Three key questions for Capitals in 2019-20

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

Let’s ponder three questions for the Capitals …

1. Will Evgeny Kuznetsov get on track?

It’s been a whirlwind year or so for Kuznetsov, as he’s gone from a key contributor during that memorable Stanley Cup run (eagle celebrations and all) to attracting a lot of negative attention off the ice, to the point that the IIHF suspended him for four years after he tested positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship.

One can only speculate about whether off-ice issues have affected Kuznetsov’s play, but either way, you could argue that he didn’t always perform up to his own (lofty) standards in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov hasn’t ever really resembled a Selke candidate, but his defensive numbers were a little troubling last season, as you can see from the mix of good (offense) and bad (defense) in his RAPM chart from Evolving Wild:

Kuznetsov has things to work on, even if the NHL doesn’t add any additional fines or suspensions stemming from that IIHF suspension.

Even with some flaws that magnified last season, Kuznetsov is a difference-maker for the Capitals on the ice, so it’s a pivotal situation for Washington.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

2. Can the Capitals’ core hang with the best of the best?

The Kuznetsov question spirals out to an even deeper one: does this team still have what it takes to hang with the absolute cream of the crop?

This isn’t meant as an insult to a Capitals team that has a strong chance to win another Metropolitan Division. Instead, it just speaks to the level of talent at the top of the NHL, especially in an Atlantic Division that’s downright foreboding at the top.

When you line up the Capitals’ biggest stars and strengths up alongside what the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and possibly a few other East standouts, how often do you expect Washington to prevail?

Much like with Boston, the Capitals have managed to find some nice players beyond their core, but they’re still driven by their core. And while that group is by no means “ancient,” you have to wonder if enough players will lose enough steps that they might not be favorites. Alex Ovechkin is 33, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, T.J. Oshie is somehow 32, and plenty of other players are close to 30.

For years, the Capitals have been a team who’ve generated some troubling possession stats, yet they’ve consistently beat expectations, whether that’s by manufacturing the higher-danger chances needed, or merely having the sheer skill to overcome often allowing more raw chances than they create (or at other times, barely keeping their heads above water). What if 2019-20 is the season where that skill edge starts to recede?

3. Will a tweaked supporting cast flourish?

GM Brian MacLellan did a masterful job navigating salary cap challenges, even if it forced him to say goodbye to Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, and Brett Connolly. More than a few wonder if bringing in Radko Gudas for Niskanen improved their defense, rather than merely opening up money. Richard Panik could end up being a savvy pickup like Connolly once was, even if the two bring value in different ways.

Yet, MacLellan maneuvering well given the circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals’ supporting cast will be better.

That could be key, too, if the aforementioned core group takes a step back. Along with getting the most out of newcomers, the Capitals have to hope that players like Jakub Vrana can take the next step forward.

***

One way or another, this Capitals team seems primed to be quite good. Answering those questions – and addressing the contract situations for Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom – will go a long way in answering how good the Capitals will end up being, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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