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2021-22 Washington Capitals Preview: Running it back in DC

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Sticking with the core they know, the Capitals are hoping to make it out of the first round this year.

Conor Sheary #73 of the Washington Capitals celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against the Boston Bruins in the third period in Game Five of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Capital One Arena on May 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

It was a rather uneventful off-season for the Washington Capitals, opting to mainly stick with the team they have, and for good reason — over their last five seasons, they haven’t finished below second place in their division, only having finished in second place this previous season when they shifted to the East Division, per the NHL’s temporary division realignments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

However, they also have been unable to escape the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the last three seasons. With the Great 8 himself, Alexander Ovechkin, re-signing for five seasons, time will tell if the team formerly known as “Sharks East” can make another deep playoff run.

Where they left off

The Caps kicked their season off with a red-hot January, not losing a single game in regulation with a 6-0-2 record, but weren’t able to keep that magic going in February when they struggled to stay above .500. They were able to right the ship in March, going 11-3-0, but it was evident that there was something missing as the trade deadline approached. Evgeny Kuznetsov was not having the best of seasons on and off the ice — he had tested positive for COVID-19 twice and missed a team function, with Pierre LeBrun reporting that the team had become irritated with his behavior and were looking to trade him for that reason. Kuznetsov finished the season with 29 points in 41 games, certainly nothing to sneeze at with the given sample size, but nonetheless, the lowest points total in his career since his rookie season.

When the trade deadline rolled around in early April, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan made his move, trading Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-round pick to the Detroit Red Wings for Anthony Mantha. It was certainly a steep price to pay, but Mantha fit the Caps’ need for top-six scoring. Mantha scored 4 goals and 4 assists in 14 regular season games with the Capitals.

At the end of the regular season, the Capitals and their all-too-familiar rival Pittsburgh Penguins tied in points on top of the East Division, but Pittsburgh ended up claiming the division crown, given they had more regulation and overtime wins (34) than the Capitals (33). Consequentially, the Capitals faced off against the third-place Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals won the first game of the series thanks to an overtime goal from Nic Dowd, but fell victim to the dreaded gentlemen’s sweep, losing the series 4-1.

2021 NHL Draft

The Anthony Mantha trade meant that the Capitals wouldn’t have a pick on the first day of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Their first selection came in the second round at 55th overall when they selected Brandon Wheat Kings defenseman Vincent Iorio. Elite Prospects evidently loved Iorio’s shot, saying “Iorio on the breakout is basically Han Solo with a blaster: Well-placed laser-beam after well-placed laser-beam.” If your slap shot’s being compared to the blaster shot of the greatest smuggler in the Star Wars galaxy, then you must be doing something right.

The Capitals then drafted Sioux Falls Stampede defenseman Brent Johnson in the third round with the 80th overall pick. Johnson, who has no relation to the former Capitals goaltender of the same name, was described as a “do-it-all defenseman” by Smaht Scouting, noting his skilled transition game and power-play quarterbacking.

With six total picks in this year’s draft, the Capitals made sure to focus on bolstering their future defensive corps — the majority of their draft picks played defense in some capacity. In the later rounds, they targeted Joaquin Lemay of the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks with the 119th overall pick, Eisbaren Berlin forward and defenseman Haakon Hanelt at 151 overall, and defenseman Dru Krebs of the Medicine Hat Tigers at 176, before selecting goaltender Chase Clark in the sixth round.

Roster

The stove was not particularly hot in the District of Columbia during the off-season, with the Capitals opting to mostly stick with the roster they have. They did, though, make a few minor changes to their roster: Sharks fan-favorite Brenden Dillon was traded to the Winnipeg Jets two days before free agency began in exchange for two second-round picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. They also lost goaltender Vitek Vanecek in the expansion draft to the Seattle Kraken for a week before he was re-acquired by the Capitals, who sent the Kraken the Jets’ 2023 second-round pick. Craig Anderson left to sign with the Buffalo Sabres, as did Michael Raffl with the Dallas Stars.

The few signings the Capitals made were depth signings. As one former Shark exited, another entered the Capitals organization: Matt Irwin signed with the Capitals on a one-year, two-way contract worth $750,000 at the NHL level and $350,000 at the AHL level. The Caps also inked gritty defenseman Dylan McIlrath to a two-year, two-way contract ($750,000/450,000 in 2021-22 and $750,000/$425,000 in 2022-23), signed promising goalie Hunter Shepard to a two-year, two-way contract ($750,000/$90,000 in both years) and brought back depth defenseman Lucas Johansen on a one-year, two-way deal ($700,000/$95,000).

The biggest news out of D.C. in the off-season was the return of the greatest player to ever wear a Capitals jersey in Alex Ovechkin — not that it was ever in doubt, but he did hit free agency without a contract. The contract, negotiated by Ovechkin himself, carries an average annual value (AAV) of $9.5 million over five years. It’s a bit of a long term for someone turning 36 years old this month, but this is Alex Ovechkin we’re talking about. With Ovechkin choosing to remain in D.C., the question now is how close he can get to breaking Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record of 894 career goals.

While that question gets sorted out in these next five years, in the meantime, Daily Faceoff projects these to be the Capitals’ lines on Opening Night:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson
Anthony Mantha — Nicklas Backstrom — T.J. Oshie
Conor Sheary — Lars Eller — Daniel Sprong
Carl Hagelin — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway

Defenders

Dmitry Orlov — John Carlson
Michal Kempny — Justin Schultz
Trevor Van Riemsdyk — Nick Jensen

Goaltenders

Ilya Samsonov
Vitek Vanecek

What can we expect in 2021-22?

It seems to be the Capitals’ belief that this team has another Stanley Cup left in them, which is why they’ve mostly kept their key players intact. I could spend this entire paragraph talking about Ovechkin, but that would be robbing players like John Carlson of their recognition in making the Capitals such a well-oiled machine. Carlson remains one of the best offensive defensemen in hockey, scoring 44 points in 52 games, and his partnership with Dmitry Orlov should prove to be one of the deadliest blue line duos in the league.

The Capitals’ forward corps remain top-notch: T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom provide supplementary scoring on the second line. Tom Wilson, despite his ... let’s call it reckless behavior on the ice is still a threat to put up a 40-point season. The bottom-six is composed of players such as Lars Eller, Daniel Sprong and Carl Hagelin, who round out the bunch with scoring and defense.

Beginning his second season as the starter in D.C, goaltender Ilya Samsonov will look to continue to grow after a season in which he was on and off of the COVID-19 protocol list. He’ll certainly be aided by the return of Vitek Vanecek, who filled in for Samsonov during his stays on the COVID list and had a solid rookie season with a .908 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.69 goals-against average (GAA).

The Sharks and Capitals meet for the first time this season on November 20 at SAP Center in San Jose, with puck drop at 7:30 p.m. PT. They won’t meet again until January 26, 2022, where the second of their meetings will take place at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington. Puck drop that night will be at 4 p.m. PT.