When the NHL season was put on pause, the Washington Capitals had racked up 90 points, good enough to cling to third place in the Eastern Conference. While they avoided the qualifying round of the rebooted postseason, the Caps aren’t widely considered to be among the league’s handful of elite teams. So what will it take for Alex Ovechkin and company to join this season’s group of contenders?
Why the Capitals Won’t Win the Stanley Cup
NHL.com recently polled 16 writers for their playoff predictions, and only Dan Rosen picked the Caps to claim the top spot in their round-robin pool. At least one writer picked each of the Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, Philadelphia Flyers, and Toronto Maple Leafs to make an appearance in the Stanley Cup. Nobody picked the Caps. Per The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, the Caps have just a three percent chance of taking home the Cup (from ‘2020 NHL round-robin preview: Examining each team’s strengths and weaknesses,’ The Athletic, 07/31/2020).
Related: Washington Capitals Logo History
Doubts about the Caps’ chances this postseason start and end on the defensive end, as The Hockey Writers’ own Scott Lowe covered recently. Their best players are offensive juggernauts, including blueliner John Carlson. Braden Holtby didn’t have a great season in goal, and without backup Ilya Samsonov, there’s no safety net if Holtby struggles. Besides Carlson, the blue line pairings are still finding their strength as Brenden Dillon works his way into the unit.
Big bodies like Ovechkin, Garnet Hathaway, and Tom Wilson can hamper their opponents’ goal-scoring opportunities, but the bottom line is this: they finished 18th in the NHL by allowing 3.07 goals per game, and they haven’t shown enough consistency on that end to put them in the upper echelon of the league. Their top-six is loaded with offensive talent, but from that group, only T.J. Oshie registered more than 1.0 defensive point shares.
All that said, Washington did a nice job on the penalty kill (82.6 percent) this season. That suggests they have the capabilities to focus in and seal off the net, but it also speaks to their ability to control the puck. However it happens, continuing to manage those penalty minutes will be key. The flip side of that coin is that they were one of the worst teams in the league controlling the puck out of faceoffs, winning just 48.3 percent of their draws. Richard Panik emerged as a surprising plus in this regard (small sample size alert), and he could be utilized on the fourth line to gain control of the puck.
How the Capitals Could Win the Cup
They’re not among the elites, but the Capitals are among the teams with a reasonable chance of winning it all this season. If they’re going to win, they need Ovechkin, Oshie, Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom to deliver primetime performances. They need Dillon to blend quickly with Dmitry Orlov, and they need Orlov to be as comfortable on the right side as he says he is.
But where the Capitals can boast an advantage over the other top teams in the Eastern Conference in through their depth. Per Luszczyszyn, Washington is the only of the top four clubs without a replacement-level player anywhere on their roster. This advantage tends to dissipate in the postseason, but it won’t be gone entirely.
Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, and Ilya Kovalchuk are a skilled and experienced third line that can make a difference for Washington. Kovalchuk brings a unique ability to score goals, while Hagelin had a strong year putting up shorthanded points. Head coach Todd Reirden can make life easier on his defenders by utilizing the quick-strike ability hidden on his third line. Eller is also their most accomplished centerman, winning 51.9 percent of over 1,000 faceoffs this season.
Their fourth line, as well, brings more to the table than just fresh legs. Since his move to the fourth line, Panik has become a genuine weapon. Hathaway is among the team’s hit leaders in playing the role of enforcer, but neither he nor Nick Dowd brings significant scoring prowess, allowing Panik to fire away to his heart’s content. Dowd’s two-way ability can help on the penalty kill, but he’s a guy who can captain a defensive possession and carry the puck through to the offensive end.
The bottom-six alone isn’t going to win playoff series for the Caps, but they don’t need to. Exploiting their advantage to shift momentum and rest the stars might be enough to power the top-six. For those well-known stars, the objective is simple: let their offensive firepower dictate the terms of play. If that happens, the Caps could prove themselves elite after all.
TC Zencka is a sports writer and analyst whose work appears regularly on MLB Trade Rumors, Pitcher List and The Hockey Writers.