In a normal NHL season, as the calendar turns to April, the Washington Capitals would be readying their lineup for the playoffs, with just a handful of games left. But in this strange season, Washington is still over a month away from the postseason, with some decisions to make before the trade deadline next week on their roster.
With the throwback division format, it’s appropriate the MassMutual East Division this year is like the Patrick Division days of the 1980s, where teams are pretty much aware of their postseason fate with more than a month to go. The Capitals are currently 15 points ahead of the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers, meaning they almost assuredly will qualify, barring some unexpected circumstances – which are still possible in this strange shortened season.
The four teams currently in the East’s top four spots – the Capitals, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins – are most likely going to make the cut in the East. And Washington knows to advance out of the bracket and into the third round, they will have to defeat two of those three teams.
Against those three teams so far this season, the Capitals are a combined 7-5-2, with their best matchup so far being a 3-1-0 mark against the Islanders, and being 2-2-0 against Boston and 2-2-2 against Pittsburgh. Washington still has 10 of their last 16 games against those three, so it will be telling how they match up against those potential playoff foes.
Fans who remember the old divisional playoff bracket also remember that seeding didn’t mean a lot come playoff time. Without the sizeable benefit of a 1 vs. 8 matchup in the first round, there is a lot more chance of a lower seed breaking through the division and upsets in the first round. And while the Capitals would like to claim a sixth straight division title should they win the East this year, it probably won’t determine one way or another if Washington makes a serious run at a second Stanley Cup title.
So, where do these Capitals really stand, and what might need to be added for an extended playoff stay, knowing the Capitals are tight against the salary cap.
Offensively, the Capitals have been very good this season, as they enter the week tied for the league lead with the Colorado Avalanche with 132 goals scored.
More encouraging as of late, Alex Ovechkin has found another surge in production to reach 19 goals on the season, and Evgeny Kuznetsov has also been productive, notching 5 goals and 9 assists since March began. The Capitals will need their two main offensive threats from the 2018 Stanley Cup run to be effective to have a shot at duplicating the feat this spring.
While a lack of consistency has been a hallmark this year as Washington has had some up and down efforts, the team seems to be putting the pieces together has of late with some good production from the four lines, and certainly pose a threat to opponents by more than just the top line. One of the big issues has been protecting leads late, as the Capitals require putting pressure on an opponent to be effective, as they aren’t very good at sitting back and protecting a lead.
Coach Peter Laviolette also certainly showed his displeasure with Jakub Vrana’s play by scratching him for a pair of games in New Jersey over the weekend.
Despite the solid production, this is a team that can still use an upgrade in depth offensively. And, in a season where teams can lose a couple of players due to injury or illness, it seems the smart play to ensure the offensive depth will be good heading into the playoffs in an ideal world.
Complicating things, of course, is Washington’s cap situation. As of today, the Capitals have no cap space, and so any add will require some sort of salary going out, or player going on LTIR. As we get to the playoffs where the cap won’t be a factor, the team still has to make room to fit any adds to the roster.
So, to make a move offensively, it likely would mean a decent size deal to make the pieces work. While it’s possible the Caps could elect to send someone out to add offensive depth, it also would require money going out.
Last year, defense was a major liability for Washington, as it showed during the team’s short stay in the Toronto bubble.
But the Capitals made major additions to the blue line this offseason, and so far, the Capitals’ defense has been much improved with the off-season addition of Zdeno Chara and Justin Schultz, as well as the nice development of Nick Jensen.
Jensen, who seemed like he would be on his way out last season, has been very solid under Laviolette, and as a result, the Capitals have a pretty decent group of seven for the postseason, with Trevor van Riemsdyk being the first one to slide in case of injury or illness.
Washington also made a depth add Monday, bringing back prospect defenseman Alex Alexeyev to the Hershey Bears, after he spent the bulk of the season in the KHL with Salavat Yulaev Ufa, registering 8 goals and 8 assists with the club.
With the consistency of the six defensemen used by Laviolette, it seems unless the Capitals can add insurance and move some salary out, Washington’s defense probably will remain as-is heading into the playoffs. What was once the team’s biggest liabilities has now become a pretty solid corps, and should be improved over last postseason.
This is probably the most intriguing aspect of the Capitals’ playoff hopes. Vitek Vanecek, who took over the main role with Ilya Samsonov out, has been very solid with a .907 save percentage (SV%) and a 15-6-0 mark in his first NHL season. But Vanecek is untested in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Washington would need a solid Plan B if he buckles in his first foray into May.
Samsonov, who has been better in recent games, still has an .897 SV% and has shown flashes of being terrific – or being ineffective. In the past week, he was the latter in an ugly loss on Long Island but made some brilliant saves in a win Sunday at New Jersey. He certainly is a capable netminder, but like Vanecek, he has yet to make a playoff appearance so he’s an unknown quantity.
With Craig Anderson on the taxi squad, it would seem the Capitals would like to add some insurance in net in case their two young goalies struggle in the postseason.
The expansion draft will mean teams will part with backup goaltenders at a reduced rate since teams would rather get some return than potentially losing their netminder to the Seattle Kraken. While the Capitals probably wouldn’t be able to afford a starter, they certainly could be in the market for a solid backup who can step in if needed, while again looking to send some salary out.
The most interesting option would be if they feel that Henrik Lundqvist could step in at the end of the regular season. While the off-season signing hasn’t put on a Washington sweater yet, if he is medically cleared to play, Washington could have a third option that is not a major cap issue, particularly if it’s at the end of the regular season where the cap doesn’t become a factor.
Where the Capitals Stand
So, with 16 games left in the regular season, the Capitals seem likely to be heading to the playoffs, and while the team’s shortcomings probably will come from in goal, the other three teams in the East are also flawed to the point where it becomes a bit of a tossup to who will emerge.
Unless general manager Brian MacLellan wants to make a major renovation to this team, since players will have to go out to fit players coming in, it’s probably more likely that the team will try and add some depth for the postseason if they can squeeze the contract in.
Washington as-is certainly seems capable of an extended playoff run after the last two seasons of one-and-done, but clearly, there will be no easy outs in the East, even if the Capitals earn the top seed.
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.