Washington Capitals 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Washington Capitals.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 36-15-5 (77 points) second place in NHL East Division
• Postseason: Lost in First Round to Boston Bruins in five games
• Offensive leader: Nicklas Backstrom (55 games, 15 goals, 38 assists, 53 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Matt Irwin
• Free Agent Subtractions: Brenden Dillon (trade to Winnipeg), Zdeno Chara, Michael Raffl

Biggest question facing the Washington Capitals?

• Will Ilya Samsonov take a big step forward?

Nicklas Backstrom’s hip is a concern. The overall age of the team is something to keep in mind. Anthony Mantha beinng worth the price they paid is a legitimate discussion. All of those are big questions. But none of them will do more to impact the success or failure of this team more than what happens in goal with the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. It is the same duo the Capitals went with a year ago while getting mixed results.

Vanecek was not even supposed to be a factor on the team last year but had to take over the primary backup role when Henrik Lundqvist had to miss the season.

Then when Samsonov went out of the lineup he had to take over the starting duties. He did okay given the circumstances, but Samsonov is the player the Capitals need to emerge here. He has been their goalie of the future for years, is the most talented player of the two, and still has the most upside. But after a promising rookie campaign his 2020-21 season was a bit all over the map. He was in and out of the lineup due to COVID protocols, only appeared in 19 games, had a disappointing .902 save percentage, and followed that up with a brutal showing in the playoffs.

It is hard to evaluate too much and put too much stock into that performance given how little he played and the COVID factor, but the Capitals definitely need him to be better this season.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Like most long-time Stanley Cup contenders with superstar players they are nearly capped out. They have a little bit of wiggle room at the start of the season, but not much. Most of the team’s core is locked in place long-term, while the only major pending unrestricted free agents after this season are on defense with Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen, and Matt Irwin being eligible.

Both goalies, however, are restricted free agents. Their play this season will go a long way toward determining what their next contracts will look like, and if the salary cap remains flat that could create the need for a move somewhere else on the roster.

Nic Dowd and Daniel Sprong are the only two forwards on the roster not currently under contract for at least the next two seasons.

Breakout Candidate

Connor McMichael

McMichael is one of the Capitals’ top prospects and is in a camp battle with 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre to make the opening night roster as the team’s third-line center. He is coming off of a strong professional debut in the American Hockey League a year ago, leading the team in scoring as a 19-year-old. If he McMichael is able to secure that spot over Lapierrre he could open the season playing between T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary, which is a pretty good spot for a rookie center to be put in. He is the one young player ready to make an impact on a roster that is one of the oldest in the league.

Best-Case Scenario

The best-case scenario here is that the Capitals are still a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, even after three consecutive First Round exits. There is a path for that. That path includes Samsonov taking that big step forward, Mantha being the player they hoped he would be when they acquired him (I think he will be), Evgeny Kuznetsov bouncing back, Backstrom being healthy, and a player like McMichael having a breakout season. While the roster is older it is still very talented, and still has a hockey legend (Alex Ovechkin) at the top of it doing his thing. That may seem like a lot of things that have to go right (and it is) but many of them are reasonable.

Worst-Case Scenario

On the opposite side of this, what happens if Samsonov struggles? And Kuznetsov is finished being an elite player? And Backstrom’s hip becomes a season long issue? Well, then you have some problems. Enough problems to keep them out of the playoffs? That might be a stretch, but the Metropolitan Division is looking like one of the most competitive in the league with two Stanley Cup contenders in Carolina and New York at the top, Pittsburgh still lurking around, Philadelphia looking better, and the Rangers ready to make a big jump. Competition for those three automatic playoff spots is going to be fierce between those six teams. Maybe they do not miss the playoffs entirely, but maybe it is another First Round exit.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.