The players hit the ice for the start of training camp on Thursday in preparation for the 2021-22 season. As the Capitals begin their quest for a second Stanley Cup, here are the biggest things to watch for through training camp.
How does the left side of the defense shape up?
The biggest question mark for this team is the defense. The departure of both Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara has left a hole on the left side of the defense including in the top-four. Michal Kempny and Martin Fehervary are expected to fill those holes, but training camp is when talk and speculation gets put to the test
Does Kempny look healthy coming off the second major injury of his career and after missing the entire 2021 season? Does Fehervary look NHL-ready? Does either player look ready for a top-four role?
There are also a few other names to keep in mind such as Matt Irwin, one of the few offseason acquisitions. He is a left defenseman signed on to a minimum deal. Trevor van Riemsdyk is a right-shot defenseman, but the Caps thought enough of him to re-sign him for two years after playing in just 20 games last season and they protected him from Seattle in the expansion draft.
Essentially Washington was willing to lose Justin Schultz or Nick Jensen and for van Riemsdyk to take on an everyday role. There is also prospect Alex Alexeyev. Though Fehervary is believed to be closer to being NHL ready, could Alexeyev surprise in training camp?
Is Ilya Samsonov the No. 1?
When it comes to the goalies, I am sure Peter Laviolette is going to play it close to the vest and say that both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek will be given equal opportunity to earn their playing time. Heck, Laviolette may even talk about Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale. But we know Samsonov and Vanecek will be the top two goalies. What we don't know is who will start on opening night?
Both Samsonov and Vanecek are entering contract years. Samsonov was given a prove-it deal for one year, $2 million. Vanecek's cap hit, meanwhile is only $716,667. He was the more consistent netminder last season, but Samsonov showed in the playoffs that his ceiling remains higher. Now it's time to show that night in, night out. If Samsonov cannot build off of his postseason performance and at least hold onto the starting job coming out of camp, it does not bode well for his consistency going forward into another season.
How does Evgeny Kuznetsov look?
Rumors about the team seeking to trade Evgeny Kuznetsov were rampant in the offseason, but he remains with the Caps for another year. Whether that was because the team still has faith in him or because he proved too hard to move is a question for another day. What matters is that he remains in Washington and the Caps need him to perform better than he has the past few seasons. That starts with training camp.
But how will Kuznetsov look as camp begins? He knows the rumors are out there, he was asked about them at the end of last season. Will he be able to ignore the noise and elevate his game to a level the Caps need him to play at in order to be successful?
Kuznetsov remains a top-six center and he needs to produce like one. While I think people should stop waiting for the 2018 Kuznetsov to come back, he absolutely needs to be at least a 70-point player for this team. It will be interesting to see what he looks like and what his motivation level will be in camp.
Will any prospects compete for a roster spot?
The pipeline is pretty bare for Washington after years of competing for a Cup, but will there be any players who surprise us during camp and force their way into consideration for a roster spot?
Here are a few names to keep in mind besides Fehervary and Alexeyev who I already mentioned.
Beck Malenstyn looked poised to take a spot in 2021 before an injury forced him out for the entire season. How will he look in his return?
Connor McMichael is the team's top prospect but is expected to spend another year in Hershey. Garrett Pilon, meanwhile, is a player general manager Brian MacLellan named specifically in the summer as someone who could see playing time this year.
And then there is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, a player with NHL speed, but who plays a very inconsistent game. His speed will absolutely stand out in camp, but will his skill?
With an incredibly tight salary cap situation, there's little room for any of these prospects to add themselves to the mix. But, if there are injuries, these players could establish who gets the next call-up. Plus, if someone looks ready to play at the NHL level, perhaps it makes an older, more expensive NHL veteran expendable in order to provide the team with some cap relief. That possibility makes these prospects players we will have to keep an eye on.