The Capitals will be playing in the new East Division in 2021. We are looking at each division opponent leading up to the season.
G Craig Anderson, D Zdeno Chara, D Paul LaDue, D Justin Schultz, F Conor Sheary, D Trevor van Riemsdyk
F Travis Boyd, D Radko Gudas, G Braden Holtby, F Ilya Kovalchuk
After first-round exits in consecutive years, there were a lot of changes to the Capitals in the offseason. Gone is head coach Todd Reirden, replaced by Peter Laviolette. Laviolette will try to bring accountability and consistency to a team that seemed to have little of that during Reirden's tenure.
This is also a year of change in net as long-time starter Holtby signed with Vancouver as a free agent in the offseason. Ilya Samsonov has long been thought to be the goalie of the future and the future is now for Washington. Henrik Lundqvist was originally brought in, but a heart condition forced Washington to rethink its plans in net. Now prospect Vitek Vanecek will be the backup despite having no NHL experience and veteran Anderson will start the season on the taxi squad.
But, even with Lundqvist, the team's success was always going to be dependent on Samsonov. I never thought it was realistic that a 38-year-old goalie coming off the worst season of his career statistically should be able to beat out a 23-year-old franchise goalie. If he did, then the team was in big, big trouble.
The biggest issue the Caps had to clean up from the year before was on defense where they were atrocious. The team added Schultz, Chara and van Riemsdyk to address it. Schultz will likely be a top-four player and Chara on the third pair, but he may cycle with Jonas Siegenthaler. The right side of the third pair is in a similar situation with Nick Jensen looking like the Day 1 starter, but van Riemsdyk is there as an option.
Those additions will certainly help the team clean up its blue line.
Offensively there are two questions. First, can the veterans in the top-six continue to play at an elite level? Alex Ovechkin is 35, Nicklas Backstrom is 33 and T.J. Oshie is 34. If age finally catches up with those players and they take a step back, then the offense will take a step back with them.
The second question is whether the team will get enough depth scoring. That has been an issue in each of the past two seasons. Sheary will likely get on the third line and Daniel Sprong will likely see some playing time this year as well as Washington looks to add more goals to their depth.
It's easy to look at the Caps and think they are in the same position as the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams have been disappointing in the postseason the past two years and, with veteran cores, it's fair to wonder if both teams have hit their decline and the championship window is closing. I believe that is true of Pittsburgh, but not of Washington for two reasons. First, both teams made a lot of changes in the offseason, but Pittsburgh got rid of more talent than it brought it. Washington is absolutely better on defense and should have more depth scoring. Second, the Penguins have been disappointing with one of the best coaches in the NHL. With all due respect to Reirden, no one could argue that Laviolette is not an upgrade. An improved roster and an improved coach should yield dividends for Washington.
I don't think the Caps will win the division in the regular season, but this is absolutely a playoff team and one that could go deep depending largely on if Samsonov plays the way the team has always believed he was capable.