The Washington Capitals are 25 games into their 56-game season. As they approach the halfway point, It’s a good time to answer some questions about the team, how the season is going so far and where they stand. I spoke to some colleagues and other acquaintances and picked five questions to address and answer.
Will the Capitals Be Able to Keep Ovechkin After This Season?
Mariah Holland, Minnesota Wild Writer: @hockeycraze99
There’s reportedly mutual interest between Ovechkin and the Capitals for him to continue his career in Washington. I think he has his sights set on passing Gretzky’s goal-scoring record, so I expect him to keep playing until his body literally quits on him. I don’t think he has the desire to play for any other NHL team at this point. The big money, five-year extension they gave to Nicklas Backstrom before this season leads me to believe that Ovechkin’s next contract will be similar in length.
Finding the cap space to make that deal viable is the only real obstacle I can see. It’s possible that the Capitals will ask Ovechkin to take a bit of a financial haircut, but expecting too much of a discount would be disrespectful. The team has to find the space to re-sign Jakub Vrana and Ilya Samsonov. If Vrana continues to produce points at this rate, he’s not likely to come cheap. I believe it’s mutually agreed that TJ Oshie will be the player who goes to Seattle in the expansion draft. If that happens, his $5.75 million cap hit could be enough to get Vrana under contract with a pay raise and see Ovechkin re-signed without taking too big a cut.
I expect Ovechkin’s next contract to be heavy in signing bonuses, similar to what was given to Backstrom. However, management might load up on the signing bonus and keep his base salary as low as possible, similar to the way Auston Matthews’ contract is structured. I imagine they will try to get him to take a little bit of a “home-town” discount, but I would guess the contract’s average annual value will be in the $8.5-$9.2 million range. If he takes a little less, it would help the team, but he’s still a dominant enough scoring force to be worth the money.
How Will the Capitals End Up Blowing This?
Kyle Knopp, Tampa Bay Lightning Writer: @THW_Knopp
I’ve got the impression, from a few Capitals fans, that they expect their team to let them down at some point this season. The big area of concern for me has been the uncertain play on the backend. We saw that again in the third period against the New Jersey Devils on March 9. The Devils are an utterly anemic goal-scoring team. Their 2.50 goals-for per game is in the bottom five of the NHL. Yet, they were able to exploit the Capitals’ defensive miscues and battle their way back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to force overtime.
The Capitals have been fortunate enough that their goal-scoring and power play have compensated when their defense lets them down. My concern is how that might work out against a defensive juggernaut like the New York Islanders. We all saw in the 2020 Playoffs how the Islanders were able to stifle the Capitals’ offense so completely that head coach Todd Reirden was unable to make adequate adjustments. Ultimately, the disastrous failure in that series cost Reirden his job.
New head coach Peter Laviolette’s man-on-man defensive system is physically demanding on defenders who aren’t getting a ton of rest this season. The Capitals are regularly scratching Jonas Siegenthaler and Trevor van Riemsdyk. These two can provide “good enough” play when called upon, but up to this point, Laviolette has chosen not to employ them except in the case of injuries. I have to wonder if he will change his tact as the playoffs draw closer so he doesn’t burn out his top-six defenders.
Defense is also Laviolette’s answer when his offense struggles. The Capitals employ two of the most offensively gifted defenders in the league with John Carlson and Justin Schultz. Dmitri Orlov has also got his offense going recently. It falls heavily on these players to keep offensive cycles alive and press in from the points of attack. Laviolette’s system lives and dies with the play of his defenders.
Unfortunately, the coach doesn’t have Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis on his team. If anything is going to burn the Capitals this season, it’s going to be a coach who expects his players to execute a system that they are not properly suited for. If the team fails to achieve a deep playoff run and the marriage between management and coach stays sound, expect the Capitals to pursue a more mobile, left-handed puck-mover who can play top-pairing minutes with Carlson next season.
Are the Capitals Going to Develop a New Power-Play Setup? Yes, the Current One Works But Everyone Knows What’s Happening
Colin Campbell, DC Area Capitals Fan
This is a surprisingly viable question considering how much the power play stagnated under Reirden last season. I’ve addressed it in other articles, but it’s worth talking about again. The Capitals’ power-play percentage of 19.44% in 2019-20 ranked 17th in the league. Many refer to the left circle in the offensive zone as “Ovechkin’s office.” After 15 seasons of Ovechkin banging in power-play goals, the league finally started to develop countermeasures for it.
I would say that the Capitals have already modified their power play and are seeing positive results. They are converting at a 26.98% rate this season, ranked seventh. Of the 17 power-play goals they have scored, Ovechkin only accounts for two of them. The team leader is Oshie, with five. Washington has tried a different fifth member on the top unit throughout the season. That’s partially due to players missing games, but Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana and Schultz have seen time on the top unit.
When they’re finally done tinkering, the top unit shakes out to look like this: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Vrana, and Carlson. That gives the Caps a pretty good balance of left and right-handed shooters, which is something I think they’re looking for. It wouldn’t shock me to see them put a proper second unit together consisting of Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, Richard Panik, and Schultz. If Orlov continues to find his offensive game within the team’s new system, I could see him getting power-play time with Schultz in place of Panik. If the first unit struggles to get things going, Vrana and/or Carlson would likely be swapped out for Kuznetsov and/or Schultz.
If the Capitals decide to add a player at the trade deadline, an additional right-handed shooting forward to work in on the second power-play unit would be a good idea. Someone like Kyle Palmieri of the Devils would be a good fit. However, Washington has more power-play depth than they’ve had in years. This allows Laviolette to tinker as he sees fit to generate chemistry. In the first half of this season, it’s been working for them.
Do the Capitals Go Out and Get a More Proven Goaltender Before the Deadline? Or Look to Improve Defense Instead?
Dave Turner, Devils Insiders Podcast: @DTurnerSports
I don’t think it would be good asset management for the Capitals to go out and acquire a goaltender. The way to get goalies with playoff experience is to have them play in the playoffs. Matt Murray and Jordan Binnington had zero playoff experience when they won the Stanley Cup for the first time, and it didn’t seem to affect them a whole lot. Vitek Vanecek has done enough to help win games, and Samsonov is starting to come along.
I don’t see what a “proven goaltender” does for the team at this point other than look like a nice idea on paper. These goalies are comfortable playing behind the team and have shown that they are capable. There’s the locker room dynamic to consider also. I’m not sure changing up such a key part of the locker room at this point in the season is a pathway to success.
Adding to the defense is an interesting idea, but I’m not sure that it’s a during-the-season type of move. I think the Caps would prefer to have somebody who could push Brendan Dillon down to the second pair. Before the season, that would have ideally been Orlov, but he has just worked his way back into a second-pairing role after spending time playing on the third pairing with Nick Jensen.
Adding a defender at the deadline is usually a sure thing for the Capitals, but I think they’re pretty happy with their defensive depth. They have Siegenthaler and van Riemsdyk as their seventh and eighth defensemen. Adding a ninth name to the mix seems excessive if they don’t suffer any major injuries between now and the trade deadline. If they want depth, I could see management making a deal with the Detroit Red Wings that involves Jon Merrill or Patrick Nemeth, but that’s about the extent of it.
I’ve floated the idea of the team moving on from Orlov. A deal that ships him out could earn a top-six forward in return, at which point the Caps could move a forward asset and some draft capital to add a top-pairing defender. However, that seems like too much roster shuffling to do in-season with the team competing for the top of their division.
As stated above, though, if they don’t manage a long playoff run, I expect management to try to add a top-pairing-capable, left-handed defender from a rebuilding team. The first name that springs to my mind is Cam Fowler, but I’m not sure the Anaheim Ducks are “shopping” him and couldn’t even begin to guess what it would cost to make a deal happen. If any kind of deal like that is going to go down, it would happen on Draft Day 2021.
Is There a Chance Fans Return to the Arena This season?
Will Torres, DC Area Capitals Fan
I had to double-check who had jurisdiction over this. Capital One Arena is located within the District of Columbia so jurisdiction to regulate gatherings comes from Mayor Muriel Bowser. On March 8, Washington Post reporter Julie Zauzmer shared this on Twitter:
Meanwhile, Bowser said she’s looking at lifting some virus-related restrictions on businesses — possibly including attendance at professional sports games — in mid-March. “Our expectation is that we’ll have some loosening now and even more later.”— Julie Zauzmer (@JulieZauzmer) March 8, 2021
Mid-March is not far, so if everything continues at the pace the mayor’s office is comfortable with, Capitals fans could be attending games in the next week or two. I would expect the capacity to be limited, similar to what other teams in the American Northeast are doing. The Devils were allowed to have 10% capacity and I’d imagine DC’s mayor would use that as a starting point.
That wraps up this Mailbag. The single sentence version of every answer is:
– Ovechkin is likely to stay, but they’ll have to find a way to make the dollars work.
– If the Capitals blow it, the defense will be the culprit.
– The power play has already undergone some changes and continues to be more flexible than in years past.
– Adding a goaltender or defender at the deadline doesn’t seem to be the way to go.
– The Mayor expects some fans to be allowed back into the arena possibly before the end of the month.
Follow me on twitter at @JDsays2much for future mailbag question requests and you might get your question answered in an article.
Jack Dawkins is a freelance scout, analyst and avid watcher of “way too much hockey.” He has joined The Hockey Writers team to cover all things Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings, Arizona Coyotes and Florida Panthers. He’s an absolute data hound and loves using stats and analytics to calculate and extrapolate data for analysis.