After winning their first Stanley Cup in 2018, it’s been all about doing it again for the Washington Capitals. Last year, they ran up against the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs and lost. As if in response to falling short, Washington tinkered with the roster and hopes to have reached an ideal balance.
Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Andre Burakovsky, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Brett Connolly are among those who are no longer Capitals. New arrivals include Radko Gudas, Brendan Leipsic, Garnet Hathaway, and Richard Panik.
Washington closed out the regular season with a 48-26-8 record, putting them first in the Metropolitan Division. But the playoffs brought out a different beast and the Capitals seemed fuzzy against the Canes. That led to the roster shakeup, something general manager Brian MacLellan hopes will strike the right note.
“We ended up having a good year,” MacLellan said. “But in the playoffs, it was inconsistent, for me, and I don’t know if it’s a fatigue thing or some other thing that we realized the battle that was ahead of us and weren’t up to the challenge. I’m not sure. I don’t have the exact thing pinpointed, but because of that, we felt we needed to change the group a little bit.”
Hot take: Alex Ovechkin is the offensive leader of the Capitals. He leads the league in goals since 2013-2014 and has more than any other active player. Last season, he led the league again with 51. He’s often atop the leaderboard in shots on goal, hits and power play goals per season, making him one of the most consistent offensive threats in hockey.
Evgeny Kuznetsov put up 72 points in 76 games last season, including 21 goals – a career-high eight of which were on the power play. He’s scored at least 72 points in three of the last four seasons and at least 23 power play points in the last two. While he’s a natural fit with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov was inconsistent. He’s also set to serve a three-game suspension for “inappropriate conduct.”
Nicklas Backstrom once again proved himself as one of the best centres in the league. He notched 74 points in 80 games, including 25 power play points. The 31-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and could be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, so you have to imagine MacLellan is working on getting something hammered out.
Those looking for a sleeper pick would be wise to check out Jakub Vrana. The winger scored 23 even-strength goals last season, second to Ovechkin. He was fifth on the team in even-strength points but averaged just 12:34 of ice time a game in even-strength situations. The highly-efficient forward could see an uptick in fortunes with Connolly’s departure.
John Carlson is a valuable pick. He’s entering the second year of an eight-year contract worth $64 million and he comes alive on the power play. Carlson leads all NHL defencemen in PP points over the past two seasons and he’s second in overall points on D to Brent Burns. That’s good company.
Make no mistake about it: the Capitals love to create from their own zone. That leads to a good number of shots against. Washington allowed 2,584 shots against last season while taking 2,492. That gave them a differential of minus-92, good for 20th overall. As a team, their save percentage was .904 – tying them with Columbus, Minnesota and the New York Rangers.
The addition of Gudas to the defence should help the Caps tighten up. The 29-year-old loves to hit and can shut down a sprinting offence, which should lighten the load for goalie Braden Holtby. Dmitry Orlov also likes the open-ice hit, but the Novokuznetsk native is sometimes too aggressive and winds up out of position.
As mentioned, 30-year-old Holtby sees a lot of shots. He finished seventh in shots against last season and his save percentage has taken a hit as a result. He posted a .911 last season, but he unquestionably gets his wins. In fact, Holtby is first in Ws since 2014-2015 – Pekka Rinne trails him by 19 for second place.
Like Backstrom, Holtby is entering the final year of his contract. Prospect Ilya Samsonov could provide complications, which will impact how much Holtby gets when or if he re-ups with Washington. Right now, the backup slot is assigned to Pheonix Copley. The North Pole native signed a three-year deal in February and could be the starter if the team moves on from Holtby to prepare the way for Samsonov.
There are some compelling storylines in Washington this season, but the Capitals seem hungry and ready to prove that 2018 was not an anomaly. They’ll have to work harder than ever to prove they can come together as a team, but the Cup hangover is long over and the time for excuses long gone.
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