Capitals Need X-factor to Emerge on Offense to Remain Dangerous

The Washington Capitals were tied for the fourth-most goals in the NHL last season at 188, which helped them to the seventh-best record. They have been one of the most dangerous offensive units in the league season after season, and with essentially the entire offensive roster returning, expect more of the same and possibly an increase in productivity.

Capitals’ Offensive Success Comes with Consistency and an X-factor

When the Capitals have an issue on offense, it never translates to worry. It’s only when they fall into a drought and the blue line is playing poorly at the same time that causes concern. Every team will go through some sort of frustrating stint, but Washington finds a way to still be a dominant regular-season squad and a regular postseason guest. It’s because the team has consistent scorers and reliable depth, but as the stars age, a new X-factor must emerge in order for Washington to return to glory.

Consistent Scoring from Core

Now that the “record watch” has officially begun for Alexander Ovechkin after his new five-year, $47 million contract, he will need to average 33 goals for the next five seasons to break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record of 894. He has only scored fewer than 33 goals in a season three times. In 2010-11 he tallied a measly 32; in 2012-13 he also scored 32 in a 48-game lockout season; and he netted 24 in 45 games during last season’s campaign of hurdles.

Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal
Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal, Feb. 22, 2020 (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Though the chase for 895 will draw much media attention from now until 2026, the Capitals’ main goal is another Stanley Cup title. To achieve such, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Tom Wilson have to remain consistent.

There were whispers that the franchise should think about moving on from Backstrom, even though he had just signed a five-year, $46 million deal in 2020 to stay in Washington. Since the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, Backstrom’s numbers have been steady. The center recorded 74 points in 2018-19, and was on an 82-game pace to tally 72 and 79 points during the last two shortened seasons. The latter total would have been tied for the third-best of his 14-year career.

Oshie has been no different. In that same span, the forward has become more dynamic. In 2018-19, he scored 25 goals, and during the last two reduced seasons, he was on pace to score 31 and 34 goals, respectively. His highest goal-scoring season was 33 in 2016-17.

Wilson, 27, is entering his prime. Not only is his physical presence invaluable, but he’s a very productive offensive player. The forward became much more of a contributor after 2018, registering 56 goals and 61 assists in 178 games. Before then, he totaled 35 goals and 69 assists in 391 games. That’s a 229.63% increase in points per game between the two time periods.

Of course, there are other variables to consider, like fewer games benefiting aging skaters and Wilson playing on a line with Hall-of-Fame talent most of his career. However, the consistency is there in the numbers.

Reliable Depth

Washington benefited greatly last year from having an amazing fourth line. The trio of Nic Dowd, Carl Hagelin, and Garnet Hathaway was irreplaceable, and perhaps the team’s most reliable line of 2020-21. The three skaters each played in all 56 games on the season — the only three to do so on the Capitals’ roster — and accounted for 49 of the team’s points. Though that number doesn’t jump off the screen, it was the timeliness of those points, the contributions on the penalty kill, the wins in the faceoff circle, and the overall grit that helped Washington stay in playoff contention.

Skating before that terrific fourth line was a dependable third line — when healthy and not being forced to adjust due to issues within the top six. Lars Eller and Conor Sheary proved their worth throughout the year, and Eller proved even more when he wasn’t on the ice. He missed the third-most games by a Capitals’ regular last season, but still managed 23 points. However, like the fourth line, Eller’s main contributions came as a defensive center.

Sheary was steady and contributed 22 points, and was on a full-season pace to record the second-most goals and points of his career. The surprise third-liner, however, was Daniel Sprong. The 24-year-old winger stepped up big when Ovechkin was out, and was rewarded by being protected during the NHL Expansion Draft. His performance this upcoming season could land him a nice new contract. 

X-factor

Sprong is the leading candidate among three potential X-factors for the Capitals. No goal scorer stepped up more during Ovechkin’s absence, including a late-season stretch where he scored six goals in six games. He netted 13 overall on the season and earned a career high in points (20) in just 42 games. Now that he will likely be given a full-season sample, Sprong has a great opportunity to solidify his value as a young player on a roster in need of exactly that.

Anthony Mantha, 26, will also be given a full-season sample as a Capital. After being acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Mantha played in 14 games for Washington, tallying four goals and four assists. Unfortunately, those four goals happened in his first four games after the trade, and then he went cold, including a goal-less playoff debut. While in Detroit, the winger scored 95 goals and 194 points overall in 302 games. He has playmaking ability and the opportunity to be a slight upgrade from Vrana from a productivity standpoint. Vrana scored 76 goals and 157 points in 284 games with Washington.

The last possible X-factor is someone who has already been a difference-maker. Evgeny Kuznetsov needs to play to his potential because when he does, he is nearly unstoppable. Yet, because of his apparent lack of motivation on the ice and his issues away from the rink, this season will be vital for the center’s future. Since his magical playoff performance in 2018 where he tallied 32 points in 24 games, Kuznetsov has 11 points in 18 games with a minus-6 rating the last three postseasons.

His regular-season totals are declining as well. He earned 83 points in 2017-18, 72 in 2018-19, and was on a full-season pace to score 68 and 58 the last two shortened seasons. With a contract that takes up $7.8 million against the cap per year through the 2024-25 season, either Kuznetsov performs as he is expected to, or this offseason’s trade rumors will become more of reality next summer — or possibly before season’s end.  

Looking Ahead

There won’t be much shuffling on the offensive end this season for the Capitals. Washington has its entire core returning, and with the exception of Dowd and Sprong, each forward is under contract for at least the next two seasons. Dowd becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, and Sprong will be a restricted free agent. Eller, Hagelin, Hathaway, and Sheary will all be unrestricted free agents in 2023-24. Because those four eat up $9.25 million in cap space per year, and their average age by then will be 32, the Capitals’ offensive depth chart may look much different in two years. Here are the projected lines for the 2021-22 season.

Offensive LineLeft WingCenterRight Wing
1stAlexander OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson
2ndAnthony ManthaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
3rdConor ShearyLars EllerDaniel Sprong
4thCarl HagelinNic DowdGarnet Hathaway
Capitals’ 2021-22 Projected Lines

The line with the most pressure is the second line. Head coach Peter Laviolette may have to play around with those top six skaters to see which grouping meshes well. More specifically, which center fits best with which wingers. Perhaps Mantha will benefit more with Backstrom’s consistency, and Kuznetsov can find a groove again with Ovechkin’s scoring prowess. There is no learning curve with this group, so they need to figure out it fast with little error.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Washington heading into 2021-22, including the messy cap situation, the offense is set for now. If they can stay healthy, expect a motivated Ovechkin, a more comfortable Mantha, a something-to-prove Sprong, a rejuvenated Kuznetsov, and steady third and fourth lines to maintain the Capitals’ dangerous offense.


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