Photo: Second City Hockey
With training camp for the 2022-23 NHL season set to begin in around five weeks, every team has unknowns heading into it whether or not they have unfinished business this offseason. NoVa Caps takes a look at five burning questions facing the Washington Capitals entering the new campaign:
5. How much of a difference will goaltending upgrades make?
After riding their hopes on two young goaltenders in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov as their tandem in each of the past two seasons, the team lost patience in both as neither were able to take the starter’s job and run with it. Vanecek was traded to the New Jersey Devils on July 8 and Samsonov was not tendered a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent on July 11. He signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs two days later. Despite finishing in a tie for fifth in the NHL with an average of 29 shots-against per game, 14th with a 50.55% Corsi-for percentage, 15th with a 50.58% expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five last season, the team finished 16th with a .9164 five-on-five save percentage.
The Capitals went out and signed Darcy Kuemper to be their starter after the 32-year-old went 37-12-4 (tied for fourth in the NHL in wins), a .921 save percentage (fifth), a 2.54 goals-against average (11th), and five shutouts (tied for fourth) with the Colorado Avalanche last season. At five-on-five, Kuemper earned a .928 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, a 4.33 goals-saved above average, and a .863 high-danger save percentage. He also finished with an .879 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-saved above average on the penalty kill. Kuemper posted at least a .920 save percentage and a 2.56 goals-against at most in each of the last five seasons.
They also brought in Charlie Lindgren after the 28-year-old went 5-0-0 with a .958 save percentage and 1.22 goals-against average in five NHL games with the St. Louis Blues. He also posted a .925 save percentage and a 2.21 goals-against average in 34 games with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.
Lindgren had success at the NHL level last season but in a small sample size and he has just 29 games of NHL experience.
To have success, the Capitals need to be sure that Kuemper, who will be the undisputed No. 1, gets enough rest and Lindgren will be able to handle duty in the big leagues full-time.
The team also has Zach Fucale, who went 1-1-1 with a .924 save percentage, 1.75 goals-against average, and a shutout in four NHL games but 11-15-7 with an .896 save percentage, 2.62 goals-against average, and three shutouts in 31 AHL games last season, but he just got his first taste of the NHL last season.
If Lindgren builds off of his strong sample size with the Blues, how many games will the Capitals get to rest Kuemper to get him ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
As more reliable options in net, how much more of a lift can the two give the Capitals?
4. What should we expect from LW Alex Ovechkin?
The nine-time 50-goal scorer will turn 37 on September 17 and is coming off of his best season (personally) in 12 seasons, when he scored 50 goals on the dot and earned 90 points in 77 regular-season games. Ovechkin added a goal and six points in the Capitals’ six-game first-round exit against the Florida Panthers.
Someday, his production will drop off but how can we look at the season that he just put together and say it will jump off of a cliff?
With right-wing Tom Wilson, a frequent linemate of his, expected to be out until around December, it could be more of a challenge for Ovechkin to fight the aging curve but whenever the naysayers flock toward him, he always responds.
3. When will Father Time eventually catch up to them?
For the third consecutive season, the Capitals will go into it with the league’s oldest roster.
In addition to Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov turned 30 in May while left-wing Conor Sheary did so in June and center Lars Eller just turned 33 this month. Right-wing T.J. Oshie will turn 36 just prior to Christmas and right-wing Marcus Johansson will be 32 before the regular season gets underway. Center Nicklas Backstrom is expected to miss at least most of the regular season and will be at least 35 when (and if) he returns from recovery.
Though, the Capitals brought in a couple of younger forwards in center Dylan Strome (25) and right-wing Connor Brown (28) over the offseason which should help.
On defense, John Carlson (32), Dmitry Orlov (31), and Nick Jensen (32 on September 21) make up their top options. In goal, Kuemper is 32.
The Capitals are expected to be competitive in a deep Eastern Conference but Father Time will catch up to them one day soon like it eventually did with the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Los Angeles Kings at some point. They should be fine for now but until that day comes, it will be a question mark.
2. What will the team’s forward group look like on opening night?
Even with Backstrom and Wilson expected to miss significant time to begin the season, the Capitals’ forward group appears to be overflowing after adding Strome, Brown, and center Henrik Borgstrom, who all played at least 52 NHL games last season. Center Connor McMichael will also need a bigger role after scoring nine points and 18 points in 68 games last season. Center Aliaksei Protas, left-wing Joe Snively, and right-wing Brett Leason are candidates to get more time in the big leagues after getting some last season.
As it stands right now, the team could have two regulars in the press box without Backstrom and Wilson available.
The most likely to go could be Eller after he had a rough 2021-22, which included two bouts with COVID-19.
Of course, the Capitals could opt to wait on dealing a forward or two with the risk of losing key players in the winter due to the virus.
New faces and key injuries will also mean new line combinations for head coach Peter Laviolette to start the regular season most likely. The good news is that he will not have any shortage of options.
1. Will LHD Erik Gustafsson, Lucas Johansen, Matt Irwin, or Gabriel Carlsson earn an everyday role?
After Justin Schultz signed with the Seattle Kraken as an unrestricted free agent and Alexander Alexeyev underwent labral repair surgery on his left shoulder (which will keep him out until sometime between mid-October and mid-November) in June, the Capitals have a little uncertainty when it comes to their third-pairing on defense.
They signed Gustafsson (who earned three goals, 18 points, a -4 rating, 50% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 47.07% expected goals-for percentage, and 47.71% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 59 games with the Blackhawks last season) and Carlsson (two goals, nine points, a team-leading +6 rating, 47.99% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 47.47% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 48.99% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 39 NHL games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in addition to two assists in two AHL games) in free agency. Though, Carlsson is on a two-way contract. However, neither has cemented a full-time NHL role in the past two seasons.
Perhaps the Capitals could give Irwin, who was excellent in a limited role as he notched a goal, four points, even rating, 56.01% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, 59.32% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage, and 54.55% five-on-five scoring chances-for percentage in 17 games, a shot but would they be comfortable playing him on a regular basis?
Johansen could also get a look after tallying an assist in his NHL debut and recording eight goals, 28 points, and a +20 rating in 62 AHL games in 2021-22, which put him in a position to become a horse in the race.
The Capitals will likely give each candidate an opportunity at the job in training camp. However, they could look for an upgrade at the position mid-season or at the NHL Trade Deadline should none of these guys take the ball and run with it.
By Harrison Brown