The Washington Capitals have had an eventful offseason, though some rumors had it pegged as a summer blockbuster. With a wild coast-to-coast ride for Vitek Vanecek that normalized the team’s situation in net and Alexander Ovechkin re-signing, the blue line remains the major question for the Capitals.
Capitals Have Hole to Fill on Left Side
Brian MacLellan made a smart move by trading Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets. Though the defenseman was a valuable asset to the roster, he was a cap casualty. With Ovechkin’s looming contract and a handful of high-priced aging stars, someone had to be the lamb. When the Seattle Kraken selected Vanecek during the Expansion Draft instead of a defenseman that was long assumed, moving a blueliner was an easy decision for MacLellan. The trade saved the Capitals $3.9 million in cap space, and one of the picks they received in return helped bring Vanecek back to D.C.
What the move created, however, was a hole on the left side of the defense and the skates of a top-four defenseman to fill. With Zdeno Chara not re-signed and mulling retirement, Washington will have a new look on defense, but they have time to make sure the transition isn’t a season-long burden.
Michal Kempny’s Return
A big boost for Washington is that Michal Kempny is set to finally return. He tore his thigh muscle which sidelined him for almost a year, then suffered a torn Achilles before the 2020-21 season, and after a six-month rehab stint, he was involved in an accidental collision with a maintenance worker while skating for the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Hershey Bears.
The defenseman did return to the ice this month while training in the Czech Republic. This is good news for Washington, but Kempny, at the moment, is a solid third-line defenseman coming off two years of injuries. When fully conditioned and healthy, he may be able to fill in on the second line if called upon, but the Capitals do need another option.
Dmitry Orlov can play both sides of the ice, so expect the Russian to start on the top line with John Carlson. However, that pairing may deplete the balance on the other lines. Summer moves may not be over quite yet for Washington.
Re-Sign Zdeno Chara
Carlson, Justin Schultz, and Nick Jensen will patrol the ride side of the ice, and Trevor van Riemsdyk signed an extension with the Capitals in March. That is a solid depth chart for any NHL roster. With one spot ready to be filled on the left, there is a good option available in free agency.
The best bet for Washington is to try and re-sign Chara. The 44-year-old veteran has yet to decide if he is going to retire, and other franchises like the St. Louis Blues have expressed interest in signing the future Hall-of-Famer. He did make it clear that he would like to stay on the east coast to remain close to his family, and if the Capitals can squeeze another one-year deal under the cap, then it would be the perfect fit. Last season, Chara cost Washington just $795,000 against the cap, which would be a fair projection for this year if he were to re-sign. He knows the system, he knows the team and can be the best mentor for the heralded youth of Hershey.
The Young Gun(s)
Martin Fehervary, 21, is all but guaranteed to be recalled from the AHL very early or before the puck drops on opening night. He is poised to be Dillon’s successor on the left side of the defense, but how quickly he can adapt to the NHL will be the question. He only has six games of experience at the NHL level, and to expect him to be a top-four defenseman in October is asking a lot. That doesn’t mean he won’t be by the end of the season.
For Hershey, Fehervary posted 31 points and a plus-25 rating in 80 games. He is a great passer and plays a more defensive style. This will pair well with Carlson or Schultz, who tend to be more offensive-minded. In addition, at 6-feet, 2-inches and weighing in at 200 pounds, he is a physical presence just like Dillon and Chara.
Don’t count out Alexander Alexeyev either. The 21-year-old is also a left-handed shot and, depending on Kempny’s durability, could see action on the Capital One Arena ice this season. His stats are similar to Fehervary’s, skating in 70 games for the Bears and recording 30 points with a plus-19 rating. Alexeyev played the 2020-21 in the Kotinental Hockey League (KHL) for Salavat Yulaev Ufa, where he scored eight goals and tallied eight assists in 55 games.
Because the chances of re-signing Chara are slim, Laviolette has an interesting decision to make at the beginning of the season. Placing Fehervary on the second line, though risky, may not be the worst move to start the year. It’s better to get the youngster’s experience and play with the pairings sooner rather than later. Plus, putting Kempny on the second line with higher ice-time right away may lead to yet another setback in his recovery.
|Defensive Line||Left Defenseman||Right Defenseman|
|1st||Dmitry Orlov||John Carlson|
|2nd||Michal Kempny||Justin Schultz|
|3rd||Martin Fehervary||Nick Jensen|
It will be much more beneficial for Laviolette and the Capitals to work out their blue-line uncertainty in October and November. The offense is set to be just as dangerous, and with two young quality goaltenders, the flaws that come with learning curves could be masked enough to get through the early months. Kempny’s health and Fehervary’s development will be key to the Capitals’ success in 2020-21.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?” and, “When will this damn Sabres rebuild finally end?”
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