Finally, the dust has settled on the 2021-22 season. It was one to forget for the Washington Capitals, who squandered their impressive start with a mid-term slump they never recovered from. However, the upcoming campaign offers a shot at redemption for general manager Brian MacLellan and his refreshed roster.
The Capitals were active at the 2022 Draft and in the opening days of free agency, selecting a wildcard with the 20th overall pick and bulldozing their netminding department, as Vitek Vanecek was traded to the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Samsonov ended up in Toronto with the Maple Leafs after he was left unqualified.
It was a wild week, with the Capitals ending it $6.3 million over the salary cap – not accounting for long-term injury reserve (LTIR). But has MacLellan’s wheeling-and-dealing improved his team? Let’s break it down by inspecting Washington’s depth chart:
Capitals Add Dylan Strome and Connor Brown to Forward Group
Although it’s impossible to predict how Peter Laviolette will set his lines on opening night versus the Boston Bruins, Washington’s forward group is starting to take shape:
|Alex Ovechkin, 36||Evgeny Kuznetsov, 30||T.J. Oshie, 35|
|Anthony Mantha, 27||Dylan Strome, 25||Connor Brown, 28|
|Marcus Johansson, 31||Connor McMichael, 21||Connor Sheary, 30|
|Axel Jonsson-Fjällby, 24||Lars Eller, 33||Garnet Hathaway, 30|
|Joe Snively, 26||Nic Dowd, 32||Alexi Protas, 21|
|Carl Hagelin, 33 (LTIR)||Nicklas Backstrom, 34 (LTIR)||Tom Wilson, 28 (LTIR)|
Dylan Strome’s arrival is the obvious place to start. He notched 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 69 regular-season appearances for the Chicago Blackhawks last season and joins the Caps on a one-year contract worth $3.5 million.
The 25-year-old is an interesting signing, especially as Nicklas Backstrom is set to spend most – if not all – of next season on LTIR following his hip resurfacing surgery. His analytics sure jump off the page though:
Strome is joined by Marcus Johansson (who re-signed on a one-year, $1.1 million deal) and Connor Brown (who joined via a trade from the Ottawa Senators). They are also likely to feature in Washington’s middle-six.
The Key Question: Will the Capitals cope without Backstrom and Wilson? MacLellan and Laviolette certainly hope so, and will once again rely on their prospects to help bridge the gap.
“The salary cap is the salary cap,” MacLellan said on Wednesday (July 13). “We have to plan for Nick [Backstrom] coming back at some point. What we can do is give opportunities to our young centres: [Connor] McMichael, we hope he gets to the next step. [Hendrix] Lapierre, we’ll see where he’s at. [Aliaksei] Protas is coming in, and we expect him to take the next jump.”
Between their new arrivals and burgeoning stars, the Capitals have plenty of firepower in their lineup. Even so, it’s difficult to foresee a scenario where their new forward group outperforms the 2021-22 crew sans Backstrom and Wilson. They face an uphill battle, with Alex Ovechkin’s age becoming a factor as well.
Capitals Swap Justin Schultz for Erik Gustafsson
Aside from re-signing Matt Irwin, the Capitals only made one change to their backend, replacing Justin Schultz with Erik Gustafsson. Also of note: Alex Alexeyev will start the year on the injured reserve list, elevating Lucas Johansen up the lineup.
|Martin Fehérváry, 22||John Carlson, 32|
|Dmitry Orlov, 30||Nick Jensen, 31|
|Erik Gustafsson, 30||Trevor van Riemsdyk, 30|
|Matt Irwin, 34 (Two-Way)||Lucas Johansen, 24 (Two-Way)|
Washington’s defensive changes hit all the right notes. MacLellan saved roughly $3 million against the cap by signing Gustafsson to fill Schultz’s shoes; a move that will also allow Trevor van Riemsdyk to return to his natural position. It’s a win-win.
The Key Question: Will the ‘Martin Fehérváry – John Carlson’ pair continue to thrive? They should.
Carlson was a standout performer alongside his rookie teammate last season, finishing 10th in Norris Trophy voting despite receiving minimal attention from the national media. Fehérváry, meanwhile, stunned just about everyone by becoming a top-pair defenceman. The only direction is up.
Capitals’ Goaltending: It’s Darcy Kuemper’s Crease
MacLellan’s decision to torpedo his tandem has been by far the biggest shock of Washington’s offseason so far. It was clear that the Capitals wanted to shake up their crease, but few could have predicted they would ship off Vanecek and Samsonov.
After some finagling in free agency, the D.C. club’s crease looks like this:
|Darcy Kuemper, 32|
|Charlie Lindgren, 28|
|Zach Fucale, 27|
Washington’s biggest move of the past month was picking up Darcy Kuemper on a five-year contract worth $5.25 million per season. He’s a reigning Stanley Cup champion, finishing last season with a .921 save percentage (SV%) and 2.54 goals-against average (GAA) through 57 appearances. The 32-year-old will be backed up by Charlie Lindgren.
The Key Question: What happens if Kuemper gets injured? Full-scale panic, potentially.
Lindgren, signed to a contract worth $1.1 million per season for the next three years, only has 29 NHL appearances to his name. Period. While the 28-year-old’s record is impressive (2.74 GAA, .913 SV%), he is untested at the highest level and would be placed in an invidious position if Kuemper is struck by health concerns.
However, MacLellan is convinced by Lindgren’s quality and believes the right-catcher will flourish in D.C. “We liked his performance last year,” the 63-year-old told reporters earlier this week. “I know it wasn’t a lot of games, but we think there is some upside there so we have him the three years because it was competitive for him and there were a lot of teams looking at him.”
That said, an injury to Kuemper could shake MacLellan’s confidence in his offseason manoeuvring. We’ll just have to see if and when that happens.
Are the Capitals Stanley Contenders Again?
MacLellan has already ticked two major boxes this offseason: he completely restructured his squad of goalies and signed worthy injury cover for Backstrom. But will his latest changes propel Washington back into contention? Probably not, even though they have more than enough quality to remain above the playoff line.
The Capitals aren’t amongst the Stanley Cup favourites for two reasons, starting with the fact that their rivals are streets ahead of them. Are the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, or Pittsburgh Penguins likely to drop out of the playoffs next season? Possibly the latter, but almost certainly not Carolina or New York.
Moreover, clubs beneath Washington in last season’s Metropolitan Division standings have vastly improved, save for the Philadelphia Flyers:
- The New York Islanders have the benefit of not having to play a brutal road trip to start the year.
- Johnny Gaudreau’s arrival will revitalize the Columbus Blue Jackets
- Despite missing out on the aforementioned star of free agency, the New Jersey Devils have improved across the board, starting with the selection of Simon Nemec at the draft
In other words, the Capitals find themselves in an increasingly competitive division (and conference) with a roster that is fighting a losing battle against Father Time. MacLellan cauterized old wounds this offseason, but it remains to be seen if he turned back the clock to transform Washington into true contenders again.
There are now 70 days until the Capitals kick off the preseason against the Buffalo Sabres, leaving plenty of time to mull over the squad’s future. This is just the start.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.