The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.
For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.
It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.
Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.
The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.
Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.
When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.
As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.
To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.
The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.
As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.
While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?
Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.
And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.
There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.
Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.
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Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle.
Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1.
This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.
Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.
Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.
There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.
That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.
It also didn’t work.
So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.
MORE NATIONALS NEWS:
- Doolittle: "It was kind of of a helpless feeling"
- Explosive Offense: Nats on pace to pass Expos for highest-scoring season
- New Week: No changes in NL wild card