Capitals

What to expect from the Caps in 2021-22

Capitals

*2021 record and finish: 36-15-5, tied for 1st place in the East Division, lost to the Boston Bruins in five games in the first round of the playoffs

Coach: Peter Laviolette

Notable additions: D Matt Irwin

Notable departures: G Craig Anderson, F Daniel Carr, D Zdeno Chara, D Brenden Dillon, F Michael Raffl

Outlook: Because of cap constraints, the Capitals will return largely the same roster. Offensively the lines will look essentially the same, though Daniel Sprong will likely see a larger role and more consistent playing time. In terms of goaltending, Ilya Samsonov returns as the presumptive starter. Behind him, the Caps got lucky in that they were able to reacquire Vitek Vanecek after losing him to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. As a tandem, they were decent enough last season and the team did not have the cap space to upgrade the position even if it wanted to.

There will be a bit of a shakeup on defense as Washington replaces Dillon and Chara with Michal Kempny -- returning from an Achilles injury that kept him out the entire 2021 season -- and presumably prospect Martin Fehervary.

The Caps were a middle-of-the-pack team defensively in 2021, ranking 17th in goals against per game. The team needs Kempny to get back to his 2018 form as a top-pair defenseman and for Fehervary to hit the ground running, otherwise the defense could take a step back putting more pressure on the team's two young netminders.

 

One big difference this year, however, is that Laviolette will get a full offseason, training camp and preseason to work with, something he did not get in his first season with the team. That should better prepare some of the younger players for bigger roles and make sure the team is on the same page entering the season.

You can't look at this roster compared to last year and say the team got better in the offseason, but the benefit of a full camp for Laviolette could ensure the team does not get worse either. 

Biggest question: Is this the year age catches up with the star players?

You could actually argue it caught up to them a bit last year when the condensed season forced a number of injuries and they just seemed to run out of gas in the playoffs. But those were special circumstances. As the league returns to an 82-game schedule and an October to April calendar, all eyes will be on the Caps' star veterans to see if their game has started to decline.

Alex Ovechkin will turn 36 on Friday, Nicklas Backstrom is 33, T.J. Oshie is 34, Lars Eller is 32, John Carlson is 31, Dmitry Orlov is 30 and Justin Schultz is 31.

Just how well these players have continued to play is pretty remarkable. Sure, some players last until their late 30s, but there are others who hit 30 and their play goes into a complete nose-dive. Vincent Lecavalier was once one of the best players in the NHL. When he was 26, he scored 52 goals. When he was 32, he scored 10.

I'm not saying all of those players are headed for a significant drop-off this year, but I have a hard time believing that all of the team's star veterans are going to continue playing like they are 27. And while the season format may look more normal this year, it's also important to remember that, at least for now, the NHL is planning on going to the Olympics. That adds an extra two-week tournament on the other side of the world for most of these veterans.

I have to believe some of these players are going to start to show their age. The question is who and do the Caps still have enough talent to overcome declining production from those players?

Expectations: On paper, one of the oldest teams in the league, a team that has lost in the first round in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, did not improve in the offseason and got another year older. Having said that, I think you have to take into account the context of the last two seasons. Those were not normal seasons so I am not sure how many conclusions I am willing to draw from that. A full camp for Laviolette can possibly offset some of the questions on defense and, let's not forget, despite all the injuries, the Caps finished tied for first in the division last year.

 

Age is a concern and it's going to be a concern for as long as Washington still considers itself a contender. Add in the Olympics and I worry about the longevity of this team in the playoffs. They won't win the division, but they will make the playoffs. From there, however, it's going to be a real challenge just to get out of the first round.