Last season was disappointing for the Caps. Will a do-over with largely the same cast end with a different result?
Roster turnover in the NHL offseason is a given. Teams swap out players via trade, sign free agents, bring up prospects from their farm systems. Just within the Metropolitan Division, the New York Rangers added Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. New Jersey added Jonathan Bernier and Dougie Hamilton. Philadelphia added Cam Atkinson and Ryan Ellis. Columbus added Jakub Voracek in his second stint with the club. These can be interpreted as significant roster additions, not unusual in a league where player turnover is frequent.
The Washington Capitals are in a very different situation. They had no significant transactions in this offseason to date. In fact, this is a club that, unless there are roster moves coming, will look very much like the club that took the ice in the 2020-21 season opener in Buffalo.
With a well-established core of players, one might think of this as a conservative stand-pat strategy. We see something else. The 2021-22 season represents a “do over” season for the Caps. And that merits some explanation.
Perhaps nowhere on the likely Caps roster is there more of a sense of “do over” than the netminders. The 2020-21 plan was to employ Henrik Lundqvist, signed as an unrestricted free agent, as a backup/mentor to Ilya Samsonov, with Vitek Vanecek taking the bulk of the minutes with the Hershey Bears in the AHL for purposes of additional seasoning. When Lundqvist was diagnosed with a heart condition requiring surgery, which would end his season before it started, that plan went into the waste basket. The Caps chose to go into the season with Samsonov as the presumed number one goalie with Vanecek serving as backup. The revised plan went off the rails when Samsonov played two games to start the season but then went into COVID-19 protocol and missed six weeks.
In Samsonov’s absence, Vanecek took over the number one netminding duties and proved to be a pleasant surprise. But after going 5-0-2 in his first seven NHL appearances, he went 16-10-2, 2.67, .905, with two shutouts. Good numbers, especially from a rookie from whom little was expected in 2020-21, but his play was inconsistent as the season wore on.
Samsonov would come back to post similar underlying numbers (2.69/.902), but he was the beneficiary of goal support sufficient to allow him to avoid consecutive losses on his game log for the season. The result was that neither Samsonov nor Vanecek grabbed the job by the throat, and their insufficiencies were laid out in the postseason in which neither mustered a win, nor did either goalie post save percentage over .900.
Last year, the Capitals goaltending situation was a mess in retrospect, but they will enter the new season with the same two goalies being called upon to backstop what fans hope will be a bona fide Stanley Cup contender. It is their chance for a “do over” – to avoid the absences and inconsistent play that marred last season.
At the top of the “do-over” list here is Evgeny Kuznetsov. He was already coming into the 2020-21 season with things to prove, that he was still an upper-echelon, if not an elite center. After a career year in 2017-2018 (27-56-83 in the regular season, and 12-20-32 in 24 games in the Stanley Cup playoff run), the next two seasons looked respectable on paper (40-84-124 in 139 games), but there seemed to be whiff of underachievement in his performance (career years raise expectations, especially when the career year comes at age 25).
In that context, his 2020-21 could not have started any worse. He was already under a suspension issued in September 2019 for testing positive for cocaine, prohibiting his participation in international events for four years. Then, he was placed on the COVID protocol list in January 2021, resulting in his being out of the lineup for almost four weeks early in the season. And that would not be his only brush with COVID. He would be placed on the COVID protocol list again in May, causing him to miss the last five games of the regular season. He also missed Games 1 and 2 in the first round playoff series against Boston and failed to record a point in any of the three games in which he did play. Yes, you could say “do-over” in 2021-22 applies to Evgeny Kuznetsov.
No other forward had a season that screams “do-over” like Kuznetsov’s, but there was a subtle deterioration in performance among some of the players on whom the Caps rely for contributions. For example, Lars Eller averaged 0.23 goals, 0.33 assists, and 0.57 points per game in 2019-20, the goals and points per game being his best season averages as a Capital. But those number slid a bit last season – 0.18 goals and 0.52 points per game (his assists were up to 0.34).
Other forwards were in similar circumstances to varying degrees. For example, Alex Ovechkin’s goals per game dropped from 0.71 to 0.53, while Tom Wilson’s per-game goal average dropped from 0.31 goals to 0.28. And as a group, the Caps forwards recorded only nine goals in five games in an opening playoff round loss, and two of the three players with two goals were fourth liners (Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway).
Here is an instance of not being so much “do-over” as “do better.” If you compare the top four defensemen (not necessarily top-two pairs) from 2019-20 to 2020-21, the 2020-21 group likely to return in 2021-22 (John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Justin Schultz, and Nick Jensen) had better performance metrics in the aggregate (9.34 goals per 82 games, 34.10 assists, 43.44 points, plus-11.37, and 22.73 penalty minutes) than did their 2019-20 counterparts – Carlson, Orlov, Jensen, and Michal Kempny (6.83 goals per 82 games, 32.92 assists, 39.76 assists, plus-11.49, 30.13 penalty minutes). But compare the postseason of these four in 2019-20 (0-10-10, minus-15, 10 penalty minutes in eight games) to that of the 2020-21 foursome (0-5-5, minus-5, 16 penalty minutes in five games). In the last three seasons, the Caps have two goals from defensemen in the postseason, and both of those defensemen have moved on (Brooks Orpik into retirement and Brenden Dillion to Winnipeg). In the Stanley Cup run in 2018, five of the seven defensemen to dress posted at least one goal (Carlson, Orlov, Kempny, Orpik, and Matt Niskanen), 11 in 24 games overall. 2021-22 is a clean slate…do better.
If you ask a representative sample of Caps fans if the power play had a good year, we would wager that their answer would be “no.” But on closer inspection the 2020-21 version of the Caps power play was more efficient than the 2019-20 version – 24.8 percent (third in the league) overall, compared to 19.4 percent in 2019-20; and 19.6 percent in net power play (accounting for shorthanded goals scored against) versus 15.3 percent in 2019-20.
So, what was the problem? Chances. The Caps finished the 2020-21 season 24th in the league in power play opportunities per game (2.73) after finishing eighth in 2019-20 (3.13). It was the fewest power play chances per game in the Ovechkin era. As a result, the Caps scored fewer power play goals in 2020-21 (38) than they did the previous year (42). The Caps have a lot of talent on the power play, and while there were times last season when they looked a bit predictable in executing their power play, they were not going to score any power plays if they never they never earned the opportunity to do so. This year’s team needs to find a way to draw more penalties and force teams to contend with the talent the Caps can deploy with the man advantage.
A 17-8-3 record on home ice is not bad, but it is not elite. Not in the NHL. The Caps finished 11th in the league in points percentage on home ice last season. And this has been an issue in recent years. In 2016-2017, when the Caps won the Presidents Trophy with the best record in the league, they went 32-7-2 at home, their 32 wins leading the league and their .805 points percentage (tied for best in the league). Since then, the Caps have slipped – 28-11-2 (.707) in 2017-2018, 24-11-6 (.659) in 2018-2019, 18-10-5 (.621) in 2019-20, and 17-8-3 (.661) last season. This season, the Caps get a chance to make visitors’ lives more difficult than they did at times last season.
In the end, the Caps are, at least for the moment, little changed in terms or their roster compared to last season, and almost not at all among the group counted on to be significant contributors. But this was a team that did not have particularly impressive statistics, either at the individual level or as a group, could not force teams into mistakes translating into power plays, they did not dominate on their own ice sheet, and they had a whole host of off-ice problems that carved out chunks of the season for important pieces. The combination made for a good team, but not one that could make a deep playoff run. They get a chance for a “do-over” this season with what is largely the same cast, and with it might come the answer to the question, “is the window of competition for a Stanley Cup closed on this era’s team?”