NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Washington Capitals:
1. Does their core have enough left for another Stanley Cup run?
The Capitals were 36-15-5 and finished second in the MassMutual East Division last season before injuries caught up to them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they were eliminated in five games by the Boston Bruins in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round. It was the third straight season the Capitals lost in the first round of the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2018.
Led by forwards Alex Ovechkin, who turns 36 on Friday; Nicklas Backstrom, 33; and T.J. Oshie, 34; and defensemen John Carlson, 31; and Dmitry Orlov, 30, Washington’s aging core needs to stay healthy to have another chance at winning the Cup.
“This is our goal and we’re going to try to do it next year,” Ovechkin said after signing a five-year contract with Washington on July 27. “When you win this once, you just want to repeat and repeat.”
2. How many goals can Ovechkin score?
Ovechkin missed an NHL career-high 11 games last season because of COVID-19 protocol (four) and a groin injury (seven) but led the Capitals with 24 goals in 45 regular-season games. Prior to last season, Ovechkin hadn’t missed more than four games in a season since 2009-10.
It remains to be seen whether Ovechkin can return to his form from 2019-20, when he tied David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins for the NHL lead with 48 goals in 68 games, but he’s always been productive when healthy. With 730 goals, Ovechkin ranks sixth in NHL history, one behind Marcel Dionne for fifth (731), 11 behind Brett Hull for fourth (741), 36 behind Jaromir Jagr for third (766), 71 behind Gordie Howe for second (801) and 164 behind Wayne Gretzky for first (894).
3. Do they need to add another defenseman?
By trading Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets on July 26 to clear NHL salary cap space and not re-signing unrestricted free agent Zdeno Chara, Washington created two openings on the left side at defenseman. The plan appears to be to fill those spots with Michal Kempny, who missed last season following surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, and rookie Martin Fehervary.
But losing Dillon (6-foot-4, 220 pounds, 143 hits last season) and Chara (6-9, 250, 88 hits) also leaves Washington looking to replace its two most physical defensemen from last season, and neither Kempny (6-1, 195, 42 hits in 2019-20) nor Fehervary (6-2, 202) play that kind of game.
Although general manager Brian MacLellan didn’t rule out the possibility of Chara returning before the 44-year-old became a free agent July 28, he remains unsigned, and it’s unclear if he’ll play a 24th NHL season.
4. Can Ilya Samsonov take the next step?
The Capitals hoped Samsonov would emerge as their No. 1 goalie last season, but the 24-year-old struggled with inconsistency, going 13-4-1 with a 2.69 goals-against average, a .902 save percentage and two shutouts in 19 games (18 starts), and also missed time during two stints in COVID-19 protocol. That opened the door for Vitek Vanecek, who was 21-10-4 with a 2.69 GAA, a .908 save percentage and two shutouts in 37 games (36 starts) as a rookie.
Samsonov and Vanecek, who was reacquired in a trade July 28 after being selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft on July 21, will share the net again this season, but the Capitals are looking for more from Samsonov, who signed a one-year contract Aug. 9.
5. What is Anthony Mantha‘s ceiling?
Mantha appeared to be on his way to becoming a 30-goal scorer in the NHL after he scored a career-high 25 in 67 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 2018-19. However, the forward has battled injuries and inconsistency the past two seasons, scoring 16 goals in 43 games in 2019-20 and 15 goals in 56 games last season.
Acquired in a trade with the Red Wings on April 12, Mantha scored a goal in each of his first four games with the Capitals, but he failed to score in his final 10 regular-season games and in five playoff games. Beginning the season with Washington might help Mantha feel more comfortable and reach his full potential.