We have a start date for the 2021 season! The regular season will start on Jan. 13 with training camps opening on Jan. 3. That is not much time to get those last items checked off the to-do list for Washington, but that's the task that now sits before general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette.
Here's what the Capitals still need to get done before the puck drops on Jan. 13.
Find a backup goalie
The departure of Henrik Lundqvist due to a heart condition leaves the Caps without a backup goalie for the season. Priority No. 1 at this point is to replace Lundqvist.
Further complicating this is the fact that the NHL, NHLPA agreement for the season will allow teams to have 4-to-6-man taxi squads -- meaning additional practice players who will not count against the salary cap -- and one of those players must be a goalie. That's not a bad thing, but it does complicate the goalie situation in that I have a hard time seeing Washington rolling with an Ilya Samsonov/Vitek Vanecek/Pheonix Copley trio unless they have to. Not only would that take both of Hershey's goalies away for the season, it is also likely that one of those three will essentially get zero playing time. I would expect Washington to kick the tires on the remaining veteran free agents to see if they can get any for about the same $1.5 million price tag Lundqvist got.
Replace any players who opt-out
No Capitals players ultimately elected to opt-out of the 2020 postseason and there is no indication that any of the team's current players are thinking of taking that option in 2021. The deadline for a player to declare they are opting out is Dec. 27. If there are any surprises and a Capitals player does elect to sit out the season, the team will have to scramble to replace them.
Defensively, Washington looks very deep thanks to several offseason additions plus prospects Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev. When it comes to the offense and goaltending, however, any losses there could loom very large on the season.
Find a third-line winger
This was a hole heading into the offseason and the team just did not have the cap space to address it in free agency.
I have long held that the team would have to trade away a defenseman to find a player to either play on the third line or to serve as a 13th forward, but the trade market just may be locked tight and this may not be a realistic option at this point. For now, I have Daniel Sprong penciled in to take this role, but that has yet to be determined. He is going to have to earn it and do it fast. The cap situation is tight enough that Washington really needs to know who is going to be on the roster as soon as possible to make sure they can fit everyone in.
Figure out the defensive pairings
Brenden Dillon and John Carlson are the likely top pair, but everything behind them remains up in the air.
I know most people assume Dmitry Orlov will play with new-comer Justin Schultz and that may be the plan, but Orlov and Schultz have a similar playing style. Orlov does not seem to play all that well with Carlson unless it is in strictly offensive situations, so I am not 100-percent sold that an Orlov-Schultz pairing is going to work as well as many may think. In addition, there is Jonas Siegenthaler on the left and Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk on the right. The signing of Schultz and van Riemsdyk made me think Jensen was on the trade block, but as I mentioned, there may not be much of a market for trades at the moment so this may just be the seven defensemen they roll with. I am just not sure exactly who will play with whom.
Add players to the taxi squad
Every team will get 4-to-6 players who will practice with the team, but not be included on the roster or count against the salary cap and one must be a goalie.
Before you start adding all the team's top prospects, bear in mind that the taxi squad is not an extension of the roster whose players can just be added in and out of the lineup. The NHL roster must still adhere to the 23-player maximum and the salary cap. A savvy general manager should be able to manage this well, but most of these players probably are not going to play much if at all. That means I don't think we see players like Fehervary, Alexeyev or Connor McMichael on the taxi squad because those are players the team will want to play as much as possible with their respective clubs. More likely, we will see players like Daniel Carr, Brian Pinho and Paul LaDue.
Sign Alex Ovechkin
Ovechkin is on the last year of his contract. OK, so re-signing Ovechkin may not be something the team has to do before the season starts, but it would be better for this to get done sooner rather than later. The longer this drags out over the course of the season, the more questions there will be over what the hold up is and the more of a talking point it will become.
If you want to avoid the distraction that comes with a contract negotiation for a star player, the sooner MacLellan can get Ovechkin to put pen to paper, the better.