The quest for the Stanley Cup begins anew for Washington on Thursday as the Caps open their season on the road against the Ottawa Senators. There are 82 games ahead for Washington that will determine the fate of their season. After a tumultuous summer, just what will the new season hold? We have a few thoughts on that.
Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan will cover the Capitals through the course of the season for NBC Sports Washington. Here’s a few predictions for what they think may happen.
Alex Ovechkin tops the 33 goals he scored last season: As I’ve said many times, I suspect No. 8’s 50 goal campaigns are behind him. But at 32 he’s still one of the game’s most dangerous players, particularly on the power play. He introduced more speed and endurance training to his offseason routine this summer. He’s going to open the season on a line with a couple of young, speedy players in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. If Ovi can increase his goal production at even strength, I could see the Caps’ captain hit the 40-goal plateau that the team so desperately needs him to reach.
Washington’s power play will top last year’s 23.1-percent: Last season, the power play was the third most effective unit in the NHL at 23.1-percent. It’s going to be a bit better than that this year with the addition of Evgeny Kuznetsov to the top group, which figures to see the lion's share of the two minutes. Just look at that collection of talent…Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, who is in a contract year. Just be glad you’re not a penalty killer on one of the other 30 teams.
Nathan Walker will have a breakout season and earn a full-time role: Due to an influx of young players—and players looking to capitalize on a second chance—there are more than a few candidates for Breakout Player of the Year. Tyler Graovav, Devante Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson all come to mind. But I think it’s going to be feisty rookie from Australia—Nathan Walker—who’s going to carve out a niche for himself in DC. I don’t know how much he’s going to play early on. But I’m willing to bet he’s a full-timer (and a fan favorite) by the end of the year.
Philipp Grubauer will not finish the season as a Cap: With a .926 save percentage and 2.04 goals against average in 24 appearances last season, Grubauer looks ready to take on a leading role. Having a backup as dependable as Grubauer is a luxury that Washington would love to hold on to, but with Pheonix Copley’s strong play in the preseason and a roster not nearly as deep as in years past especially on the blue line, someone is going to make the Caps an offer they cannot refuse. All it takes is one injury to a starting goalie or one goalie not performing at the level the team expected and then Brian MacLellan’s phone will start to ring.
Jakub Vrana will score 20 goals: After a disappointing end to the 2016-17 season, this was a big camp for Vrana and he delivered. He looked just as skilled and as fast as advertised and looked every bit the NHL player. Any questions about whether he is ready to be a full-time NHLer are gone. He is going to start the season playing on a line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Playing alongside a skilled setup man like Kuznetsov will definitely boost Vrana’s production as will the usage. I am going to go out on a limb and say that an Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line is not going to get too many defensive zone starts. A heavy dose of offensive playing time will get Vrana to the 20-goal mark for the season.
Braden Holtby will not be a Vezina Finalist this season: Don’t get me wrong, Braden Holtby is one of the top goalies in the NHL and should be referred to with the same reverence people have for Montreal’s Carey Price. These two are the best goalies in the world, period. Having said that, Holtby has also benefited from a strong defense in recent years. He does not have that anymore as Washington’s biggest question mark this season is on the blue line. Last year, Brooks Orpik was on the third pair and Taylor Chorney was the team’s No. 7. This year, at least to start the season, the 37-year-old Orpik is in the top-four playing alongside John Carlson and Chorney is on the third pair. Those promotions came out of necessity, not because they had a dazzling camp. The Caps will lean more on Holtby to bail them out when the defense breaks down and he will be up to the task, but his numbers will take a dip because of it and he will not be among the NHL’s finalists for the Vezina for the first time in three years.