By Harry Allison
The defending champions return largely the same roster to take a shot at capturing consecutive Stanley Cups.
The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 14-1
Key Additions: Nic Dowd, C; Sergei Shumakov, RW
Key Departures: Philipp Grubauer, G; Jay Beagle, C; Alex Chiasson, RW; Jakub Jerabek, D
Not only are the Capitals the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but they bring back nearly the same lineup that helped the franchise go all the way for the first time. Heck, they even got Brooks Orpik back after trading the veteran defenseman to Colorado – and they got him at a drastically reduced salary, too.
Washington’s title run revealed John Carlson is an elite defenseman who doesn’t get as much Norris Trophy consideration as he should. It also showed the Caps have two No. 1 centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, both of whom can play with Alex Ovechkin. The Caps’ ability to ice devastating talent across two lines presents great matchup problems.
While coach Barry Trotz left for the New York Islanders over the summer, his replacement was internal: Todd Reirden. The former associate coach was responsible for building one of the top bluelines in the NHL – led by Carlson, steady Matt Niskanen and the rising Dmitry Orlov – and that will be a great help as youngsters such as Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos take on more minutes.
With all their experience, there’s no reason to doubt Washington’s chances of another deep playoff run.
The Cup Hangover could be quite literal for the Capitals: they partied hard this summer (and hey, they earned it). Ovechkin definitely got his arm work in by constantly lifting the Cup over his head, but the sheer emotional catharsis of finally beating the Penguins in the post-season and finally winning a title could easily lead to a letdown. No one would fault the players for being a little sleepy in the first half.
Goalie Braden Holtby was great in the playoffs but had his worst regular season ever, with a .907 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.99. The Caps were fine because Philipp Grubauer was stellar in 35 appearances, but now he’s in Colorado. Holtby’s backup is 26-year-old Pheonix Copley, who has played just 83 minutes of NHL hockey. If Holtby sags again and Copley can’t pick up the slack, Washington will lose a lot of winnable games.
Michal Kempny came over from Chicago at the trade deadline and was a perfect partner for Carlson, but how much of that was just Carlson being really good? Now Kempny has a long-term contract to live up to. The Capitals will still make the playoffs next spring, but a first-round letdown is very possible.
How does Holtby rebound from last season’s poor regular season performance?
In 23 playoffs games, Holtby turned in a .922 SP, 2.16 GAA and two shutouts en route to hoisting the Stanley Cup. His return to the No. 1 role in Washington, which he had ceded to Grubauer to start the post-season, is for many considered the turning point in the Capitals’ post-season effort, even if it did come awfully early in the run. But his entire performance in the NHL’s second season made us quick to forget that Holtby’s performance was, quite frankly, poor during the past campaign.
Throughout 2017-18, Holtby was inconsistent and not anywhere near his old self. Case in point, he finished the 2016-17 season with a league-best nine shutouts. He closed out last season without a single regular season blanking. On some nights, the Capitals even won in spite of Holtby, which would have been a laughable assertion in any of the three campaigns prior where he finished top-five in Vezina Trophy voting.
So, which Holtby do we get this season? Vezina-calibre and playoff Holtby or 2017-18’s remarkably-beatable Holtby? Washington is betting on a return to the former, and it’d be best not to bet against that. But after last season, it’s hard to write off the potential for Holtby to start showing some holes.