It’s almost time for the Washington Capitals to return to the ice. Play has already resumed in Europe, with the Champions Hockey League in full swing, meaning that the start of the 2022-23 NHL season is just around the corner.
The Capitals, like every organization in the league, have several storylines floating over them ahead of training camp, which is due to open on Sept. 22 in Arlington, Virginia. Brian MacLellan, the club’s general manager, wasted no time in completing his business this summer, bulldozing the crease and acquiring Connor Brown back in July.
But, after another first-round loss, the franchise’s trajectory is unclear. With just five weeks until Washington opens their season at home against the Boston Bruins, here are three plots to keep an eye on.
What is the Timeline for Nicklas Backstrom’s Return?
It’s no secret that the Capitals are in an awkward position: Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstorm will start the season on the injury list as they recuperate from offseason surgeries. They combined for 83 points last season and leave head coach Peter Laviolette with a top-six void.
In a recent interview with Expressen, Backstrom revealed that his hip woes caused him enough pain to make daily life a struggle. He faces an extended recovery following his resurfacing operation but is optimistic about the future.
“It was difficult to describe the feeling… I had difficulty walking. [It was] hard to put on my socks and tie my shoes,” Backstrom told the Swedish newspaper. I couldn’t even play with the kids. It’s no fun walking around in pain… even skating has been a little easier than walking” (from ‘Nicklas Backstrom Interview’, Expressen, 08/21/22).
The 34-year-old has made 1,058 regular-season appearances for Washington, accumulating 1,011 points (264 goals, 747 assists). However, injuries meant he was limited to only 47 outings last season.
“It wasn’t a good attempt. I missed the mobility; it hurt when I pushed, and I lost both speed and balance,” Backstrom said of his six points in six playoff appearances last term, before reflecting on the impact of his surgery. “It is absolutely incredible what you can do. I am optimistic for the first time in many years.”
Despite the Swede’s new confidence, it’s entirely possible that he will never return to top form – which, considering there are three seasons remaining on his contract, is a major issue for Washington. In a flat salary cap environment, the Capitals cannot afford for a $9.2 million forward to underperform. Backstrom’s health is therefore a crucial topic to follow this season.
Alex Ovechkin’s Race Against Time
The question has been on the docket for a while: will Alex Ovechkin overtake Wayne Gretzky to become the NHL’s all-time leading goal-scorer? He vaulted Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), and Jaromir Jagr (766) in the history books last season, becoming the league’s third-highest scorer with 780 goals.
The 36-year-old has four years left on his contract and must score another 115 goals to surpass Gretzky. That said, it feels like only a matter of time before he overtakes Gordie Howe, who is just 22 tallies up the road.
Unless there are shortened campaigns in the NHL’s future, Ovechkin could play as many as 328 regular-season games before his deal expires, meaning he must score in one-third of his maximum remaining appearances to topple Gretzky. It’s a challenge, but one the Russian can achieve if he scores bucketloads next season. As a result, the Moscow-born forward’s rate of production will remain a major storyline in D.C. for a little while longer.
Will Washington’s Netminding Gamble Pay Off?
MacLellan faced a daunting task between the pipes this summer. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov, both restricted free agents, were serial underperformers in D.C., with neither staking a definitive claim over the net.
Their mediocre form was a constant source of frustration last season, forcing MacLellan to allocate most of his trade deadline attention to acquiring a netminder. While the 63-year-old failed to source an upgrade midseason, he was ruthless once free agency opened, recruiting Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren.
Besides run-of-the-mill concerns about entering a long-term pact with a 32-year-old netminder, Kuemper is a relatively safe bet. He just backstopped the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup and comfortably outperformed the tandem he is replacing:
|Appearances||Save Percentage||Goals-Against Average||Goals Saved Above Expected (per Game)|
|Darcy Kuemper||57||.921||2.54||25.1 (0.44)|
|Vitek Vanecek||42||.908||2.67||0.9 (0.02)|
|Ilya Samsonov||44||.896||3.02||-12.5 (-0.28)|
But what if Kuemper’s form falls away? In short, Washington’s season will depend on whether Charlie Lindgren is legit. The 28-year-old made five appearances for the St. Louis Blues last season, recording a 1.22 goals-against average (GAA), .958 save percentage (SV%), and five wins. He was also superb in the American Hockey League, upholding a .925 SV% and 2.21 GAA in 34 appearances for the Springfield Thunderbirds. But small sample sizes are troublesome and Lindgren has never been a true backup.
“We liked his performance last year,” MacLellan said of Lindgren. “I know it wasn’t a lot of games, but we think there is some upside in there, so we gave them the three-year term because it was competitive for him and there were a lot of teams that were looking at him.”
It was a busy summer for musical chairs in the netminding department, with the Capitals key players in an unpredictable marketplace. MacLellan rolled the dice on an untested No. 2: it will be fascinating to see if the gamble pays off.
Washington Must Start the 2022-23 Season on the Front Foot
If the Capitals want to lift another Stanley Cup in the epoch of Ovechkin, they must make the most of their opportunities next season. Washington’s prospect pool is thin, they haven’t advanced in the playoffs since winning it all against the Vegas Golden Knights, and are now at the mercy of age curves.
Time is running out, if it hasn’t already, for the team from D.C. to win. MacLellan’s side must start the upcoming campaign on a positive footing as a result.
Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.