Welcome to our latest series here at Last Word on Hockey. The Puck Drop Preview series takes you through each team as the season is fast approaching. The preview will focus on the narratives surrounding the team ending last year, during the offseason, and heading into the 2021-22 season. Puck Drop Preview also focuses on what the season has in store for each team from a roster and expectations perspective. Join us, as we look at all 32 teams before the season starts. Today, we take a look at the 2021-22 Washington Capitals.
2021-22 Washington Capitals
The COVID-19 crisis saw the 2020-21 season undertake an unprecedented restructuring. New protocols split the league into four divisions. The Washington Capitals entered the East Division with a reduced 56 games finishing second with a 36-15-5 record. This was the first season for Peter Laviolette as head coach of the Capitals after their former head coach Todd Reirden was fired from the team. Unfortunately, it was a familiar story for the Capitals. Despite a strong effort during the regular season, the team was knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins. Injuries were a contributing factor but Washington also failed to provide depth, depending heavily on captain Alex Ovechkin.
The off-season saw goaltender Vitek Vanecek taken by Seattle in expansion, but, in a bizarre turn of events, the Capitals were able to trade a draft pick to bring the 25-year-old sophomore back. They also traded Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets and lost Zdeno Chara to the New York Islanders as a free agent. Otherwise, the Capitals were quiet in terms of valuable additions. So much so that their biggest move of the off-season was signing defenceman Matt Irwin.
Line up Projections
The top six will likely remain relatively unchanged from last season. As a result, Peter Laviolette will depend greatly on their offensive prowess during the regular season. It is hoped Kuznetsov will bounce back from his controversial hockey career over the last few years. The 29-year-old has not played to his potential in the early Laviolette era. Meanwhile, his fellow Russian teammate and superstar, the “Great Eight”, is locked up for another 5 years after re-signing in July. Ovechkin is on track to become this era’s greatest hockey player of all time.
Unfortunately, ultimate playmaker Nicklas Backstrom is currently out of the lineup for an undisclosed period after undergoing hip surgery. This will be a big loss initially for the Caps and will see some line movements until his eventual return. During the pre-season, young prospect, Connor McMichael has executed well and put in a promising performance. He is expected to straddle the middle-six in ice time, depending, of course, on his consistency. Mantha, meanwhile, was a big cost for the Capitals, who lost Jakub Vrana and Richard Panik in that exchange, but he is expected to validate that trade and support T.J Oshie who will continue to use his trademarked grit and determination to get the job done.
Other- Hendrix Lapierre and Connor McMichael, Garrett Pilon
The bottom six continue to be competitive for the Capitals. Nic Dowd and ex Pittsburgh Penguins winger Conor Sheary hope to solidify a permanent role within the team again this season. And although two-way forward Eller performs better in high-intensity playoff situations, the Danish native’s experience and depth are always a welcomed addition. The fourth line combination of Hagelin, Dowd, and Hathaway provides speed and more importantly a thriving physical presence on the ice. Look also to see hot prospects, Lapierre and McMichael, rotate in and out of this bottom-six during the season.
2021-22 Washington Capitals Defence
Trevor Van Riemsdyk – Nick Jensen
Others- Martin Fehervary, Matt Irwin
The long-awaited return of Michal Kempny from a substantial injury brings a sigh of relief to the Washington bench. Kempny brings experience and stability back to the blue line. Despite playing his last game during the 2019-20 season he’ll complement the Capitals physicality ethos well. John Carlson, who once again proves to be one of the best defencemen in the league, came second on the roster in points and assists last season. It’s not a hundred percent clear as yet who the 31-year-old will be paired with, but Carlson will be heavily depended on, while Washington develops chemistry on an ever-changing blue line.
Although a bottom defensive spot is still up for grabs, the Capitals currently have an abundance on the roster to choose from. 31-year-old Nick Jensen is likely a lock on the third pair, but otherwise, it is all to play for. Van Riemsdyk has the experience, previously playing for the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks. He is a dependable stay-at-home defenceman which the Capitals need to provide support for the younger goaltenders. However, Fehervary is still in contention and the Capitals could use a youth injection that can effectively clear the zone.
Ilya Samsonov – Vitek Vanecek
Acquiring Vanecek back from the Seattle Kraken and re-signing Samsonov significantly strengthens the Capitals goalie situation. Although Samsonov and Vanecek have only three years in total between them in the NHL, the Russian and Czech natives have produced some encouraging numbers. Vanecek, who played 37 games last season, achieved a 2.69 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage. Both goalie’s inexperience may be a cause for concern for some but the Capitals have a pretty solid team in from of them. This experience for the young guns is a future investment for the Capitals.
Players to Watch
Despite the obvious stars on the Caps roster, we look at some more unknown players to watch this season.
Speaking of future investments, McMichael was picked up by the Capitals in the 1st round, 25th overall of the 2019 Draft. While only playing one NHL game so far, the 20-year old has gained experience with the London Knights in the OHL tallying 102 points in the 2019-20 season and with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. McMichael has also made an impact in the World Junior Championships representing Canada. He scored four goals and four assists in 7 games this year, gaining a silver medal in the process.
McMichael is a valuable all-around player with impressive hockey intelligence. Although some say compared to Hendrix Lapierre, 2020’s prospect, he isn’t as strong offensively. The Ajax forward is eager to develop and the battle between himself and Lapierre will continue during pre-season. This is his biggest shot while Backstrom is injured.
Coming into his second season with the Capitals, Sprong was initially earmarked as a rising star with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Drafted by the Metropolitan team in the 2015 NHL draft, the Dutch native failed to impress and therefore struggled to find a niche. As a result, he was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks and spent considerable time in the AHL before joining the Capitals. With the 24-years-old’s career on the ropes, Sprong amassed 13 goals and 20 points in 42 games for the Capitals last season. He adds another good shot to an already offensively-gifted lineup. With the experience and skill around him, if Sprong can solidify a spot, he will only improve his play going forward, giving him another chance at a decent NHL career. Definitely, one to watch this season.
The Washington capitals re-signed Sheary in April this year. It was likely a reward for the winger’s reliability and versatility during last season. A relativity uncostly purchase for the Capitals, the 29-year-old achieved 14 goals, eight assists totalling 22 points in 2021. A back-to-back Stanley Cup champion, Sheary can still prove his worth, as both a contributor and a veteran presence.
2021-22 Washington Capitals Team Predictions
The Capitals will likely perform well again this season due to the multitude of pre-existing star talent. Physicality will also allow the Capitals to dominate and get results. But it is unclear if they will have the depth to push past the first round of the playoffs. Defensively they still have to clean up a few issues and hopefully stay relatively injury-free with an older roster. However, the Capitals also need to look to the future. The team is notoriously difficult for young players to break into, and the majority of the roster is in their 30’s or close to it. What’s more, it will take time and patience for these young players to develop into something meaningful. In the interim, the Capitals may see groundhog day for the next few seasons.