Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2018-19, where Last Word On Hockey gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2018-19 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the Washington Capitals.
Puck Drop Preview: 2018-19 Washington Capitals.
A season not easily forgotten in hindsight, but started typically enough. The Capitals once again took the top spot in a tough Metropolitan Division with 105 points. They put up a 49-26-7 record and headed to the playoffs for the tenth consecutive year. The team remained solid with a vastly improved defence and powerplay unit. This not only led to advancing past the second round for the first time in twenty years but making franchise history by winning the Stanley Cup.
Perseverance and determination was the main reason for the team’s success, but having such a stacked team of talent definitely helped. Once again, captain Alex Ovechkin led the way with 49 regular season goals, proving to the critics yet again that the 32-year-old is still the best goal scorer in the league. The Russian winger then led the league in playoff goals with 15 which in turn earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy. This was a surprisingly new addition to the superstar’s already stocked trophy cabinet.
Fellow Russian and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was one of many, to have a career-best season, finished with 83 points. Making the 26-year-old second on the team for points and goals. Kuznetsov’s skill and confidence grow each year, and he will likely dominate in coming seasons.
The Stanley Cup Champions stayed relatively quiet during the off-season. Choosing to focus on locking down current players. However, draft day saw a bit of drama with the departure of back up goalie Philipp Grubauer and defender Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche for the 47th overall draft pick. Grubauer came as no surprise as the 26-year-old has more than proved his abilities between the pipes. The Capitals could not afford the restricted free agent, and he needed more responsibility to improve that experience.
It was short lived for Orpik, as the Team mentor was re-signed a month later. This is considered a good deal by some at $1 million for one year. It remains to be seen if the 37-year old can perform at the standard needed this season.
The biggest news in the offseason was the loss of head coach Barry Trotz. There is much speculation as to the reasons for Trotz moving on. Regardless of the reason though, the Stanley Cup-winning team will be defending their title without their Stanley Cup-winning coach.
To some, this could be fatal for a team, however, Trotz’s replacement Todd Reirden was already established into the Caps organization. As the associate head coach, the players already have a positive relationship with him. The new coach, all be it relatively limited in coaching experience has developed the Capitals defence into the strong unit it is today.
It shall be interesting to see what changes Reirden makes in his integral season as coach. However, it is unlikely that the top six lineups will change much from last season.
If Wilson continues to flourish running with the Russian power couple this season, there will be little movement there. Oshie is back on form particularly during the playoffs last season. Combine this will the “ultimate playmaker” Backstrom, will make the Capitals top six dangerous once again.
The gap left by Beagle will give younger players such as Vrana and Burakovsky a more prominent role. The Caps have a shortage of natural wingers on the left side. So it is unclear as yet if players like Chandler Stephenson or Vrana will assume that role again this season.
With an ample amount of bottom six depth to choose from though, there are many combination options. It is hoped that players such as Nathan Walker and Shane Gersich, who both performed well last season, get more game time. Although, it more likely Boyd will get the nod initially, as there is already chemistry between Smith-Pelly and Stephenson. Newly signed Russian winger Sergei Shumakov will also factor into the mix.
However, these predictions are far from being set in stone, Reirden may wish to stamp his authority as the new coach and change things up. Particularly on defence, where the coach’s previous experience lies.
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
With the contract extension of Kempny and Carlson, Washington’s defence looks to be formidable yet again heading into the 2018-19 season. Although Orpik is used to being on the top defensive pairing, it makes more sense to join Kempny (who has been progressing well) with the talent of Carlson. Orpik’s strength is his experience, which will be more suited to a younger player like Djoos. Who in turn, benefits the most from the veterans knowledge and expertise.
Niskanen and Orlov already have chemistry and are both productive offensive defencemen. Working together, the Capitals defensive depth is strong. And will be interesting to watch develop throughout the season. Madison Bowey, Lucas Johansen, and Connor Hobbs could all push for ice time.
There is a potential risk for the Capitals here with the departure of Grubauer. It depends heavily on Holtby continuing his solid off-season performance into the coming season. Uncharacteristically, Holtby struggled in the regular season, with a career low of .907 save percentage and a 2.99 goals-against-average. It was up to the German backup to step up.
There will be no safety net this year. Copley, now deemed hundred percent healthy after his groin injury last year, achieved a .896 save percentage and 2.91 goals-against-average in the AHL for Hershey Bears last season. And is relatively untested with only two NHL games for the St. Louis Blues in his hockey career.
This can be concerning considering the responsibility in the backup role. Although, until injury the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Alaskan proved capable in the AHL. The Capitals have faith in the 26-year-old, as evident when the front office dressed him as the 3rd goalie last season and actually acquired him twice. They initially signed him as an undrafted free agent, then dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought Oshie to Washington. The Caps re-acquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.
The Capitals have also signed their top prospect, goaltender Ilya Samsonov. He is expected to start in the AHL. He has been a backup goalie in the KHL in recent years, and needs to play games right now. However, if Holtby is injured, Samsonov would be called up and might get the majority of minutes while the Capitals top goaltender recovers.
Players To Watch.
There are many players on the Capitals team that are worth paying attention too. Stars like Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Backstrom will continue to go from strength to strength. They can’t play forever, and it’s the team’s prospects that can easily flourish under this unique opportunity. Under new coaching staff, it leaves an opening to impress in a notoriously difficult break-in roaster.
As stated, the untested backup goalie for the Caps could be a chink in the Stanley Cup Champions armour if Holtby falters. All eyes will be watching to see if he can provide quality goaltending for 15-20 starts, while Holtby takes a rest. If he cannot, it will cost the Capitals spots in the standings and could cause the team to make a move for another backup option, or accelerate Samsonov’s development.
Under Trotz, Burakovsky was an underrated talent. The young 23-year-old played 56 games last season. The majority of these were in the later part of the season. Sometimes seen as a healthy scratch, it did pose questions during the year of Trotz decision making. The Austrian winger is skillful, quick and has good offensive awareness. It is hoped that Burakovsky will have more opportunity to shine this season. Combine his skill and speed with the likes of Eller for example, will have potential be a successful combination.
Another example of a player succeeding under the radar. Stephenson had a huge career leap last season. Playing 64 games (previously struggled to even get ten), scoring six goals and 12 assists for 18 points. The 24-year-old has proven to be versatile by slotting into various roles when needed. The Canadian forward provides a strong powerful presence on the ice and gives the Capitals even more depth. Working with Smith-Pelly and Boyd would give their fourth line a lot of punch.
There is no reason why the defending champions cannot achieve success again this coming season. They still have a massive amount of talent, morale is high. It’s unclear if their decision to try to replicate last seasons roster was necessarily a good move or not. They do have a new coach, granted and it could potentially go awry in goaltending, but the foundation is still there. Its predicted that the Capitals will continue to be a dominant force in the Metropolitan Division. Although it will remain to be seen if they have the same determination and driving force that carried them onto Stanley Cup glory last season. One thing is for sure, the Caps won’t give up the title easily.