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NHL Burning Questions: Washington Capitals

Adam Proteau takes a look at the biggest questions surrounding the Washington Capitals ahead of the 2022-23 NHL season.
Washington Capitals

Welcome to the penultimate file in THN.com’s continuing "Burning Questions" series, where we ask three crucial questions about every NHL franchise. In today’s file, we’ve got three burning questions for the Washington Capitals: 

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE CAPITALS IN 2022-23:  

1. How will the early-season absences of star center Nicklas Backstrom and forward Tom Wilson impact Washington’s Stanley Cup playoff chances? The Capitals aren’t the only team dealing with injury troubles, but they’re up there with the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights when it comes to a team dealing with injury troubles to some of their top performers. The 34-year-old Backstrom is out indefinitely after hip surgery, while the 28-year-old Wilson is out until at least December following left knee surgery. Veteran winger Carl Hagelin also is sidelined as he continues to deal with what could be a career-ending eye injury.

Obviously, this is not the ideal situation to start a season with or to deal with at any point in the season for that matter. But the Caps have to deal with it head-on. The Caps will be under massive pressure to win without three of their regular top forwards. Although GM Brian MacLellan has brought in skilled forwards Dylan Strome and Connor Brown to help fill the void up front, Washington may still not have enough firepower on offense to keep pace in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division.  

As we saw with the Canucks in Vancouver last year, it’s possible for a team to dig a hole in the first half of the season they can’t climb out of in the second half of the year, and that may be the fate of the Capitals this season.  

2. Does new goalie Darcy Kuemper have what it takes to power the Capitals to and through the post-season? Kuemper won a Cup with Colorado last season, but suggesting he was the driver of the Avalanche’s success would be a terrific exaggeration. He had a terrific regular season (2.54 goals-against average, .921 save percentage), but a pedestrian playoff (2.57 GAA, .902 SV%), and his numbers certainly were helped by playing behind a championship-caliber lineup in a career-high 57 regular-season games. In Washington, the 32-year-old doesn’t have nearly as good of a defense corps, nor does he have elite forward depth the way he had it in his single season as an Av.  

Colorado architect Joe Sakic let Kuemper leave for greener financial pastures in D.C., and that could be a negative harbinger of what’s to come in net for the Caps. If Kuemper stumbles, Washington has a new backup in 28-year-old Charlie Lindgren, who spent five of his six NHL seasons in Montreal before a one-year stint with St. Louis last season.  

Lindgren has never played more than 14 games in a single season, and he has just 29 total regular-season games to his credit. The tandem of Lindgren and Kuemper represents a significant gamble by MacLellan – one that could blow up in his face as easily as it could work out for the best. Washington also is salary capped-out, so it will be difficult for MacLellan to make up for what could be a mistake in net. In any case, the spotlight will focus on the Capitals’ netminding in a major way.  

3. Could the Caps’ defense corps be a letdown for them this year? Yes, and not just because Justin Schultz leaving via unrestricted free agency hurts them from a depth perspective on the right side of the defense. Schultz’s replacement, Erik Gustafsson, hasn’t played a full NHL regular season since 2018-19 (his first stint with the Chicago Blackhawks), but he’s a left-shot defenseman, and that doesn’t help Washington’s ultra-thin right side of their ‘D’.  

As it stands currently, the Capitals have only three proven NHLers on right-defense. If any one of those right-shot D-men – the outstanding John Carlson, and veterans Trevor van Riemsdyk and Nick Jensen – go down to injury, there could be big trouble for Kuemper and the rest of the Caps.  

In addition, besides 22-year-old-sophomore Martin Fehervary, who looks to be a keeper, five of Washington’s top-six D-men are between 30- to 32-years-old. Granted, one of them is the outstanding Carlson, but the Capitals had good fortune on the health front last season, and with an older group like the one they have this season, any significant injury becomes more likely and could create a domino effect through the rest of the defense corps while proving catastrophic for their Cup aspirations.  

Offense may be the Caps’ bigger initial concern with Backstrom, Wilson and Hagelin being unavailable, but in the bigger picture, their defense may be the larger, more damaging problem.  

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