Hockey is back! Or at least we have a date for when hockey will be back. After pausing the season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, the NHL will return to action on Aug. 1 when the qualification and round-robin rounds begin. As one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Washington will play three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. You can view the schedule and a list of important dates here.
By the time the Caps return to the ice for their first game, nearly five months will have passed since the last time they played so the 2020 postseason will essentially be a clean slate. When trying to size up the team's chances at a Cup run, the round-robin will give us our first glimpse of what we can expect from them. Here are the specific areas to keep an eye on.
Todd Reirden has already declared that the starting goalie job is "Holtby's job to lose." Holtby had a rough regular season (.897 save percentage, 3.11 GAA), but he has a Stanley Cup to his name and the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. While it makes sense to start Holtby going into the playoffs, you can bet he will be on a tight leash. The fact is that his numbers have been in steep decline the last three years. A lengthy pause could prove beneficial for the 30-year-old netminder who will turn 31 in September, but considering he wasn't even able to get on the ice until the team moved into Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on June 11, just how well he will play after so much time off is a complete unknown.
You also have to consider the fact that Ilya Samsonov will be the team's backup and played well for the majority of the season. While I believe Holtby would have to completely fall apart in the round-robin for Samsonov to start in the first round, I do think that Holtby's performance will dictate just how long the leash is once the playoffs start in earnest.
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The new players
The Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. At the pause, Dillon has played in only 10 games for Washington while Kovalchuk played in seven.
The transition to a new team during the season can be a tough one for players, but they have certainly had a significant amount of time to study up on their new team's system. They also will get a brief training camp before heading to Toronto that will give them more practice time to adjust. That could be a huge boost for Washington when looking at Dillon in particular. Defense is the major weakness of the team and Dillon has taken on a top-pair role with John Carlson.
On the other hand, while the number of games Dillon and Kovalchuk would have gotten before the playoffs would be limited, its more than they are getting now. Ultimately you're not going to be able to adjust to a new system without playing in it. Instead of a few regular-season games to adjust, Dillon and Kovalchuk's next game will be in the round-robin when the games count again.
General manager Brian MacLellan acquired both players with roles in mind for a Cup run. Both players now have to learn on the job and get up to speed quickly in order to live up to the roles MacLellan acquired them for.
The veteran players
The Caps are a veteran-heavy team. Nicklas Backstrom is 32, John Carlson is 30, Lars Eller is 30, Carl Hagelin is 31, Braden Holtby is 30, Ilya Kovalchuk is 36, T.J. Oshie is 33 and Alex Ovechkin is 34. After such a long pause, the veteran players will come into camp well-rested, but also a few months older.
After nearly five-months in between games, this has essentially been a full offseason for the league and a player's performance varies from season to season. Five months is not an insignificant amount of time and age may catch up to a handful of players at some point during the postseason even after having so much time to recuperate. These three games will give us a look at whether players like Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be able to perform at an elite level for another postseason run.
Kempny may have saved the team in 2018, but in the 2019-20 season, he was really struggling. A torn hamstring affected his preparation in the offseason and even after he returned he did not look like he was quite right. It's unclear if that had to do with any lingering physical issues or if it was purely mental. Regardless, he has had plenty of time to either heal further or regain his confidence which should mean improved play.
if the Caps suddenly got back 2018, first-pair Kempny, that would be a huge boon for the blue line.
Offensively, you can pretty much pencil in these lines:
Ales Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
If those lines change going in, that's significant and bears watching. If they change over the course of the three round-robin games, that is something to keep an eye on to see if there is something Reirden does not like or wants to switch up.
Defensively, there are more question marks.
Can Kempny regain a top-pair role? Where does Dillon ultimately fit? Who plays on the right side of the second pair? Does the team dress three lefties and three righties or does Reirden go with four lefties?
Granted, all of these decisions have to be taken in context. Whether Reirden is reacting to someone's play or to the standings of the round-robin is important to keep in mind. Still, there is not much time to really experiment with and I would expect Reirden to give his projected lineup for the playoffs as much time as possible to prepare for the playoffs.
The power play
The power play has been terrible this season and ranked 24th in the NHL since Dec. 23. Many have argued it has become too predictable, but really, everyone knew what they were trying to do for years and still couldn't stop it. Zone entries and puck movement have been the two biggest issues with the power play unit this season. The quick puck movement that makes a power play so hard to cover just has not been there and the players appear to be slower and more methodical with their puck movements, to their detriment. Even if the power play can improve to just average for the payoffs, that will be a major boost.
The biggest weakness of all for the team this season, the defense has been just flat out bad. The team has struggled to find a partner for Carlson, the team has only one top-four right defenseman and the efforts to shuffle players in and out of the top four have led to some dreadful third-pair combinations. Carlson has to be the team's best blueliner every night, someone has to lay claim to the top-pair role and Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas need to show they can handle a second-pair role.
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