Photo: The Athletic
After the Washington Capitals’ third consecutive first-round playoff exit and with many players getting older, the team will need bounce back seasons from several key players to keep their Stanley Cup window alive with the 2021-22 season just a few weeks away. NoVa Caps looks at five players who need to be better than they were last season.
C Lars Eller
After a career season in 2019-20 where he earned 16 goals and a career-high 39 points in 69 games, the 32-year-old took a step back in 2020-21 as he recorded just eight goals and 23 points in 44 games. Though, he missed some time due to injury.
Eller was admirable defensively as he averaged 2:00 per game on the penalty kill (third among Capitals forwards) and his 55.09% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage ranked fourth on the team, but he still had more to give offensively. He turned in only one assist in the first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Boston Bruins, where he missed a game due to injury.
Because Eller was in and out of the lineup, wingers such as T.J. Oshie or Richard Panik were forced to play in his spot due to the team’s struggle to replace one of their four centers when one gets hurt.
RHD John Carlson
The 31-year-old’s defense improved from the 2019-20 season under first-year head coach Peter Laviolette but he still finished with a -5 rating, and his 50.87% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage was his lowest in three seasons. In addition, Carlson’s offensive production dipped from 60 assists and 75 points in 69 games two seasons ago to 10 goals and just 44 points in 52 contests last season.
Laviolette’s system of having his defensemen jump aggressively into the offense should have benefited Carlson, especially after the massive campaign he turned in in 2019-20 where he finished second in Norris Trophy voting as the NHL’s top defenseman, but it turned out that he took a step back.
Carlson turned in just two assists and a -2 rating in five Stanley Cup Playoff games.
RHD Justin Schultz
The 31-year-old’s tenure in Washington got off to a solid start as he put up two goals, eight points, and a +9 rating in his first 11 games of the season but he missed time due to injury that slowed him down. The Capitals brought Schultz in as he fits the bill as an offensive defenseman that Laviolette likes but he comes with defensive deficiencies as he finished the season with a 49.14% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 48.25% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, 49.25% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage (all worst among Capitals’ defensemen to play at least eight games).
Before acquiring Schultz, the Capitals needed to improve their defensive play after allowing an average of 3.44 goals-per-game from December 22 onward (the most among the 24 teams that were invited to the NHL’s return-to-play plan) in the 2019-20 season, but he did not make much of an impact defensively despite having some offensive success.
The second right-handed defenseman spot is a possible opportunity to upgrade, but the Capitals stood pat in the offseason, so Schultz is expected to start in the same position. Though, he will have a new partner after Brenden Dillon was traded to the Winnipeg Jets. Since Dillon is gone, the margin for error in Schultz’s defensive play has dwindled, so there is added responsibility for him to play more of a two-dimensional game if the Capitals start the season with Michal Kempny (who is coming off of two major surgeries, one of which cost him the entirety of last season) or rookie Martin Fehervary.
In the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Schultz earned just a -2 rating and was on the wrong end of a miscommunication with goaltender Ilya Samsonov in Game 3 against the Boston Bruins that led to a turnover behind the net and an easy game-winner in double overtime.
G Ilya Samsonov
In his first season going in as the undisputed starter, Samsonov was pretty good for the most part but was inconsistent as he went 13-4-1 with a .902 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and two shutouts.
Vitek Vanecek was forced to start 16 of 17 games from January 18-February 27 as a rookie when Samsonov was out with COVID-19 and become the clear No. 1 down the stretch when Samsonov was suspended by the team for disciplinary reasons.
At five-on-five, Samsonov recorded a .911 save percentage, a 2.36 goals-against average, a -2.23 goals-saved above average, and a .779 high-danger save percentage.
Despite his issues and inconsistent season, the Capitals opted to protect Samsonov over Vanecek in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract as a restricted free agent this offseason, signaling that there will be added pressure on Samsonov to return to his rookie form. He went 16-6-2 with a .913 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average, and one shutout in 2019-20.
Samsonov was admirable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs but made a few mistakes and finished with an .899 save percentage and 2.99 goals-against average in three games.
This is a big season for Samsonov and he must reward the Capitals for the faith they have in him.
The Capitals have tried to trade the 29-year-old after an inconsistent past two seasons, where he was suspended by the NHL for inappropriate conduct after he tested positive for cocaine in August 2019, missed 15 regular-season games and two Stanley Cup Playoff games due to COVID-19, and saw his point-per-game production decline in every season since leading the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs in points.
Last season, Kuznetsov finished with nine goals and 29 points in 41 games, though improved defensively. Kuznetsov had a couple of stretches where he was hot but was plagued by inconsistency. In addition to Eller, his absence also exposed the Capitals’ weakness of depth at center.
After returning from COVID-19 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kuznetsov was held without a point and earned a -1 rating in three games.
As the Capitals struggle to find a trade partner for Kuznetsov (though, it could get easier after the Buffalo Sabres find one for center Jack Eichel), it becomes increasingly likely that he starts the season in Washington. If he does, he has a lot to prove.
By Harrison Brown