Another season of NHL hockey is upon us. For the Washington Capitals, it is another year to make a push for that elusive Stanley Cup that has continually escaped their grasp over the last decade. For many of these players, in particular; Alexander Ovechkin, the window has been closing for a few years and that opening may finally slam shut at the conclusion of this season. It is arguably the most broken record-like notion in the NHL, but this has to be Washington’s year. When you factor in Ovechkin’s age and a handful of player contracts ending after this season against an almost non-existent cap space, all signs indicate a true ‘all or nothing’ season on the horizon for Washington. Let’s hope the law of averages finally yields a favorable outcome.
It was an eventful offseason for Washington in terms of player movement. Veteran forwards, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams are now with the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk returned to his home state of New York to join the Rangers. Longtime iron man blueliner, Karl Alzner, after ten solid seasons with the Capitals, went to Montreal. Daniel Winnik is currently an unrestricted free agent. And speedy defenseman, Nate Schmidt, was lost in the expansion draft to the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The roster surely looks different, but that does not reduce the Capitals to an average team. They still have talented veterans and plenty of young skaters, something they desperately needed.
Newcomer defenseman, Aaron Ness is expected to see time in the starting lineup. Ness, who was acquired from the New York Islanders, has never played in more than twenty games a season in his six-year career. Expect him to possibly halt that trend.
Forward, Devante Smith-Pelly has had three separate stints since he came into the league in 2010. He will likely be placed on the fourth line at right wing. Leftwinger, Nathan Walker, has seen very limited ice time in the NHL since entering the league in 2014. He is projected to be on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Smith-Pelly after impressing during the preseason.
Andre Burakovsky is expected to take the left wing position on the first line with Nicklas Backstrom at center and TJ Oshie at right wing. While it may seem surprising to some, do not forget that Ovechkin was moved down to the second line late last season. That gamble ended up paying off for the Capitals. Ovechkin was more productive. He will likely be on the second line again with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brett Connolly.
The third line will likely see Jakub Vrana at left wing. Trotz has alluded to Vrana seeing an increased role this season, along with the possibility of some ice time on the second line. The time has finally come for Vrana to step into the limelight full-time. Lars Eller should be at center, with Tom Wilson at right wing. If Tom Wilson is suspended for the first few games of the season, Washington will likely promote a forward from Hershey in his absence.
The defensive lines, for the most part, will be a bit different in comparison to the last two seasons. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the first, Taylor Chorney and John Carlson on the second, and Brooks Orpik and fifty-third overall pick, Madison Bowey on the third. Expect Aaron Ness to see some time on the second or third defensive line.
Keep in mind these are merely the projected lines as of now. Given how much Trotz shuffles his players, they are subject to change.
Braden Holtby will obviously be the starting netminder, and Philipp Grubauer will remain the very solid backup.
It is not the same Capitals team we have seen these last few years, but it is still talented. Above all, it is younger and faster.
Offense & Power Play
The Capitals finished third overall in scoring last season. There was a stretch of games where they netted at least five goals in each outing. They made it look elementary at times. Washington has lost some of its firepower, so we can expect a more opportunistic offense. The decrease in overall experience across the roster this season indicates a learning curve, but once the rookies adjust, the rest should take care of itself given that the very same youth will provide a considerable jolt in speed, something the Capitals have lacked as of late.
The number of veterans has diminished a bit, but the strongest of the seasoned players remain. Backstrom remains among the elite centers in the league, whose intangibles have earned him the reputation he has as the ‘quarterback’ of this Washington team. Oshie is locked in for another eight years after coming off a season in which he amassed a career-high in goals at thirty-three. Ovechkin started to show his age last season after failing to net fifty or more tallies for the first time in three years at thirty-three as well, but make no mistake, he is still a difference maker. That will never change. Evgeny Kuznetsov started slow last season but finished with fifty-nine points. Burakovsky is now on the top forward line. He has been a promising player ever since he stepped on the ice full-time for Washington two seasons ago. Coinciding ice time with Backstrom and Oshie will only make him sharper.
The power play finished third in the league last season with a 23.1% success rate. The special team offense of this season will feature some slight nuances in terms of personnel. Evgeny Kuznetsov will take Marcus Johansson’s spot on the first unit, while Vrana and Connolly will be the new faces on the second team power play. Regardless of the small changes, expect this power play to finish in the top five once again, if not top ten. Backstrom’s ability to make marksman-like passes and Ovechkin’s office have been the bane of opponents’ penalty kill for years, and the pure level of overall skill can overwhelm teams when it clicks.
This is a new-look offense that will take time to cohesively function. Even if goals are hard to come by early on in the season, the Capitals should be able to pick it up thereafter once the fair amount of inexperience is mitigated.
Defense & Penalty Kill
In the past couple of seasons, Washington’s defense has found itself on the short end of the stick. During both playoff series losses to Pittsburgh, the backend had been compromised too many times for Washington to make up the difference. If the Capitals want any shot at breaking through the force field that is the second round, the blueliners have to answer the call.
Speed is perhaps the largest factor that kept this defense susceptible to big plays. Brooks Orpik is thirty-seven and has been showing signs of slowing down seemingly since he came to Washington. Carlson, Orlov, and Niskanen are still in the prime of their careers but are not the fastest defensemen out there. Chorney is getting better. Bowey and Ness should bolster the quickness of the defense, however. For the defense to be successful this season, they will have to play a physical and fundamentally sound game. Be aggressive only when necessary, and be smart when doing so. They will also have to find a way to help clear the puck more effectively. Many of the goals scored against Washington last season stemmed from their inability to get the puck out of their own zone, and that began with the defense being too soft with the puck around the end and half walls. There will be teams once again that will be faster than Washington, so trying to win footraces on a consistent basis will not cut it.
The penalty kill has been exceptional for Washington lately. The PK finished second last season at 83.82% of penalties killed. Lars Eller and Tom Wilson have been otherworldly on the special team’s defense. Niskanen and Orlov will likely be on the backend. They have prided themselves on their willingness to clog lanes and block shots. There is no reason to think that will change this season.
Braden Holtby has been the man for Washington for the last two seasons. After tying Martin Brodeur’s record of forty-eight single-season wins in 2015, Holtby nearly secured the same amount last season with forty-two. Game in and game out, Holtby has always made tremendous saves with impeccable timing. For the most part, when the defense made a mistake, Holtby was there to negate it. His only flaw is also his deadliest; his inability to translate that very same level of play in the postseason. The day he manages to carry his regular season play over to the playoffs is the day Washington reaches the Stanley Cup Final.
Philipp Grubauer proved last year that in the event Holtby cannot suit up, fans will not have to worry. In twenty-four starts, he posted a record of 13-6-2. You cannot ask much better from a backup. Washington has a solid insurance policy in the net.
The 2017-18 season holds a fair degree of intrigue for the Washington Capitals. Two years in a row they have finished with the best record in the NHL. Two years in a row they have fallen to Pittsburgh. Two years in a row they have failed to meet expectations. Two years in a row they have concluded their season with the same narrative that has haunted them continuously. This season is not just important because of all the roster changes and new faces, it is important because of what is at stake. Year after year, the Capitals enter the postseason as a star-crossed unit with an immeasurably massive chip on their shoulders. It is unfathomably disheartening when many watching fully expect you to fall short. Through all the disappointment, Washington still has its own destiny under its sole control. It is up to the Capitals to decide how they will be viewed at the end of this season. One view is a perception that has lingered for quite some time, another is foreign but by no means out of reach. Buckle up and brace yourselves, Capitals fans; we are in for another ride.