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Caps Set Sail on '21-22 Season

With a mixture of core players, complementary players and kids - plus an axe and a shield - the Caps are ready for the 82-game voyage ahead

by Mike Vogel @vogscaps /

When the Capitals opened up their pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season some nine months ago, they did so under some trying circumstances - as did every NHL team - but the Caps' situation was slightly more complicated because of having a new face behind the team's bench. Washington coach Peter Laviolette was hired roughly four months earlier - in September of 2020 - at a time when no one knew when or even if the '20-21 campaign would get underway.

Once the abbreviated 56-game schedule and similarly shortened training camp were announced, it became clear that Laviolette wouldn't have the luxury of a typical training camp and there would be no exhibition games to help him get acclimated to dozens of players now under his tutelage here. Laviolette also didn't get a chance to actually meet his players' wives and significant others, many members of the team's support staff or the local hockey media. Again, this was the case throughout the league, but the situation was potentially more impactful for coaches who were taking the reins of new clubs for the first time.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight now, we can see that Washington's 56-game regular season went about as well as could be expected. Despite a rash of postponements and rescheduled games, and despite several other obstacles and speed bumps - including COVID infections among the Caps roster - the team had an extremely successful first season under Laviolette. Washington's 36-15-5 record was tied for fifth best in the circuit, and Laviolette now owns the best first-year points percentage of any coach in Washington's franchise history.

The playoffs didn't go nearly as well, as the Caps' roster was dotted with a number of injuries to key players at the worst possible time, leading to a first-round ouster in five games at the hands of the Boston Bruins.

Now, Laviolette's team is set to embark upon what everyone hopes will be the first full 82-game season of the last three. The Caps are aiming to replicate the success of the '20-21 regular season while authoring a much better ending to their story in the postseason this time around.

Washington's 2021-22 season gets underway on Oct. 13 when they host the New York Rangers at Capital One Arena. The '21-22 NHL season is beginning a week to 10 days later than usual, and it will also run through the entire month of April to accommodate a lengthy February break for both the All-Star Game and the Olympics.

Tuesday's unveiling of the Caps' opening night roster shows a split of three groups, virtually equal in size: an octet of core players remaining from the 2018 Stanley Cup championship team, a collection of seven younger players (aged 25 or younger, six of whom are Washington draft choices) and a group of nine complementary players that have been imported from other organizations. Many of those complementary players have signed multi-year deals to stay here in the District after getting a taste of what it's like to live and play here.

While Laviolette may have been hindered by a short camp and a lack of preseason games last year, he did inherit a team with a strong and effective veteran core. That core is still intact, although it's also a year older. The Caps have seven players who have been together for the last six seasons: forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson and defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov. That group pf seven players - plus center Lars Eller, entering his fifth season as a Capital - were all part of the Stanley Cup championship team in 2018.

"There's no question that this year's training camp is different in a lot of ways from last year," says Laviolette. "Last year was filled with abnormalities with the whole COVID thing and everything that the teams had to deal with was different. Me being the new coach last year and them still being veteran players, they were still here together. Trying to do what we did last year - under the circumstances - was a little bit more challenging with the [video] meetings and the lack of exhibition games, the team not being the same and camp not being run the same way.

"Coming back this year, having those veteran players who have already played for a year coming back and understanding me, me understanding them and them understanding what we're trying to do and accomplish out on the ice together, I feel like we're in a much different spot than we were when we first started training camp last year. Those veteran players are relied upon to set the tone in practice, off the ice, and in games. There is definitely a much better understanding of what everybody is doing because of that, because of having it last year.

"We're all back. I'm not new; it's not new. And I feel like these guys can really keep moving forward with what they're doing."


Being able to keep that core - basically, one-third of the team - together for so long in the flat salary cap era is no small feat. Over the last half decade or so, the Caps have managed to surround that core with good complementary pieces at reasonable costs and their roster is still liberally dotted with them. Oshie is the most prominent example; he and Eller are the only members of the aforementioned core group who weren't originally Caps draft choices.

"I think the biggest thing is the trust and knowing those seven guys and knowing where we can get ourselves competitively and as a team, and leading by example," says Oshie. "Anyone that watched the 2018 playoffs and watched our team, there were 20 guys on the ice, and everyone was going. Everyone was pulling on the rope. If there was a mistake on the ice, someone was covering for you. If they couldn't cover for you, [Braden Holtby] was stopping it. If [the opponent] scored, we were going to score the next one.

"That mentality started with those seven guys and with some guys that are no longer with us, guys like Brooks Orpik. But we've got that in us, and to bring these other guys on board that are maybe new to the team or have only been here for a couple of years and didn't get to see us during that time, to bring them along I think will go a long way. A lot of that is bonding away from the rink and when we are on the road, and I think that is something that we missed quite a bit last year."

Heading up that core group is Ovechkin, of course, who is now 165 goals shy of passing Wayne Gretzky (894) for the top spot on the NHL's all-time goals list. Sixteen years deep into his NHL career, the Caps' captain inked a five-year contract extension over the summer. For the next half decade, Ovechkin will pursue another Stanley Cup title and Gretzky's hallowed mark right here in Washington.


"Obviously my family loves D.C. and I love D.C," says Ovechkin. "I've spent my entire career here. It was very important for me, for my family, for this organization and for fans, obviously, to sign a deal. I think we're all happy."

At 36, and once again the team's elder statesman following the offseason departure of Zdeno Chara, Ovechkin has belief in the core and in Laviolette and the coaching staff.

"We have a group of guys who have been here long enough to understand how to win and what it means to win," he says. "We have a core group of guys who have been together a long time, and it's important for this organization. If you see all the teams who won the Cup, they have that core group of guys who have been together for five, six or seven years and they add some pieces, and it helps them to win the Cup.

"In that first year, it's not hard for the coach and the players to understand the system and what the coach wants from you, but right now it's going to be much easier for us to know his personality, what he wants from me, what he wants from the team. Obviously, we didn't have a lot of change from last year on the roster, so I think it's going to be an easier year for us and for the coaching staff as well."

In the early going, the Caps will have to make do without Backstrom, their sublime center whose two-way ability and passing acumen rank among the best to ever play the game. Backstrom is rehabbing an ailing hip that kept him out of training camp and will sideline him for at least the first 10 games of the season.

"It's always sad to lose one of the key guys, and especially Nicky because he is huge for our team," says Kuznetsov. "I hope that he is going to recover soon, but you never know with a recovery which way it goes. We have some magic people in the [training] room so maybe they can do their magic. But the bottom line is that he has to make sure that he is healthy. He is a big part of our team and you don't want him to come back and hurt it again. We will be happy when he comes back, because like I said, he is a big piece for us."

In Backstrom's absence, Washington will rely on Kuznetsov to have a bounce-back campaign from a disappointing '20-21 season in which he played in only 41 of 56 games and saw his points-per-60 rate decline for a third straight season. The Caps will also rely on Eller to step up as he has done so frequently in the past while the team has played without either Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

"That's why we call him Tiger," says Ovechkin of Eller. "If something happens, he can do his job and everyone is always excited to see him play. You remember when we won the Stanley Cup, and when Kuzy got hurt he stepped up big time. He scored lots of game-winning goals and he played unbelievable, and I think he is a big part of our success. We all know he is the kind of player who has the ability to be a number one or a number two center."


Washington's roster features a wide array of wingers, including some who can play on either side of the ice and play up or down in the lineup, giving Laviolette plenty of lineup flexibility. And like Oshie and Eller, the complementary group is comprised of players who began their careers in other organizations. Also like Oshie and Eller, many of them chose to sign multi-year deals to stay in Washington once they had a taste of living and playing here.

Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd and Conor Sheary as well as defensemen Nick Jensen, Michal Kempny (now with AHL Hershey) and Trevor van Riemsdyk all fit into this category (as did defenseman Brenden Dillon, before he was traded to Winnipeg in the offseason). All those players were either obtained in a trade or signed as an unrestricted free agent, and all eight found the fit here enough to their liking to sign a multi-year contract extension to stay in D.C.

"When you're surrounded by a team like this and players like this, I think it elevates players like my game and makes me a better player," says Sheary, who played on two Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh. "I think I can complement a lot of good players and make them better in their own right. Last year was a good fit as a free agent signing here. It just kind of fell into my lap that I was able to sign here, and it worked out really well. The confidence the coaches had in me and that management had to resign me, all that mixed in with living in a good place led me to resign here."

Hagelin also played on those two-Cup winning teams in Pittsburgh. During his 10-season NHL career, he has played for five different organizations, and he has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs following all 10 of those seasons, reaching the Cup Final three times.

"Right away, there was a good feel within the locker room," says Hagelin of his early days in the District. "It was a good mix of older guys, younger guys, funny guys and serious guys. I just liked the whole mentality. It was always when the puck dropped you knew that this was going to be a heavy team - guys that were true hockey players that would do everything they could to win games and stick up for each other.

"I think that family type of feeling you get when you get here started with upper management and going down to the coaches and the staff. It's a homey feel, but also people expect a lot from each other. There is also a side where you know you've got to have fun. You've got to enjoy being at the rink. You've got to enjoy being around the guys and being around the staff. It's a mix of how serious it is during the game and how hard you work together through the game, and how you can also come to the rink and laugh a little bit."

After being traded here on July 2, 2015, Oshie later signed an eight-year contract extension to remain in Washington. His reasoning echoed that of Hagelin.

"I think it was definitely a mixture of things," says Oshie. "First and foremost, it was the guys, the guys in the locker room. That's always your first impression and it really can trump everything else. The guys that you have in the locker room can become your best friends and your lifelong friends. So that was number one for me.

"Number two, the organization does a great job of taking care of the guys. They treat us extremely well and I've always been so thankful for that. They make you feel welcome and they make you feel important to the organization. And then you've got the fans, who have been outstanding to me and to the rest of the guys. It's always fun going down to Cap One and getting ready to play a game in front of our fans.

"And then you've got the community. My family has fit very well into the community. We've had many good friends not only in hockey but outside of hockey and we just love being here. It's a pleasure to be here and to raise the kids here, and to try to get another Stanley Cup."

Oshie, Wilson and Garnet Hathaway play almost exclusively on the right side, though Oshie filled in at center occasionally last season. Ovechkin and Hagelin are regulars on the left side while Sheary, Anthony Mantha and Daniel Sprong can play either side.

Ovechkin's résumé speaks for itself. Oshie recorded his highest points-per-60 rate (2.7) since 2016-17 last season, and he's a key cog in the Caps' power play operation. Remarkably consistent, Oshie has averaged 25 goals a year in his six seasons in Washington, even though two of those seasons were shortened by the pandemic.

Wilson and Mantha are a pair of big bodies who also contribute offensively. In addition to his constant and looming physical presence, Wilson is a staple on both special teams and he is coming off the best points-per-60 mark (2.5) of his career last season. Mantha's offensive numbers dipped last year, but he was traded midseason and should be more settled into the area for the season ahead. He just turned 27 and is in his prime, with upside.


Along with Ovechkin, Wilson and Mantha give the Caps three large presences on the wings in its top six. That can make for a long and rugged night for opposing defensemen.

"I think a lot of people are like, 'Oh, Tommy hits hard,'" says Wilson. "But I think Ovi might actually hit harder. When we were playing on some of those playoff runs together with Kuzy or Nicky down the middle, it's tough on those [defensemen]. You've got two big guys that can skate on either wing coming in and forechecking on every single play.

"Ovi has been known to lower the boom and is obviously a powerhouse, and Mo [Mantha] is a big body too; he can control the puck really well and use his big frame. I think the game has trended a little bit smaller and to maybe a little bit more finesse over the years, but now you see teams bulking up again. That's the way it goes, and that's the great thing about hockey, just going out there and trying to put the best team out there. I think we are in a good spot with size and speed."

Sheary and Sprong can both play up and down the lineup, and on the left side or the right side. Both have the ability to post double-digit goal totals, and both are capable of contributing on the power play when needed. Despite playing in only 42 of Washington's 56 games last season, Sprong tied for fifth on the team with 13 goals and he did so while averaging less than 12 minutes a night in ice time.

After splitting the '19-20 season between the AHL and the NHL and getting traded to the Caps' organization days before the pandemic shut that season down, Sprong stuck with Washington all season last year and took advantage of being seen with fresh eyes by a new coaching staff.


"I think everyone really saw me play a full year, or a good majority of games," says Sprong. "But last year was a big year, and I've just got to build off of it. There were some learning experiences along the way, but I think it made me better as an overall player, seeing how it translates when you do things the right way and being effective."

Washington's fourth line of Hagelin, Dowd and Garnet Hathaway was a revelation last season. Each member of the unit played in all 56 games, each was a key performer on the Caps' fifth ranked penalty killing unit, each was deployed while protecting slim leads late in games and the line stayed together all season, a real rarity in the modern NHL.

"I would like to probably keep that line together," says Laviolette, "because for me they were extremely valuable, very useful, and they were able to defend really well against good players, they were able to get the puck into the offensive zone, they were able to generate chances and offense and goals and production.

"They seemed to have a chemistry together. Through all of last year, that was the one line I never moved; I never touched it. We had a meeting at the beginning of the year, and I stated my intention with them. They loved it and they played hard inside of that role, and I thought they did a really good job."

Dowd and his linemates are eager to build on last season's success.

"I'm really excited," says Dowd of the upcoming season. "I think what makes our line so successful is that we were all on the same page, day in and day out. We understand each other and all three of us have tried to be and have been really consistent in our game plan going into games.

"We don't mess around with the puck a lot in our defensive end; we get the puck out and we have Hags and Hath, who are guys that can skate on to pucks. And Hath being a really physical guy puts defensemen in a tough situation, and Hags gets to a lot of pucks first. I think one thing we're probably going to look to build on this year is what we do when we do get in the offensive zone.

"Now that we have played so many games together, we have really started figuring each other out on where we should be before you actually are forced to make a play. We were always good defensively, and we took a lot of [defensive] zone draws and we were successful with that and getting out of our zone, but I think the biggest thing will be, you know, creating a little bit more, and making ourselves feel good about ourselves in the [offensive] zone."


Beyond their top 12 forwards - including Backstrom - the Caps have a pair of promising young prospects who showed quite well at training camp, well enough to crack the opening night roster. Connor McMichael was the Caps' first-round pick (25th overall) in 2019, and he is coming off a solid first pro season in Hershey in 2020-21.

"I think my pace of play picked up a lot," says McMichael, of playing pro last season. "Coming from junior into pro, it's a big difference in speed and how quick you have to make decisions with the puck, so I think game one to game 36 there was a big difference in my decision making and the pace of play that I was playing at, and it benefited me a lot, playing pro last year."

Hendrix Lapierre was the Caps' 2020 first-rounder (22nd overall), and though he is a year younger than McMichael and has junior eligibility remaining, he made the opening night roster and will be in the lineup on opening night against the Rangers. From the start of camp this fall, Lapierre has been a sponge, soaking up whatever knowledge and insight he can from the gaggle of veterans around him.

"There's a lot of things," says Lapierre, asked what part of his first full camp has been most valuable to him. "I think the game nowadays is played on small details, so I can't pinpoint one thing but just the little details that you do each and every day. Stretching after practice, the way they take care of their bodies, and on the ice, the way they have that attention to details. If a drill is not done correctly, they will do it again.

"It's just those small things that make such a big difference, and just the professionalism of the players, the way they act and the way they work on the ice. Some guys have been in the league for as 15-18 years - so it's been a while -- and they're still coming in here and putting their work every day. For me as a first-year player, it's, it's pretty good to see that and it's motivating in a way because you see those guys, and you're like, 'Wow, like, I want to be like that in 15-20 years or whatever."

The Caps can look at Lapierre in a trial run of up to nine NHL games without burning the first year of his entry-level contract, and Backstrom's absence has opened up a temporary opportunity for the two young centers, both of whom can also play on the wing. Washington's youth brigade also includes Beck Malenstyn, a fifth-round winger from the 2016 draft who turned in a strong camp after missing all of last season with an Achilles' heel injury.

Prior to last season, Laviolette noted that he had binge-watched the TV series Cobra Kai during the pandemic, which inspired him to hand out two bandanas to key players after Washington victories. One bandana was for the offensive player of the game and the other was for the defensive player of the game.

This past offseason, Laviolette's TV adventures led him to binge "The Vikings," and at a team event this past Sunday, he unveiled this year's Viking-related postgame accolades: an axe for the offensive player of the game and a shield for the defensive player of the game. In announcing the awards, he handed them out for the preseason as a whole, with young players as recipients of both. Lapierre was given the axe, and rookie blueliner Martin Fehervary was awarded the shield.

Lapierre and Fehervary now hold the responsibility of handing those awards to the next recipient in the wake of Washington's first win of the season.

With the departure of Chara and Brenden Dillon from last year's blueline corps, Washington has a couple of openings on the backline, which will again be led by Carlson and Orlov. Carlson has finished among the top five defensemen in scoring in each of the last four seasons, and if he can repeat the feat in '21-22 he'll become just the 23rd blueliner in League history to do so. Of the 23 blueliners who have previously achieved the feat, 21 are eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame, and 18 of those 21 have already been enshrined.

Orlov rallied from a slow start last season to record a sixth straight season with 20 or more points while posting a rate of 1.3 points-per-60, his best since 2015-16.

The Caps have three solid right-handed defensemen behind Carlson in Justin Schultz, Jensen and van Riemsdyk, and they've got 22-year-old freshman Fehervary and offseason free agent addition Matt Irwin behind Orlov on the left side. van Riemsdyk played a lot on his off (left) side during camp and is likely to do so once the season gets underway.

Fehervary cracked the Caps' opening night roster two seasons ago and debuted with Washington in its season opener in St. Louis in 2019-20, during his waning days as a teenager. He got into six regular season games and two playoff contests with the Caps that season, so he retains his rookie status heading into the upcoming campaign.

During training camp, the Caps experimented with a number of different blueline pairings and combinations, and it appears as though Fehervary will open the season skating with Carlson. Orlov has been playing with Jensen of late, and van Riemsdyk has been with Schultz.

"Right now we all know the system," says Orlov. "We've got a couple of open spots on our [defense] corps, so it's going to be a challenge for some guys to play hard for that spot and it's going to be good for us too, to be able to prepare our mental and physical game and get ready for the season. We had six [preseason] games and I think it's a good count to get your body going because three months is a long summer. It probably went quick, but you have a lot of rest and not a lot of games played. And the last season was short, too, and this season is going to be 82 games, and hopefully nothing is going to stop us."

The Caps' defensive corps will be playing in front of the same netminding tandem Washington had last season, third-year NHLer Ilya Samsonov and sophomore Vitek Vanecek, who was lost to Seattle in the July expansion draft but reacquired a week later for a second-round draft choice.

The 24-year-old Samsonov has started three straight games only once in his NHL career, and that occurred when he started the last three games of the playoffs against Boston last season. A first-round pick in 2015, he is seen as having more upside than the 25-year-old Vanecek, who was a second-rounder in 2014. But Vanecek was impressive as a rookie in '20-21, starting 17 of Washington's first 20 games and giving his team a chance to win virtually every game he started.

Washington will be looking for improvements from both young goaltenders this season, the youngest netminding tandem in the League.

"I actually am really proud of the way both of those guys played," says Laviolette of his youthful netminding duo. "They were a couple of young goaltenders without that veteran presence we were trying to get in Henrik [Lundqvist] and it never materialized for different reasons.

"We had a couple of young guys who were going to man the net for the first time in the NHL, which is not an easy task for young players, and especially young goaltenders. I was actually really proud of them the way they played. They tag-teamed off each other.

"For me, the year wasn't always perfect for our team, because there were always things going on. But I always thought that our goaltending gave us a chance to win. There was an odd night - like on any night -- where a goalie doesn't have the night that he looks to have, but for the most part I thought those guys competed when they got in there, I thought they did a good job, and we're looking for them to get better.

"Now they're both coming into a year where they've really taken on some experience with regard to the league, and they're trying to be that person who takes the crease. And so they have that whole year under their belt, and we look for them to be better than that, better than they were last year."

As always, the Caps will need more than just great goaltending as they aim to snap a string of three straight first-round playoff exits. But as they move into the regular season, they know they've still got that core of players who banded together to win it all just over three years ago, and they've surrounded that core with some promising young players and a diverse group of complementary players.

"It has honestly been such a cool adventure ride since I got to D.C.," reflects Wilson. "I've said it before, but the leadership group here is really second to none with Ovi, Nicky and Johnny and Osh. How many teams have that caliber of a group to look up to for the young guys coming in, and a core that strong for a good period of time? We are really fortunate just to have that core group that is accountable, they're hungry, they're competitive beyond all get out, and they want to win.

"That's an identity and a mentality that we've had, and it doesn't change. Every year, guys are hungry, the regular season is a tough grind, and you've got to put yourself in a good spot and hopefully have an opportunity to compete for the Cup every year. We want to be better. The last couple of years haven't been what we've wanted with the end result, but it's been such a fun 10 years for me just to be around such great people, such a great organization and a great city. You really start to call it home and really enjoy it here. We have some new exciting faces coming in, and you think back like, 'Hey that was me,' and it's fun to be around."

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