For the Washington Capitals, the to-do list heading into the offseason presented a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, though, the summer’s been relatively quiet — albeit a couple of moves here and there.
Washington faced a lack of cap space and had a couple pending free agents to take care of, mainly Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals also lost their 1B in Vitek Vanecek to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. To clear some salary, they dealt Brenden Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets for a couple of draft picks. Then, seven days later, they solved their goaltending issue, replacing Vanecek with himself and reacquiring him from Seattle, who signed Philipp Grubauer.
The team also re-signed Alex Ovechkin, inked some minor league players and is still taking care of RFA Ilya Samsonov. The Russian netminder didn’t file for arbitration, a good sign that the sides are closing in on a deal soon.
So, looking at the roster now, it looks like it’ll be almost the same group as last year — with a few exceptions.
Though some may be skeptical of this, especially after three straight first-round exits, it’s the right call.
First off, the 2020-21 campaign can’t truly speak to the current group’s performance and full potential. The year presented a shortened 56-game schedule, different divisions and of course, limited matchups. At the same time, first-year coach Peter Laviolette faced obstacles in regards to COVID-19, which limited interaction with players and time at the rink.
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He outlined how this created somewhat of a “barrier” due to a lack of in-person contact, which can complicate things as players try to adjust to new systems.
“I believe that this team can still win,” Laviolette said. “Those are just words, we’ll need action next year and we’ll need results to back it up… it was a challenging year. I think the interaction you’re talking about with the players, it was not the same by any stretch that it has been in years past. Meetings going out on [calls], so many meetings, just not in-person meetings that you weren’t able to meet with a group. you’re not able to take the players and put them in the locker room and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a chat for 10 minutes.’ Those things didn’t happen.”
“There’s just a lot of things that were different that were impersonal… I look forward to next year where things can get a little bit more back to normal and you can meet with the whole team, or you can have a team function and you can grow that side of it as well.”
The NHL is returning to a normal 82-game schedule next season, with games going beyond divisional showdowns. This should allow Washington to not only show more of its capability but also adapt as the season goes on. In addition, the return of in-person interactions should also benefit the Capitals as they continue to adapt to Laviolette. Plus, the continued transition should be easier entering the second year under their newest bench boss.
Beyond COVID changes and Laviolette, Washington will get to see a healthy Michal Kempny on the blue line. Not to mention, the Capitals will also have Martin Fehervary likely make the NHL jump.
Samsonov and Vanecek also have a lot of potential to shine as a top duo in the Metro. If Samsonov signs a bridge deal as expected, he’ll have to show that he’s a franchise name to earn a bigger deal next time — and the No. 1 spot. Vanecek also stole the starting spot once before, and he can do it again. That being said, expect big years from these two.
Meanwhile, Anthony Mantha will also get more than a 19-game sample size to show his worth and get additional time to mesh with the lineup. Not only that, but Connor McMichael could also get more playing time at the top level after an outstanding rookie campaign in the AHL. This could truly help bolster secondary scoring, while also providing a boost on special teams.
Keeping the same group also means giving Evgeny Kuznetsov one last chance. Brian MacLellan clarified that he never said the Capitals would trade No. 92. However, he did say that the team was “open to discussions” about most players via the trade market. Taking that into account, it appears Kuznetsov will stay unless Washington gets a strong offer. That’s how it should be.
The Russian center is still capable of producing 70-plus points a season; he just needs to come in with the right mindset. In his exit interview, it appeared that he was ready to prove he belongs on the roster. If the Capitals give him another chance, he has what it takes to make the most of it and rebound. Plus, if there’s no worthwhile return anyway, giving him that opportunity shouldn’t be an issue.
Overall, Washington has the chance to impress with their current core, and there’s still time to win with this group. It’s just a matter of putting that plan into action.