Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2019-20, where Last Word on Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2019-20 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Our series continues with the 2019-20 Washington Capitals.
2019-20 Washington Capitals
It was a disappointing end to the last season for the Washington Capitals after an all-time high winning the Stanley Cup in 2017-18. A old story emerged, finishing top in the Metropolitan Division with a 48-26-8 record. With team captain Alex Ovechkin showing no signs of slowing down and eventually leading the league with 51 goals. However, like the Capitals of old the team failed to provide that extra drive to make it past the first round against the young Carolina Hurricanes. Although in their defense, the 2018-19 playoffs had a multitude of upsets with favorites Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins both being swept in the first round by underdog teams.
This season also showcased the debut season for Todd Reirden as head coach. Considering the daunting task of following Stanley Cup Winning coach Barry Trotz, Reirden proved a reliable alternative. That said, the team lineup was primarily the same as last year. The biggest loss being veteran centre Jay Beagle.
The Capitals off-season was marginally uneventful with the Washington team opting to solidify current pending contracts. Which meant the loss of free agents Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly and Nathan Walker along with restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky after being dealt to the Colorado Avalanche. This gave the Capitals an opportunity to release some salary and reorganize the lineup for this coming season.
2019 NHL Draft
1 25 Connor McMichael
2 56 Brett Leason
3 91 Aliaksei Protas
5 153 Martin Has
As predicted the top six will be heavily stacked with talent and will be unchanged going into the 2019-20 season. The Rocket Richard Trophy winner and fearless leader Ovechkin continues playing at the peak of his career. Wilson who has evolved into a proficient offensive threat since his last suspension will look to disprove his harsh critics and secure that top spot and another career-best for another season.
Despite Kuznetsov’s problems off the ice, the Capitals have stated openly that they fully support the Russian centre. Although in hindsight, it may explain the 27-year-old’s lack of focus and drive last season.
The Capitals demise in last seasons playoffs could be partially blamed by the detrimental loss of T.J. Oshie who was injured in Game Four against the Hurricanes. The 32-year-old’s superior grit and work ethic is a rare quality in the current league. Oshie is now fit and will give the Capitals the boost they need. Oshie is no stranger to playing with elite playmaker Backstrom and can fill the top wing role if Wilson is verging back into old habits.
Coinciding with this, Backstrom is an unassuming offensive marvel. As a result, the 31-year-old centre doesn’t get enough recognition in today’s league. The Swedish native scored 22 goals, 52 assists for 74 points. Although by far not his career-best, Backstrom’s hockey intelligence, and passing ability make him an irreplaceable cog in the Capitals machine.
Vrana will look to enhance his top-six role this season after a career-best of 24 goals, 23 Assists for 47 points in 82 games. Vrana has been improving each season and has developed good chemistry with fellow linemates Oshie and Backstrom. The 23-year-old will only progress with the guidance from the two veteran Capital players.
This line will likely see the return of Eller, who had an underwhelming regular season offensively compared to some. However, he is most revered for his efforts in the 2017-18 playoffs where the Danish center scored seven goals, 11 assists for 18 points in 24 games. With the current lack of centre depth in the bottom six due to the departure of Beagle, Eller is the most experienced and most qualified to continue the role. Eller’s face-off win percentage was 48.9%, which was better than Backstrom’s. The 30-year-old has proven to be reliable despite constant movement of teammates, which is unlikely to change this season as new players fight for a permanent position.
Hagelin will compliment Eller on the wing, as like Eller, proved to be a versatile player that can handle the pressure of different personalities and situations. The 31-year-old is a defensively-minded forward that can be used on the penalty kill. The Capitals aim to boost the team’s penalty kill with the extra addition of Panik, who will fill Connolly’s role.
However, the fourth line will see some heavy rotation this season as the Capitals are notoriously difficult to solidify a consistent role.
Leipsic played parts in three NHL seasons with four different teams. The Canadian native provides grit and tenacity that his predecessors Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson lack. Combining this with Hathaway makes for a very tough physical fourth line.
Extras: Depending on how players perform, Boyd and Stephenson will see some ice time also.
With the return of Kempny from injury relieves some pressure for elite defensemen John Carlson, who felt the Czech defencemen loss severely throughout the playoffs. The 29-year-old is dependable and fits the Capitals strong physical play.
Unlike Kempny, Orlov struggled last season and made some pivotal mistakes. It is hoped the Russian native will find his rhythm again this season and therefore provide some stability for Jensen, who performed well in the 20 games he played for the Caps. And who aims to fill the void left by Matt Niskanen.
Another defensive option is Siegenthaler, who played 26 games for the Caps while Kempny was injured. Speed and physicality is the 22-year-old asset, paired with Gudas will ensure the fourth line is offensively and defensively strong physically. This physicality results in perfect conditions for the Capitals who aim to intimidate on the ice. However, Siegenthaler will be replaced by Djoos in a heartbeat if the Swiss native fails to step up. As Djoos, in turn, has significantly more game time experience.
Expect Holtby to be a permanent fixture for the majority of this season. The Jennings Trophy winner had .911 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average. Although he’s struggled at times in the later part of the season. The 29-year-old depended heavily on former backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer in the 2017-18 season. As a result, expect to see more responsibility given to current back up goaltender Pheonix Copley who performed well last season despite limited NHL experience.
Players to watch
There are many players to watch this coming season, the Capitals continue to have a wealth of talent to choose from.
As stated in this article, the Russian superstar continues to excel. As an example, in Ovechkin’s extensive 14 season-long career, the superstar has achieved eight 50 and over season goals. Last season is no different. The NHL All-Star has improved his defensive game since previous years and improved in fitness to match. Look to see the great eight continue to power through opposition and dominate the “Ovi Lane”. Ovechkin’s frustration and performance depend on the other members of his team to step up.
It will be interesting to see if the Kuznetsov of previous years will return. The 2010 first-round pick achieved respectable offensive numbers, with 21 goals, 51 assists for 72 points. But failed to have the same enthusiasm and drive that made him a superstar. Kuznetsov’s faceoff win percentage last season was 38.7 and the Corsi for was 48.3%, the worst stats since his rookie season for the Capitals. It is hoped previous demons are in the past and will not blemish a successful career so far.
Vrana development progress is exciting to watch. The young forward has untapped speed and has the potential to replace Veteran top six when the opportunity arises. In three short seasons, Vrana has taken more responsibility and become a permanent fixture with all 82 games played last season. This is a difficult task within the Capitals organization for one so young. This progress did not go unnoticed as Vrana was re-signed for a further two years with a significant pay rise. Vrana played just over 14 minutes last season and will look to extend this.
It is guaranteed that the Capitals will be amongst the top teams in the Metropolitan Division again this season. Highly stacked with talent and seasons of expert experience will ensure that. When they play their best, the Capitals can beat any team in the league, but the team struggles with inconsistency, particularly in the playoffs. It solely depends on the bottom six as well as the elite top six and their willingness to perform when pressured to achieve playoff success.
BOSTON, MA – JANUARY 10: Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) congratulates Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) after his goal during a game between the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals on January 10, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)