One of the best parts about SB Nation is that we have easy access to hockey fans from all other teams. Another one of the best parts is that none of us really take ourselves too seriously. This week we are taking a look at how the other members of the new MassMutual NHL East Division feel about the season and the specific situation on their team.
The Washington Capitals with Alex Ervin from Japers’ Rink
How strong do you think this year’s Capitals team is?
To quote Alex Ovechkin, the team is “still big strong”. They are particularly strong up front with familiar faces like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie. Jakub Vrana was playing some of the best hockey of his career before the 2019-20 season paused in March, setting career highs left and right. Tom Wilson was also having a career year, and his offense gets better and better every season. The additions of Connor Sheary, an offseason acquisition, and Daniel Sprong, acquired via trade last season, have excellent potential as well.
Washington’s blueline is less proven, partially because the Caps’ defense has been struggling in recent seasons and partially because there are so many new faces this season. The Capitals signed five free agent defensemen this offseason: Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Paul LaDue, Cameron Schilling, and Zdeno Chara (that still feels strange to type). LaDue and Schilling were depth signings, but the other three are vying for big league roster spots. Additionally, with Michal Kempny starting the season on LTIR, John Carlson has been skating with Dmitry Orlov. They are both excellent players, but they don’t have a lot of history together. That’s actually how I view the Caps’ blueline as a whole: pieces that are strong individually but are unproven together.
Goaltending is, no surprise, the biggest question mark for this season. Ilya Samsonov had great stretches last season and has proven to be an incredibly talented goalie, but he only has 22 NHL starts under his belt and that lack of experience is admittedly a bit worrisome. Of course, Henrik Lundqvist was slated to sit backup to Samsonov this season but we all know that is (unfortunately) no longer the case. I think Hank’s role on the team was going to include not only serving as a veteran mentor for Samsonov but also providing a bit of healthy competition, which would have been excellent for the Caps’ new starter. However, it was not meant to be and we of course wish Hank the best of luck with his recovery. Now, as Laviolette announced on Monday, Vitek Vanecek will be the other half of Washington’s goalie tandem. Vanecek has been brilliant in the AHL but has no NHL experience, so we don’t know yet if his talent will translate well to his new role.
How do you think the new division will shake out?
I think the East, er, MassMutual Division is going to be a ton of fun to watch and also very stressful for fans of all eight teams. It is definitely the most competitive of the new divisions, with the top five or six spots somewhat up in the air. I think it’s going to be Washington, Boston, and Philadelphia fighting for the top spot, which will make the eight Capitals-plus-Chara vs Bruins games extra fun.
The middle zone with the Penguins, Islanders, and Rangers will be interesting to watch too, especially with Alexis Lafreniere in the equation. My biggest question mark in the division is the Buffalo Sabres - there’s just so much unknown there between free agent signings (I keep forgetting Taylor Hall is a Sabre), reconfigured lines, and a history of up and down goaltending. They’re either going to be really good or quickly sink to the bottom of the division, there is no middle ground for them.
Are we in for any surprises with the 2020-21 Capitals? Any new names we should look out for?
I think back-up goaltender Vitek Vanecek could be a really pleasant surprise for Washington. He was in the midst of a stellar AHL season with the Hershey Bears last March, was named MVP of the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic, and has been one of the Capitals’ brightest prospects since he was drafted in 2014. While he has no NHL experience, he is certainly talented enough to step into the role of an effective backup goalie. He and Ilya Samsonov have also played together in the past and are very good friends, which I think will help them lean on each other during this condensed season.
Oh, and I’m excited to see how Zdeno Chara (he’s new to the team, not sure if you’ve heard of him) fits into the Caps’ system.
What are your first impressions of Lavy?
I really like him, and I think he’s going to be really great for the team. I think the Caps got a little too complacent last season, especially in the postseason bubble, and Lavy will bring some much needed discipline to the locker room. I’ve been watching his Zoom media availabilities during training camp, and he seems pretty motivated and ready to win. He was my personal favorite coaching candidate during the offseason, so I’m excited to see what he does.
Your team seems very interested in obtaining senior citizens, have there been any talks into bringing Jaromir Jagr back to North America?
Hey, when Ilya Kovalchuk signed with a KHL team, the Caps had to keep their average age up somehow! And I am simply going to ignore the thought of bringing Jagr back to Washington.
Will noted Flyers Fan Joe Biden be hexing any Capitals games this season?
I have a feeling President-Elect Biden will have other things to focus on, but I do love the image of him invoking the spirit of Saint Gritty in the Oval Office...
What’s your favorite Lundqvist memory as a Cap?
Does “his calming presence in the wake of Braden Holtby’s departure” count? If not, then I’ll go with the very wholesome video of the Lundqvist family exploring Georgetown back in October.