The Washington Capitals don’t appear to have a Stanley Cup hangover, as they rolled over the Boston Bruins in a 7-0 win on opening night. But not every game will be that easy, so we have some burning questions for our panel of puckheads:
Will the Capitals repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Until last season, the Capitals were unable to get past the second round of the playoffs for the entirety of Alex Ovechkin‘s career for two reasons: the Pittsburgh Penguins, their tormentors in three postseasons; and the fact that Washington’s key players could never get going at the same time. They hoisted the Stanley Cup because Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and especially Braden Holtby were at the height of their powers for two months. Could that happen again for four rounds? Sure. Will it? I’m skeptical, so that’s a “no” from me, dawg.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: I just don’t see it. What the Penguins achieved in winning back-to-back Cups is so difficult in today’s NHL, which has insane parity and a salary cap. While the Capitals spent the spring and summer trudging through 24 playoff games and celebrating aptly, the rest of the NHL was resting and retooling. Now comes the hard part for GM Brian MacLellan: making unemotional decisions about the beloved team that finally won it all. “Because our group really enjoyed playing with each other and for each other, my goal this year was bringing everyone back, as many as I could,” MacLellan told me in September. “Coming into this year, hopefully I have the discipline — if it’s not going the right way, or certain players aren’t going well, we can make decisions based off that, not last year.”
Chris Peters, hockey prospects analyst: They will if they play like they did in the opener. Mercy, was that ever a thrashing. That would be asking a lot, though. My skepticism with the Capitals as a contender to repeat has a lot more to do with the growing depth across the Eastern Conference. It’s not that their road to the Cup last year was easy by any means, but the gantlet they’d have to go through throughout the regular season and playoffs looks even more difficult this season. The bolstered hopes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, another strong roster for the highly motivated Tampa Bay Lightning, the always-lurking Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and maybe throw in a few others with legit playoff hopes … it just looks like a tall order to me.
Ben Arledge, associate editor: No. I think the Caps cruise to the Metropolitan Division title, but don’t expect this to turn into a Penguin-style dynasty run. There are just too many good teams. The Caps return essentially the same roster, which isn’t a bad thing, but teams around them improved in big ways. Inside the Metro, the Flyers added James van Riemsdyk. The Hurricanes made a handful of moves. The Penguins should have a better Matt Murray this season. And outside the division, the Atlantic is stacked and the West is loaded. I don’t see the likes of Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston allowing Washington to run through the East — and in the off chance it does once again, the West will be waiting with a powerhouse on deck. I don’t love the chances of everything going right for Washington two seasons in a row.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN The Magazine researcher: The pathway is there. Thanks to the playoff structure, they will avoid at least two of the Atlantic trio of Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay. With six of the seven bottom teams in our preseason Power Rankings coming from the East, the Capitals should easily rack up the points, though they may once again have to face Pittsburgh in the second round. The Capitals return 93 percent of all player minutes, one of the highest continuity rates in the league, and they may get better. The Capitals won the Cup despite being below average in Corsi for percentage, at 47.3 percent, after being above 50 percent the three prior seasons and with Holtby having the worst regular season of his career. Should they bounce back, Ovi and crew will be playing into June again.
What’s your bold Capitals prediction for one year from now?
Wyshynski: That we’re either fascinated by Braden Holtby’s new contract or wondering why he doesn’t have one yet. Holtby has two years left at a $6.1 million cap hit, the seventh highest for a goalie this season. He turns 30 next September. Meanwhile, the Capitals’ presumed goalie of the future, 21-year-old Ilya Samsonov, finally made the leap from the KHL and is playing for the AHL Hershey Bears. One assumes Holtby gets an extension. But will it be a short-term one rather than the “franchise” contracts handed out to players like Carey Price and Pekka Rinne? Or will the Capitals let Holtby enter 2019-20 without an extension?
Kaplan: Tom Wilson will not be suspended again. I’m not trying to be cheeky, I actually believe it. What many fans outside of Washington don’t understand is how important Wilson is to this team. He knows that, and the hefty six-year, $31 million contract extension he signed this summer reflects that. I’ve heard multiple people say that if it weren’t for the presence of Alex Ovechkin, Wilson might be the captain of this team. Wilson’s physical game and straddling the line of what’s legal is part of his identity and why he pairs well with Ovechkin on the top line. But getting suspended repeatedly is not a sustainable way to make a living in this league. I believe this 20-game suspension will be a wake-up call and he will play a more responsible brand of hockey.
Peters: We start having more honest discussions about how long the Capitals’ core has left before Brian MacLellan has to make some difficult decisions. I’m glad they don’t have to have those conversations in the afterglow of the Stanley Cup, but that is coming. In addition to Holtby being eligible for renewal next summer, Nicklas Backstrom is too. Meanwhile Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen have expiring deals in 2021. Some of the work to prepare for that has to be done this summer, with 12 players on the roster playing on contracts that expire at the end of the season. Seven of those players are restricted free agents, but six of those RFAs are eligible for arbitration. What the salary-cap situation looks like coming out of the forthcoming salary gymnastics of next offseason should tell a lot about where this team is heading and who is going to be coming with them.
Arledge: Alex Ovechkin will no longer be the team’s most important offensive piece. Kuznetsov has been lingering just below superstar status for a couple of seasons now, and I think he really makes the jump this time around. Ovi might still be the leading goal scorer — probably not by too much — but Kuznetsov might be looking at a near-100-point campaign. He rattled off 83 points last season, so 95 isn’t out of the question this season. He’s extremely talented, and I think you will start to see a transfer of power from Ovechkin to Kuznetsov on this team. Oh, and Kuznetsov scored two goals in the Wednesday night opener against Boston just to let you know he’s out there.
What one player is most critical to the Capitals’ success this season?
Wyshynski: Evgeny Kuznetsov. He’s an offensive dynamo who could lead the team in points during the regular season. His chemistry with Ovechkin allows Backstrom to anchor their second line with T.J. Oshie, and that’s palpable depth in the top six. But most importantly, if Kuznetsov is dominant in the playoffs, so are the Capitals. His 32 points in 24 games last postseason was the stuff that earns a player a Conn Smythe Trophy, except in cases when his linemate is just a little more deserving (and, let’s face it, Ovi had the more compelling narrative for the media voting on the award).
Kaplan: Braden Holtby. The Capitals don’t have a proven backup anymore, after maximizing Philipp Grubauer‘s value and trading him to the Colorado Avalanche. That leaves 26-year-old Pheonix Copley — two career NHL appearances, one NHL start, zero NHL action last season — as Holtby’s backup. Copley’s inexperience should mean an increased workload for Holtby, something he prefers. (In the season in which Holtby won the Vezina Trophy, as well as the two seasons he finished top four in voting, the goaltender played at least 63 games.) If Holtby regains that form, and I believe he will, he can anchor this team through the playoffs. If he’s shaky, Washington is in trouble.
Peters: It’s Alex Ovechkin for me. There’s little doubt that Kuznetsov is taking the offensive torch for this team, but I’ll stick with old reliable here. I think we’ve seen Ovechkin’s game fluctuate just a bit a little more recently. He had that down goal-scoring season in 2016-17 but rebounded right back last season. Any notion that his scoring is slowing down was wiped away. But now that he and the Caps have their long-awaited title, I don’t think the captain is content to settle for just that. He played inspired hockey during the playoffs and was as much an emotional leader as he was an offensive leader. It’s still all about Ovi in D.C.
Arledge: Holtby. This team hinges on how well he plays. And with Grubauer gone, it’s all Holtby this season. He really struggled down the stretch last season before catching fire in the playoffs. Show me the goalie who went three straight seasons with at least a .922 save percentage, not the one who sputtered to a .907 in 2017-18. If the Capitals want to be a real contender and look to defend their Cup, Holtby won’t just need to be good … he’ll need to be playing at an All-Star, Vezina candidate level.
Chandan: I’m going with the $64 million defenseman, John Carlson. Carlson’s career-best 68 points were a huge part of the Capitals’ scoring prowess, and his strong run continued in the playoffs, when he added 20 more. Additionally, Carlson was the only defenseman in the NHL to play 200 penalty-kill minutes and 300 power-play minutes, and he will be expected to carry the same load this season. If anything were to go wrong, the Capitals would be counting on either Christian Djoos or Brooks Orpik to cover those top-pair minutes next to Michal Kempny.