will almost certainly not have to travel anywhere outside of their timezone as the rumors have had them in a division with the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, and either the Carolina Hurricanes or Pittsburgh Penguins. If that is the case, all the teams play in the same time zone so the Capitals won’t have a long plane flight or play in a different time zone until the second-round or Eastern Conference Final if they get there.
This will help the older players get rest during the season, which could be beneficial as it is expected that this season’s schedule will be more compressed than in the past.
Less Time to Test Defensive-Pairing Combinations
The Capitals underwent a lot of changes on defense over the offseason as they signed Justin Schultz, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Paul LaDue to one-way contracts. They currently have eight defensemen on one-way contracts for this season, and five of them are right-handed shooters. In addition, prospect Martin Fehervary excelled when given a chance with the NHL club last season when he recorded a 53.64% Corsi-for percentage and an assist in six regular-season games.
While Laviolette has likely been licking his chops over his options on defense for the coming season, he will have less time to see how the pieces fit together before the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the lack of continuity in partners could affect the play of the defensemen.
There have been rumors over the past few days that there could be no exhibition games this season. Not having any exhibition games before the puck drops for regular-season games could put Laviolette at a disadvantage because he will less time to experiment with line combinations.
In addition, it could be challenging for the older players since they will not be able to ease back into competitive matches, which might affect their performance because they will not have seen any game action since mid-August.
The NHL is trying to finish the season before the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, are slated to begin on July 23 since NBC has the rights to the Games. As a result, teams will likely see more back-to-backs this season to accommodate that deadline. Though Commissioner Bettman has said that the NHL has schedule models for the upcoming season that extend beyond the start of the Olympics, the pressure from NBC will likely drive the schedule.
This could take a toll on an older team like the Capitals, whose Stanley Cup window may be nearing its end. While they have had more rest than they did the previous summer, the fact that they could have less rest during the season could be concerning.
Less Time to Adjust to Laviolette’s System/New Additions
Under Adam Oates, the team began the 2012-13 season 11-15-1, 30th in the NHL, before eventually getting hot and punching a ticket to the postseason. Under Barry Trotz, the Capitals started the 2014-15 season with a 10-10-1 record, 21st, before eventually finding their game and making the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division. At the start of the Todd Reirden era, the Capitals began the 2018-19 season with a 7-6-3 record, tied for 22nd, before getting hot and winning the division.
While Laviolette is known to get his teams going right away, the Capitals have struggled to adjust to a new coach lately. In addition, the Capitals underwent a lot of changes on defense and in the crease with their Stanley Cup-winning goalie out the door.
While a hot start will be significant, a slow start will be the same — just in the opposite direction. That would not be ideal as this team is already getting older and having an intense, compressed regular-season could take its toll when the playoffs start.
By Harrison Brown