Here’s the latest in THN.com’s ongoing series of breakdowns of each NHL team`s off-season. Today, we're looking at the Washington Capitals.
2021-22 Record: 44-26-12
Finish In The Metropolitan Division: 4th
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $0 ($6,321,666 over cap ceiling)
What Washington Has: A fully-signed lineup; a legitimate, if aging, superstar scorer in Alex Ovechkin; a brand new goaltending tandem in starter Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren; two nifty-off-season acquisitions in former Senators and Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown and former Blackhawks center Dylan Strome; a deep group of forwards; an elite-level defenseman in John Carlson; decent depth signings in veteran forwards Marcus Johansson and Henrik Borgstrom, and D-man Matt Irwin.
What Washington Needs: Salary cap flexibility; a quick return to health for injured forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin; a much-improved home record (they went 19-16-6 last season).
What’s Realistic For Washington Next Season: The Capitals have been trying to replicate their Stanley Cup glory of 2018, with diminishing degrees of success. Last year, they managed to remain a playoff team for the eighth consecutive season, but they went out rather meekly to the Florida Panthers in a six-game first-round series loss. Washington has been unable to get out of the opening round for four years now, and their core of veterans doesn't have an abundance of competitive window in which to try for the second Cup in franchise history.
The Caps did make the most of their available salary cap space this summer, trading for former Senators and Leafs two-way forward Connor Brown, and former Blackhawks center Dylan Strome. Both veterans have scored 20 or more goals at least once in their NHL careers, and both are young and talented enough to be difference-makers in their own way. Brown will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and Strome will be a restricted free agent, so there's no guarantee they'll be in Washington for the long haul. But, for this year at least., they will give the Capitals one of the deeper groups of forwards in the game.
That said, the biggest gamble Caps are taking this coming season is in goal. Last year’s duo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov both are no longer with the organization, replaced by former Canadiens and Blues goalie Charlie Lindgren and former Colorado starter Darcy Kuemper. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan gave the 32-year-old Kuemper a five-year, $26.25-million contract, making him Washington’s No. 1 guy in net for the foreseeable future, while the 28-year-old Lindgren will spell off Kuemper in preparation for a playoff run. The Caps’ offense should give Kuemper more than enough support to win more games than he loses, but make no mistake – the pressure is squarely on Kuemper to prove his Cup-winning season with the Avs this past year was no fluke.
Washington also could benefit greatly with some good fortune on the health front, because at the moment, they’ve got three experienced offense-producers in Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Carl Hagelin on the sidelines to start the 2022-23 regular season. Wilson should be fully recovered after a stretch, but there is genuine concern about the future of Backstrom and his bad hip, and Hagelin and his eye injury. Obviously, there’s no replacing what either player brings to the table and in a highly-competitive Metropolitan Division, the Capitals can’t afford to be without them for the entire season or longer.
The Caps are sure to have teams like Columbus, New Jersey and the New York Islanders nipping at their heels for a playoff spot, and Washington’s rival in Pittsburgh also will be in the mix for a lower playoff berth. Three of those five teams are going to be disappointed by season’s end, and this year, the Capitals could be one of them.