Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 Washington Capitals.
2022-23 Washington Capitals
Second-year coach Peter Laviolette led the Washington Capitals to a fourth-place finish in a competitive Metropolitan Division. A final record of 44-26-12 was good enough to land the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference for their 8th straight post-season appearance. Washington would lose their first-round series to the President Trophy-winning Florida Panthers in six games.
Washington finished the season with the 10th-ranked offence at 3.29 goals per game. They were led, yet again, by the Great 8 Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin secured his NHL record-tying ninth 50-goal season in route to climbing to third all-time in goals scored. Washington fought through adversity, as regular top-6 forwards Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha missed significant time during the year.
This could explain why the power play numbers were historically low. Washington finished 23rd in the league at 18.8%. Over the previous five campaigns, they did not finish outside the top 20, and three times finished in the top seven. It is possible that the power play has become predictable with the Ovechkin one-timer from the circle. However, the previous season they finished third in the league at 24.8%, so probably not.
Defensively Washington was stout with shot suppression, giving up the 6th fewest shots on goal. Yet they ranked a modest 15th in CF% at even strength and were tenth in blocks. It was more system and structure that slowed down the opposition, and it was effective. Washington posted the 12th-best defence, allowing just south of three goals per game at 2.95.
This blue line is not afraid to join the rush either, and they contributed well. Led by John Carlson, Washington scored the fourth most goals by a defenseman in 2021-22. The more defensive-minded Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk, the shorthanded minutes per game leaders, helped the team finish a respectable 12th on the penalty kill.
The defensive numbers seemingly could have been better, yet the Washington Capitals struggled mightily between the pipes. The tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek underperformed, assisting in the combined .902 save percentage of the team, good for 24th. Samsonov was 23-12-5 with a GAA above three and a save percentage below 90%. He also had the fifth worst goals saved above expected among goalies with at least 40 games played. Vanecek was a tick better, finishing with a 20-12-6 record, but a GAA of 2.67 and a save percentage of .908. Addressing this in the offseason was made a top priority.
New Tandem in Net
Washington said goodbye to both Samsonov and Vanecek. Samsonov would sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vanecek was traded to the New Jersey Devils. With both goalie spots open, Washington made arguably the largest splash by signing Darcy Kuemper, fresh off his Stanley Cup run with the Colorado Avalanche. The same day Washington signed Charlie Lindgren. This does not appear to be a 1A/1B scenario, so expect Kuemper to receive the bulk of the starts. But also look for Lindgren to have a coming-out party as a solid backup. The 2022-23 Washington Capitals goaltending appears to be much stronger than last season.
There were many who were shocked that the Chicago Blackhawks did not extend a qualifying offer to Dylan Strome. Strome is coming off a career-high 22-goal season with plenty of upside. Washington was one of many teams in on Strome and ultimately would sign him to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million. What he also provides is a solid 200-foot game, which should pay dividends for a forward group that tends to lean more to the offensive side. Washington also went to the trade market and received Connor Brown from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for a second-round pick.
Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, last season banged up some bodies that required surgery. Washington will be starting the season without forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and now Carl Hagelin. Hagelin was cleared to return after eye surgery; however, he is now dealing with a lower-body injury that will keep him sidelined.
Washington was forced to start last season without Backstrom and found success, going 17-5-6, and will have to do it again. He had hip surgery over the summer and is not expected back anytime soon, perhaps this season. Wilson had knee surgery before the end of the 2021-22 season, and his earliest return is possibly after the Thanksgiving break.
Alex Ovechkin / Evgeny Kuznetsov / Connor Brown
Connor McMichael / Dylan Strome / Anthony Mantha
Conor Sheary / Lars Eller / T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson / Nic Dowd / Garnet Hathaway
The surprise here is Connor McMichael who had a productive rookie season last year. With the injuries to the team, there is real potential for McMichael to get a chance to prove himself alongside Strome. The 2019 first-round pick of the Capitals was kept low with time on ice last season yet turned heads while doing so.
On the top line, Brown is going to get a look to fill in Wilson’s RW spot as they play a similar style of game. If McMichael can build on a solid rookie season with more responsibility, Brown and Strome can add what Washington is hopeful of, then the top six will be good enough while waiting for players to get healthy.
This is where the injuries are going to hurt Washington. There is very little to be excited about in this depth area. Sheary adds some offensive upside, scoring 19 goals last season. Outside of that, there is very little depth-scoring potential. The good news for Washington is that there are several young kids in the system that are battling for spots. If things start slow, Expect a call-up for some of them sooner rather than later.
Marting Fehervary / John Carlson
Erik Gustafsson / Trevor van Riemsdyk
Other than the departure of Justin Schultz and the addition of Gustafsson, this D-core will look very similar to last season. There is the belief that Fehervary can improve on his defensive game this season. Even under the shield of Carlson, Fehervary was a liability. But his style of hockey fits well with Carlson and makes for some high-event breakouts. Orlov and Jensen are your standard stay-at-home shutdown pairing and will be looked on for many defensive zone starts. Again, this core allowed the sixth-fewest shots on goal, so expect another solid year from this group.
With the injuries to the top six forwards, it is not a stretch to say the season will hinge on the improvement in net. Kuemper was a workhorse last season with 57 starts. Expect the same from him this year. The bigger question will be Lindgren. He has never started more than 14 games in a season, and that was in 2017-18. Last year was a breakout year in the St. Louis system playing for their minor league affiliate, and was a perfect 4-0-0 in five NHL games, posting a 1.22 GAA and .958 save percentage. Was that a fluke, or is Lindgren ready to emerge?
Age is a Concern
The 2022-23 Washington Capitals cannot afford another injury, point blank. This is the oldest roster in the NHL, with an average age of just over 30 years old. The coaching staff is going to need to monitor appropriate rest and shift length. Washington weathered the storm last season without Backstrom, and with the new additions, they may be able to do this again. But another core member out of the lineup, especially in the forward group, and this could be a disaster.
Players to Watch
Yes, the entire world will be watching to see how fast Ovechkin can catch Gordie Howe. The side story is Washington will need him to do it quickly. Missing Backstrom and Wilson leaves offensive holes that have to be filled. If Ovechkin slows down finally, it could be too much to overcome. Expect a lot of double shifts on the power play for Ovechkin, and a very healthy dose of offensive zone starts. Given the right opportunities, he could become the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in ten different seasons. Washington may need it.
Coming off a decent rookie campaign where he played 68 games and had 9-9-18 in only 10:28 of ice time per game, there is a buzz here. He has spent time on all four lines in pre-season and has taken quite a few rushes to the side of Strome. The injuries have given McMichael a real opportunity and he seems to be taking it. As a natural center, there is an adjustment to playing wing, but he seems to be settling in based on his last pre-season game. If he can find chemistry quickly with Strome and Manta, his sophomore season could be a coming-out party on a team in search of extra goal production.
Prediction for 2022-23 Washington Capitals
Washington became much stronger in the net and that should make the fanbase very hopeful. The key additions of Brown and Strome should pay dividends as well. A mostly returning D-core that suppressed the opposition should continue to frustrate opponents.
However, this is the Eastern Conference, and the Metropolitan Division is going to be tough yet again. Washington should be battling all season for a wildcard spot. It will be a fun battle to watch but do not be surprised if the injuries are too much and Washington’s streak of eight straight postseason appearances ends this year.
Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Brown
Carlson – Fehervary
📺 @NBCSWashington #CapsJackets pic.twitter.com/Y8N6PhExHh
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 8, 2022