The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at the team’s depth. Do the Caps have the depth to withstand an injury to their top-six on offense or their top-four on defense?
Championships are not just won by the teams with the best high-end talent, you also need depth to ensure that when injuries inevitably happen, the team can replace those players without taking a major step back.
One of the biggest strengths of the Caps the past few years has been its incredible depth, but salary cap constraints have seen that depth take a hit this offseason.
As frustrating a player as Andre Burakovsky has been the past few years, having a player of his caliber in the bottom-six is a luxury few teams can afford. Now he is gone, as is 20-goal scorer Brett Connolly, playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly and veteran blueliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
Brian MacLellan focused on improving the team defensively while cutting salary in the offseason. It certainly seems he did both and there is a case to be made that the team is actually better with the addition of Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway Brendan Leipsic and Radko Gudas.
But what happens if there’s an injury?
If there was an injury to the top-six, the Caps had two players in Burakovsky and Connolly they could plug in as replacements. Now, who does the team turn to? Carl Hagelin and Panik would be the two most likely candidates. Hagelin is a versatile player who would fit in well on just about every offensive line, but his offensive upside is extremely limited. Panik is an unknown as a free agent.
The team’s offensive depth has undeniably taken a step back this offseason in favor of more defensively responsible players. That’s fine in theory -- you can afford to score fewer goals if you allow fewer as a team -- but this may also make the team more reliant on the top-six for their offense. That means an injury to the top-six will be much harder to overcome.
Defensive depth is also a concern for the simple fact that you do not know what the top-four will look like. Michal Kempny will be coming off a torn hamstring, Dmitry Orlov had a tough season and Niskanen will be replaced by Nick Jensen. Jensen struggled with the Caps after getting acquired at the trade deadline. He showed good defensive instincts and with an offseason and training camp to prepare, he should be more adjusted to his new team. There is no question, however, that the Caps are taking a gamble.
Look what happened to the team when Kempny went down an injury last season. The Caps struggled tremendously to replace him in the top pair and he isn’t even the team’s best defenseman!
The good news defensively, however, is that the Caps have high-end defensive talent in the pipeline. Jonas Siegenthaler should be a full-time NHL player this year and played on the top-pair in the playoffs last season. Christian Djoos is entering his third NHL season and played a big role on the team’s 2018 Cup run. In Hershey, Tyler Lewington showed he can be serviceable as a call-up for a short period of time, plus Lucas Johansen is trying to prove he can be an NHL player and Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, two players considered to be the future of the team’s top-four, will be in their first professional seasons.
While those players are still developing and it may not be ideal to call them up so soon, there are potential candidates the team can turn to in Hershey if they really need to. Offense is the much greater concern.
In addition to the offensive dropoff between the top-six and bottom-six, there are fewer prospects the Caps can turn to if needed. Nathan Walker and Riley Barber, two of the team’s better offensive prospects, departed as free agents. Liam O’Brien has played NHL games in the past, but his playing style is quickly being left behind in today’s NHL. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Shane Gersich are the other players who appear to be the closest to being ready. Jonsson-Fjallby has only 16 games of North American experience after leaving Hershey for Sweden last season. Gersich looked in the Calder Cup Playoffs like he really needed another season in the AHL to adjust to the pros and does not yet look ready to be a full-time NHL player. Depth then is a concern not only in terms of plugging players into the top-six but also the trickle-down effect through the rest of the team.
Yes, the Capitals arguably got better this offseason, but it came at a cost. That cost is depth.
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