Just a little under a year ago, the Washington Capitals played their first home game of the calendar year 2020, recording perhaps their most memorable result of the entire year. The Caps trailed the San Jose Sharks 4-2 heading into the game’s final minute, but scored two goals in the final minute of regulation to force overtime before taking the win in the extra session and sending the sellout crowd home happy.
Now, just under a year later, the Capitals will open training camp in very unusual circumstances, with none of those fans in the stands either at Medstar Capitals Iceplex for training camp or when the team opens their regular-season home schedule on Jan. 22.
On the ice, the Capitals will look much different, and with the team approaching a major crossroads three years removed from their 2018 Stanley Cup title with an aging roster and the likely prospect they could lose another big piece to the expansion Seattle Kraken over the summer.
Add to that Alex Ovechkin’s expiring contract status, and clearly this is a year that could determine where this team goes seven months from now.
Changes Behind the Bench
When Washington signed Peter Laviolette to replace Todd Reirden behind the bench, the team signaled this would not be a rebuilding or retooling season.
Laviolette has reached the Stanley Cup Final in each of his last three stops, winning one with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He usually has success out of the gate with his new team, and with the talent level the Capitals currently have, the expectation is a veteran coach — only the second with NHL experience the Capitals have hired since Ted Leonsis took over the club in 1999 — will be able to replicate the success the team had in the first half of 2019-20 rather than the mediocre results the team had in the second half.
Laviolette appears to be a good fit for a team that has historically needed to get a buy-in from the roster to succeed, as once the team starts to tune a coach out, the structure and effort seem to deteriorate quickly.
For the short season, however, Laviolette should be able to get more of a consistent effort than Rierden could last season, and with a shorter schedule, there is also less time for the team to tune out before the playoffs begin.
Goaltending the Biggest Question
Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan took a sizeable risk over the offseason, letting one of the core pieces from the Stanley Cup run in Braden Holtby walk while bringing in Henrik Lundqvist following his buyout from the New York Rangers.
But those plans came undone with Lundqvist’s heart issues, and with the goaltender to undergo open-heart surgery, that left Washington with three young goaltenders. The team opted to bring in longtime Ottawa Senator Craig Anderson on a PTO to compete in camp with the inexperienced group and offer the team a veteran option should the team opt for it.
Ilya Samsonov is the most likely to win the starting job, as he was solid in his 26 appearances last season and seemed ready to take the starting role. However, his chance to win the top spot in the playoffs was undone by an injury during the pause.
Vitek Vanecek won the backup role in the bubble, but the netminder who turns 25 next month has yet to play an NHL game despite his impressive AHL numbers in Hershey. He offers a low cap hit of only $716,667, allowing the team to have an inexpensive option to back up Samsonov should they go that route.
Pheonix Copley has the most experience of the three young netminders, with 29 career NHL games, which includes two with the St. Louis Blues. Copley was outplayed by Vanecek in Hershey last season and carries a slightly higher cap hit of $1.1 million. He was a solid backup in the 2018-19 campaign and could be a solid, if unspectacular choice.
Anderson, who would figure to make near-league minimum should he crack the Capitals’ roster — or accept a taxi squad or AHL role — would provide a veteran presence if added to the team. Behind a porous Senators’ defense, Anderson posted a respectable .902 save percentage, and certainly would offer a decent alternative to be one of the at least three goaltenders carried on the roster.
With the short season and the requirement to carry at least three goaltenders, the Caps figure to rotate their netminders unless someone gets hot and gives the team some options. Should the American Hockey League elect to start in February as hoped, one of the goalies likely would be sent down to get playing time. Otherwise, the only playing option other than the NHL level is in South Carolina.
Washington has some decent options in net, but certainly, they can ill afford a breakdown in the important position as it could make or break the team’s hopes, particularly should it reach the postseason.
Defense Gets Depth
One of the benefactors to Holtby’s departure is defense, as they used the cap room to add blueliners. They signed Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk as free agents, while Brenden Dillon re-signed with the team after being a trade deadline addition.
John Carlson had a spectacular first half of the season, and although he had a noticeable drop in the second half as the team slumped in the calendar year 2020, he still finished as a Norris Trophy Finalist. He will look to recapture his play from the first half, and with a deeper defensive corps, he should be a benefactor.
Dmitry Orlov looks to continue his progression, as the Russian had some consistency issues as well. Nick Jensen showed some improvement after a rough start to the campaign, while Dillon added some sandpaper to the defense and a bit of consistency.
Schultz and van Riemsdyk gives Laviolette some options with the lineup, particularly with Michal Kempny out for the season.
The Capitals figure to be a bit better in their own end, as one of their reasons for their quick playoff exit was some very subpar play by their blue line.
Forwards Consistent – for Now
Forward-wise, the Capitals continue to look similar to last season, with the only addition being Conor Sheary from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Capitals’ power play was a major issue last season, as a unit that normally finishes near the top of the NHL was in the bottom half of the league with a 19.4% conversion percentage.
One of Laviolette’s biggest challenges will be to get the potent unit to be less predictable and make opponents pay for taking penalties against Washington.
Contract-wise, captain Alex Ovechkin enters this year in the last of his 13-year deal with the Capitals, and while it seems unlikely the veteran will leave Washington, it certainly isn’t totally out of the question.
And, with the expansion draft looming this summer, it seems possible a forward like T.J. Oshie may be someone the Seattle Kraken eye to add to its inaugural roster as a name with local and national appeal.
But for now, the Capitals offer a very skilled and dangerous lineup, and one that certainly could prove to be dangerous again.
So, Where Are the Caps in Contention?
Certainly, this year’s team has the capability of making a strong run towards the team’s second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
The Capitals’ last two short playoff stays were undone largely by fatigue in 2018-19 and a relative lack of consistency and effort in last year’s bubble exit.
On paper, if the goaltending can deliver a solid effort, with the defensive improvement and offense in place, it’s not out of the question for another title run, although the onus will be on Laviolette to plug into the roster as Barry Trotz did in his final year in Washington.
Of course, the divisional format won’t make it easy, as six of the eight East Division teams made the 24-team playoff last year, but the Capitals appear like they have a strong chance to finish in the top four.
Washington’s window certainly doesn’t appear to be closing for this short campaign, but with their aging core, the Capitals may not have many more serious Stanley Cup runs left in them before they have to make major changes to the roster.
For 2020-21, while they aren’t probably among the favorites, they certainly appear to be a team of making a strong run, especially if they get solid goaltending.
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.