The Washington Capitals will open training camp on Sunday as they begin preparing for the 2020-21 season, which will begin Thursday, January 14 at the Buffalo Sabres. There are plenty of storylines for a team that is nearing the end of its Stanley Cup window, including a coaching change, an overhauled defense, and no clear favorite as backup goalie. Here is what to keep an eye in the next two weeks:
Logjam at Defense
After averaging 3.44 goals-against per game in their final 32 games of last season (third-most in NHL), the Capitals went out and signed four defensemen in free agency: Justin Schultz, Zdeno Chara, Trevor Van Riemsdyk, and Paul LaDue. Three of them are right-handed shots, while Chara is the only lefty.
The Capitals enter the season with nine defensemen who will be required to clear waivers to be sent down (Schultz, Chara, Van Riemsdyk, LaDue, John Carlson, Brenden Dillon, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Nick Jensen). In addition, they have a 21-year-old prospect in Martin Fehervary, who recorded 53.64% Corsi-for percentage and an assist in six NHL games last season, knocking on the door. Michal Kempny is expected to miss most of, if not all, of the regular season after surgery for a torn Achilles tendon. The expanded taxi squad should give the Capitals some flexibility, but management will have to move at least one or two defensemen.
The Capitals could make a trade ahead of the season opener in Buffalo as they currently have just $1,4405,123 left in cap space and could create some breathing room under the NHL salary cap by moving a body. Jensen is the most likely candidate, but if he impresses during camp, the Capitals may look at another option. As problems go, this is a good one to have after struggling defensively last season.
After rumors came out that the Capitals threw parties at the rooftop of their hotel in the Toronto bubble last summer (which several players downplayed), the team went out and grabbed some seasoned voices who can reinforce the need for accountability.
Chara is a 43-year-old blueliner but he is still going strong as he recorded five goals, 14 points, and a +26 rating last season while averaging 21:01 of ice-time per game last season, including a Bruins-high 3:11 on the penalty kill. He may not be the player he once was but he is still a solid second- or third-pair NHL defenseman who has taken incredible care of his body as the game has evolved over the past few seasons. Chara was the captain of the Bruins for 14 seasons and expressed a desire to win when discussing his decision to sign with the Capitals earlier this week. Reportedly, 20 teams inquired about Chara’s availability in the week before he signed with Washington. He should bring accountability and leadership and will likely have a similar impact that former Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik had as a coach on the ice, someone who takes incredible care of his body, and someone who will hold his teammates accountable.
The Capitals hired Peter Laviolette as the head coach to “press buttons on some players,” according to GM Brian MacLellan. He should also help bring accountability as one of the NHL’s best coaches. Laviolette also appears to have some bite to his coaching style as shown when talking to the Washington media, which might not be a bad thing for the Capitals.
The addition of Schultz, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 and 2017), and possibly goaltender Craig Anderson, a 39-year-old who enters training camp on a professional tryout, could also be valuable voices in the locker room.
Opening In Goal
After goaltender Henrik Lundqvist announced on December 17 that he will not play this season and on December 28 that he will undergo an open-heart procedure, the Capitals have a hole in goal with 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov set to take over as the starter for the first time and possibly a lack of experience behind him.
The Capitals have Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley, who both played with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season, in the system but the two, in addition to Samsonov, have a combined 55 games worth of NHL experience. Vanecek has yet to make his NHL debut.
Vanecek went 19-10-2 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season. Copley went 17-8-6 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.47 goals-against average, and two shutouts. Copley also went 16-7-3 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.90 goals-against average, and one shutout as the Capitals’ backup in 2018-19.
Anderson went 11-17-2 with a .902 save percentage and a 3.25 goals-against average in 34 games with the Ottawa Senators last season but posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average at five-on-five on a team that ranked 30th in the NHL standings and goals-against (average of 3.35 per game). It was not too long ago where Anderson was a solid NHL goalie as he went 11-8 with a .922 save percentage, a 2.34 goals-against average, and one shutout as the starter for the Senators during their run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.
Evgeny Kuznetsov In Need Of A Big Year
When MacLellan said that the Capitals needed a coach “to press some buttons on some players,” it was pretty clear that Kuznetsov was one of those players.
After the 28-year-old posted 67 goals and 198 points over 194 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games from December 7, 2016, to December 2, 2018 (an average of 1.02 points-per-game), he has only 37 goals and 111 points in 134 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games since (0.83). He has sustained a few injuries over the past couple of seasons but Kuznetsov is one of the most talented players in the NHL.
With most of the Capitals’ core at least age 30 and Kuznetsov still in his prime, the team will need No. 92 to return to his form from the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he led the tournament with 32 points in 24 games.
There is encouragement for the Capitals and Kuznetsov as he was one of the few bright spots in the bubble as he recorded three goals and five points in eight Stanley Cup Playoff games and recorded 19 goals and 48 points in his first 56 games last season before he tailed off prior to the end of the regular season.
Response To Long Layoff
The Capitals will have not played a game in 147 days when they take the ice in Buffalo and played only nine games in the past 311 days. The extra rest should benefit a team that enters this season with the NHL’s oldest roster at a 29.7 average age, which could jump to 30.5 if Anderson signs with the team.
The NHL Pause last season should have helped the Capitals, who had an older roster and were 15-14-3 in their final 32 regular-season games while giving up one of the most goals in the NHL, but it turned out that the extra rest did not benefit the team.
It appears that the Capitals laid back the past two seasons after finally winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2018. There were reports that MacLellan thought the team was complacent during the 2019 offseason. Remarks from an opposing player who said the Capitals “clearly didn’t want to be there” when discussing the Capitals’ behavior in the bubble last summer, reinforced that perception.
The good news is that the team made some changes and have built a solid roster for the 2020-21 season but Schultz and forward Conor Sheary already won two Stanley Cups and Van Riemsdyk and Chara have once. Though, Chara said “I am very motivated,” on Thursday.
Due to the risk of COVID-19 and a condensed schedule, teams will be allowed to carry four to six extra players and an unlimited number of goaltenders on top of the usual 23-man roster this season.
Here is the projected 23-man lineup for the Capitals on opening night vs. the Sabres:
Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana — Nicklas Backstrom — T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin — Lars Eller — Conor Sheary
Garnet Hathaway — Nic Dowd — Richard Panik
Extra: Daniel Sprong
Brenden Dillon — John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Justin Schultz
Zdeno Chara — Trevor Van Riemsdyk
Extra: Jonas Siegenthaler, Paul LaDue
The most likely taxi squad candidates appear to be Vanecek, Copley, Jensen, Fehervary, forward Daniel Sprong, forward Shane Gersich, forward Daniel Carr, and forward Michael Sgarbossa but that can obviously change due to player performance in training camp.
MacLellan stated that top prospect and center Connor McMichael is a possibility for the taxi squad but the Capitals do not want to keep young players from playing if they can do so elsewhere. The AHL is targeting a February 5 start to the season.
The taxi squad will be important with the possibility of teams having to dive deep into their system with the risk of COVID-19, injuries, and a condensed schedule for this season. Whoever has the most organizational depth will come out on top.
By Harrison Brown