Has the celebration ended? The Washington Capitals had a memorable off-season, partying with the Cup but now it’s back to business. The core is back to defend its title but can the Caps replicate their late season, stingy defensive ways?
The Washington Capitals put up some questionable regular season numbers considering they went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Caps changed their defensive zone coverage and tightened up in early March, posting much better results to finish the season and throughout the playoffs. However, the Capitals finished with the worst quality shot differential in the league and put a ton of pressure on their goaltending, which given the A they received in goals saved above average, performed a lot better than some people think.
What went right:
The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup Champions. After years of regular season success followed by playoff disappointments, Ovechkin and co. finally put it all together. They came back from a 0-2 deficit to beat Columbus in six games in round one and eliminated the Penguins, their playoff nemesis over the past few years, also in six games. They then came back from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Conference Finals by posting shutouts in games 6 and 7, before stopping Vegas’ Cinderella run to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Enjoy your championship Washington, you earned it.
What Went Wrong:
It feels a bit pointless to nitpick a Stanley Cup season, but let’s do it anyways. Braden Holtby was brilliant in the playoffs, but it’s easy to forget that Philipp Grubauer, not Holtby, was named the starter heading into the first round. Holtby actually posted the worst regular season numbers of his career with a .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA and zero shutouts. In fairness, the Capitals defense allowed a ton of quality chances against, not tightening up until the latter part of the regular season. Andre Burakovsky struggled to stay healthy, posting 25 points in 56 games. He was also limited to 13 of the team’s 24 playoff games.
Key Additions: Nic Dowd
Key Departures: Philipp Grubauer, Jay Beagle, Jakub Jerabek, Alex Chiasson
Other Key moves: Barry Trotz stepped down, hired Todd Reirden, Re-signed John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Madison Bowie, Travis Boyd, Michal Kempny, traded away then re-signed Brooks Orpik on a cheaper deal
The Grubauer trade was great for Washington. They got an asset for a player they couldn’t afford and saved money by getting rid of Orpik’s cap hit, only to re-sign him at a lower cost after Colorado bought out his contract. All these cap savings allowed them to retain star defenseman John Carlson, who led all defensemen in points last season as well as in the playoffs.
Washington couldn’t afford to retain bottom six center and longtime Capital Jay Beagle. His loss isn’t devastating the way losing Carlson could have been, but Beagle, even at 32-years old, filled an important defensive role in the bottom 6, leading the team in faceoff % and in short-handed ice-time among forwards. The Tom Wilson contract, at nearly $5.2M annually, seems excessive but there’s no denying the impact he had in the playoffs. He’s 24-years old, the Capitals bought some UFA years and he’s contributed nicely at even-strength. Wilson proved to be an effective piece of a Capitals top line that gave teams headaches all through the playoffs.
Next season preview
What could go right?
The Capitals will have nearly all the players from their championship team back when they start next season. They lost some depth, but a vast majority of their key contributors will be back, which rarely happens after a Stanley Cup win, just ask Chicago. The Capitals will be looking to build on their late-season defensive performance. Before the trade deadline, they allowed 11.6 slot shots and 6.2 inner slot shots per game at even strength, both league-worst numbers. After the deadline, they cut down those numbers to just 9.9 (6th) and 4.9 (5th), both major improvements. If they can repeat that late-season performance, the Caps will be tough to beat, with a solid defense backing up one of the best offenses in the league.
What could go wrong?
After they moved Grubauer to Colorado, Washington’s backup as of now is Pheonix Copley. A former undrafted free agent, Copley has two games of NHL experience and posted a .896 save percentage and a 2.91 GAA last season with the Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate. Those numbers don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Ilya Samsonov is one of the best goalie prospects in the NHL and could claim the role eventually, but he is likely to start the year in the AHL as he transitions from the KHL to North America. The Capitals will need Holtby to pick up where he left off in the playoffs.
Also, let’s hope Ovechkin isn’t too sluggish from his summer-long Stanley Cup celebratory bender. Although, I’m sure Caps fans will forgive him if he gets off to a slow start.