While the Washington Capitals have done an admirable job with all the injuries, COVID protocols and suspension absences they’ve faced this season, it appears the results lately are beginning to reflect the lineup that’s actually able to hit the ice.
Washington’s loss to the Vegas Golden Knights left the Capitals with just a 3-5-2 record for January, and the team is beginning to appear to be settling in fourth place in the tightly-packed top half of the Metropolitan Division. The Capitals’ spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy – they still have a 13-point edge on the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings, and although the New York Islanders have nine games in hand on the Caps, Washington leads the Isles by 21 points. However, with a mediocre second-half of the season, the Caps are in danger of being dropped into a Wild Card position once the playoffs start.
In the original 2021-22 schedule, Washington would have just a couple of more games before the extended Olympic break, which would give them time to assess and address the issues personnel-wise, and have time for players to recover from some nagging injuries. But, with the rescheduling of games in February, while Washington won’t have a packed month, they now have five games added where the players would have either been in China or on vacation.
So, what issues does general manager Brian MacLellan have to look at before the deadline? There’s a couple of sore spots and clearly, the team will have to evaluate how close they feel they are to a contender.
Where Does Washington Fit In?
Clearly, the Capitals are a good bet to be in the playoffs, but how far can the team go once they get there? Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington hasn’t won a first-round series, losing in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2019, the Islanders in 2020 and the Boston Bruins in 2021 – the last two in just five games.
Of the current foes in the Metro Washington could face, the Hurricanes seem to be the most complete team, with their biggest question for Carolina being if the goaltending holds up in the spring after changing out their tandem last summer. The New York Rangers may not have quite the talent of the other three, but under Gerard Gallant, they’re extremely well-coached and are a threat to make a playoff run wherever they end up in the standings. And, while the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t what they used to be, their star power still seems to bring their best in games against their rivals from D.C., and while they too have goaltending questions, they certainly have the talent to keep teams on their heels with their skill upfront.
If Washington does end up fourth and in a Wild Card, they also could end up crossing over into the Atlantic bracket, meaning a likely first-round date with the Florida Panthers or two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, neither of which would be an easy task. Win that round, and you get the other Sunshine State team you didn’t see in the first round, the Boston Bruins or the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As currently constructed, it seems Washington’s ceiling could be a second-round appearance should they get an advantageous foe in the first round, and avoiding Carolina or the Atlantic winner as a Wild Card, but even that would be more of a toss-up than a sure thing.
Playoff runs are built on some good fortune in matchups, and key players to get hot. The Capitals certainly got that in 2018 when the bracket broke their way as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and their goaltending all played terrific hockey. Four years ago, the man in net was Braden Holtby, but with four months til this year’s playoffs, it’s unclear who Washington will roll out for the postseason this time around.
Goaltending a Major Issue
The Capitals have rolled the dice the last two seasons in net, employing two young and inexpensive netminders to try and make another run at the Stanley Cup after letting Holtby walk after the 2019-20 campaign. While it has worked somewhat in the regular season with the emergence of Vitek Vanecek‘s play, the playoffs were a much different story last spring.
With Vanecek getting four starts in a row – and being a workhorse not seeming to be one of his strong suits – it seems clear that Ilya Samsonov’s chance to be the starter in Washington is fading again. While Capitals fans had a glimpse of how good Samsonov could be on Washington’s road trip in November with him recording back-to-back shutouts, he simply hasn’t been consistent enough in net. In January, Samsonov has posted a 4.09 goals-against average with an .869 save percentage, hardly instilling confidence in the coaching staff for his ability to lead the team through the two-month Stanley Cup playoff war.
At this point, it appears that the Capitals will need to go out and land a veteran goaltender to compliment one of the two, with the other likely heading out as part of a deal. Both goaltenders are restricted free agents following this season and fairly inexpensive, with Samsonov earning $2 million this season and Vanecek just $750,000 – which is why the latter was so attractive to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.
While Samsonov seemingly has more potential, with his recent struggles it might be easier to deal Vanecek with his low salary, and get a better return than Samsonov, although it may also depend on what level of goaltender you get in return.
It also doesn’t appear that Samsonov’s status in the organization was helped with off-the-ice issues with a reported ATV accident during the 2020 pause or COVID protocol last season, but of the two, Samsonov has more potential upside – even though it hasn’t really been realized yet.
With Anthony Mantha’s regular-season status in doubt, Washington could elect to use his $5.7 million cap hit to either get another netminder. However, even getting a goalie could depend on what type they acquire, as they may opt to just get a stopgap to complement whoever stays and look for improvement over the summer – similar to what they did before the 2020-21 season in acquiring Henrik Lundqvist to push and teach the young goalies – or go in a completely other direction for a long-term solution. Most likely, MacLellan will add a rental and assess what needs to be done whenever the season comes to an end.
For now, though, the Capitals seem to have given Vanecek more starts – his tough-luck 1-0 loss to the Golden Knights was his fourth straight – and coach Peter Laviolette was complimentary of his play in his postgame comments.
“He’s played really well,” Laviolette said, via the Washington Post (from ‘Vegas beats the odds to hand the Capitals their first shutout loss of the season,’ The Washington Post, Jan. 25, 2020). “He’s given us a really good chance every game to win and be successful. It was kind of a funny one tonight, the way [the puck] slipped through there. It just caught him, bounced off and sat there. But he’s done a good job.”
Fixing the Power Play
Another major issue that has developed over the past few weeks has been the team’s dreadful power play, which went 0-for-5 against Vegas, including coming up empty on a 5-on-3 that lasted 1:57. While it appears that at least some of the team’s issue is the structure and lack of skater movement with the extra man, MacLellan may simply opt to bring in another forward to try and spark the unit that has fallen to 30th overall in the NHL, operating at just a 14.2 percent pace, just above the hapless Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes for the league’s worst.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman certainly caused a stir when he linked the Capitals to former San Jose Shark Evander Kane earlier this week, as Washington appears to be in the market for a forward to at least take Mantha’s place down the stretch.
While Kane has a lot of talent that teams covet, certainly he hasn’t done himself any favors off the ice and could be a bigger headache than he’s worth for whatever team decides to bring him on board. While Washington is no stranger to players that haven’t exactly been popular in the locker room – hello, Alex Semin – Kane’s presence would require serious supervision of his status, and a commitment by Kane to be a good citizen during what is assuredly going to be an inexpensive, short-term deal he would hope to parlay into another contract this summer.
It’s not the Capitals haven’t had reclamation projects before – Mike Riberio was another example – but certainly you want to avoid bringing a potentially toxic presence into the locker room. Kane has certainly shown himself to be productive when given the chance with a change of scenery – he did notch 14 points in 17 games with the Sharks immediately after his trade from the Buffalo Sabres in 2018 – but while his numbers have been decent since the off-ice behavior wasn’t.
While the goaltender is a must-buy item on MacLellan’s list if he wants to try and capture another Cup, it also appears a forward may be another piece the Caps will be targeting, although it may depend on the price tag of the netminder they end up with. While it may not be Kane, certainly the Capitals will look to try and add a sparkplug to prop up what has been a power play heading in the wrong direction as the season progresses.
How Many Chips to Push In
The other question for MacLellan is how much to put into this version of the Capitals. Certainly, with the Hart Trophy-type season Ovechkin has put forth keeping the team going, there is some potential for another run. Plus, the window for the current group is certainly closing, and there won’t be many more chances for Ovechkin to have a legitimate chance to hoist the Cup as a Cap.
Certainly, it seems unlikely Washington will go into a full-fledged rebuild until Ovechkin retires or heads back to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) following his new five-year deal, but a retooling where the team fades into a playoff contender rather than a championship contender is coming sooner than later.
For this year, Washington still has its 2022 first-round pick available for trade, with their second-rounder gone to the Detroit Red Wings in the trade that brought Mantha to Washington, but they do have the Winnipeg Jets’ pick as part of the Brendan Dillon trade last summer.
Certainly, if the Capitals acquire a goaltender, they likely ship out Samsonov or Vanecek, with Vanecek probably having more appeal to a trade partner due to his low salary and status. Samsonov does have the potential, but seemingly the events of the past two seasons haven’t helped boost his trade value.
With LTIR, the Capitals have roughly $2 million in space at the moment and will have around $10 million in space next year as the unrestricted free agents (UFA) contracts of Justin Schultz and Michael Kempny are set to fall off the payroll, with Daniel Sprong and Samsonov and Vanecek having restricted free-agent status this summer.
With the commitment to their veteran core and a playoff spot likely secured already, it seems likely MacLellan will make a move or two to bolster the team’s chances for a Stanley Cup run, full well knowing that the team’s true contender days are rapidly coming to a close. Clearly, while the thought was the team’s true chance expired with the second-round loss to the Penguins in 2017, the stellar play of Ovechkin in his 30s has kept the door ajar since.
And, the players, especially those from the Stanley Cup core, still are confident in their roster being able to do damage.
“We’re not hitting the panic button,” forward Tom Wilson told reporters after Monday’s loss. “We’re not like, ‘Oh, this is the end.’ We’re still a good hockey team. We still got a lot of good pieces. We’re still in a really good spot in the standings. That being said, we’ve got to turn it around.”
So, with just over three months to go in the regular season and less than two months until the trade deadline, the Capitals already have a couple of tough decisions to take care of, and reassess where they truly stand, and what they think this version of the Capitals are capable of this spring.
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.