As we ready for a bizarre summer season of Stanley Cup hockey, the NHL’s top 24 teams are whipping themselves into shape to make a run at history. Having avoided the play-in round, the Washington Capitals have as good a chance as any to take home the Cup. Surviving the gauntlet is obviously priority A, but for certain players, their hockey lives and legacies are on the line as well. With the round-robin phase almost upon us, let’s put this playoff run in context for a few Caps players with the most to gain from a Stanley Cup victory.
Goalies Passing in the Night
The past and future of Capitals goaltending are riding into the 2020 NHL Playoffs side-by-side, but the relationship between Braden Holtby and Ilya Samsonov feels like ships passing in the night. Rarely does a changing of the guard happen with such clarity in sports, but Holtby is almost certainly embarking on his final run as the Capitals’ goalie.
Meanwhile, Samsonov is preparing to fill Holtby’s skates next season and beyond. Even though he is the unequivocal netminder of the future, Holtby is equally certain to see the majority of this postseason’s minutes in net. Samsonov hasn’t even hit the ice at training camp yet, per Samantha Pell of the Washington Post. Still, there’s a lot he can learn from having a ringside seat, and if fortune favors the young Russian, it’s not impossible he gets in a game with a chance to kick off his tenure in the net.
Samsonov’s Stakes: 2/10
Holtby has often played his best hockey with his back to the wall, as he did when he won Cup in 2018 after starting the playoffs on the bench. This season, he’s not fending off pucks to save his job – his job is gone. But he gets to play out the string, and in these playoffs, he’s fighting for his Washington legacy.
He’s already the only Cup-winning netminder in Caps history, but another championship would create some breathing room in the future debate for “best goalie in franchise history.” Of course, a strong performance should net him a larger payday in free agency as well.
Holtby’s Stakes: 8/10
Brian MacLellan & T.J. Oshie
Brian MacLellan became just the sixth Capitals general manager in history when he took over from George McPhee on May 26, 2014. While much of this squad was already in place, MacLellan quickly put his stamp on the roster with the acquisition of T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues (for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley and a 3rd-round pick). The move came a little over a year after MacLellan took over, but it remains the most impactful addition among his credits.
He is a powerful player and has consistent track record of production throughout his career in the NHL. We feel that he complements our core group nicely and can help us get to the next level in achieving our ultimate goal.Brian MacLellan on the acquisition of T.J. Oshie in 2015 (from ‘Capitals acquire T.J. Oshie from St. Louis in three-player trade,’ Washington Post, 07/02/2015)
Oshie is the best conduit for the MacLellan era, and if he can put together another postseason effort like in 2018, both men stand to benefit. Oshie, 33, had a chance at notching his second 30-goal campaign since joining the Capitals five years ago, and he’s been a mainstay in the top-6. He was huge in putting up 21 points in their last Cup run and was named an All-Star for the first time this season.
It would be appropriate to see him stuff the stat sheet again (especially after missing the final four games of their first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019). Oshie is never going to be the face of the franchise, but he’s dangerously close to becoming a cult superstar already. Imagine the love DCers will have for him if he puts up another big postseason?
Oshie’s Stakes: 5/10
MacLellan’s Stakes: 5/10
Blue Line Pressure
The Capitals’ defense could look very different next season, and not only because Samsonov will take over between the pipes. John Carlson will continue to quarterback the top pair as one of the premier blueliners in the game, and Dmitry Orlov figures to return on the left side in the top-four. Beyond those two, there’s lots of uncertainty going into 2020-21. For the rest of the defense, a strong postseason will go a long way to securing a role on next season’s squad.
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Brenden Dillon has made a strong impression with his physical play, but he’s an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Nick Jensen and Michal Kempny are capable defenders and signed to affordable (aka moveable) long-term deals. They’re first in line to nab regular minutes, but they don’t have the ceiling of Washington’s young cohort of blueliners.
That’s where things will get interesting next season, as Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary make a play to join the top three blue line pairings. With a strong playoff run, the incumbents can make it harder for head coach Todd Reirden to turn to the youngsters next season.
For Dillon’s part, he’s ready to make an impact.
Coming into this [situation,] just being a piece to a puzzle and being part of a team that that’s had so much success that’s first place in the in the Metro, I’m kind of just learning – to be honest – a truly different system. The more I’ve gotten to understand it and see it and have these last couple months to really look forward to the next opportunity which I think we’re all excited about, it is going to pay huge dividends. For me in my game, my body feels good, I feel great on the ice and I think it’s only going to get better over these next couple of weeks before we head to Toronto.Brenden Dillon on learning the Caps’ system after being traded mid-season and having the layoff to learn the playbook, from Mike Vogel of NHL.com.
Jensen can be a resource for Dillon, as he was acquired mid-season last year. Nothing will help Dillon more than lining up alongside Carlson, whose puckhandling and scoring ability make for a perfect pairing with the more physical Dillon. It’s a good situation for Dillon to raise his stock, and whether it’s the Capitals or another team that notices, the next couple weeks represent an unequivocal inflection point for his career.
Dillon’s Stakes: 6/10
The 2018 Title Team
When the Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup in 2018, captain Alex Ovechkin rid his legacy of labels that would be difficult to stomach for an all-time great (“disappointment,” “choker,” “big-game Houdini,” etc.). Not all the greats get one, and Ovi got his. With a second Cup, Washington could join the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Los Angeles Kings as the great teams of the era.
When the Blackhawks hit their run from 2010-2015, many thought the salary cap would make it darn near impossible for teams of this era to get multiple Cups, but the Hawks, Penguins, and Kings have done it. The standard of greatness has been set. Goofy as this pandemic-driven, bubble-contained, summer-hockey tournament will be in the grand scheme of NHL history, these playoffs offer Ovi and company with their best chance to secure a spot in the annals of the game.
The Caps return 12 players from their Cup-winning team – albeit with Todd Reirden in place of Barry Trotz as head coach. The top-6 – the foundation of Washington’s attack – remains intact: Ovi, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Jacob Vrana. They’re all locked up beyond this season, so this might not be the absolute last chance to add to the cupboard, but the core is aging and opportunities to win again aren’t limitless.
Elsewhere, Lars Eller remains a stabilizing presence in the bottom-6. He authored a third-straight 35-plus-point season as the third-line center while seeing a career-high 17:01 of average ice time. Travis Boyd made just one appearance in each of the past two postseasons and remains on the periphery this time round after notching 10 points in 24 games. Holtby will reprise his role between the pipes for one final time, and in front of him, half the blue line has turned over as only Carlson, Orlov, and Kempny remain.
The continuity is there with just over half the roster from their Cup team still hanging out in the DMV. If they can win again, the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Kings will have to scoot over and make room in the NHL cannon for the Capitals.
To be among the great teams of this era should be a given with a truly generational talent like Ovi leading the break. He’s the first Russian to Captain a Stanley Cup winner, undeniably an all-time great, as decorated a player as exists in the NHL, and by the time he hangs up his skates, he’s going to retire as the 1st or 2nd leading goal score in NHL history.
But when Sidney Crosby – maybe Ovi’s only true contemporary and rival – has brought three Stanley Cups home to Pittsburgh, a single Stanley Cup simply isn’t enough.
2018 Caps’ Stakes: 9/10
TC Zencka is a sports writer and analyst whose work appears regularly on MLB Trade Rumors, Pitcher List and The Hockey Writers.