Capitals are Still a Solid Contender in the East

The novel coronavirus pandemic pushed back the NHL regular-season start, and fans are eager to have hockey again. The Eastern Conference has seen a lot of moves from different teams and it begs the question: with the Washington Capitals barely making any major moves this offseason, where will the team end up in the Eastern Conference standings?

A Tricky Cap Situation

Due to the pandemic, the NHL is forced to have a flat salary cap, meaning that instead of the cap increasing every year, it will stay the same as the season prior. That’s a tricky situation for the Capitals. Their team was modeled behind an expanding cap, intending to have enough space for all their players over the next few years.

However, the pandemic put a stick in between their wheel. This isn’t just an issue for the Capitals but many teams with high-price contracts and little cap space are dealing with the same issue; COVID-19 was never in a general manager’s mind when signing players to a lengthy, expensive contract.

Because the flat cap is a thing now, most of the top-five teams in the conference last season have either lost players or not made any considerable additions to their roster. For now, the Capitals have surpassed the cap by around $1 million and will need to make a move to get below $81.5 million before the start of the 2020-21 season. They’ll also have to make moves in 2021, re-signing players like Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, and Ilya Samsonov with only $16.3 million of available cap space, but eh, that’s for another article.

The Capitals are Still Ahead in the East

Entering the offseason, the Capitals didn’t do much on offense over the break due to the cap situation, instead, their focus was on acquiring a better defensive core after allowing a 3.44 goals-against average (GAA) and suffering the most goals against when compared to any other top-five team in the Eastern Conference at 215 (GA) last season. With the departure of defensemen Radko Gudas, and struggling goaltender Braden Holtby, not many considerable components to the team got affected due to some offseason acquisitions.

Some notable moves on the backend were the signings of defensemen Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Justin Schultz providing a better defensive core than last season all while improving the right side of the blue line. They also hired seasoned head coach Peter Laviolette and inked veteran goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to strengthen their goalie tandem after a disappointing showing a season ago.

They’re also looking into the future, signing 2020 first-round pick Hendricks Lapierre to a three-year entry-level deal. They did not experience any major blows to their roster, unlike some teams who are in the top running in the East.

Going into the 2020-21 season, the Capitals have a decent shot of still being a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference if injuries don’t sideline their better payers. Last season, the team completed the shortened regular season with 43 wins and 20 losses, finishing third in the East with 90 points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Boston Bruins. With the star power they currently have, teams like the Lightning can provide a challenge for now. However, there are always younger, hungrier teams searching for a top spot.

Teams to Look at in the East, Good or Bad

One of those hungrier teams is the Philadelphia Flyers, who are beginning to gel into a considerable opponent for the Capitals. They signed defensemen Erik Gustafsson during the offseason, acquiring an all-around solid defenseman. The team also has young players who can one day develop into a solid core for the orange and black. Ivan Proporov, Philippe Meyers, Travis Konecny, and goaltender Carter Hart could lead this team for years to come. Compared to the Caps’ aging core of superstars, they don’t have much time before the Flyers become a thorn on their side. 

The Bruins lost vital elements to their defense, with the departure of Torey Krug and the possibility of Zdeno Chara not returning next season. Their offense comprised mostly of David Pastrnak, an aging Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand, who, together, produced 47% of their goals last season. Rumors are also circulating that even their goaltender Tuuka Rask is pondering retirement while entering the last year of his contract. Other than their big three, they face a lack of depth and a considerable blow to their blue line.

The Penguins have added players to their roster in the offseason but have also lost some — acquiring defenseman Mike Matheson and forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Colton Sceviour. They lost forwards Mark Jankowski and Patric Hornqvist, goaltender Matt Murray, and defenseman Justin Schultz who was dealt to the Capitals.

After three years of early-round exits in the playoffs, they will probably enter into a wildcard spot this year, especially with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin getting older. Their goaltending tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith is not at the level the team would like, making this season hit or miss.

Entering the 2020-21 season, the Capitals are in a better position than some familiar conference rivals, but that doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk either. Other than the cap situation, and a lack of depth scoring, they seem to have checked off almost every box they needed before the start of next season. They’ve strengthened their blue line and improved their goaltending situation. Ovechkin is still producing like he’s in his prime, and John Carlson is coming off a Norris Trophy nomination. Only time will tell to see how this upcoming season will play out.