Our Washington Capitals 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
The Washington Capitals are coming off a season where they placed first in the Metro Division with 104 points. Ovechkin won his eighth Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s highest goal scorer, and the team coasted into the playoffs.
General manager Brian Maclellan made a couple important moves at the trade deadline. The blueline was strengthened when Madison Bowey and a second-round pick was traded to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Nick Jensen. Jensen, a great skating puck moving defenseman immediately improved the Capitals defense core. Bowey had never really hit his stride in Washington, and it was time to move on. He looked shaky in the defensive zone, and had a propensity to chase the puck. Jensen also signed a four year extension for $2.5 million annually soon after joining the club. He’ll be a stable, affordable second pairing right hand defenseman for the team. The team also acquired Carl Hagelin from the L.A. Kings in exchange for a third and sixth-round picks. Hagelin was part of the HBK line in Pittsburgh, and before that played for the Rangers. In both New York and Pittsburgh he saw more than his fair share of the Capitals and terrorized the team with his speed and defensive prowess. Hagelin slotted in on the third line and played some huge minutes on the penalty kill.
The team had a new head coach, Todd Reirden, who served as defense coach to Barry Trotz. Trotz and the Capitals could not strike a deal after Trotz’s contract was up immediately following the Stanley Cup win, and Trotz ended up with the New York Islanders. He took most of his staff with him, like assistant coach Lane Lambert, and goaltending coach wizard, Mitch Korn. Trotz was beloved by his players in Washington, and most fans saw it as an incredible loss to have him exit the organization. Inevitably, there were some questions about how rookie head coach Rierden would perform. Winning the Stanley Cup must be a tough act to follow. He had a bit of a shaky start, but the team eventually found a rhythm and won the Metro Division under his leadership. Now, this may actually be the case of an incredibly talented team not making a lot of changes. Reirden made very minor tweaks to the way the Capitals played hockey, and for the most part the team looked the exact same out there.
The roster had not changed, save for a few guys. Alex Chiasson left in free agency, and so did faceoff god and fourth line centre Jay Beagle. Philipp Grubauer was traded before the season to the Colorado Avalanche, so Reirden had a new backup in Pheonix Copley. Brooks Orpik was included in the Grubauer trade and was subsequently bought out. He came back to sign a cheap deal in Washington. All these moves gave the team enough space to sign defenseman John Carlson to an eight year, $8 million annual average value contract. This deal makes Carlson the next highest player on the team after Ovechkin. They had to keep Carlson though. He’s a right handed offensive defenseman who can play on the powerplay and feed Ovechkin. He doesn’t quite put up Mike Green numbers from back in the day, but he did just have a career high of 70 points in 80 games this year, with 33 of his points coming on the powerplay. It has to be reassuring to know that Carlson is locked down long term, even if it was a bit pricey. The team did dip in a few stats, the most apparent was the fact that the team struggled to win faceoffs without Jay Beagle. Washington finished the season as the worst in the league at faceoff wins percentage. Reirden will be looking to really make his mark on the team this season.
While Ovechkin is a known power play dominator, the team overall struggled on the powerplay. They over relied upon the slingshot play and could not enter the zone. The team ended up finishing twelfth in the league in power play percentage, when they are typically known for excelling in this area. This is something that really hurt them in the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, the Caps were hoping to go back to back. They didn’t. Instead they had a disappointing first round exit to a bunch of jerks, also known as the Carolina Hurricanes. This early exit gave the management a lot of time to contemplate the direction of the team going into this season, and they made quite a few roster moves. They had a few guys earning more than what their production granted them. They had to be smart, because in the next two years, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and Alexander Ovechkin will be in need of new contracts.
On the trade front, MacLellan send winger Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche for a second-round and third-round pick in the 2020 draft. The Capitals have been finishing in the top end of the league for quite a while, and do need to start building up their prospect pool. Beyond goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov, the Capitals have a pretty underwhelming list of blue chip prospects. Burakovsky has struggled to make an impact in Washington since his sophomore year in 2015-2016, where he had his highest point total. He’s seen limited action on the top two lines in D.C. and can get some better opportunity in Colorado. Burakovksy had actually asked for a trade at the trade deadline. The team wanted to keep him according to MacLellan, but honored the trade request. At a cap hit of $3.25 million, Washington likely could not justify his anemic offensive numbers either. Moving him now is a smart move, since he may have moved on from the team in free agency soon anyway. Furthermore a younger, more talented winger, Jakub Vrana, has bumped him down the depth chart in Washington, so the writing was on the walls for Andre.
Washington also moved steady defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Radko Gudas. Niskanen has been a huge part of the Capitals blueline, as a reliable, physical player. He can provide some offense in key moments, but his specialty was in his own end. However, Niskanen is 32 and has two more years at $5.75 million per season. Gudas comes in as a very physical defensive player. He’s 29 going into the season, and is a heck of a lot cheaper at $2.34 million with only one more year on his contract. He’ll be a nice replacement for Brooks Orpik, who retired this season and joined the team in a professional development role. Orpik was known for his grit, and heavy hits. Gudas can definitely provide both of that for Washington.
Burakovsky, Niskanen and Orpik leaving gave the Capitals some breathing room. They signed Jakub Vrana to a two year $3.35 million average annual value contract. The winger showed that he is developing nicely as a speedy top six winger.
Although the Capitals were able to lock down Vrana, they did lose another winger coming off a career year, Brett Connolly. Connolly had 22 goals and 24 assists this year, which is nearly double his previous career high in points. He’s a streaky goal scorer, but there is no doubt he helped provide a lot of secondary scoring to the Capitals lineup. He’ll be looking to improve on his number on an exciting Florida team, where he signed a four year $3.25 million dollar average annual value deal. The Capitals simply could not afford him.
With Connolly gone, the Capitals brought in a slightly cheaper replacement, Richard Panik. He played last season with the Arizona Coyotes. Washington will be his fifth NHL club, and he should be a 30-40 point player for the team. Brandon Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway were also signed in the off season to join the team as depth forwards.
I’m a huge Capitals fan. It’s a weird feeling to see the team lose more and more members of the 2018 championship squad. Yes, I’m talking about Nathan Walker signing as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues. It really brings a tear to my eye. But seriously, the Capitals lost a lot of important pieces to that team with players being traded, retiring or moving on for a pay increase. From the Stanley Cup winning team, the Caps have lost Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, Brooks Orpik, Nathan Walker, Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson, Madison Bowey, Philipp Grubauer and Jay Beagle.
On the other hand, the team has brought in a number of players to replace the holes in the lineup and secured some key parts for the long term. Sure the supporting cast is changing, but the Capitals are filling the void with a suitable mix of trades, free agents and in-house talent. This off season they had to shave cap space, but managed to not lose too much depth in the process.
Brooks Orpik (retired)
The good news for the Washington Capitals is that their top six forwards is unchanged. This team can score, and the top two lines will be where most of the offense comes from.
This may be the understatement of this preview series, but the Washington Capitals are Alex Ovechkin’s team. He is entering his 14th season with the team, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. He’ll be the goal scoring leader of the team once again this season. Although he plays a much different game now than compared to his first few seasons, he’s still the most exciting player on the team.
Ovechkin splits time being centred by Backstrom and Kuznetsov. The two centres are both great with the puck but play very different games. Backstrom slows the game down to a crawl and waits for teammates to get open. His greatest strength is his passing ability. He’s got to have the best saucer passes in the game, and he can squeeze a pass through lanes that defenders think are closed. This allows Ovechkin to creep into a scoring location and be found by a nice pass. Kuzentsov, is better on the rush. His skating ability makes him a different player than Backstrom. He has a propensity to skate the puck around the zone and even leaves the zone if he doesn’t like how things are lined up. Kuznetsov is usually the zone entry guy on the Capitals power play, and struggled at times last year to get into the zone on his skating alone. He’ll perhaps have to utilize the pass more this year. Kuzy will have to keep his nose clean this year, and will be sitting the first three games out for inappropriate conduct.
Tom Wilson moved up into a top line role in 2017-2018. He’s rounded his game out to include more of an offensive touch. The offense has always been there, but when he broke into the league, previous Washington coaches used him as an enforcer. He’s done well to come through that pigeon holing of a goon to be one of the best power forwards in the game. Although he still needs to clean up his act. He’s better for the Capitals in the lineup than serving a suspension, like the one that kept him out of the first quarter of the season last year. He hit Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in the head in a preseason game, and due to his history, was suspended 20 games. Wilson appealed and it was reduced to 14 games, but by that point he had already missed the first 16 games of the season. In 63 games last year, Wilson put up a career high of 40 points. When Wilson is out there, everyone knows. Now he will not only be known for his physical play, but for his offensive abilities too. Regardless, he can provide some speed and aggression to the top line and some quality penalty killing too.
T.J. Oshie, one of the hardest working guys out there, will serve on the second line right wing. Oshie has to protect himself better. He’s had a few concussions recently and each time he comes back it takes a long time for him to look like himself again. The way he plays the game, he almost intentionally puts himself in bad situations. The Capitals are far better with a healthy T.J. in the lineup and have some limited depth on right wing if he is out. Oshie plays with either Kuznetsov or Backstrom, whichever of the two is not playing with Ovechkin at the time. He’ll likely have Jakub Vrana as a full time linemate this season. Vrana, 23, played in all 82 games last year and notched a career high of 47 points. He potted 24 goals, and his speed, hands and shot will be a huge benefit to the Capitals as he continues to develop into a top six forward. His spot might be challenged by newcomer Richard Panik, but I foresee Panik playing on line three most of the year.
Both Kuznetsov and Oshie both struggled coming back from concussions last year (that they received in the same game against the Winnipeg Jets). These two will have to stay healthy in order to maximize the scoring potential of the top two lines.
The bottom six looks a little different than it did at this point a year ago. The centreman, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd are the same but the wingers are all different. There is no Connolly or Burakovsky this year. Nor is there a Devante Smith Pelley or Dmitrij Jaskin. Deadline acquisition Carl Hagelin was extended to four year contract with an average annual value of $2.75 million this offseason. He and Richard Panik will likely makeup the third line with Lars Eller up the middle. To me this seems like a defensively sound line, with some offensive upside. Eller and Hagelin will both play on the penalty kill too. As I mentioned, Panik may bump up to second line, with Vrana moving down. If that’s the case, Vrana and Hagelin’s speed will be tough to beat.
The fourth line is set to be Nic Dowd at centre, with newly acquired Garnett Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic on the wings. Hathaway will add some physicality back to the Capitals. Leipsic, now on his fifth team in the NHL, will have to be consistent to beat Chandler Stephenson for a spot in the lineup. Stephenson and centreman Travis Boyd could make a serious push to be on the team full time. If they don’t impress in camp, they’ll likely be on press box duty as the healthy scratches.
Although the Capitals had some turnover on forward, the team is still set to be pretty deep offensively.
The top pairing will be Michal Kempny and John Carlson. Perfect match for each other. Kempny’s absence in playoffs last year was a huge loss to the team. His puck movement and defensive aptitude was a large piece to the Cup win. Not having him against a fast team like the Hurricanes made an impact in the series. The two have some great chemistry and their individual strengths complement each other very nicely.
With Niskanen gone, Orlov will need a new partner. The two struggled at times last year, and were split up for large chunks of the year. Orlov is a great defenseman, with great offensive abilities. Niskanen covered for his defensive lapses as Orlov still worked on his game, but the two were awful together at times last season. Partnering Orlov with Jensen, who is a great skater and good two way puck mover could be a good new pairing. A pairing of Orloc and Jensen would be a great at moving the puck and each of them could skate the puck out of the zone too. If Jensen doesn’t play well with Orlov, Radko Gudas could give it a shot. I think Gudas will be better served on the third pairing alongside either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos. Both Siegenthaler and Djoos have seen sheltered minutes, but may not have the luxury anymore. They each will be trying to make the team full time to secure a spot.
The team lost Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik this off season, but they brought in enough talent recently to fill the gaps. They also have two young defenseman looking to crack the roster full time.
Holtby had a bit of a rough year following the cup victory. He’s been known to get some fatigue issues with a lot of games so it could have been that. However, perhaps being seperated from goalie coach guru Mitch Korn was bad for Holtby’s game. The first round knockout could have given Holtby enough rest to get back on his game for this season. Holtby is still one of the best in the league, even with a shaky year, and he will still be relied upon as a workhorse for the Capitals.
Pheonix Copley served his first year as a backup in the NHL last season. He performed pretty well and should continue to get better with more time. What makes his job risky, is that the Capitals have a great goaltending prospect in Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov played in the AHL last year but if he impresses in the training camp this year, he very well could snag the backup role from Copley.
Washington Capitals 2019-2020 Season Prediction
1st-3rd Metro Division
The Washington Capitals still have an incredibly deep team going into this season. The team’s priority in the offseason was to stabilize the future of the team. Ovechkin, Holtby and Backstrom are in need of contracts within the next two seasons, and moves had to be made in order to plan ahead. Some of the team’s depth had to be sacrificed to make enough cap room. Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, and Matt Niskanen left the team, and Radko Gudas, Garnett Hathaway, Brendan Leipsic and Richard Panik were brought in. Even with the depth of the team changing, the Capitals have some immense talent in their top six forwards and top two defense pairings. They’ll need a bounceback year from Braden Holtby, but the team should be set to compete for the top spot in the Metro Division.