For the fifth straight season, the Washington Capitals finished the regular season as Metropolitan Division champs, this time by virtue of their division-leading .652 winning percentage.
For the second straight season, however, the Washington Capitals were disposed of the in the first round of the playoffs, this time in rather listless fashion at the hands of the New York Islanders who took out their division rival in five games.
Since winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history in the spring of 2018, the Capitals have failed to win a postseason series in back-to-back years, falling to another division rival in the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games two years ago.
Look, we’ve come pretty darn close to writing off these Capitals before. After failing to get past the second round in the Alex Ovechkin area, many had grown tired of the Capitals’ postseason woes and fell off the radar of many in that Cup-winning 2017-18 season. After two subsequent first-round exits, do we dare write them off again?
Keep in mind the core remains in place, at least amongst the forward group and the blueline. While we have an interesting situation developing in the Washington goal crease, this is largely the same club that won a difficult Metro a season ago despite falling well short of expectations upon the league’s return-to-play postseason.
All that said, let’s dive into the 2020-21 Washington Capitals and their season preview and odds before rolling out some predictions on how this season should work out in D.C.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
2020-21 Washington Capitals Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 41-20-8 (1st in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: G Henrik Lundqvist, D Justin Schultz, D Trevor van Riemsdyk, RW Daniel Sprong
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $0 (Currently $1,024,877 over the cap)
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +1800
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds: +800
One area the Capitals haven’t needed to worry themselves about since they drafted Ovechkin with the first overall pick of the 2004 draft is the offense. That’s what you get when arguably the best goal-scorer in league history resides on your top line, and overwhelmingly healthy for the duration of his career.
Only the Tampa Bay Lightning scored at a higher per-game clip than the Capitals did a season ago as Washington ranked second with 3.42 goals per game last season, narrowly falling short of the Bolts who averaged a league-high 3.47 tallies per contest.
I’m not so sure we should expect a ton of regression. Of course, remaining a top-two offense is not an easy task, but the forward group is pretty much identical this season than it was last. In fact, nearly the entire team is. The top 14 points-getters from last season’s Capitals are with the team again this time around.
Defenseman John Carlson actually paced the Caps with 75 points last season, but it was all top-six forwards from there on out with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Jakub Vrana, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson coming in behind, in that order.
Now, the Capitals did benefit from the league’s third-best shooting rate at 5v5 play with their 9.36% mark. That said, the Lightning also led the league in 5v5 shooting percentage at 9.71%. When you have the offensive weapons that the Caps and Lightning boast, high shooting rates are expected.
What’s interesting is that the Caps actually slipped all the way to 17th with a 19.4% clip on the power play last season, meaning they were one of the league’s best offenses at 5v5.
At 5v5, their goals for per 60 minutes ranked third and their expected goals for/60, scoring chances for/60 and high-danger chances for/60 all ranked sixth. They capitalized on those high-danger chances as well, ranking third with a 20.36% shooting rate at 5v5 action in that department.
The emergence of Vrana on a line alongside veterans Backstrom and Oshie has certainly helped keep that line as production any second-line unit in the NHL while the evolvement of Wilson’s offensive game has afforded him the opportunity to remain on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, although the latter and Backstrom tend to interchange at times.
ALEX OVECHKIN WITH THE NATURAL HAT TRICK IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES OF THE GAME! GOALS 696, 697, AND 698!
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) February 5, 2020
The line change is way down at the bottom line right wing spot. Someone such as Daniel Sprong could fill that void – and that will likely be a training-camp battle, as the team’s most notable free-agent departure was right winger Ilya Kovalchuk. Fourth-liner Travis Boyd also departed for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the open market.
That said, this team is all about the top six while a third line anchored by veteran pivot Lars Eller should provide a quality amount of secondary scoring after Eller notched 16 goals and 39 points in 69 games a season ago.
There is a little bit of turnover on the Capitals’ back end, but it’s not due to trade or free agency, but rather injury.
Michal Kempny, a valued member of the team’s blueline since they acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks prior to the 2018 trade deadline, tore his Achilles tendon while training in his native Czech Republic after the Caps’ first-round exit. An ensuing six-to-eight month recovery timeline puts him in line for a mid-April return, at best, so his status for next season is very much up in the air.
As a result, the Capitals went out and added some help on the right side of their blueline in the form of former Pittsburgh Penguin Justin Schultz and former Hurricane Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Schultz will certainly get the first crack at earning a top-six spot after he notched three goals and 12 points in 46 games a season ago. Certainly, that production is well below par for the 30-year-old as he also posted a career-best 51 points in 78 games with the Penguins in the 2017-18 season.
For van Riemsdyk’s part, he was largely a regular on the Hurricanes’ blueline over the last three seasons, but tallied just eight points in 49 games last season, but played in all but seven Hurricanes games over the previous two seasons. Barring injury or trade, he’ll likely begin the season as the club’s seventh defenseman.
After they acquired him prior to the 2020 trade deadline, the Capitals re-signed defenseman Brendan Dillon to a four-year deal in early October, keeping him off the free-agent market in the process. He’ll likely form the top pair with Carlson while longtime top-four blueliner Dmitry Orlov likely lines up beside Schultz.
John Carlson (@JohnCarlson74), batter of pucks, scorer of goals.
— NHL (@NHL) December 21, 2019
Twenty-three-year-old Jonas Siegenthaler and Nick Jensen should form the bottom pair, although van Riemsdyk should certainly nip at Jensen’s heels after Jensen failed to score a goal and tallied just eight helpers in 68 regular-season games last season. In fact, aside from a two-goal game with the 2018-19 Red Wings, Jensen has gone goalless over his last three seasons, spanning 228 games.
All told, the Capitals ranked 18th with 3.07 goals against per game last season despite ranking sixth with an 82.6% mark on the penalty kill.
At 5v5, they ranked 23rd in terms of goals against/60, 19th in expected goals against/60, 15th in scoring chances against/60 and 26th when it came to high-danger chanced against/60.
Certainly, their defense at 5v5 certainly had its holes, and losing what had been a wildly reliable, top-four presence in Kempny does not help the cause. Certainly, Schultz’s defensive game has come into question on more than one occasion, something that could lead to worsened results this time around.
It’s not the worst group of defenders in the league, but this Capitals blueline doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence with Kempny’s injury quietly looming large at the moment.
The most intriguing aspect of the Capitals’ 2020-21 season could very well be between the pipes where a changing of the guard is at hand.
Gone is long-time No.1 netminder Braden Holtby who signed with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent after three consecutive disappointing regular seasons in the nation’s capital. He course, he recovered quite well in the postseason, but Holtby posted a 2.99 GAA and .907 Sv% in the team’s Stanley Cup-winning season and fell as low as a 3.11 GAA and .897 Sv% last season.
While he’s still only 31 years old, the regression made the decision to roll with youngster Ilya Samsonov all the easier for the team’s brass.
Samsonov enjoyed an excellent rookie season with the Capitals, working to a 2.55 GAA and .913 Sv% across 22 starts and 26 appearances. He struggled in five February appearances and allowed six goals in his lone March start, but Samsonov certainly lived up to his first-round billing (2015) in year one.
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) January 17, 2020
Of course, while the 23-year-old looked up to the part of the team’s goaltender of the future, he’s likely to split time with a future Hall of Famer in longtime New York Ranger Henrik Lundqvist.
After 15 years on Broadway, the Rangers’ crowded goal crease resulted in Lundqvist being bought out and becoming a free agent, signing with the Capitals shortly thereafter.
While Lundqvist has seen his game decline in recent years, I would expect him to be a 1B option for this Rangers team rather than a strict backup. The late start to the season is going to results in a crowded schedule regardless of the number of games, and we’ll see more goaltending timeshares across the league than we’ve ever seen before.
His 3.16 GAA and .905 Sv% from last season were the worst numbers of his career, but that Rangers team also sported some of the worst defensive metrics in the league, ranking 28th in scoring chances against/60 and 29th in high-danger chances against/60 while ranking 30th in shots against per game (34).
It should be a more favorable situation in this Capitals crease despite some iffy metrics from last season and an uninspiring group of defenders in front of him.
I mean, it can’t get much worse. Despite Samsonov’s fine work from a season ago, the duo combined for just a .903 Sv% last season.
While the mentorship of Lundqvist will certainly be a help to Samsonov, there is no longer any form of goaltender controversy in Washington while Samsonov certainly look the part of one of the better young netminders in the NHL.
2020-21 Washington Capitals Predictions
The core of this team has kept the Capitals competitive for a long, long time. The last time the Caps missed the playoffs was the 2013-14 campaign. In total, they have made the playoffs 12 times in the last 13 seasons.
Should we expect that to change any time soon? I’m not so sure. The top-six forward group remains a top-tier group league wide, and while maintaining the second-best offense in the league is going to be a tall order, there’s little doubt this is a top-10 offense in this league and with some more help from their power play there are as good a shot as finishing as a top-five offense as just about any other group in the league.
I would expect the goaltending to be fine, but it’s far from a sure thing. Samsonov had an excellent first few months to the 2019-20 season, but faded badly down the stretch and has zero NHL postseason experience. Lundqvist’s leadership is invaluable to the young Russian, but his own game has slipped severely in recent years. If Samsonov falters, there’s no guarantee Lundqvist can stop the bleeding.
It’s going to be an even more difficult scenario if the Caps’ blueline can’t prevent chances at a better clip than they did last season. They were certainly a bottom-half defensive club at 5v5 action last season, and their top two right-handed defensemen in Carlson and Schultz are known more for their offensive games than their defensive play.
Truth be told, I don’t think this is a great back end. Dillon and Orlov are fine defenders on the left side, but the right side concerns me, and generally speaking, this defense is going to need to be better in preventing chances if their situation between the pipes is to show any sort of significant improvement.
The forward group will carry this team. These Washington Capitals are a playoff team to be sure. That said, I think their five-year run atop the Metropolitan ends as I have the Penguins ahead of them, but not many else.
I’ll put the Capitals in a top-three spot in the Metro, but it won’t be easy. I think they can get into the dance to be sure, but I’m not sure much playoff success awaits given the monster that is this Eastern Conference. I don’t like this back end and goaltending situation heading into the postseason – compared to some other teams – and while that’s a dynamite offense, winning one playoff round is about as far as I see the 2020-21 Washington Capitals going next season.
READ: 2020-21 Pittsburgh Penguins Season Preview, Odds & Predictions