With first-year head coach Todd Reirden at the helm and with minimal losses to their 2018 championship roster, the Caps finished last season with 104 points and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title. That point total was only one shy of the 105 they amassed in their Cup-winning campaign of 2017-18, but Washington was ousted in the first round of the playoffs last spring, falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in double overtime of Game 7.
Coming off a much longer and more subdued summer than the one before, the Caps also suffered heavier personnel attrition from their championship roster this offseason. Regular defensemen Matt Niskanen (traded to Philadelphia) and Brooks Orpik (retired) are gone after half a decade of excellent work in a Caps sweater. Third-line wingers Andre Burakovsky (traded to Colorado) and Brett Connolly (signed with Florida as a free agent) and postseason hero Devante Smith-Pelly (on a tryout agreement with Calgary) have also moved on, leaving the Caps with about two-thirds of the 20 players who were on the ice the night Washington won the Cup in Las Vegas on June 7, 2018.
Sixty-two players (36 forwards, 19 defensemen and seven goaltenders) are on the Caps' camp roster, and nearly all of them - a few are dealing with injuries - will take to the ice on Friday, with the first of the team's six preseason tune-ups just three days off on the horizon. The Chicago Blackhawks visit Capital One Arena on Monday in the first exhibition game for both teams.
Many of Washington's roster spots are all but accounted for, but there may be a short early-season opportunity for someone if the NHL opts to suspend Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for a banned substance at the IIHF World Championship tournament in May. As far as the rest of the opening night roster is concerned, there may be some September player movement and there could also be a dark horse candidate or two for roster berths because as the Caps open camp, their payroll is slightly over the league's $81.5 million salary cap. They have until Oct. 1 - the day before the season opener - to get their cap figure below the league's upper limit.
Washington's salary cap will be slightly lower than that aforementioned figure of $81.5 million. Because of performance bonuses earned by Orpik, Jonas Siegenthaler and Jakub Vrana last season, the Caps must deduct that aggregate bonus total of $1.15 million from this year's cap figure. Capfriendly.com has the Capitals at $82,864,294 for 23 players (14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders), meaning that Washington will have to pare around $1.365 million worth of salary in the next three weeks or so.
Ideally, the Caps would prefer to open with a roster of 22 players (13 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders), so taking one player off the (capfriendly.com) roster will help. But there could be some jockeying for spots on the edge of the roster, because not every permutation of 22 players is workable, salary cap-wise. It's also conceivable that the Caps open the season with a 21-man roster.
As always, September eyes will gravitate to the new faces and sweater numbers as camp and the preseason schedule wear on. Washington brought in a trio of free agent forwards as part of a bottom six makeover. Richard Panik (No. 14) is expected to join Carl Hagelin on the wings of Lars Eller's line, and Brendan Leipsic (No. 28) and Garnet Hathaway (No. 21) will be in the mix for fourth-line duty.
The lone new face on the blueline is the bearded visage of Radko Gudas (No. 33), obtained from the Flyers in the Niskanen trade. Gudas is heading into the final season of a multi-year contract, and the 29-year-old Czech is expected to replace some of the physicality lost with Orpik's retirement.
The additions of the three new wingers and Gudas should have an impact on Washington's style of play this season, too. The Caps haven't been among the league's best possession teams in the last two regular seasons - they finished in the bottom third of the league in that regard in '17-18 and in the bottom half last season - and their forecheck and ability to deal with the opposition's forecheck were both inconsistent last season. Washington should be both younger and quicker on the blueline this season, and the additions of Panik, Hathaway and Leipsic are expected to bring a blend of speed and physicality to the mix, while also augmenting the Caps' penalty killing outfit,
"I think we're going to have a competitive camp," Caps GM Brian MacLellan told reporters on Thursday. "Obviously we've got a couple of extra bodies or decisions to make, and we're comfortable with it. We're going to be open to evaluating performance. There are certain things we are looking for in our bottom six, and hopefully some guys are going to provide that."
Among the things the Caps will be looking for from that revamped bottom six is a more consistent forechecking presence. A strong and consistent forecheck was critical in Washington winning its first Cup some 15 months ago, and it's an area the team is seeking to improve in 2019-20. Additionally, it sounds like the Caps are leaning toward more of a puck pressure mentality as well.
"You can expect us to be more aggressive in different areas of the ice," Reirden told the media on Thursday. "You can expect us to play that style of game where speed and skating is a really important factor for us."
Reirden also noted that the team's offseason personnel adjustments are going to allow it to play "a more aggressive game."
Early in MacLellan's tenure, the Caps were a bigger, heavier team. They moved with the rest of the league toward more of a speed game in recent seasons, but have retained some of that size and physicality over the years. In the NHL these days, teams need both size and speed to have success, and the Caps should have enough of both elements to remain viable in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings.
"I think you need a balance for sure," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "In years past, teams have built around strength and power and big bodies in the West, and there were years when those teams were winning. And then it transitioned in a finesse and skill team in Pittsburgh, similar to us a little bit. Now it seems like you're spending less and less time in the playoffs with the puck, and puck possession is a tough thing. Carolina didn't spend much time with the puck in their own end; they would just flip it out, live to fight another day, and get in on the forecheck.
"Each team and each structure is going to be different, but it's a copycat league and every year teams are trying to adapt and trying to use the success of whatever team wins. I think teams probably really honed in on us and made it difficult. We are going to have to get back to the drawing board and keep improving."
Although the Caps' possession numbers weren't impressive over the last two regular seasons, they made up for it by taking a more judicious approach in the offensive zone, resisting the temptation to simply pour pucks on net - as many teams do - in favor of a more studied and patient scheme in which they looked for quality rather than quantity in their opportunities.
"A team like Carolina where [shot quantity is] a big part of their game, recovering the puck and putting bodies toward the net and creating a bit of chaos that way," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. "It's tough to defend, but there are ways to get better at it. It's just becoming more of a thinking game in terms of the type of shots you see from players. It's not so much get it and shoot it anymore; it's about how to create offense and create better looks, and I think that's how the game is evolving. Now the goaltending has to evolve with it."
The other side of that forechecking equation is having defensemen who can make quick and accurate passes under pressure to avoid getting hemmed in their own zones for long stretches of time, episodes that usually result in an unfavorable outcome, like a goal against or a trip to the penalty box.
"From a forward's perspective," says Washington blueliner John Carlson, "if they're going to try to hit you and you can have the legs and the mind to get out of the way and beat him up the ice, he is either going to hit you and he is going to be in front of you, or you can move the puck quick enough or move quick enough to get up the ice quicker than him, you're going to be in a lot better spot. And certainly when the team plays together, there are always guys back and aware of things like that. But if you can start a forward's shift by having him chase you back up ice, you're going to be in a lot better place. I think it's just that game play momentum that is tough for teams to combat when we were at our highest level."
Being quick and nimble, and being able to make good decisions swiftly are arguably now more important than size in an NHL defenseman's tool kit. But having those attributes and having above average size is even more desirable.
"It has obviously changed a lot defensively," says Holtby. "The big emphasis now is on skating ability, and it's less about strength and size. That makes some things more difficult, because there is a lot more traffic and deflections and all that, because it's not a lot of guys' strengths anymore.
"It's more speed and transitioning the puck out of the zone, and you can see the change throughout the league. But there is a big benefit to having the guys who can do both, and the top defensemen are still big and strong, but they can skate. It's good for the game because skating obviously creates a lot of excitement and more speed, but it changes it, too."
Between now and Oct. 2 when the Caps open up the season in St. Louis against the Cup champion Blues, we should have more of an idea of how the Caps want to play on a night in, night out basis. But on paper, they've got a hybrid roster that has plenty of snarl and an ample amount of speed as they set out in pursuit of another championship.
"I still think that the number one thing is still the defense," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "It starts with the defense and everything comes from that. You see a lot of teams that are more active with their [defensemen] and following up the play. Moving forward, it's got to be a combination of everything. You need these strong type of players too, that can be physical, guys like Tom Wilson. He is always in the mix, always there when it happens, and you need those players.
"It's not just small guys and speed. It's a combination of everything. It will be interesting to see where hockey will be five years from now, but I think it's pointing in a good way, toward fun hockey. That's good for us players, and good for the fans."