Gary Bettman laid out the league’s return to play plan on Tuesday bringing us all one step closer to hockey.
While we still do not know exactly when the league will return from its pause, it certainly is clear that the NHL is trending more toward an eventual return. That means it is time to turn our eyes towards the biggest questions facing the Capitals when they return to finish the 2019-20 season.
Though the Caps will enter the playoffs as one of the top four seeds in the conference, their place in the standings comes largely form a fantastic start to the season. Since Dec. 23, Washington ranked 22nd in the NHL with only 33 points and the team seemed to be struggling significantly.
After a pause of several months, how the team played before the pause does not matter significantly. Too much time has passed to say any momentum - or lack thereof - will carry over once the teams take the ice again. Having said that, the 69 games that Washington did play before the season paused showed a number of key questions the team will face once it returns to play.
Here are the biggest decisions facing the team and some of its players when play resumes.
What is the best defensive lineup?
For most of the season, this question has been largely who will be the right defenseman on the second defensive pair? Given the team’s overall defensive struggles, however, it is more accurate to label the blueline as a whole a question mark for Washington.
The second pair is obviously the biggest weakness for the team as neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas was able to stake their claim to the spot on the right. Jensen did seem to be playing better before the season was paused, but it is anyone’s guess how he or that pair -- with Dmitry Orlov presumably playing on the left -- will look coming out of the pause.
Brenden Dillon, a deadline acquisition, has played 10 games with the Caps. He will get three more exhibition games and that’s it, then it’s time for the postseason. Is that enough for him to solidify his spot on the top defensive pair alongside John Carlson?
Michal Kempny has struggled significantly all season long and the reset that the season pause could provide may be exactly what he needs to turn things around. If not, however, then the third pair becomes a question mark as well. Kempny and Radko Gudas did not play well at all in the handful of games in which they were paired together and either one of them could see their role taken by Jonas Siegenthaler, who has been one of the team’s top penalty killers this season.
How does the team fix the struggling power play?
Given the scoring talent this team boasts, there is no reason for it not to rank in the top half of the league on the power play, but the extra man had become a significant hole for Washington's offense over the course of the season. It ranks 17th on the power play overall at 19.4%, but since Dec. 23, that rate fell to 17% which ranks just 24th in the NHL over that span
That’s not good enough.
In season, we saw only minor adjustments being made as head coach Todd Reirden tried to fix the power play, but it felt like the team was just grasping at straws. With plenty of time to analyze and diagnose the problem, Reirden will need to bring solutions for the extra man unit with him when training camp resumes.
Who is the No. 1 goalie?
When the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins met for the first time this season on Feb. 2, Ilya Samsonov got the start. That was a reflection of where the goalie competition stood at that time with Samsonov putting together a stellar rookie season and Braden Holtby struggling. Holtby seemed to right the ship somewhat, however, and heading into the pause there was little question that he had retaken his spot atop the goalie depth chart.
But that was before the pause. How will both goalies look when they return to play?
Reirden will not have much time to assess his goalie tandem before having to decide who will start in the playoffs. While Holtby should be the presumed No. 1 going in, the fact that Samsonov was able to overtake him at some point this season is a good indication that Holtby may have a short leash if he begins to struggle again.
Where will Holtby play next season?
Every team and every player has been affected by the NHL’s pause to the season, but the players who may perhaps be the most affected are the big name, big money free agents like Holtby.
Holtby is in a tough spot. At 30 years old and with his numbers declining, Holtby’s next contract was likely to be his last big one. With his expected replacement, Samsonov, already playing well in limited NHL starts, with the team’s tight cap situation and with an expansion draft looming which would prevent Washington from providing Holtby with a no-movement clause, there seemed to be little chance Holtby would remain with the Caps.
But the league now faces an uncertain salary cap situation will mean there will be fewer suitors and less money available for Holtby in the free agent market.
Will it make sense for Holtby to return to Washington on a one-year deal despite the fact that he will be 31, his numbers continue to decline and he will almost certainly come into next season as the No. 2 behind Samsonov? Would Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan entertain that possibility? Or will there be enough money left out there in free agency for Holtby to move on?
This is not a decision that will need to be made until after the season, but it is absolutely something that will be weighing on his mind as the team returns to play.
Is the championship window still open?
With the additions of Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk, MacLellan has shown that he is all-in on a Cup run this season. But what about beyond this season?
Alex Ovechkin is 34, Nicklas Backstrom is 32, T.J. Oshie is 33, John Carlson is 30, Holtby is 30 and may not even be back next season. The fact is that the championship window is not going to be open forever and the Caps do not have enough talent in the pipeline to expect this team to simply reload and continue on as Cup contenders once those top players begin to noticeably decline.
It is going to be very hard to judge the Caps based on what happens in the postseason given the unusual circumstances, but the fact is MacLellan must evaluate this team and how likely it is to continue to compete in the near future. Will a quick exit mean it is time for a reboot or is there enough left in the tank for another run beyond this season? That is the tough question MacLellan will have to answer.
How will players manage the health risks?
One thing that will weigh heavily on the minds of every player and team staff member involved in the resumption of play will be the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and then bringing it home to their families. No one wants to be isolated from their loved ones for several months, but everyone will have to decide just how cautious they are going to be.
This is especially true of Reirden whose son, Travis, suffers from common variable immunodeficiency. Bringing the coronavirus home could put Reirden’s son at serious risk. How will Reirden handle being at the rink when training camp resumes? How will Oshie, Jensen or Backstrom handle the risks with newborns at home? This question is certainly not limited to the Caps, but it is the biggest question facing everyone as the league continues heading towards the resumption of the season.
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