The Washington Capitals will hope to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing the dance for the first time in nine years last season. That may be a tall order after a quiet offseason and with an aging core but there is still a way there. NoVa Caps lists five keys to success for Washington this season.
5. Nicklas Backstrom finding his footing
The 35-year-old has missed 78 games over the past two seasons due to hip injury and illness. Over that time, Backstrom has just 13 goals and 52 points in 86 games (.605 points-per-game).
The previous season, just two years ago, Backstrom led Washington with 38 assists and 53 points in 55 games.
Though Backstrom may not be in the same role he was then could find himself behind Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dylan Strome on the depth chart, and may not be the 70-80 point player he was five years ago, a boost in his production could make a big difference for the team. He will still get power play time and could very well climb his way up the depth chart if performing well.
He is coming off of this summer without any limitations in his training, unlike the previous two seasons.
4. Goaltending depth
Washington has one of the league’s best starting goaltenders in Darcy Kuemper but their depth gets thin quickly after.
Despite a strong start, Charlie Lindgren went 2-7-1 with an .876 save percentage and a 3.80 goals-against average after New Year’s. He finished the year with an .899 save percentage and 3.05 goals-against average in 31 games.
The 29-year-old enters this season with just 60 games of NHL experience.
After Zach Fucale signed in the KHL, Washington has no other goalies other than Kuemper and Lindgren who have suited up in the pros. Hunter Shepard posted a .916 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average for the AHL Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears last season. The team also has Mitchell Gibson, Clay Stevenson, and Garin Bjorklund down the pipeline.
If Washington wants to be competitive, they will need more certainty in goal behind Kuemper.
3. Staying healthy
In addition to Backstrom (43) and Kuemper (eight), right-wing Tom Wilson (49), defenseman John Carlson (42), right-wing T.J. Oshie (24), center Nic Dowd (17), captain Alex Ovechkin (nine), defenseman Nick Jensen (five), defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk (seven), and left-wing Sonny Milano (three) all missed significant time due to injury and/or illness last season.
When Carlson went down with a fractured skull on December 23, Washington’s season took a turn for the worst as they went 14-18-4 (.444 points percentage, 29th in the NHL) during his absence despite sitting in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with a 22-13-6 record (.610) entering January 6.
Washington also dug themselves a hole early as they started 7-10-3 in their first 20 games without Backstrom and Wilson. Oshie and Carlson also missed some of that time frame.
It may be difficult with an older roster but most players are expected to go into training camp healthy. An exception will be left-wing Max Pacioretty, who was signed to a one-year contract on July 1 and missed all but five games with a torn Achilles last season.
Washington is expected to integrate some youth into its lineup in addition to center Aliaksei Protas, who earned a full-time NHL role last season. Center Connor McMichael, who had a strong season in Hershey with 23 assists and 39 points in 57 games; defenseman Alexander Alexeyev (five assists, 44.89% Corsi-for percentage and 45.72% expected goals-for percentage at five-on-five in 32 at the NHL level); defenseman Vinny Iorio (20 assists, 22 points, +17 rating in 63 AHL games and appeared in three NHL games); and center Hendrix Lapierre (15 goals, 30 points in 60 AHL games) could be among those in line for time in the pros this season.
The team has seen success playing their young guys while players such as Backstrom, Oshie, and left-wing Anthony Mantha have been out due to injury over the past couple of seasons but have fallen off when their older players have played.
The Capitals need to find the right mix of integrating the younger players with their veteran core. Fortunately, roster spots are open with Pacioretty injured as well as left-wing Conor Sheary and right-wing Craig Smith leaving.
1. Bounce back years from Kuznetsov, Mantha
Kuznetsov, who just turned 31, led Washington in assists (43) and finished third in points (55) in 81 games last season. Though, he also finished with a career-low -26 rating and tallied his worst goals- (.15) and point-per-game (.68) averages since his rookie season.
Meanwhile, Mantha finished with 11 goals and 27 points in 67 games during a campaign where he was frequently healthy scratched. He has one year left on his deal, which carries a $5.7 million cap hit, before becoming eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1.
Both players have been mentioned in trade rumors but the expectation is that both will start the season in Washington. If that is indeed the way it is, the two can significantly lift their team up the standings by contributing more but can also bury them if the two come up short of what the Capitals need from them.
By Harrison Brown