The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Washington Capitals.
2020-21 Season Review
• Record: 36-15-5 (77 points) second place in NHL East Division
• Postseason: Lost in First Round to Boston Bruins in five games
• Offensive leader: Nicklas Backstrom (55 games, 15 goals, 38 assists, 53 points)
Biggest question facing the Washington Capitals?
• Will Ilya Samsonov take a big step forward?
Nicklas Backstrom’s hip is a concern. The overall age of the team is something to keep in mind. Anthony Mantha beinng worth the price they paid is a legitimate discussion. All of those are big questions. But none of them will do more to impact the success or failure of this team more than what happens in goal with the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. It is the same duo the Capitals went with a year ago while getting mixed results.
Vanecek was not even supposed to be a factor on the team last year but had to take over the primary backup role when Henrik Lundqvist had to miss the season.
Then when Samsonov went out of the lineup he had to take over the starting duties. He did okay given the circumstances, but Samsonov is the player the Capitals need to emerge here. He has been their goalie of the future for years, is the most talented player of the two, and still has the most upside. But after a promising rookie campaign his 2020-21 season was a bit all over the map. He was in and out of the lineup due to COVID protocols, only appeared in 19 games, had a disappointing .902 save percentage, and followed that up with a brutal showing in the playoffs.
It is hard to evaluate too much and put too much stock into that performance given how little he played and the COVID factor, but the Capitals definitely need him to be better this season.
What’s the salary cap situation?
Like most long-time Stanley Cup contenders with superstar players they are nearly capped out. They have a little bit of wiggle room at the start of the season, but not much. Most of the team’s core is locked in place long-term, while the only major pending unrestricted free agents after this season are on defense with Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen, and Matt Irwin being eligible.
Both goalies, however, are restricted free agents. Their play this season will go a long way toward determining what their next contracts will look like, and if the salary cap remains flat that could create the need for a move somewhere else on the roster.
McMichael is one of the Capitals’ top prospects and is in a camp battle with 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre to make the opening night roster as the team’s third-line center. He is coming off of a strong professional debut in the American Hockey League a year ago, leading the team in scoring as a 19-year-old. If he McMichael is able to secure that spot over Lapierrre he could open the season playing between T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary, which is a pretty good spot for a rookie center to be put in. He is the one young player ready to make an impact on a roster that is one of the oldest in the league.
The best-case scenario here is that the Capitals are still a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, even after three consecutive First Round exits. There is a path for that. That path includes Samsonov taking that big step forward, Mantha being the player they hoped he would be when they acquired him (I think he will be), Evgeny Kuznetsov bouncing back, Backstrom being healthy, and a player like McMichael having a breakout season. While the roster is older it is still very talented, and still has a hockey legend (Alex Ovechkin) at the top of it doing his thing. That may seem like a lot of things that have to go right (and it is) but many of them are reasonable.
On the opposite side of this, what happens if Samsonov struggles? And Kuznetsov is finished being an elite player? And Backstrom’s hip becomes a season long issue? Well, then you have some problems. Enough problems to keep them out of the playoffs? That might be a stretch, but the Metropolitan Division is looking like one of the most competitive in the league with two Stanley Cup contenders in Carolina and New York at the top, Pittsburgh still lurking around, Philadelphia looking better, and the Rangers ready to make a big jump. Competition for those three automatic playoff spots is going to be fierce between those six teams. Maybe they do not miss the playoffs entirely, but maybe it is another First Round exit.
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