The best team in Washington DC is back. Yeah... That means almost nothing when you take a look at their competitors for the title.
Regardless... The Caps are back and I’m getting major 2018 vibes. Flashback to October 2018, the beginning of the season. The Caps were coming off of back-to-back heartbreaking playoff exits in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In both of these seasons, it was no secret that the expectations were that the Caps would make a deep playoff run.
The Caps had become a joke. They were awesome in the regular season but would never do anything in the playoffs. This was their best chance to win a cup! RMNB put it best right after the final horn had sounded in 2017, “That was it, by the way. That was the slamming shut of the two-year Cup window that general manager Brian MacLellan identified. Ovi’s gone gray, Oshie’s unaffordable, and a whole bunch of players need new contracts. We just watched the fizzling of Washington’s last best chance at a Stanley Cup.”
That’s what every single Caps fan was thinking after having their hearts broken. Again.
Entering the 2017-18 season, everyone had mediocre expectations for the Capitals. The consensus was essential that they’d make the playoffs while being very very good, but as usual, they’d choke when it mattered. The days of high expectations had passed and the Washington Capitals’ window had closed.
Here we are, the dawn of a brand new hockey season. Fans are back in arenas, teams are playing league-wide schedules, and we have hockey back to normal. The Caps have failed to advance past the first round in three straight seasons after winning it all in 2018. Expectations are dim, to say the least. The window is definitely closed! Sound familiar?
I LOVE this team being an underdog. Can this team replicate 2018? Let’s dive in:
The Capitals will line up as followed on opening night:
The Caps have all 12 forwards back from last year. The main storyline here is clear: Alex Ovechkin and the chase for #1 on the all-time goal-scoring list. No doubt about it, Ovi is the greatest goal scorer to ever set foot on the ice. Can he beat out father time? Time will tell, One thing we do know? The Russian Machine Never Breaks. My prediction: Ovi wins the Rocket Richard Trophy this season.
One big thing to note: Nicklas Backstrom will begin this season on the long-term injury list. He will miss a minimum of 10 games. His replacement will be, at least on opening night, 19-year-old Hendrix Lapierre. Lapierre will be centering the third line with Sheary and Oshie on his wings. The 19-year old received high praise for his play in training camp, with his linemate TJ Oshie being among the most impressed, “He’s a super talented young kid,” Oshie said. “Awesome, awesome, awesome guy. He’s fun to be around. He’s smiling in the locker room. You can tell he’s really enjoying himself. He’s working hard. He’s very interested in learning from players, from coaches.” The Caps are said to have an ugly rebuild ahead, but I think Lapierre is a player who will speed it up and keep the Caps competitive, no matter what. When Backstrom comes back, it’s going to be really hard to keep Lapierre off the NHL every-night roster.
The Caps have a top 8 forward group in the NHL. Staying healthy will be key, but that isn’t the most important factor. The Caps forward group will go from “almost elite” to “elite” IF Evgeny Kuznetsov can be great. We’ve seen it before, but it’s been a while. If Kuzy performs, this Caps team can win another Cup. If he doesn’t perform, you won’t see Kuzy in DC ever again. I may have fallen into the trap. Back in May, the Caps got obliterated in 5 games by the Bruins. Kuznetsov looked atrocious and I was 100% on board with shipping him out of town. Here I am now, fully back on the Kuzy train. I am expecting a massive season based on the way he has spoken about himself as a player and how he looked in the preseason.
Outside of the 3 obvious names above, up and down the lineup, the Caps have some serious talent and depth. People are still upset about the trade that sent Jakub Vrana to Detroit. If I were a betting man, I’d bet that people will warm up to the trade when Anthony Mantha, who was brought in for Vrana in that trade, is finally acclimated to the Caps after a full offseason and training camp. Mantha has the talent to be a top player in this league and I think we see it this season. He is slated to start the year on a line centered by Lars Eller, one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, with Daniel Sprong on the right wing. A good combination of speed and size here. Mantha and Sprong have two of the nastiest shots in the NHL, so this line will generate success as long as they can exit their own zone. Mantha could easily end up second on the team in goals this season, provided he shoots the puck over making one more pass, as we often saw him opt to do a season ago.
I’d be angry with myself if I didn’t mention Tom Wilson, aka the most hated player in the NHL. It’s going to be interesting to see how teams play when Wilson is on the ice. Seeing how it goes on opening night against his good friends, the New York Rangers, will give us a good idea. Wilson is essential to the Capitals’ success, so I really hope he stays away from the sideshow after-whistle activity this season.
Forward Group Prediction: The Caps’ forwards can and will finish top 5 in the league offensively led by Ovi, who will end this season sitting in third all-time on the goals scored list.
The national media has barely touched on the Capitals defense getting significantly better.
Four players return to the defense in John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz, and Nick Jensen. They will be adding, full time that is, Martin Fehervary and Trevor Van Riemsdyk. The Capitals are a much better team with just those two additions on the blue line.
A season ago, we saw superstar John Carlson notch 44 points in 52 games in the regular season. Then, in the playoffs, he managed to post just two assists while being unplayable in his own zone. We found out in the offseason that he had surgery to repair a cracked kneecap that he was playing through. I went from irate with his performance to understanding in a hurry. A healthy John Carlson is a top 3 offensive defenseman in the NHL, something the Caps need him to be desperate. My Prediction: John Carlson will finish in the top 5 in Norris Trophy voting.
As of opening night, it seems like these will be the defensive pairings:
Folks... It’s beautiful.
Each pairing has an offensive-minded defender and a stay-at-home type guy. The difference in this year compared to last year is that the new stay-at-home defensemen are actually good on defense. That’ll be a nice change.
John Carlson will be playing with rookie Martin Fehervary, who should have been playing every night last season. Fehervary is one of the most breathtaking skaters I have ever watched, so watching him and Carlson together in the offensive zone should be a treat. I believe Fehervary will go down as one of the best Capitals defenders of all time.
Trevor van Riemsdyk may just be this team’s best overall defensive defenseman. He sat in the press box all season last year! What a joke. He is the definition of a stable stay-at-home defenseman and he will match perfectly with Justin Schultz, a guy who will create a ton of offense. I think the Caps’ have one of the best third pairings in the NHL.
Orlov is back and he’s coming off of a year where we saw him take over and make plays offensively. When Orlov gets up and into the rush, he’s scary good. It’s when he sits back and plays too defensively minded that he struggles. With Nick Jensen as his duo, this shouldn’t be an issue. Jensen is the exact opposite of an offensive-minded defenseman and he’s coming off of what I believe was his best year ever. This pairing is quick and can really handle the puck. I’d expect a lot of stretch passes and odd-man rushes in favor of the Caps when this duo is on the ice.
Defensive Group Prediction: This will be the best Caps’ defense in YEARS. Carlson will lead the group and be a Norris Trophy candidate.
The Caps’ season will live and die through its goaltending. For Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, this has to be the year they make that real jump. For Samsonov, expectations are sky-high. He was supposed to be the guy post-Holtby. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to stay on the ice consistently. Injuries and Covid have really hurt him and his NHL development. There’s no question that the talent is there, but can he stay on the ice?
With Vanecek, it’s all about finding even ground. Some of his games were incredible a season ago, but others, he was unable to stop the easy looks. When he’s on, he’s on, but can he be that guy consistently? I’m really not sure.
Goaltender Prediction: Samsonov will emerge as the clear #1. He’ll stay healthy and make good decisions (regarding Covid protocols) and he’ll start somewhere around 55 games. He has all the talent in the world and it’ll be showcased when he’s able to stay on the ice consistently this season.
Season Ceiling: Stanley Cup Win
This Washington Capitals team is good enough to contend for a Stanley Cup. It will come down to health and goaltending, but I really do believe this team’s ceiling is a Stanley Cup win.
Season Floor: Early playoff exit
The Caps will make the playoffs. Stop listening to the ‘experts’. If the Caps end up exiting early in the playoffs for a fourth straight year, it will be because the team dealt with key injuries up and down the lineup and neither one of Samsonov or Vanecek emerged as a legit #1 goalie.