Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Washington Capitals.
2020-21 Washington Capitals
Finishing first in the Metropolitan Division for the past five years, the Washington Capitals are exceptional regular season contenders. Unfortunatley, that doesn’t usually translate to the postseason. The Capitals have won just one Stanley Cup since their franchise started in 1974. Despite their playoff misfortunes, there is no debate that Washington has been one of the most dominant teams in the league for years.
The 2004 NHL Entry Draft and the first overall pick, Alex Ovechkin, ushered in a regular-season dynasty that has continued to this day. Led by Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals ended the 2019-20 shortened season with 90 points, fifth in the league. The Capitals spent the first half of the season on top. At the end of December, they lead the NHL with a record of 26-6-5. First in scoring, eighth in goals-against, 10th on the power play, and second on the penalty kill, the rest of the regular season didn’t go quite as well.
A 7-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on December 23rd led to a 15-14-3 record going into the season’s unprecedented pause. Despite the struggle, the Washington Capitals still topped their division. While most of the Capitals’ offensive production comes from the likes of Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, and Nicklas Backstrom, contributions came from all over the roster. John Carlson led all NHL defencemen with a career-high 75 points. Bottom-six forward Carl Hagelin posted 25 points, his most since the 2017-18 season.
Qualifying for a bye into the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals competed in the round-robin seeding. They finished third behind the Philadelphia Flyers and eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Facing off against the sixth-seeded New York Islanders in the first round, the Capitals lost in five games.
The biggest change coming to the Washington Capitals this offseason is Peter Laviolette. Named the new head coach in September, Laviolette replaced Todd Reirdan who failed to replicate the club’s 2018 success under Barry Trotz. Not only does the 2020-21 Capitals coaching staff look a little different from last year, but so does the roster.
Braden Holtby, a crucial player in the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup win, became an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Signing a two-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks, Holtby’s tenure with the Capitals came to an end. With Washington’s goaltending situation up in the air, general manager Brian MacLellan made a huge move.
Signing New York Rangers veteran netminder Henrik Lundqvist to a one year, $1.5 million deal, it looked as though Lundqvist would back up Ilya Samsonov in his sophomore season. Unfortunatley, Lundqvist announced that he would not be joining the Capitals for the upcoming season due to a heart condition. He was placed on IR on January 3rd.
With the Washington Capitals’ goalie situation, once again up in the air, they signed Craig Anderson to a PTO. Not impressing at training camp, Washington announced that 25-year-old Vitek Vanecek would back up Samsonov in net. Not only did the Capitals work to rectify their goalie tandem this offseason, but they strived to add depth to their defensive core.
Signing Trevor van Riemsdyk, Justin Schultz, Paul Ladue, and most shockingly, former Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. If the Capitals have lacked talent at one position in the past few years, it’s defence. Adding depth and ability to the defence was a must-have if Washington wants to raise the Cup again before Ovechkin’s retirement.
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Washington’s top-six will start this season relatively unchanged. While new head coach Peter Laviolette may choose to switch them around, this is most likely what the first and second line will look like. The Capitals can’t go wrong with putting Ovechkin and Backstrom on a line together. One of the greatest duos in the league, Backstrom has assisted on 201 of Ovechkin’s goals since they began playing together. Add Oshie to that combination and you have one of the deadliest first lines in the NHL.
As for Vrana, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, the Capitals have great offensive depth in their second line. While Kuznetsov’s production has dropped this past year, he is still the player that led Washington in point-scoring with 32 during their 2018 Stanley Cup run. One of the most accurate passers in the game, any line he centres is going to have success. Vrana has also struggled, especially in the past few postseasons. But, he’s a deadly scorer when he can produce. Combine their talents with Wilson’s physicality and offensive game and you have an impressive second line. But, limiting game suspensions will be crucial if they want to succeed.
While there is solid offensive talent on both lines, the Capitals bottom-six is not one that gets noticed all that much. Only one player out of six won the Cup with Washington in 2018. A bottom-six that has changed frequently this past two seasons, it looks as though the club has finally settled on a dependable third and fourth line.
Eller centres the third line incredibly well. The first Dane to ever win a Stanley Cup, he’s a depth scorer and a great penalty killer. With wingers Panik and Sprong on either side of him, Washington has a line that bolsters offensive production. While Panik has been fairly inconsistent, points-wise, over his nine years in the NHL, he has the capability to reach a 40 plus point season. As for Sprong, he’s a fast skater with an elite shot. At 23, he still has time to turn into a legit offensive producer. The Capitals hope that placing him on a line with Eller and Panik will turn him into just that.
The 2019-20 season was Hagelin’s highest-scoring season since his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Spending time as a journeyman since then, he finally landed with the Capitals in 2019. Returning to form, Hagelin has had great success with the Capitals. Placing him with Dowd and Hathaway should allow him to continue, and maybe improve upon that performance.
Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Brenden Dillon – Justin Schultz
Zdeno Chara – Nick Jensen
Extras: Michal Kempny, Trevor van Riemsdyk
Carlson and Orlov have been mainstays on the Capitals’ blueline for years. Drafted in the 2008 and 2009 NHL Entry Drafts, respectively, by Washington, these two have been extraordinary for the Capitals. A nominee for the Norris Trophy this past season, Carlson led all NHL defencemen in points. Orlov had 27 points, himself. A highly offensive-defensive top pair, the Capitals look to boost production.
As for Schultz and Dillon, Washington has paired another offensive defencemen with a shutdown blueliner. Schultz is a candidate for a bounce-back season with the Capitals. The club has faith that his offensive numbers will return to what they were during the height of his career. While he most likely wasn’t signed for his special team prowess, he will take the Capital’s defence to another level, especially on the stretch pass. Washington acquired Dillon because, quite frankly, they sucked on defence. Dropping numerous spots in the rankings during the 2019-20 season due to their lack of depth in the backend, Dillon is solid player brought in as insurance for their blue line. Pairing these two should provide security to the backend, while also pushing for an offensive-defensive core.
Longtime Bruins captain, Chara, is a member of the Washington Capitals. He will be starting the 2020-21 season on the third defensive pair alongside Jensen. The Capitals believe that even after 22 seasons in the NHL, Chara has the capability to help their veteran team make a run at another Cup. As for Jensen, his inconsistency is what has him on the bottom pair. Washington will see how pairing him with Chara will impact his play.
Extra: Craig Anderson
Samsonov and Vanecek have a combined total of 26 NHL appearances. To say the least, this is an inexperienced goalie tandem. In his rookie campaign, Samsonov posted a 16-6-2 record, 2.55 goals-against average, and a .913 save percentage. He will officially be taking over for franchise goaltender Braden Holtby, who signed with the Canucks this offseason. Samsonov became the first goalie in NHL history to win his first nine career road games this past season. He has great potential and will, most likely, be a staple in the Capitals’ net for years to come.
Meanwhile, Vanecek will be the club’s backup this season. Vanecek is a two-time AHL All-Star and was the AHL’s 2020 All-Star MVP. He was Holtby’s backup this past postseason due to Samsonov’s injury.
“We want to see Vanacek play.” said GM Brian MacLellan. “We’re happy with his progress. We’re happy with his experience. The only thing for us is that he hasn’t played much in the NHL. Had a good showing in the bubble in the chance he got in. So I think all along we’ve been trying to get him games so this should be a good opprtunity to get him some games and see where he’s at.”
Players to Watch
With his offensive production on the downturn these past few seasons, Schultz is primed for a comeback. Hopefully, a change in scenery and teammates can make that happen. He is definitely someone to watch this upcoming season. And, as a quarterback on the Capitals’ second power-play unit, he should be able to tally some points.
Samsonov is a young and inexperienced goalie, but he is bursting at the seams with talent. Even when it looked as though veteran goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was going to play this season, he was still Samsonov’s backup. The Capitals have put a lot of faith in this 23-year-old. Let’s see if it pans out.
Kuznetsov is coming off a fairly uncharacteristic season, points-wise. Dropping 23 points from his career-high, the Capitals need him to bounce-back. “The Birdman” is one to watch this season. Hopefully, he can return to his former glory during the 2020-21 season.
Prediction for 2020-21 Capitals
The Capitals have built a team that will make a strong push for the Stanley Cup. Filled with veterans and some impressive hockey talent, I believe they might be able to raise the Cup again. With a stacked East Division and a 56-game season, Washington will have to work hard to get there. If Samsonov can show the league the Capitals’ put their faith in the right place, there is definitely a possibility for a Stanley Cup run. After shoring up their lackluster defence, Washington will need everything to fall into place if they want to become champions again.