It has been an uneventful offseason for Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. The 63-year-old completed his business early, acquiring Connor Brown from the Ottawa Senators and revamping his goaltending department at the start of free agency with Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren.
However, the Capitals have also dealt with several bumps in the road. Injuries to Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Carl Hagelin, and Alex Alexeyev have left holes in head coach Peter Laviolette’s depth chart and could disrupt the team at the start of the season.
Also of note: the team’s playoff record since winning the Stanley Cup is dismal and the Eastern Conference is set to be stronger than ever. In effect, the year ahead will be crucial in shaping the next decade of the franchise’s future. As a result, there will be a lot on the line in D.C. going into 2022-23.
With that said, August is the peak season for hot takes and plenty of them have been flying around recently. Let’s put three to the test, determining which Capitals’ prediction is likeliest to come true.
Washington’s Run of Playoff Appearances Will End
Really, there is only one place to start: Will the Capitals punch their ticket to the playoffs this season? For the first time in a while, the answer is not an obvious ‘yes’.
First of all, the level of competition in the Eastern Conference has risen over the summer. In the Atlantic Division, the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings have strengthened, capturing Alex DeBrincat and David Perron, respectively. With the New York Islanders set to rebound and the Columbus Blue Jackets signing Johnny Gaudreau, the Metropolitan Division also looks spicier than ever.
Second, serious question marks continue to float over Washington’s roster. MacLellan made a couple of risky moves in the summer, starting with the appointment of an untested backup goalie. He is also rolling the dice on Backstrom’s return to fitness and an aging team’s ability to cope with the rigors of another long season at the highest level.
Finally, the Capitals finished last season just 16 points above the playoff line and endured a miserable midseason slump. Considering the quality of their division, are they at risk of being overtaken by an insurgent force? Possibly.
With that said, the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and – to a lesser degree – Florida Panthers also have issues to address before the start of the season. So, the Capitals are not alone. For Boston and Pittsburgh, age is a concern. For Florida, their ability to adapt to significant roster changes is a talking point. Thus, any combination of teams could miss the playoffs in 2022-23, including the club from D.C.
Alex Ovechkin Will Overtake Gordie Howe Before Christmas
Alex Ovechkin is in a race against time to overtake Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky to become the NHL’s all-time leading goal-scorer. He vaulted Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), and Jaromir Jagr (766) in the record books by adding 50 goals to his tally last season, becoming the league’s third-highest scorer with 780 strikes.
With three years remaining on his contract, the 36-year-old needs to find the net a further 115 times to overtake Gretzky (894) and is only 22 away from usurping Howe (801). The race is on, but how quickly will Ovechkin rise to second overall?
Christmas Day is a possibility. Washington is scheduled to play 36 games before Dec. 25, with the Winnipeg Jets due to visit Capital One Arena on Christmas Eve – which is where mathematics enters the equation. Ovechkin averaged 0.65 goals per game last season. If he scores at the same rate in 2022-23, he will add 23.37 goals to his record – and surpass Howe – by the time Santa arrives.
Is it doable? Possibly. Washington started last season on the front foot, with Ovechkin playing a leading role during the team’s injury crisis. He is also another year older, though. Let’s call it a medium-level hot take.
Charlie Lindgren Will Steal the Crease from Darcy Kuemper
Now, this is a spicier opinion. The Capitals have taken a risky bet in the crease, ditching Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov in favor of Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper and the relatively untested Charlie Lindgren.
By now, we know what to expect from Kuemper. He backstopped the Colorado Avalanche to a championship last season and has a .918 career save percentage (SV%). The Canadian did not set the world alight en route to winning the Cup in Denver, although the eye injury he suffered in the first round is a valid excuse.
Lindgren, on the other hand, is a wildcard option with only 29 NHL appearances to his name. Regardless, MacLellan is optimistic about his summer signing.
“We liked his performance last year,” he said of Lindgren. “I know it wasn’t a lot of games, but we think there is some upside in there, so we gave them the three-year term because it was competitive for him and there was a lot of teams that were looking at him.”
Formerly of the St. Louis Blues, Lindgren upheld a 5-0-0 record, 1.22 goals-against average (GAA), and .958 SV% as third-in-command behind Ville Husso and Jordan Binnington last season. He was also solid as a rock in the American Hockey League, finishing with a .925 SV% and 2.21 GAA for the Springfield Thunderbirds.
That said, the 28-year-old is a coin flip for Washington. He was excellent in 2021-22 but recorded four sub-.900 SV% campaigns before that, nor was he the Capitals’ top target.
“It changed quite a bit,” MacLellan said of Washington’s plans in goal. “A lot of people [were] jockeying for a limited number of guys and seemed like seats filled up and then there was a pause and there was only a certain amount left and teams went from there.”
So, could Lindgren dislodge Kuemper as Washington’s No. 1 goaltender? History suggests that it is unlikely, but not impossible. Goaltending is unpredictable and the Capitals cannot guarantee Kuemper will hit the ground running. If he does not, Laviolette will have to turn to his reserve.
Capitals Face Crucial Season in 2022-23
The upcoming campaign will not be easy for the Capitals: they just suffered a painful loss in the first round of the playoffs and will encounter even tougher challenges in the fall. But there are also reasons to be optimistic.
Father Time has not caught up with Ovechkin yet and his teammates are determined to end their losing run in the postseason. It will be an uphill battle, but Washington still has some fuel left in the tank as a contender.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators 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.