I’ve been covering the Washington Capitals since the middle of last season. Tonight begins my first full season writing about the team and I’m amped up for it. I’ve got storylines that I’m following, but here are four reasons why I’m excited to finally get the 2020-21 NHL season underway.
New Era With Samsonov
I’ve beaten around the bush in criticizing Braden Holtby but now I’ll cut to the chase. He was not good enough last season. Among NHL goaltenders with a minimum of 30 games played, he ranked 41st in save percentage (SV%) with a .898. His 3.11 goals-against average (GAA) was 39th.
That’s simply not good enough on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The only teams with a worse team-wide save percentage were the Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild. The Red Wings were tanking, the Sharks were so bad their draft pick ended up being 5th overall, and the Wild shipped out their starting goaltender. Meanwhile, the Capitals saw fit to turn Holtby loose, and why wouldn’t they?
Ilya Samsonov came to North America in 2018-19 after three stellar seasons in the KHL. His AHL campaign wasn’t strong, but he looked impressive at times. In 2019-20, he posted a 16-6-2 record with a 2.55 GAA and .913 SV%. Had he not suffered an injury, he likely would have been the Capitals’ starter in the playoffs. Now the reins are his, and he’s still only 23 years old – he’ll turn 24 on Feb 22. If he can pick up where he left off last season, he’ll be a substantial upgrade on what Holtby provided. It’s a new era in net for the Capitals.
Daniel Sprong Made the Cut
Daniel Sprong was picked 46th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, there was chatter he could go in the first round. I thought he should have. He was electric with the Charlottetown Islanders in the QMJHL, and he went into the Penguins’ training camp with so much hype that he made their 2015-16 roster and played 18 games. He was bounced back to the QMJHL midseason.
Unfortunately, during the 2016 NHL Playoffs, he was injured in practice. The injury required shoulder surgery and he was projected to be out for 7-8 months. That really hurt his 2016-17 campaign and he only playing 31 games that season, all in the QMJHL. The next season, he earned a few NHL games but was a point-per-game player through 65 AHL games.
In 2018-19, he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, where he scored 14 goals in 47 games. It looked like his career was finally set for take-off until the Ducks shipped him back to the AHL for most of the 2019-20 season. At the 2020 trade deadline, the Capitals acquired him for Christian Djoos (whom the Ducks recently lost to waivers).
During the 2019-20 hiatus, Sprong was given a chance to show his stuff in camp leading up to the playoffs. I believed he was good enough to make the team, but I’m also biased as a fan since Sprong’s Charlottetown days. It seems like he’s been around the league forever, but he’s only 23 years old. He’s a year younger than Jakub Vrana, and we all know how long it took him to turn into a breakout player.
If he finally pulls his game together, he might become a star. His speed and agility once earned him the nickname “The Flying Dutchman” because of his Dutch nationality. He has a fluidity to his stickhandling and puck movement as he zips around defenders, but he is also equally committed to playing in his own end. He has also shown a unique ability to score from sharp angles, beating goaltenders on the short side. If the Capitals can get him going, he could be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL.
Ovechkin Chasing History
Alexander Ovechkin sits in eighth place all-time with 706 regular-season goals. If not for lockouts and shortened seasons, he would be higher than eighth. Ahead of him are the all-time greats.
Ovechkin’s career average is 0.61 goals-per-game. If he can score 34 goals in a 56-game season, that would put him just behind Brett Hull. However, last season he went on a tear for a 0.71 goals-per-game average. That would put him on pace for 40 goals and land him firmly at fourth all-time. Ovechkin seems to know what he’s chasing and has shown no signs of slowing down with age. When the regular season is done, expect to see him catch Hull and be sitting behind Jaromir Jagr.
TJ Oshie’s Possible Last Hurrah
TJ Oshie is from Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour’s ride up the I-5 from Seattle. He is a USA Hockey legend. If you have never watched his epic shootout from the Sochi Olympics, it’s one of the great moments in USA Hockey history. He has been a key piece of the Capitals’ success since his arrival and continues to produce highlight-reel moments.
Oshie’s effectiveness is not limited to his offensive production, though. His leadership is second to none, and his work ethic might be top-5 in the league. He’s demonstrated a willingness to work his hardest to implement whatever his coaches want, what every coach craves. I watched him play in the 2016 World Cup, and he often seemed to be the only forward who bought into head coach John Tortorella’s system. He’s a natural-born NHL captain, which is why the Seattle Kraken are almost certainly going to try to acquire him in the 2021 Expansion Draft.
It makes sense for the Capitals to expose him. Despite his production, Oshie is 34 years old with five years left on a contract that carries a $5.75 million cap hit, and the Capitals have cap considerations ahead. Ovechkin needs a new deal, and Jakub Vrana is a restricted free agent after this season. Bigger still, Samsonov is up for a new contract. The Capitals will need to clear cap space, and exposing Oshie to be selected by Seattle could work out for everyone involved.
Oshie is one of my favorite players, and it has been a thrill to watch him in play in Washington. The trade to acquire him might go down as one of the greatest in Capitals history. This might be his last season wearing the number 77 in red. If that’s the case, I hope he’ll give us all something great to remember it by.
The puck drops at 7 pm Eastern Time on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. Small storylines always help compose the big story. Tonight begins a new chapter in Capitals history. This journey, like so many others around the league, has one goal. Let the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup begin.