Three Capitals’ Players Who Must Bounce Back In 2020-21

Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

As the NHL inches closer towards the start of the 2020-21 season, every team has key players that will need to bounce back after a personally-disappointing 2019-20 season. NoVa Caps looks at three Washington Capitals who need to rebound after subpar performances in 2019-20.

Justin Schultz

The 30-year-old defenseman was signed to a two-year contract that carries a cap hit of $4 million with the Capitals on October 9 to play on their second pairing after the team averaged 3.44 goals-against per game from December 22 on last season (the third-worst in the NHL and the most among the 24 teams that participated in the return-to-play format).

However, Schultz did not have a very good season in his final year with the Pittsburgh Penguins as he recorded just three goals, 12 points, a -13 rating, a 49.77% Corsi-for percentage, and a 50.88% expected goals-for percentage in 46 games. Schultz has missed 95 games due to injury over the past three seasons.

Schultz has shown promise at points during his career, setting career-highs of 12 goals, 51 points, and a +27 rating in 78 games in 2016-17 and was the Penguins’ No. 1 defenseman during their run to the Stanley Cup in 2017 when Kris Letang was out due to injury. He is expected to help turn around a defense that was porous for the last half of the 2019-20 season and is projected to play on the second defensive pairing with Dmitry Orlov.

Some were skeptical when the Capitals signed Schultz to a $4 million contract, so he must rediscover his 2016-17 form. The good news is that he will be working with a strong defensive coach in Peter Laviolette.

Nicklas Backstrom

The 33-year-old center is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, recording just 12 goals and 54 points in 61 games during the regular season. He tallied at least 70 points or averaged at least a point-per-game in nine consecutive seasons before last season.

Backstrom missed eight games in the regular season due to a lower-body injury and three in the Stanley Cup Playoffs due to an undisclosed injury, but he was not the same even when healthy.

He signed a five-year contract extension on January 14 that carries a $9.2 million cap hit, arguably more than anyone expected. The contract made him the second-highest-paid Capital (behind captain Alex Ovechkin: $9.53 million). Big paydays come with high expectations and Backstrom has been one of the most consistent Capitals for years but he is on the older side and the fact that his cap hit was higher than expected adds to the pressure to have a great year.

As one of the leaders and best players on the team, Backstrom will be expected to prove last season was a fluke.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Since leading the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 32 points in 24 games and leading the Capitals with 21 points in their first 18 games of the 2018-19 season, the 28-year-old has fallen off a bit and once again failed to meet expectations last season when he recorded 19 goals and 52 points in 63 regular-season games. To his credit, he played well before sustaining a lower-body injury as he posted 19 goals and 46 points in 52 games (which could be the length of the upcoming season), but Kuznetsov will have to return to his peak performance if the Capitals are going to make a deep playoff run.

His point total was the lowest since his rookie season in 2014-15 when he finished with 11 goals and 37 points in 80 games. Notably, Kuznetsov appeared to improve in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs where he recorded three goals and five points in eight games, something for him to build on when the 2020-21 season begins.

Kuznetsov signed a massive eight-year contract that carries a $7.8 million cap hit in 2017, and while he certainly more than lived up to it before he missed seven games due to a concussion in the 2018-19 season, he has not returned to form since.

As most of the Capitals’ core is getting older, Kuznetsov is still in his prime and must be able to help take pressure off of the older players.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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