Mark your calendars, because Hockey season starts Oct. 2, and the Washington Capitals will play the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues, on opening night. Calling the Blues “champions” of anything is still deeply confusing after decades of ineptitude, but so it goes. Today, we will discuss the Washington Capitals, their new roster members and the outlook for their division. The Capitals have retooled their roster following a disappointing early exit from last year’s playoffs, but they have a real chance to return to 2018’s glory.
The core of elite players that the Capitals have assembled is still intact. Top-tier talent can be found in every category of the Capitals’ roster, but some concerns remain following what the team would probably view as a premature exit from last year’s playoffs. Braden Holtby has led the NHL in starts and wins since he took over as the starting goaltender in Washington in 2012, but he no longer seems to be the rock-solid presence in the net that he was a few years ago. His save percentages in each of the last two seasons have been the lowest in his career at .907 and then .911. These lowered save percentages can be attributed to the Capitals’ weakness at defense compared to their highly potent offense, leaving Holtby as their primary defense against lots of high-danger shots. During the Stanley Cup run, Holtby temporarily lost the starting job for the first time in his career to Washington’s capable backup at the time, Philipp Grubauer. Holtby will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and the looming expensive contract may mean this season is his last as a Washington Capital, which would leave the team looking for a new starting goalie for the first time since 2012.
The top line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson should continue to be extremely effective this year. However, Kuznetsov, one of the most impressive playmakers and perhaps underrated players in the NHL, will miss the first three games of the year because of a failed drug test from the summer administered after being seen in a video clip with cocaine. As a side note, I own three NHL jerseys: Patrick Kane, Evgeny Kuznetsov and James Neal. Neal’s dangerous play and Kane’s off-ice behavior have already made my choices morally dubious, and Kuznetsov’s positive drug test now makes it seems like my jersey collection is cursed.
Alexander Ovechkin is 34 years old and now faces similar questions regarding his age to Tom Brady in the NFL. While they are both old for professional athletes who presumably will not be playing at all-time elite levels of their respective sports by the time they are 70, they both show no signs of aging yet, leaving the cliff of their performance levels sometime within the next handful of years. Ovechkin’s age does not seem to have any negative effects on his performance as he has a real chance of breaking one of Wayne Gretzky’s once seemingly untouchable records if he scores 34 goals for the next seven seasons, which is unlikely even for a legend of Ovechkin’s caliber. In today’s NHL, few players reach 30 goals, but Ovechkin consistently breaks through the 50-goal threshold, proving himself to be in a goal-scoring class of his own.
To round out the rest of the roster, the Capitals signed three players on the first day of free agency from the bottom-six forwards on their roster to sustain their impressive levels of scoring in the event that the top two lines take a step back from the levels of success seen over the Capitals’ past few seasons. Richard Pánik will look to reinvigorate his career after a couple of tough years on the languishing Arizona Coyotes. By signing Garnet Hathaway, the Caps have four of the top hitters in the NHL, indicating a commitment to their playing style of combining elite talent with tough play — Ovechkin was also one of the NHL’s top 20 hitters last season.
Comparing Washington to their most direct competition, the Capitals’ division, the Metropolitan Division has undergone some transformation this offseason. The Columbus Blue Jackets have lost their star players, but the New York Rangers picked up one of those players and have added new talent with high draft picks. The Carolina Hurricanes continue to be a threat to the Caps after knocking them out of the 2019 playoffs in double overtime of game seven. The New Jersey Devils made some offseason moves, including the acquisition of P.K. Subban, and the New York Islanders were surprisingly good last year after returning much of their roster following a 2017-2018 season with minimal success. The Pittsburgh Penguins have not been typically as dominant lately, but still have a roster containing some of the best players of all time, although they are seemingly less immune to age than Ovechkin. Despite the high levels divisional competition, the Capitals should make the playoffs this year —but teams that have been perennially unimpressive are beginning to make moves that could make the division a more challenging one.
The Washington Capitals will be a good team again this year because of the new additions to the forward core and their ever-skilled top line. They are well coached, have an effective system of offensive positioning which leaves them among the league’s top goal-scoring teams and have excellent players on their roster. The only thing that separated the Caps from consistent second round defeats in the playoffs and a Stanley Cup championship in 2018 was a special team chemistry in which players across the roster outperformed expectations. We have seen what the team looks like on paper, but we will have to start looking for evidence of that needed magic next Wednesday.