Previewing the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Capitals have shown a solid knack for spotting value to supplement their longstanding, impressive core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others. Sometimes that means waving goodbye to some of those diamonds in the rough, and this offseason served as an example, as they showed discipline in not overpaying Brett Connolly.

The Capitals have done well to zig and zag with salary cap realities, and in some cases, might have saved money and gotten the better end of the deal (if Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen perform at the same broad level as last season, Gudas would possibly be the better asset). Richard Panik could be the next bargain pickup like Connolly, though the two bring different benefits to the table.

Still, losing Andre Burakovsky puts the overall balance at “worse.” A lesser GM would have suffered greater losses, though.

Strengths: The Capitals showed in that 2018 Stanley Cup run that, when things boil down to best-on-best, they can come out on top. It didn’t work out quite as well this past year, but with Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov down the middle, some nice wingers beyond Ovechkin, and some solid defense led by John Carlson, the Caps check a lot of boxes.

Braden Holtby has also been one of the most dependable goalies in the NHL, and with contract year motivation, it wouldn’t be shocking if he chased another Vezina.

More often than not, the Capitals have boasted a dangerous power play to boot.

Weaknesses: The Capitals find ways to outscore opponents, but it’s worth noting that they haven’t been elite by certain underlying measures for quite some time. In fact, in 2018-19, the Capitals were under 50 percent by Corsi, Fenwick, expected goals, and so on.

Again, the Capitals have been able to overcome those five-on-five numbers, whether they’ve done so by superior skill or winning quality chance battles. With core players getting older, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals might fail that tightrope walk. Sometimes such declines are subtle; other times, the drop-off can be severe.

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It had to sting to see Barry Trotz win a Jack Adams Award during his first season with the Islanders, particularly since Trotz’s team advanced to Round 2, while the Capitals fell in Round 1. Things could heat up in a big way for Todd Reirden if the disappointments start to stack up, but for now, it feels a little early to worry. Let’s put Reirden around a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Holtby, Backstrom, and Gudas.

Three interesting players, three contract years.

Holtby could easily set himself up for a contract that ranges from Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million AAV) to Carey Price ($10.5M AAV), but that might hinge on his production in 2019-20. Some of this might depend on how badly he wants to stay in Washington; could he be convinced to take a bit of a discount to try to keep the band together?

Backstrom’s been in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow for some time, and is a big bargain at a $6.7M cap hit. This is his chance to get recognition, and get paid closer to what he’s actually worth.

Gudas has been one of those rare physical, hard-hitting defensemen who actually tends to stand out well from a “fancy stats” standpoint. That said, he didn’t always earn the trust to get much of a prominent role with Philly. Could Gudas prove that he’s a top-four guy, and maybe keep penalties under control? While Backstrom and Holtby are almost certain to get big raises, things could go either way for Gudas.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Capitals have won the Metro for four seasons in a row, and regularly took the Southeast crown when it still existed. They’re rarely fighting for a playoff spot late in years, and sometimes don’t even really need to worry much about seeding.

Maybe they’ll sink a little bit, but this team has what you need to comfortably secure a playoff spot.

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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    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.