With the Washington Capitals set to start their season in Buffalo against the Sabres just a week from now, the uncertainty over what the team can accomplish in the short season with the modified schedule has created uncertainty of which version of the team fans may see this season.
Will it be the Stanley Cup contender-version that played inspired hockey and was first overall at Christmas? Or the playoff also-ran, uninspired version that played .500 hockey for months and was quickly ushered out of the bubble in five first-round playoff games?
With that in mind, here are five players that need to succeed in 2020-21 for the Caps to fulfill the team’s hopes of being a true Stanley Cup contender, as these players need to excel this season to give them a chance to compete.
Ilya Samsonov, Goaltender
The decision after the team’s playoff loss to the Islanders to let Braden Holtby leave was really one to turn over the goaltending reigns to Ilya Samsonov. While the Capitals did try to get an insurance policy in Henrik Lundqvist in case before the former Ranger had to sit out the season due to heart problems, Samsonov is clearly the man the Capitals envision in goal for the next few years.
Being a backstop to a team that considers itself a Stanley Cup contender before turning 24 isn’t going to be easy for the Russian. Samsonov was good in the 26 games during the 2019-20 season he appeared in before the pause, but his off-ice injury suffered back home before the bubble cost him valuable playoff experience.
For Samsonov, the compressed season probably won’t hurt him too much compared to a normal 82-game slate, as one of the biggest difficulties a player coming to the NHL from a European league has is the much longer season. The most games in a season as a pro that Samsonov has played is 37, which he did in his first year in North America with the Hershey Bears in 2018-19, a year where he struggled early in the first half before finding his game and getting NHL ready in the second half.
A little more than a year after his NHL debut, Samsonov will be the No. 1 goaltender heading into the season, and will have to do so having not played an NHL game since March 5 — the game where he allowed five goals to New York Rangers’ center Mika Zibanejad at Madison Square Garden.
Should Samsonov falter, the Caps would probably have to shore up in the short term with expected backup Vitek Vanecek, or likely taxi squad netminder Craig Anderson, or even Pheonix Copley. While the Caps could also trade or sign for another goaltender at the deadline, it’s going to be up to Samsonov to ensure the Caps get off to a decent start in the highly competitive East Division.
John Carlson, Defenseman
If one player’s season exemplified the 2019-20 Capitals, it was John Carlson.
The defenseman was spectacular in the first part of the season, scoring 13 goals and 37 assists before New Year’s Day. However, in the second half, Carlson’s production dropped off noticeably, and he had just 2 goals in the calendar year 2020 — none in the playoffs — and 23 assists.
While Carlson still got a runner-up in the Norris Trophy voting at the end of the year, as well as a spot on the NHL All-Star team, his uneven campaign reflected the team’s rapid decline in play in the second half, particularly in their own zone. While Carlson was dominant in the first half, he struggled more in the second half to keep up his production and was much more ordinary down the stretch.
Carlson, who turns 31 next week, has seen a strong progression in his game the last few seasons, and with a stronger defensive corps around him this season, he could make another run at the Norris.
But certainly, Carlson is Washington’s top blueliner, and with a green goaltending corps, the importance of the defense to clean up mistakes and limit chances against will carry more importance this season.
Washington will need the first-half Carlson to really push the pace and be responsible in the defensive zone, as well as be a threat on the power play. The Capitals did make a strong effort to rebuild the defensive depth this offseason, but they need Carlson to lift the tide.
Alex Ovechkin, Forward
While Alex Ovechkin has been one of the key figures since arriving in Washington 16 years ago, he returns to the Capitals for another year of trying to defy Father Time.
It was an unusually idle year for Ovechkin, as the Russian played in just 35 games total in the calendar year 2020, meaning while the Caps’ captain has gotten a chance to play the fewest games in a calendar year since before he arrived in North America, he also has sat waiting for the new season to start without playing in the KHL as he did in the 2012-13 lockout.
Ovechkin has been able to score goals well above his years the last few seasons, but at some point, his 35-year-old body is due to slow down.
Still, Ovechkin recorded 48 goals in 68 games before the pause last season, and with his game more built around one-timers and less on speed nowadays, he figures to be another key for the Caps’ success this season — particularly to keep up the struggling power play.
At that pace, Ovechkin would hit 40 in a 56-game season, which would allow him to pass Mike Gartner, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull on the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list, which would be good for fourth overall. While the pause certainly slowed his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky, the biggest question is when the inevitable drop off in goal scoring will come.
Ovechkin is in the final year of his 13-year, $124M contract, although he told reporters this week he wasn’t in a hurry to worry about a deal beyond the season.
“I don’t think we’re in a rush,” Ovechkin said according to NHL.com. “I think we understand everything that’s happening right now, so whenever it’s done, it’s done. If it’s not done, we’re going to talk and we’ll see.”
T.J. Oshie, Forward
A Capitals star who perhaps is spending his last season in Washington is T.J. Oshie, who reaches the halfway point of an 8-year, $46 million deal at the conclusion of this season.
Oshie just turned 34 last month but may be an attractive option for the expansion Seattle Kraken with his ties to the Evergreen State, and Washington may be content to let him go and have the NHL’s newest franchise take the $5.75M annual cap hit off their hands.
Since arriving from the St. Louis Blues in a 2015 trade, Oshie has been a consistent producer for Washington, contributing at least 18 goals and 47 points each of his five seasons as a Capital.
But with the uncertainty over his future with the club and a high cap hit with a flat ceiling ahead, this season could be Oshie’s last real shot at another Stanley Cup ring before changing addresses again.
Oshie, who finished sixth in points with the Caps last season, certainly will be looked to push that total this year and help Washington’s offense and will look to fit in an up-tempo style that new coach Peter Laviolette will introduce.
The Capitals will need strong production from Oshie to make a run at the Cup again, and he will look to deliver in what could be his last year in red, white and blue.
Zdeno Chara, Defense
The one major surprise of the Capitals’ offseason was the addition of Chara, who at age 43 will be the oldest player ever to pull on a Capitals sweater.
Not wanting to accept a reduced role in Boston, Chara opted to sign a one-year deal with the Capitals and try and help Washington address its biggest weakness in defensive depth.
While the former Bruins captain is slower and showing his age in recent seasons, he still offers the Capitals a strong presence around the net, as well as a useful special teams player, one who can defend and block shots on the penalty kill and blast a point shot on the power play.
What Chara has left in the tank is anyone’s guess, but he also may deliver some leadership on the struggling blue line that the defensive corps has missed since Brooks Orpik retired in 2019. A change of scenery may benefit Chara as well, as his departure from the Bruins has seemed inevitable the last few years, and not having to be the main focus on a defensive corps may benefit him.
Certainly, Chara is a low-risk gamble with the short-term deal for the Capitals, but also a chance for the Slovak to prove he still has some seasons left in the NHL. If he can help limit those chances against, as well as clean up some sloppy play in Washington’s zone, it will be a win-win for both the club and Chara.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.