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WHN Mailbag: Capitals Roster Hopefuls, Hot Seat Candidates, Blockbusters

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Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov

Washington Capitals training camp is now weeks away, and there’s a lot on the line heading into 2022-23 as the new-look roster looks to make its mark in the District.

With Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and (likely) Carl Hagelin out to start the campaign, Washington will turn to its latest additions, including Dylan Strome and Darcy Kuemper, as well as familiar faces like Evgeny Kuznetsov, to step in and help the Capitals remain a top contender.

But how will the new faces fare? What can the team expect heading into 2022-23? And what exactly is at stake in the new season?

Here are some answers to your burning questions in our latest WHN Mailbag.

*Editor’s Note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and space.

@Ivancapsrock5 – How will Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dylan Strome fare? Are Peter Laviolette and Brian MacLellan on the hot seat?

I expect another strong season from Evgeny Kuznetsov, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he surpasses last year’s totals. The Russian appeared to find a renewed love for the game in 2021-22 and went on the ultimate revenge tour after a lackluster 2020-21 led to several critics and trade speculation. He had 78 points in 79 games this season and was showcasing his creativity while also taking on bigger roles as a full-time No. 1 center, power-play catalyst and penalty killer.

With Nicklas Backstrom out for what’s starting to look like the entire season, Kuznetsov will have to step up. And, as he continues to grow and evolve under head coach Peter Laviolette, expect him to continue putting up higher totals, especially while working with a rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin and also getting to join forces with Connor Brown and other names while waiting for Tom Wilson to recover.

As for Strome, it’ll be interesting to see where he fits in. The 25-year-old is coming off a strong year that saw him dish a career-high 22 goals and 26 assists for 48 points in 69 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. However, he has seen his share of inconsistency. Ultimately, though, being with a playoff team and getting a change of scenery may be exactly what No. 17 needs to thrive.

RELATED: What Can The Washington Capitals Expect From Connor Brown In 2022-23?

On the topic of Laviolette, I don’t think it’s a hot-seat situation unless the team is in really bad shape in the first quarter of the season. Laviolette is entering the final year of his contract, so if the team is in playoff position and faring well with their new additions, then he will stick around, and I expect he will remain at the top of his game as he seeks an extension in D.C. However, I don’t see the team relieving him of his duties unless things go drastically wrong despite the team’s added depth this summer.

And, going off that, general manager Brian MacLellan did everything he could to improve Washington this season. He revamped the goaltending, brought in more blueline depth and also worked to fill Backstrom’s void as best as he could while getting some promising names to join the ranks and staying cap-conscious. If he’d stood pat, maybe the answer would be different.

@douglas_forsyth – What do you think the ETA is for Alex Alexeyev and Aliaksei Protas?

Good question for two very different players who are both in the throes of tough competition. Both are close to being full-time NHLers in my opinion, with Aliaksei Protas arguably closer. Protas hit the NHL rookie plateau this past season while Alex Alexeyev has just one NHL game under his belt and is coming off shoulder surgery that will have him sidelined until at least October.

Looking at Protas, he’s close, but he faces a lot of competition and isn’t as high on the depth chart as others. He is up against the likes of prospects Hendrix Lapierre and more, and also has to deal with the plethora of new additions that leave little to no vacancies available on the Capitals opening night roster.

Still, the 6-6 forward has shown that he can play at the NHL level and had nine points with Washington last season while also posting 24 points in 42 games down with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

Protas brings size and skill and has improved when it comes to his skating and offensive awareness. He can make plays on the fly, get to those dangerous areas and doesn’t shy away from engaging in puck battles. As he continues to build on his ability and focus on his positioning and all-around play, Protas will be ready for a full-time gig at the top level soon.

READ MORE ON WHN: Alex Ovechkin Leaving Russia, Will Join Washington Capitals In Coming Days

Alexeyev also has NHL potential, though he’s in an odd spot right now. The Russian is currently skating, but he cannot engage in contact drills as he recovers. Taking that into account, he likely won’t make the team right out of the gate in 2022-23 since his injury could bar him from taking part in high-intensity drills or preseason games. And, with the blue line stacked this season, he isn’t guaranteed a spot.

Still, the 6-4, 210-pound blueliner has shown tremendous growth in his game and brings a lot to the table. Alexeyev is coming off a decent year in Hershey that saw him dish 19 points in 68 games with the Bears. He can play a shutdown game in his own end, does well with positioning and battles hard for the puck. He still has work to do in the puck-moving department, though.

Looking at these two, given the lack of space on the roster going into 2022-23, I’d say that 2023-24 would be their time to rise up and shine, especially with the Capitals having several players entering a contract year.

@samboberquist – Which offseason additions are you most excited to see this season?

The new goalies for sure. I think that was the biggest issue for the Capitals over the last couple of seasons, as Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek couldn’t maintain consistency or take the reins to steal the starting job. And with a brand new duo led by Stanley Cup champion Kuemper and up-and-comer Charlie Lindgren, Washington should thrive from stability and consistency.

That, in turn, is what can lead to a successful playoff run and get you past the first round. While Kuemper is the surefire starter, it will also be interesting to see how Lindgren does as he transitions to a full-time NHL gig. So I’d say those two are the players I’m most excited to see in action for D.C. And then, of course, Strome. There’s a reason he went third overall in 2015, and a change of scenery could be just what he needs to succeed as a proven top-6 center.

@Ivancapsrock5 – Where will the Washington Capitals finish at the end of the season? Could they for a big-name defenseman at the deadline in order to gear up for a playoff run?

It’s no secret that the Metropolitan Division has gotten significantly stronger over the offseason, with Johnny Gaudreau joining the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Detroit Red Wings snagging a couple of strong names and more teams bolstering their rosters. Still, there’s one must remember: the Capitals still have a strong group, even with Backstrom and Wilson on LTIR to start the season and Carl Hagelin’s return questionable. Ovechkin is showing that he can still put up 50-goal seasons, Kuznetsov is back at full strength, there’s enough forward and defensive depth and the team has effective goaltending.

READ MORE ON WHN: Inside Darcy Kuemper’s New Washington Capitals Mask

Taking all that into account, I’m going to predict a second-place finish in the division for Washington.

As for going all-in for a big name: I don’t believe it’d be on defense. The team has plenty of depth on the blue line. Instead, if the Capitals do choose to go all-in and make some big moves, I believe it would be for more offense. Especially if Strome and Brown aren’t filling Backstrom’s void on the top 6. That’s when it’d be time for Washington to get star power at the forward position.

@capsfan2013- Thoughts on Monumental Sports & Entertainment buying NBC Sports Washington?

I think it’s an exciting move for Monumental Sports & Entertainment and will continue to bring high-quality Capitals coverage to the table.

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