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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.
49-26-7, 105 pts. (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Brooks Orpik (technically)
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Stanley Cup champions.
Alex Ovechkin and others diving into the Georgetown fountain.
Two things that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital.
In reality, it’s the first one that will be etched in history forever. The Capitals, a team that had always come up short, always underperformed when they needed their best performance, finally broke through, sent all their demons back to where they came from and hoisted Lord Stanley in June.
And in true Capitals form, none of it came easy.
[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]
From dropping the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to losing three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals had to work for the Cup.
Beating Pittsburgh in the second round was historical. Not since 1994 had the team bested the Penguins in the playoffs, and they’d been plagued by the Penguins ever since, including the previous two seasons where they were stopped in their tracks by Crosby and Co. in the second round.
Furthermore, the window appeared to be closed on the Capitals. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy two years running, but couldn’t figure it out when it mattered most. Their roster also appeared to be dealt a serious blow with key departures during last offseason, including Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt.
They still had their core, but good cores need good complements and Washington lost several.
The team endured Braden Holtby losing his starting job for a time late in the season, only to regain it in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never look back. Holtby appeared to be his elite self, especially in the final two games to close out the series against the Lightning, where he posted back-to-back shutouts against the regular season’s most potent offense.
In the Cup Final, Holtby bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to post four straight wins and a .938 save percentage during that span.
The Caps simply trudged along, taking every bump in stride and never wavering too far off course.
Ovi scored 49 to capture his one-millionth Rocket Richard Trophy and Evgeni Kuznetsov rebounded from his 59-point season (which followed a breakout campaign with 77 in 2015-16) to post career bests in both goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov’s form carried over into the playoffs where he paced the league with 32 points. Ovechkin finished second in scoring and first in goals with 15 and Nicklas Backstrom rounded out the top-three point producers.
There’s been a lot of partying this summer, nothing foreign to a team that’s won hockey’s greatest prize.
Keeping John Carlson is the most important thing the Capitals have done this offseason.
Signing Tom Wilson to a lengthy extension worth many millions of dollars is the most controversial decision they’ve made.
Not re-signing head coach Barry Trotz might be their biggest mistake. Assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reins while Trotz will be the bench boss in Long Island.
The Caps head into next season with much of the same team intact and a belief now that they can overcome anything. We know they’re going to score goals. We know their power play is going to be elite. A bounce-back regular season from Holtby should keep the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan once again.
A conversation involving the Caps and the Stanley Cup used to elicit laughter. Now, it emits chatter of a repeat.
How times have changed.
• Ilya Samsonov, G, 21, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) – 2015 first-round pick
Three years of elite numbers in the KHL has the hype train carrying Samsonov moving at full force. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level deal after Metallurg was bounced from the Gagarin Cup and will play in North America this. The only question now is, where?
Samsonov is expected to be given a shot to be Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer now out of the picture. Samsonov will face competition from Pheonix Copley, who will also be vying for the bench job. Samsonov appears as ready as one can be to make the jump, but allowing him some time in the NHL to adjust and adapt to the American game wouldn’t hurt. He’s still going to see time with the Caps this year.
• Alexander Alexeyev, D, 18, Red Deer (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick
The 31st and final pick in the first round this past June, Alexeyev had a breakout season with the Rebels with 37 points in 45 games.
He’s big, too, at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds and has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Alexeyev won’t be turning pro this year, and another season of development in the WHL will be good as he continues to adapt to the North American game. He’s got some good mentors in Washington, including fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
“He’s a really intelligent player, extremely patient with the puck, good shot, skates really well,” Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future with us.”
• Lucas Johansen, D, 20, Hershey (AHL) – 2016 first-round pick
Johansen made a nice transition from junior with the Kelowna Rockets to professional with the Bears last season, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 74 games.
A second year in Hershey is in the cards for Johansen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen. Washington’s three defensive pairings aren’t going to change in training camp, but an injury could change all of that.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to play here,” Johansen told the NHL at the team’s developments camp in June. “But I know I have a lot of things to improve on and [for] the jump to the NHL you have to be strong, you have to be fast. But I’m looking forward to committing myself to getting better and I’m going to come to camp and do the best I can to make this team and whatever happens from there, I’ll be happy.”
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck