Here we are still reveling in the Stanley Cup win weeks later. There were key contributors all season and even more essential players in the final round. But it took a season of determination to get past injuries, suspensions, and a lot of negative press about their performance.
No doubt the Caps managers and coaches are looking at the totality of the regular and playoff season while considering a second run for the Stanley Cup. Who were the major players who we think will be critical for the 2018/19 season? And what gaps do they need to fill to keep the momentum going? What changes to the lines and on-ice partnerships.
We now know that the changes were minimal and all but two of the players from the Stanley Cup roster will return. Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer have found new homes for the next phase of their careers.
After a summer of lifting the Cup and filling in the roster with familiar names, new head coach Todd Reirden can begin to look at each player’s performance during the past season. Which players were consistent and which players need some tweaking for the next level of play?
The Capitals have some advantages as they head toward October:
A new head coach in Todd Reirden who the players know and who already knows their strengths and weaknesses.
Alex Ovechkin isn’t done yet. Remember when he kissed the Stanley Cup goodbye in Russia with these parting words: “See you next year.”
TJ Oshie came in strong for the finish. Whatever demons had a hold of him following his concussion appear to have been exorcised. He should be a 20+ goal scorer this season and well over 50 points.
Brooks Orpik returns for another year, most likely in a mentoring role to more junior defenseman who will be on the roster.
Braden Holtby finished the playoffs stronger than most expected. He is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL and appears to be back in his winning zone.
Evgeny Kuznetsov unleashed his potential last season. We think there is more to come. Nicklas Backstrom will continue as the center who steadies the team, feeding pucks to the captain as he increases his own goal count.
Tom Wilson signed a new six-year contract and should be a top six who plays with grit and wants to improve his scoring numbers, as he did in the playoffs.
The downside of things for this team starting a new season are few. Probably highest on the list is the stress they may place on themselves to have a back-to-back championship win. The mental part of the game is as tricky as the on-ice skills part. There are some additional elements that the coach and team need to overcome:
A new backup goalie without proven experience and who has been sidelined in the past with injury. Pheonix Copley has the confidence of the Capitals and will likely play about 20 games to break into the NHL. The unknown element is if he can step into the skates left by Philipp Grubauer.
The commitment to Tom Wilson may be premature in the minds of some armchair analysts. It is imperative that he makes the adjustments to his play that he spoke about following signing the new contract or he could prove a hindrance to success.
The Capitals defense may include Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as part of the permanent blue line team. There is some degree of uncertainty about Bowey’s abilities to stop pucks from entering the crease. Djoos is less of a concern; however, both will require a period of adjustment in the NHL.
Andre Burakovsky is a question mark. He needs to stay healthy and put in a full season for the Caps to evaluate him for a future longer-term contract at the end of the season.
With several junior players on the roster, the mature team-members will need to ensure they integrate them with ease. The coaches, especially Reid Cashman, will need to focus their attention toward developing their skills and building in greater consistency.
The 2018-19 Run
Unlike previous seasons the Capitals do not need a huge infusion of new talent or to make major changes in their process. The retuning roster of advanced players is basically unchanged. They have the advantage of an improved mental attitude now that they have a championship win under their belt. Almost all the players on the current roster know what it takes to power through any adversity, including injuries, penalties, and losses.
What they will need to do is mentor the younger players to keep their heads in the game when adversity does show it’s face. As a team, they will need to trust their new coaches and embrace any adjustments to their play. And they will need to trust their new goaltender.
The Capitals of 2018/19 have what it takes to win. The League knows that now which means other teams in the division will up their game against the Caps as well. Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Boston want their time in the final round this season. It won’t be easy to go back-to-back but with Reirden at the helm, Ovechkin ready to lead, and an energized goaltender in Holtby, the future is bright.
By the end of the season several players will need to prove their value to the Capitals, or they may find themselves playing in Hershey or somewhere else in the league. That could be the carrot that propels their performance to the next level of play.
In 2019, the following Capitals will be RFA’s: Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos. The following Capitals will be UFAs: Nic Dowd, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly, Brooks Orpik, Pheonix Copley.