Capitals’ Stanley Cup Window Remains Open… But Just Barely

The Washington Capitals head into training camp in Arlington, Virginia, this month following one of the quietest offseasons in recent memory.

Washington’s biggest trade over the summer was acquiring goaltender Vitek Vanecek (“A week after losing Vitek Vanecek to Seattle, Capitals reacquire goalie from Kraken,” The Washington Post, July 28, 2021) from the Seattle Kraken just a week after he had been selected from the Caps by the club in the expansion draft. Other than that, the trade of defenseman Brenden Dillon (“Capitals trade defenseman Brenden Dillon to Jets for two second-round picks,” The Washington Post, July 26, 2021) to the Winnipeg Jets in a salary cap move was the team’s only other major transaction following the team’s first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

After the previous offseason in the fall of 2020 with the signings of free agents such as Justin Schultz, Zdeno Chara and Henrik Lundqvist, with the team firmly against the salary cap, there weren’t any major moves to be made for Capitals’ general manager Brian MacLellan without sending salary out in return. The Vanecek trade helped the team avoid a major issue in goal with just Ilya Samsonov returning from last year’s trio in net, as otherwise the team would have to find a backup netminder to fit under the tight cap, which would have been no easy task.

With the Capitals heading into its fourth season since claiming the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in June of 2018, is another championship possible for this group, or has the window closed on the club for good? The answer to that is, while this is a team that should qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 15th time in 16 seasons, it’s becoming a stretch to imagine this team can win four consecutive rounds without some key pieces falling into place.

Goaltending

As it was last season, the goaltending will be one of the major concerns for the team’s Stanley Cup hopes. While last year MacLellan hoped Lundqvist would be able to provide Samsonov a seasoned backup, that didn’t happen as the Swedish legend’s heart ailment caused him to miss the entire season — it meant a trial by fire for Samsonov and Vanecek. While the end result of the experiment during the regular season wasn’t bad, as the team fell a tiebreaker shy of winning the MassMutual East Division title, the playoffs were another story.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov needs to make his bid to become the Capitals’ No. 1 goaltender. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Samsonov out for COVID-19 protocol to open the postseason, Vanecek’s season came to an end in Game 1 as he was injured on the Boston Bruins’ first goal of the series. Taxi squad netminder Craig Anderson came in for the remainder of that game and Game 2 as the two teams split the series in Washington. However, while Samsonov played decently in Games 3 through 5, he was winless as the Capitals suffered their third straight first-round exit, leaving them without a series win since hoisting the Cup in Las Vegas three years ago.

Without much cap room to maneuver, the team will again hope the young tandem with just one regular season’s worth of career games played between them — exactly 82 games and just four postseason games — will be able to carry the load of a team with more than just playoff appearance expectations. Samsonov gets another chance to wrest the starting role that has been left unclaimed since Braden Holtby left to head to Vancouver less than a year ago, but the Russian’s bouts with injuries, the COVID-19 list and inconsistency have marked his NHL career so far. At times last season, Samsonov looked solid in net, but at others, he either was unavailable or unremarkable.

Vanecek did a terrific job in a tough spot with Lundqvist and Samsonov out early last season, keeping the Capitals in the mix during the regular season, but clearly got worn out with the heavy usage. Of the two goalies, while Vanecek wasn’t overly spectacular, he was delivering consistent efforts in net and able to help the team stay in contention for the playoffs.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

For the Capitals to harbor any Stanley Cup hopes this season, they need both goaltenders to be healthy and playing near top form, especially with the season expanding back from 56 to 82 games. While the Capitals could manage the loss of one of their top two netminders during a shortened season, a full slate would be much tougher to patch together should one goalie be absent for a long stretch.

While Washington does have Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale with the Hershey Bears to fill in a pinch, the Capitals probably would have to reach into the trade market for another netminder should the duo not play up to expectations, which would be difficult to do with the team’s cap constraints. Washington’s Stanley Cup hopes will tie in with the team’s goaltending, and if the tandem doesn’t play to its potential, it would be nearly impossible to survive four rounds against the league’s best.

Forwards

With the unsurprising return of captain Alex Ovechkin with a new five-year deal, Washington’s strength remains its forward group, and while Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are nearing the twilight of their NHL careers, the team still has been one of the most productive in the league in recent years.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
The Capitals will need Evgeny Kuznetsov to find his old form for the team to make a Stanley Cup run. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ovechkin, who turns 36 on Monday, will certainly try to defy Father Time and continue his chase of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal-scoring mark, and will be on pace to pass several NHL greats this upcoming season, sitting one behind fifth-place Marcel Dionne, 11 behind fourth-place Brett Hull and 36 behind third-place Jaromir Jagr, all within his reach this coming season. Despite Ovechkin’s age and style of play, he has been remarkably durable and consistent during his career, and the Caps certainly hopes that continues.

Backstrom, who led last season’s Capitals in points with 53, turns 34 in November, and will look to deliver the quiet consistency that Washington fans have learned to expect from the Swede. Oshie, who many a year ago had thought would be suiting up in Seattle this season, ended up with 22 goals last year and remains part of the team’s core even with his 35th birthday approaching in December.

All three should suit up for their respective countries in China for the Olympics, adding extra games and wear and tear on them, and certainly will be something worth watching. The one season the Capitals missed the playoffs since 2008 was the last Olympic year the NHL took part in, 2014, and certainly won’t make the Capitals any fresher this spring.

Barring a sudden drop in production by the elder Capitals trio, the one question mark forward-wise for Washington will be Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Russian hasn’t been overly productive since the team’s Stanley Cup playoff run in 2018, scoring just 49 goals total in the three seasons since. Kuznetsov, who parlayed his flash and potential into an eight-year deal signed in summer of 2017, has just one season above 21 goals in his eight-year NHL career, and that was the first year of the new contract. However, he won’t have the wear of a potential Olympic trip to slow him down, as he’s ineligible for the games due to an International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) suspension that expires next winter.

This is a squad that scored 188 goals last year, tied for fourth-best in the league — trailing just the Pittsburgh Penguins, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights — and certainly figures to be among the league’s most potent again this year. Washington’s power play, which had struggled in recent years despite the top-end talent, rebounded to third overall in the NHL with a 24.8 percent success rate, so that also will be important for the Capitals’ hope of a deep playoff run to be strong with the extra man. Forward-wise, a lot would have to go south fast for the forward group to take the Capitals out of contender status, as they still have one of the league’s elite corps despite their advancing age.

Defense

What was Washington’s Achilles Heel just a few seasons ago is now one of its strengths, as the defensive corps is in much better shape than it was in wake of the team’s unsuccessful repeat bid in 2018-19.

John Carlson Washington Capitals
John Carlson emerged as a Norris Trophy contender the last time the NHL went to the Olympic games in 2014. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The big change on the blue line will be the losses of Dillon to Winnipeg and Chara, but the Capitals will plug in Trevor van Riemsdyk more frequently this campaign, and also the likely add of prospect Alexander Alexeyev to the mix. John Carlson, who has been the leader of this group since the departures of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in the seasons following the Cup win, saw a big jump in his play heading into his last chance to play in the Olympics in 2014, so it will be worth watching if the now-Norris Trophy contender will make another jump in play with the chance coming to represent the United States this February.

Dmitry Orlov has shown improvement but will need to curb some erratic play, and Nick Jensen, who appeared to be heading out of town at the beginning of last season, showed marked improvement under the new coaching staff and became an important part of this core. While not among the league’s elite in terms of defense, in a flat cap world, it’s also not likely to be what costs the Capitals a chance at another championship. It will have a tough task of protecting the young goaltenders, but should be able to be effective enough to give the team a chance to go deep in the spring.

Intangibles

With the current playoff format, a Capitals playoff run also will require taking a look at the rest of the reunified Metropolitan Division, which the team will need to survive to springboard through to have a chance at the Cup.

Trotz Bourque Nelson
Barry Trotz’s Islanders are shooting for their third straight trip to the third round in 2022. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Largely, the Metropolitan playoff contenders remained static during the offseason, with almost all of them also being in the same boat of having to deal with being at or near the cap ceiling. The New York Islanders will bring back mostly the same group that advanced to the third round for the second straight season, and they certainly are a team more built for the playoff grind than the regular season. The team did create some cap room by jettisoning Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, and picking up a depth signing in Zach Parise, but their key is following Barry Trotz’s system. Maintaining that pace over a full 82 games could be a question since the last two regular seasons the team had started to drop just before the March 2020 pause and the shortened 2020-21 season, but certainly should qualify and is a threat to win the Metropolitan bracket with its style of play.

Last season’s top regular-season finisher in the East, the Penguins, are hoping for another run with an aging core, boasting a talented forward corps but major question marks in net. Unlike the Islanders, Pittsburgh is a team seemingly built for the regular season that can score goals, but is less equipped to handle the change of style in the playoffs when defense and goaltending become a premium.

The Carolina Hurricanes are back in the fold after a season in the Discover Central Division, and the talented young team is another one with major questions in goal. All three goalies Carolina used last season went elsewhere in the offseason, and Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta and Alex Lyon will be asked to carry the weight of Stanley Cup expectations in Raleigh. Like the Capitals and Penguins, if the goaltending isn’t there, it’s going to be difficult to mount any kind of playoff run.

Among last season’s non-playoff qualifiers, the New York Rangers should show a style change under new coach Gerard Gallant, and could be problematic for whomever they face should they qualify this time around. The Philadelphia Flyers seemingly are squarely on the playoff fringes, and it’s uncertain if the team can return to the playoffs after a year out. The New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets seem to be longshots to get in, barring unexpected turnarounds. While not what it used to be in terms of Stanley Cup contenders, the Metropolitan Division will not be easy to win for the Capitals, but not an insurmountable task with its roster.

Verdict

While the Capitals are a good bet to qualify for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team also would need a lot to break their way to make another serious Stanley Cup push. The team’s Cup window isn’t quite shut yet, but an aging group and unproven goaltending tandem could prove to be problematic to its title hopes.

Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin’s chance to lift the Stanley Cup again is getting smaller as the core ages. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Certainly, the team no longer is in the top tier of NHL’s contenders, but as shown in the past, qualifying for the playoffs is the major step to take for any team and a lot can happen once the postseason begins. The Capitals’ window seemed to have been closed in summer of 2017 after its loss to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, but the 2017-18 team got strong goaltending from Holtby and Philipp Grubauer to overcome its offseason losses and a strong performance from Kuznetsov and Ovechkin in the playoffs to end its title drought.

While the 2021-22 Capitals aren’t quite as strong as their 2018 counterparts, a good show in net and a resurgence from Kuznetsov would do a lot to elevate the Capitals back to the upper echelon of the NHL. If they don’t get it, while a playoff appearance is likely, it’s hard to imagine much more than winning a single round out of the current group.


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