Capitals Keys to 2020-21 Success: Improved Power Play & Goaltending

The calendar year of 2020 was not kind to the Washington Capitals. They went 14-11-3 in the regular season and were losing their lead in the Metropolitan Division before the league shut down. Ilya Samsonov missed the postseason due to a freak ATV accident. The coach they decided against re-signing after a Stanley Cup victory eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs.

They later fired the replacement for said bench boss. The greatest goaltender in franchise history signed elsewhere in free agency. And the team announced that Michal Kempny and Henrik Lundqvist would be sidelined for the 2020-21 season. Need I go on?

Jean-Gabriel Pageau New York Islanders Travis Boyd Braden Holtby Washington Capitals
Jean-Gabriel Pageau of the New York Islanders battles Travis Boyd and Braden Holtby, formerly of the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

The front office has been doing its best to ensure that 2021 goes better, addressing some key areas of need this offseason. While general manager Brian MacLellan is constantly looking for ways to improve his team, it appears that the Zdeno Chara signing this past Wednesday is the last move of the offseason, given that training camp is underway. With the roster coming to form, and with the new year just underway, let’s take a look at where the Capitals need to improve in 2020-21.

Reviving the Power Play

The Capitals’ power play has annually ranked near the top of the league in effectiveness over the past decade. This past season, however, it fell towards the middle of the pack: their 19.4% success rate was good for 17th in the NHL. The real problem was at home, oddly, where they operated at 16.8% efficiency, making it the 23rd ranked home power play. They also gave up nine shorthanded goals, fifth-most in the league. Their 5-on-4 play didn’t get any better in the bubble, either, with only a 17.9% success rate.

One reason for the mediocrity of the power play was the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 28-year-old Russian tallied 12 points with the extra man last season, the lowest power play point total in a full season in his NHL career. That tied him with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana for fourth-most on the team, but Oshie’s role on the power play is primarily a shooting option from the slot, which limits his assists, and Vrana spent most of the season on the second unit, until he replaced Kuznetsov for a few games down the stretch. The power play is just one of a few areas that the Capitals need Kuzy to improve in.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It’s a five-man unit, though, and it wouldn’t be fair or correct to blame the troubles on one player. There wasn’t a lot to criticize John Carlson for in a season in which he could have easily won the Norris Trophy.

However, his performance on the power play dipped this past season.

Had 2019-20 been an 82-game season, he was on pace for his lowest power play points total since 2016-17. Carlson also only scored twice while a man up, his lowest since 2015-16. He’s obviously not supposed to be the number one trigger man out there, but there were times where he looked hesitant to shoot. Whether it’s a bomb from the point, a one-timer from the frequently utilized Ovechkin-Carlson interchange, or simply a tippable shot, Washington’s man advantage could benefit from 74 putting the puck on net more often.

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Even Nicklas Backstrom’s numbers on the power play declined, which is surprising for a player known for his consistent production. His two power play goals and 18 power play points were the lowest totals of his NHL career, and his 16 power play assists were his fewest since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

Backstrom was flanked by Carlson on his left and Kuznetsov on his right, who I mentioned, both struggled. So Backstrom may have simply been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Or perhaps he is the common denominator in an underwhelming unit? Either way, Caps fans are hoping these three stars can regain their old form on the man advantage in 2021.

Consistent Goaltending

This will be the first season since 2011-12 that Braden Holtby will not be the Capitals’ starting goalie. The organization will likely raise his number 70 to the Capital One Arena rafters one day, but not for his play the past two seasons.

The Saskatchewan native posted a 3.11 goals against average (GAA) and a .897 save percentage (SV%) in 2019-20, both career-worsts (he had a 2.82 GAA and a .911 SV% the prior season. The Capitals had the third highest-scoring offense in the league last season, which lessened the gravity of the goaltending doldrums. But if they want to make it past the first round for the first time in three years, they will need a steady presence in net from the very first game.

The plan for the 2020-21 season was to run a 1-A, 1-B tandem with the inexperienced Ilya Samsonov and the aging Henrik Lundqvist. But after Lundqvist announced that he’ll miss this season due to a heart condition, Samsonov should expect a heavy workload. The young Russian had an impressive rookie campaign in a backup role. But there are a few factors that will determine whether he takes a step forward or backward this upcoming season.

With The King out, the Capitals will decide on one of three candidates to be their backup. Pheonix Copley served as Holtby’s understudy in the 2018-19 season, going 16-7-3 in his first and only full season in the NHL. Washington signed former Ottawa Senator Craig Anderson to a professional tryout, so they will see if the 39-year-old veteran has anything left in the tank.

Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson
Former Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand)

Vitek Vanecek has spent the past four years in Hershey, and he is looking to take the next step in his professional career. In an accelerated condensed season full of games on back-to-back nights, it’s important the Caps make the right decision on who gets the job.

Whoever is named backup will need to be ready to take on more responsibilities if he is called upon. Russian journalist Alexei Shevchenko reported in August that “Ilya fell off a quadricycle (ATV) while riding in Magnitogorsk and injured his back and his neck… [his] injuries were serious,” which caused him to miss the playoffs. If the injuries that Samsonov suffered linger and plague him throughout the season, the Capitals could be in trouble. Fortunately, general manager Brian MacLellan had this to say in regards to Samsonov’s status:

“He’s been with us, our main group skating, for the six weeks. Seems like everything is in order. He’s handling that ice time very well, and we anticipate him being good to go when camp starts.”

Assuming Samsonov makes a full recovery, he should excel in the starting role. The Capitals have been grooming him to take the reigns since they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015. Washington has been known for their ability to draft and develop quality NHL goalies, and Samsonov should be no exception. He nearly took the starting job from Holtby with his play last season, so hopefully, he can repeat that success in an expanded role.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With only 56 games this season and only the top four teams in each division making the playoffs, the Capitals don’t have time to figure out their power play as the season goes on. They can’t afford to have their starting netminder off his game for the majority of the season like last year. The Capitals were a great regular season team last season, even with these two issues, so an efficient training camp into 2020-21 should bode well for them.

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