The Washington Capitals are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season after their famous victory over the Golden Knights in June. They must quickly put the joy of that triumph behind them and ensure they do not suffer a hangover as the league looks extremely competitive this year. Coach Barry Trotz has left for the New York Islanders and Todd Reirden has been promoted to the top job in his stead. Yet the Caps will bring back the team that delivered the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in its 43-year history and they should be able to embark on another deep run into the playoffs.
The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the third year in a row by earning 105 points with a 49-26-7 record. Only five teams – the Lightning, Bruins, Predators, Jets and Golden Knights – picked up more points over the course of the season. However, there were lingering doubts about the Caps’ ability to succeed in the playoffs after suffering second round eliminations in the previous three seasons. Yet they surged past Columbus and then finally vanquished the Pittsburgh Penguins, their conquerors in 2015-15 and 2016-17, to progress to the conference finals. A thrilling 4-3 series win against Tampa Bay sent them through to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they comfortably beat the Golden Knights to crush that franchise’s dream of a fairy-tale debut campaign.
In the first round the Caps picked up defenseman Alexander Alexeyev of Red Deer Rebels with the 31st overall selection. He handles the puck well and he has displayed great speed and agility in his fledgling career, but he is a couple of years away from breaking into the Capitals team. Then Washington snapped up Martin Fehervary and Kody Clark in the second round, Riley Sutter in the third, Mitchell Gibson in the fourth, Alex Kannok-Leipert in the sixth and Eric Florchuk with the very last pick in the seventh. Notable additions in the off-season include center Nik Dowd, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks, and right wing Sergei Shumakov, who joined from CSKA Moscow.
Experienced fourth-line center Jay Beagle will be missed after 11 years with the organization, but the Caps could not match the four-year, $12 million deal the Canucks offered him. Backup goalie Philip Grubauer also left, along with Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek, but it is pretty much the same team that seized glory last season. The biggest change is off the ice, as head coach Trotz decided to move to New York not long after guiding the Caps to the Stanley Cup. He took Mitch Korn with him to the Islanders, so new backup goaltender Pheonix Copley will not be able to benefit from Korn’s tutelage. This is Reirden’s first ever head coach position and he is tasked with repeating to repeat as Cup champions, so the pressure on his shoulders will be immense.
Alex Ovechkin is the greatest goal-scoring talent of his generation and the beating heart of this team. He is the Capitals’ all time leading scorer and he has led the league for goals in seven different seasons throughout his glorious career. They will be reliant on more magic from the 33-year-old Russian dynamo, who has 0.61 goals per game, a record that no current player can match. Braden Holtby is one of the best goaltenders in the league, but he had a poor regular season last time around and did not play as much as he wanted to. But he more than made up for it with his heroics in the playoff and, now that he has an unproven backup, he should get the sort of playing time he likes and roar back to form. The likes of Niklas Backstrom, T. J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson will also be crucial to Washington as they bid for further success going forwards.
The Capitals’ greatest strength is at center, where they boast the formidable talents of Kuznetsov, Backstrom and Lars Eller down the middle. It will be interesting to see how Dowd gets on, but even without Beagle they look extremely well stacked in this crucial department. Ovechkin is the star of the show, but expect a big year from Backstrom, who continues to go from strength to strength. So much depends on Holtby for this team though. Backup goaltending looks like a real weakness and fatigue could be an issue for Holtby if he plays 65-70 games, so Copley might need to shine if the Caps are to clinch further success.
Winning the Metro for a fourth consecutive season would be a phenomenal achievement for the Caps. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Trotz’s new Islanders team will be sure to put up a decent fight, but the Caps are the best team in the division and they should clinch it once more. The Atlantic Division looks like it could develop into a straight fight between superb Toronto and Tampa Bay teams, and Washington could struggle against whoever wins it. But if Ovechkin, Holtby and co play like they did in last season’s playoffs they have every chance of repeating their success and going to another Stanley Cup Finals.
Tampa Bay Lightning will be desperate to avenge the defeat they suffered in Game 7 against the Capitals in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. On paper this Tampa Bay team looks magnificent: Nikita Kucherov is an offensive wizard and defenseman Victor Hedman is an absolute beast, while Brayden Point is dangerous and the likes of Steven Stamkos and Yanni Gourde contribute to a roster stacked with talent. If the Caps can get the better of Tampa Bay once more in the playoffs then fans will dare to dream of another Stanley Cup win.