Three questions facing Washington Capitals
Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.
1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?
Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin’s been up to?
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback - what with the whole “winning it all” thing - but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?
Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.
[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]
New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.
A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.
Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:
2. Was Braden Holtby’s tough regular season just an anomaly?
Fatigue was one of the concerns for workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, much like it seemed to be for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps opening up about those challenges will keep the issue from cropping up again?
It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.
Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.
While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.
With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?
The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.
3. Will the veterans lose a step?
Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.
That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).
Alex Ovechkin is 32, and he’s already played in 1,003 regular-season games. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, while both T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen are 31. Even Lars Eller is 29.
Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.
It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season - clearly - but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.