Photo: Jess Star Photography
With training camp for the 2021-22 NHL season set to begin in a couple of weeks, every team enters the season with questions as they start their pursuit of dethroning the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The Washington Capitals, in particular, have questions after three consecutive first-round exits in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a quiet offseason. In fact, the Capitals are 3-12 in their last 15 playoff games. NoVa Caps has five questions for the team with training camp approaching.
How Will The Capitals Replace Brenden Dillon?
After trading the 30-year-old to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for two second-round picks, the Capitals have a hole on their second defensive pairing next to Justin Schultz.
If the roster remains unchanged, the favorites for the job include Martin Fehervary, a 21-year-old who has just six NHL games of regular-season experience and who earned three goals, 17 points, and a +10 rating in 24 games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season, and Michal Kempny, who missed the entire 2020-21 season after undergoing his second major surgery in a span of 17 months.
It appears that Fehervary will play full-time on the roster but it would be beneficial to ease him into the lineup with third-pairing minutes and the Capitals cannot count on Kempny to be the workhorse he was during the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2018.
A free-agent or trade acquisition would be smart but the Capitals have just $668,740 remaining in cap space, so that would require moving a player out.
Can Evgeny Kuznetsov Return To 2018 Form?
After the team tested the trade market for the 29-year-old center, they were unable to find any takers. Over the past two seasons, Kuznetsov tested positive for cocaine (which led to a four-year suspension from the IIHF and a three-game suspension by the NHL), broke the league’s COVID-19 protocol on the team’s season-opening road trip in Buffalo (which forced him to miss eight games), and was suspended by the Capitals for disciplinary reasons while dealing with COVID-19.
Since setting a career-high 83 points in 79 regular-season games in 2017-18 and leading the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 32 points, the 29-year-old has seen his point-per-game average decline in each of the past three seasons. Kuznetsov’s point-per-game average dropped to 0.95 in 2018-19, 0.83 in 2019-20, and 0.71 last season.
Capitals GM Brian MacLellan called Kuznetsov “the key to our organization” and the team needs him to return to his past form.
Do They Have The Depth To Step In For Centers When Injured?
When Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, or Lars Eller have been out of the lineup in the past two seasons, the Capitals have had to shift right-wings T.J. Oshie or Richard Panik (who was traded to the Detroit Red Wings on April 12) to center.
The Capitals did not acquire a natural center over the summer and with everyone except Kuznetsov over 30 years of age, the risk of injury is real.
Center Connor McMichael could get some time in the NHL this season but perhaps it would be better to start the 20-year-old on the wing. Forcing him into center may not be ideal.
There are a few free-agent centers left but the Capitals would have to move some money first.
Can They Fight Off Father Time Once Again?
The Capitals enter training camp with the NHL’s oldest roster (along with the Dallas Stars) as both teams have an average roster age of 29.2.
Backstrom (33), Oshie (34), Eller (32), Kempny (31), left-wing Alex Ovechkin (will turn 36 on Friday), left-wing Carl Hagelin (33), center Nic Dowd (31), right-wing Garnet Hathaway (will turn 30 in November), defenseman John Carlson (31), defenseman Nick Jensen (will turn 31 on September 21), defenseman Dmitry Orlov (30), defenseman Justin Schultz (31), and defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk (30) are all over 30 years of age. That is 13 members of their 23-man roster.
The Capitals had the oldest roster last season and tied for the East Division title but ran out of gas and were banged up in the first round, where they fell to the Boston Bruins in five games. The first three games of the series went to overtime but the Bruins outscored them 7-2 in the final two.
Eventually, age will catch up to the Capitals just like it did to the San Jose Sharks a couple years ago. The Capitals are deeper and more talented than the 2019-20 Sharks but it is a question until we see how they respond to it.
Is Their Goaltending Good Enough?
After losing Vitek Vanecek in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, the Capitals looked at improving their goaltending tandem, which finished 17th with a .9164 five-on-five save percentage last season, but were not able to, forcing them to re-acquire the 25-year-old from the Seattle Kraken when given the chance.
Vanecek, 25, finished in sixth place in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s top rookie last season but posted just a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average in 37 games, suggesting that there is room for improvement.
After going 16-8-2 with a .913 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average, and one shutout in his rookie season, Samsonov, 24, went 13-4-1 with a .902 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and two shutouts last year in an inconsistent season where he was placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol twice.
The goalies have combined to play in just 82 career NHL games and have not been a tandem for a regular campaign. With the Capitals in “win-now mode,” they have to decide whether their goaltending is good enough far into the Spring.
By Harrison Brown