Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.
Today's topic: Bold takes for the 2021-22 season
Andrew: I’ll give two here. Both are From Russia With Love. Firstly, I think Evgeny Kuznetsov will be the best center on the Capitals this season. Is this foolish? Perhaps, and it's possible I’m relying too much on gut instinct here. But let’s look at some facts first. Kuznetsov scored 29 points in 41 games last year, which is good for a 58-point pace in an 82-game season. Would that approach his career-high 83 points from the 2017-18 season, or even the 2018-19 pace of 72 points? I am not a mathematician, but it would appear not. Still those kinds of numbers don’t come from random players across the league.
Last year, coach Peter Laviolette sheltered Kuznetsov’s line to the tune of a staggering 87.78 offensive zone start percentage. Now, he’ll have a full (and hopefully non-COVID impacted) year with Anthony Mantha or Alex Ovechkin on his left and T.J. Oshie or Tom Wilson on his right. If Kuznetsov can return just partially to his former self, with motivations from criticisms over the last year, then the Capitals will be well set up. Kuznetsov will be in as opportune a position as anyone on the roster to make a big impact.
Second, I think Ilya Samsonov will be the runaway No. 1 goaltender for this team this season. What I mean by that is I’m not sure there will be a goaltending question at all by the season’s end.
Samsonov posted just a .902 save percentage last season, but rebounded down the stretch and was, in my opinion, pretty darn good in net for Games 3, 4 and 5 against the Bruins. A lot will be made of his gaffe behind the net in Game 3 that turned the series, and rightfully so, but the Capitals would’ve never been in that position if he wasn’t excellent before that. He's got a lot of potential and it's due time he starts to cash in on some of that.
I think the Capitals would love nothing more than for one of Vitek Vanecek or Samsonov to take the net, and I’m of the opinion that Samsonov finally becomes the goaltender the Capitals hoped they had all along.
JJ: If you've been paying attention during this series, I've hinted at a few bold takes already.
Ilya Samsonov will cement himself as the team's starting goalie: His issues have been off the ice, but I like his skill on the ice. If he can eliminate the distractions, he will be a good NHL starter.
The Caps will be a wild card team: There is enough skill here to still make the playoffs, but I think they got slightly worse in the offseason and another year older. Add in a two-week playoff tournament for the team's best and oldest players and they will be limping into the playoffs by season's end.
Barring any serious center injuries, Garrett Pilon will have more NHL games than Connor McMichael: McMichael needs to play, not sit in the press box in the NHL. Better for him to get more minutes in Hershey than to be a regular scratch.
But I've talked about those already. So here's a new one.
The Caps will make a significant trade involving a player on the roster during the season. I don't think this season is going to be smooth sailing. It is going to be a grind-it-out battle to the end just to reach the postseason. I have concerns about the left side of the defense with Michal Kempny and Martin Fehervary replacing Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara.
The team is getting older and I have a hard time believing that Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller and John Carlson will all show zero signs of aging. Unless Capital One Arena is built on the Fountain of Youth, someone is going to take a step back this season.
For team in "Stanley Cup or bust" mode, being a bubble team midway through the season is going to precipitate a significant move and the Caps can't make one with the tight salary cap. They will have to move a player to shake things up.
Who that player may be will depend on how the season plays out and what the true weaknesses are revealed to be, but I think Brian MacLellan will be compelled to make some kind of move to shake up the roster and try to spark a postseason run.