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: Will the Capitals make the playoffs?
Andrew: I think the Capitals are going to make the playoffs, but I’m not sure how easy it’ll be. I don’t think they’ll win the division, but I think they’ll make the playoffs in a still tough Metropolitan division. The Capitals didn’t lose a ton off the roster from last year and I think they’re still not at the age cliff that’s a looming oncoming train for this team. Alex Ovechkin missed time last year and still scored 24 goals in 45 games in a COVID-impacted season. Evgeny Kuznetsov was much maligned, but still, put up 29 points in 41 games. Those players don’t grow on trees. In net, goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek posted .902 and .908 save percentages, respectively, last season and now have another year of experience under their belts. The Capitals are still as talented as any team in the division and I think the three Atlantic Division playoff teams are set to be the Bruins, Lightning and Maple Leafs. That means that the Capitals, should they not finish in the top three of the Metro, would have to beat out teams like the Panthers and Canadiens to make the playoffs. Washington might not be the most talented team in the division any longer, but I think it’s a certainty the Capitals will finish (health assuming) somewhere in the mix of the Metro with the Penguins, Islanders, Rangers, Hurricanes and Flyers. After that, it remains to be seen, but I can’t imagine the Capitals missing the playoffs in 2021-22. If they do, there needs to be some recalibration of priorities and expectations in D.C.
JJ: This is not a slam-dunk by any means.
The playoff format returns to the previous divisional format with the Metropolitan Division returning. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs plus two wild cards in each conference. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the last time we had a "normal" postseason. In 2019 and 2018, both wild cards went to the Metropolitan Division. Looking at the 2020 playoffs, based on points percentage the Metropolitan Division again would have gotten both wild card spots. I don't think that is a guarantee by any stretch in 2022.
The Atlantic Division boasts the two-time defending champs Tampa Bay, Boston, Florida, Toronto and Montreal, all of whom look like real playoff contenders. I'm not saying that only three teams from the Metropolitan Division will make the playoffs, but there is going to be serious competition from the Atlantic for those wild card spots.
In the Metro, the Caps have to deal with Carolina, Columbus, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers. The only team out of the eight that I do not see being a contender for the postseason is Columbus. You could make a case for each of the other seven teams.
Carolina has looked like one of the better teams in the league the past few years, Philadelphia made a number of changes and Carter Hart is due for a rebound, Pittsburgh is always a tough out, New Jersey is the most improved team in the NHL, the Islanders went seven games with Tampa in the conference final and lost by one goal and while the Rangers focused their offseason too much on Tom Wilson, they are a young team with a boat-load of talent.
Washington, meanwhile, returns the same offense, the same goaltending duo and on defense will replace Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara with Martin Fehervary and Michal Kempny. Basically, a Caps team that lost in the first round of the playoffs probably got (slightly) worse in the offseason and now will be competing in arguably the best division in hockey. Age is always a looming issue for this team and most of their top and older players will probably play a two-week Olympic tournament on the other side of the globe in the middle of the regular season.
Ultimately, however, I do think the Caps find a way to reach the playoffs. As old as they are, they are still an extremely talented team. Sure, they lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and are one of the oldest teams in the league, but the regular season has not been a problem. They won their division in 2019 and 2020 and finished in a tie for first in 2021. I find it more likely they are a wild card team than a division champ and I have major questions about the team's longevity once it reaches the postseason, but I remain very confident in their ability to get there.