Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.
Today's topic: Who will be the 2021-22 breakout/surprise player?
Andrew: I'm going to say Michal Kempny here. Is that particularly rational? Perhaps not, because his injury situation is still so unknown. But I think he's got the highest upside on the roster for this category.
There's no player in the top six, aside from perhaps Evgeny Kuznetsov, that can qualify as a breakout or a surprise in my opinion. Daniel Sprong has proven his talent and keeping that pace up during an 82-game season shouldn’t exactly qualify as a surprise — at least in my opinion.
Which is why I’m saying Kempny. I’m looking at his season like you would a solid futures bet in gambling. At some point, that value just becomes too much.
Kempny didn’t play last season due to a torn Achilles and wasn’t himself during the 2019-20 season due to a severe hamstring injury. That’s led him to be a forgotten man around Washington and someone I even think might not end the season with the team if he’s not himself. His $2.5 million cap hit could force the Capitals’ hands.
But he’s also the most experienced left-handed defender on the roster after Dmitry Orlov and should have a chance to play in the top-four right away, with either Justin Schultz or Nick Jensen. Not many players will be given that opportunity for ice time that he will. If he can prove he’s healthy, he’ll be given every chance to show he’s back to his former self.
JJ: I am going to go with Ilya Samsonov. The only real way to describe his time in the NHL to this point has been inconsistent. He looked ready to supplant Braden Holtby in 2019-20, did not even participate in the postseason because of an ATV injury he suffered during the season pause, came into 2021 as the presumed starter, missed a month due to COVID, was benched for a game for being late to a team function, was out again due to COVID protocols then returned to start the final three games of the playoffs.
What gives me confidence that he will bounce back is the fact that his biggest issues all seem to be off the ice. On the ice, his play has been good and he especially looked good in the playoffs when he returned as the starter.
Samsonov is now another year older and signed a one-year, $2 million "prove it" deal. Just in case that did not get the message across that it is time to perform, he also had to watch as other young Russian goalies such as Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin signed deals for more term and more money over the summer.
Watching him play, I really do not think ability is a question for Samsonov. He has elite athleticism and a high ceiling. It's just a question of finding consistency on the ice which he has not been able to do because he's been derailed by situations that happen off the ice. If he eliminates those issues -- and his current contract should certainly serve as a wake-up call -- then I think he will put to rest any doubt that he can be an NHL starter.
Unlike last year, by the 2022 trade deadline I don't think we will be talking about the Caps needing to somehow find and trade for a starting goalie. Samsonov will have laid claim to that position by that point.