Hockey is back! The Capitals are not in action until Thursday, but the NHL officially opens the 2021 season on Wednesday.
Things are going to look different this year starting with the mid-January start. With everything going on in 2020 leading up to 2021, some Capitals fans may not remember everything that's happened between the end of the 2020 season up until now. Here's what fans need to know heading into the 2021 season.
How the 2020 postseason ended
The pause to the season in March came at a great time for the struggling Caps who were limping their way through the season at that point. Washington did not regain its form or momentum when the season resumed in the Toronto bubble and ended up losing in the first round against former head coach Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders. The series was not all that competitive and an undisciplined and seemingly unmotivated Caps team was ousted in just five games.
After a lackluster performance to close out the 2020 season, the team made a number of changes in the offseason.
Only two years into his tenure as head coach, Reirden is out in Washington. The way in which he was outcoached and just how completely unmotivated the team looked against the Islanders was too much for general manager Brian MacLellan to get past.
Reirden returned to Pittsburgh to take over the defense under Mike Sullivan.
The longtime starer of the Caps, Holtby left in the offseason as a free agent and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Though he only signed a two-year deal with a cap hit of $4.3 million which was ultimately less than his previous cap hit with the Caps, he was still too expensive for a Washington team dealing with a cap crunch.
After one year on the Caps, Gudas signed a three-year deal with the Florida Panthers. Gudas was brought to Washington in the trade that sent Matt Niskanen to Philadelphia.
Kovalchuk was brought in at the trade deadline to provide depth scoring. He provided zero points in the postseason and will play the 2021 season in the KHL.
Boyd was not able to earn a full-time spot in the lineup in Washington and left in free agency to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Michal Kempny (sort of)
Kempny is still with the organization, but suffered a torn Achilles and is expected to miss the season. Based on his 6-to-8 month timetable, Kempny may be ready to return near the end of the season, but I doubt the team is going to try to rush back a player coming off his second major injury. Most likely Kempny won't suit up at all until 2021-22.
Wait, what? As in New York Rangers goalie Lundqvist? As in, future Hall-of-Fame goalie Lundqvist? He's out!? I didn't even know he was with the Caps!
Lundqvist's tenure with Washington was, unfortunately, a brief one as he was signed in the offseason, but a heart condition will keep him from suiting up for the Caps. The signing and subsequent loss of Lundqvist complicates the team's plan in net.
There were a number of big-name head coaches available, but Washington got the best one on the market in Laviolette. Laviolette has won a Stanley Cup and led two other teams to the Final. Most importantly, he has found early success in many of his coaching stops which is critical for a Caps team looking to win now.
This one was a surprise. Not only was it a shock to see Chara leave Boston, but it was also equally shocking that he was signing with Washington.
The 43-year-old Chara did not like the role the Bruins foresaw him playing for them this season so he instead signed a one-year deal with the Caps as a free agent.
Chara is certainly not the player he once was, but he averaged 21 minutes for the Presidents' Trophy winners last season and looks poised to take a third-pair role for Washington heading into the season.
The biggest hole on Washington's roster last season was top-four right defense, but the Caps addressed that hole as MacLellan signed Schultz away from the Penguins on a two-year deal. Schultz is a puck-moving defenseman who should thrive in Laviolette's system which calls for aggressive play from the defense.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
In the team's effort to revamp the blue line, Washington also brought in van Riemsdyk as a depth piece. Van Riemsdyk starts the season as an extra, but will likely see some time on the third pair.
Washington got zero depth scoring in the 2020 postseason and looked to address that with the signing of Sheary. He, along with Daniel Sprong, should provide some scoring punch to the bottom-six.
Anderson was brought to Washington on a professional tryout agreement. Though Laviolette has said Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek will be the two goalies on the active roster heading into the season, Anderson is expected to be signed to the taxi squad as the team's required third goalie.
A new season format
The regular season will consist of 56 games in a condensed schedule. This number of games was agreed to because it was felt it could still give the league enough flexibility to handle any COVID outbreaks that may cause postponements. The majority of the schedule is organized into two-game "series" between teams in order to reduce travel. The playoffs are set to begin in May and end in July.
Another important change is that there will be no wild cards this year. The playoffs will be based just on the top four teams in each division and teams will only play other teams in their own division. That will be tough for the Caps considering the division they will play in.
The East Division
Because of travel restrictions at the border between the United States and Canada, the NHL realigned its divisions for the upcoming year in order to group all seven Canadian teams together in their own division. The American teams were then reshuffled.
Washington will be playing in the East Division...oh, excuse me, the Mass Mutual East Division (yeah, they're sponsored now) with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
That's pretty brutal.
The realignment essentially means there are no conferences this year which led to an interesting wrinkle in the rules. Instead of teams meeting in the conference finals to reach the Stanley Cup, each team that advances past the second round of the playoffs will be re-seeded with the top team playing the No. 4 seed and the No. 2 and No. 3 seed playing. This could mean whacky matchups in the conference and Stanley Cup Finals. Imagine a Montreal-Boston Stanley Cup. That could happen in this format.
Where the teams will play
Unlike in the 2020 postseason, the teams will not be stuck in bubbles for the season. Gary Bettman acknowledged on Monday that playing gin the bubble was a sacrifice for the players and that he had not even felt it appropriate to ask the NHLPA to consider a bubble in the regular season. As a result, games will be played at home arenas and a limited few teams will even allow a small selection of fans to attend. Washington is not among those teams, for now.