Last Updated: 2018-09-24
Parker Michaels continues his NHL Season Preview series in reverse to first order according to his projected standings. Be sure to bookmark our Season Previews home base here where links to all 31 teams will appear as they’re posted. Today at No. 18, the Washington Capitals.
Fresh off the first Stanley Cup victory in their 44-year history, the Washington Capitals should be the biggest surprise to appear this early in my season preview series. The Capitals are projected for an 18th place overall finish but note that is still good for 8th in the Eastern Conference and 4th in the Metropolitan Division, qualifying them for a Wild Card spot.
We are at the stage in the standings now where teams are going to be extremely close and the next four teams are separated by just a single overall point, showing how tight the race for the Wild Card in each conference is projected to be this season. The Caps are just one point out of third place within the Metro Division, as well.
No other single team was as profitable for us betting last year than the Capitals, whether it was for or against. Overall, the Caps yielded a profit of +14.21 units with a 24-10 betting record. You could say I had their number. I seemed to have Washington pegged well in last season’s preview, stating the following:
“Overall, I think the Capitals are in better shape to finish ahead of the Penguins this season to sit atop the Metro division which puts a bit of value on their +285 odds. I’m also considering them for my Stanley Cup Futures although the current listed price of +1125 at 5Dimes doesn’t move my needle as much as the +1400 I found at a couple other places today (Bovada, Sports Interaction) so be sure to shop around.”
The Caps did go on to hold off the Penguins for the Metro Division crown, but I unfortunately did not end up making that bet on the Cup Future. D’oh, me.
The projected drop in the standings certainly did give me pause when I began analyzing the Caps this season but the fact I did so well with them last year gives me confidence I can carry over a good read on them again, especially seeing how early season betting involves a good chunk of the numbers the team ended with last season. And early season betting has been my forte.
Record: 49-26-7 (105 points), 1ST in Metropolitan Division, 6th Overall
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup versus Vegas Golden Knights (4-1)
The Capitals managed to pile up enough wins to come out on top of the Metro Division, but their advanced metrics painted the picture of a team who maybe should have struggled more, rather than a powerhouse contender. Washington finished near the bottom of the league in several key categories, including 25th in Expected Goals For %, 24th in puck possession, and 23rd in Scoring Chances For %. While these stats are not necessarily correlated to winning, it is very rare to find a playoff team – let alone a Stanley Cup winning team – fall in the bottom third of the league in all three areas.
It was a big reason the Caps were only given the seventh best odds prior to Round 1 of the playoffs and the second longest odds once the second round began. By the time the Conference Finals rolled around, Washington were heavy underdogs to the Tampa Bay Lightning and owned the worst odds of the four remaining teams to win the Cup. And in the Finals, they were underdogs again to the Vegas Golden Knights expansion team.
The Capitals were favored in just their opening round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and when they fell behind 2 games to none – on home ice – the early exit many predicted seemed inevitable. However, the Caps fought back and won Game 3 in double overtime and the momentum shifted. It was at that time when Alex Ovechkin flipped a switch and put the team on his back with a refuse-to-lose attitude. It was quite remarkable, to be honest, to watch the way the Caps played from that moment on. They were clearly the second best team on the ice most nights, but Ovechkin just refused to let his team lose any longer. It was almost supernatural.
Stats-wise, Ovechkin had his highest regular season point total in eight seasons with 87 and won his record seventh Rocket Richard Trophy for the league’s top goal scorer. A remarkable achievement for this generation’s greatest goal scorer. Since the trophy was introduced in 1998-99, no other player has won more than twice.
Two weeks after winning the Stanley Cup, Barry Trotz surprised everyone when he resigned from his head coach position amid speculation of an unconfirmed contract dispute. In the end, Trotz moved on after four seasons, two Presidents’ Trophies, a Stanley Cup championship and a 205-89-34 record overall. He hands the reins over to Todd Reirden who had been an assistant coach for two years and then an associate coach for the last two years with the Capitals. It was no secret the Caps had been grooming Reirden to become a head coach, but it was a surprise to see it happen so quickly and with their own team. Reirden had been tasked with a lot of responsibility under Trotz so the adjustment of moving onto the frontline should not be too difficult.
Reirden said he does not plan to alter much of the game plan regarding the Caps 5-on-5 style or powerplay but will tweak the penalty kill which finished middle of the pack and lost Beagle.
At the June Entry Draft, the Caps selected Russian defenseman Alexander Alexeyev with the No.31 pick. Alexeyev is a solid all-around defender but lacks any specific elite ability. He is projected to be a potential second pairing blueliner.
Shortly after the first round of the draft, GM Brian MacLellan traded star backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2018 second-round pick. The trade freed up a lot of cap space which allowed the Caps to retain star defenseman John Carlson who was slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. After the Avs bought out the remaining year of Orpik’s contract the next day, the Capitals brought him back on a one-year deal worth $1 million, a significant discount over his previous $5.5 million cap hit and one that did not sit well with several other teams who expressed displeasure over a questionable loophole the Caps exploited in the CBA (for the record, everything they did was by the book and the NHL approved).
When the July 1 free agent window opened, McLellan was quiet as he chose to make sure his championship team remained intact, with re-signings of Madison Bowey and Tom Wilson (in addition to previous signings in June of Carlson, Devante-Smith Pelly and Michal Kempny). The only new addition was depth forward Nic Dowd to a 1-year, $650,000 deal. He will compete for playing time as the fourth line center after the Caps let Jay Beagle go as a free agent. Alex Chiasson who had 18 points in 61 games was also allowed to leave as a free agent.
On September 1, McLellan also signed 26-year old KHL-import winger Sergei Shumakov to a 1-year, $925,000 entry-level contract. Shumakov led his team CSKA Moscow in points with 40 in 47 games. He is from the same town as Evgeny Kuznetsov who played a role in recruiting him.
Stanley Cup: +2033 (Bookmaker)
Eastern Conference: +1012 (Bookmaker)
Metropolitan Division: +329 (Bookmaker)
Regular Season Points: 97.5 (-125, -105) (Bovada), 97.5 (-110) (Bookmaker, BetOnline)
Make Playoffs: YES -325, NO +250 (Bovada), YES -300, NO +240 (BetOnline)
Current odds as of September 24, 2018
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
*Individual Player Ratings represent how many points in the standings each player is directly responsible for over the course of the full season and is called Point Shares. It involves the base formula created by Justin Kubatko at hockey-reference.com. An explanation of how I further use his methods can be found here with a more detailed methodology by Kubatko himself, here. The average value for a forward is 3.5 and a defenseman is 4.4 Point Shares
*Salaries in green denote entry-level contract
NHL RANK: T-7
Washington returns virtually the entire offense from last season with a complete top six. Evgeny Kuznetsov leads a group of very competent centermen after setting a career-high with 27 goals and 83 points and then led the playoffs in scoring with an astounding 32 points in 24 games and was maybe robbed of the Conn Smythe Award. Kuznetsov has become one of the premier playmaking centers in the league.
Nicklas Backstrom is as steady as they come in the two spot. Outstanding shot differentials, goal differentials and always right around a point per game player.
Lars Eller was an unsung hero last season as he stepped up when injuries to Kuznetsov and Backstrom occurred and produced a career-high 18 goals and 38 points and was a monster in the playoffs with 18 points in 24 games, including the game-winning goal in the final clinching game.
Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd is the lone battle in camp for the fourth center spot. Boyd has a little more offensive upside whereas Dowd has an edge defensively. Both are a right-handed shot which the Caps lack in their top three centers and is something Reirden expressed a desire to add. I expect both to make the final roster with Dowd earning more of a role on the penalty kill and Boyd put into favorable offensive situations. Jayson Megna and Michael Sgarbossa are also competing with an outside shot of landing the fourth line role or an extra forward slot.
NHL RANK: T-7
Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born NHL captain to win a Stanley Cup and finally quieted critics who said he could never win the big one. The league leader in shots on goal for the sixth consecutive season, Ovechkin’s 49 goals were also the most in the league for the fifth time over that same time span. He is an elite player who finally got the monkey off his back and the only question which remains is if he is still hungry for more?
Jakub Vrana bounced between a bottom-six and second line role in his first full season and between the doghouse and the bench but became a key contributor in the playoffs after being a healthy scratch early in the first round. He struggled with consistency going long stretches without a goal but finished with 13 and 27 points in 73 games. He will be asked to take on a bigger role this season and the skillful winger should be a good bet to deliver.
A broken thumb knocked Andre Burakovsky out for six weeks early in the season, but he still managed to score 12 goals over 56 games, a pace right about the same as his sophomore season two years prior. An upper-body injury requiring surgery forced him to miss most of the opening round of the playoffs, but he returned in Game 2 of the Conference Finals and scored two big goals in Game 7 to help the Caps advance past the Lightning. He has been a big of an enigma over four seasons in Washington and was surpassed on the depth chart by Vrana last season but has a goal scorer’s touch and could still develop into a 20-goal scorer.
Chandler Stephenson is the front-runner for the fourth spot but is being pressed by Shane Gersich. Reirden said if Gersich impresses to the point of earning a spot, Stephenson could always be looked at moving back to his natural position in the middle, which would be one more option for the fourth line center spot. Stephenson saw time in the top-six at times last season but struggled to keep up and was a more effective checking forward on the fourth line wing.
NHL RANK: 30
The Capitals rewarded the playoff performance of scrappy Tom Wilson with a 6-year, $31 million contract this summer. After setting career highs with 14 goals and 35 points in the regular season, Wilson was a beast in the playoffs both on the physical end and on the scoreboard with 15 points in 21 games. The Caps will count on him this year to be a regular factor on the top line and contribute more on the scoreboard. It is an interesting bet they have made. If he cuts down on the questionable hits he could become a productive power forward.
T.J. Oshie scored a career-high 33 goals in 2016-17 at the age of 30 and was rewarded with an 8-year, $46 million contract. He also shot an unsustainable league-high 23.1% that season so when he fell back to 18 goals last year on 14.2% shooting, no one should have been surprised. Oshie registered his lowest point per game pace last year since his sophomore season back in 2009-10 but was a force in the playoffs with 21 points in 24 games, including six in the Finals. His shots on goal totals have drastically dropped in each of the last three seasons so he will need to fire the puck more this year to remain one of Washington’s top goal scorers.
The third line role is locked down by Brett Connolly who has become a consistent secondary scoring threat for the Caps. He tied a career-high with 15 goals and set a career-high with 27 points. His shot differentials dipped into the negative for the first time in years but the Capitals were a terribly low shooting team in general so there is no reason to think he cannot bounce back in that category.
Devante Smith-Pelly did not provide much offensively last season with just seven goals and 16 points in 75 games and was a huge drag on shot differentials but somehow managed to find another gear in the playoffs, scoring seven goals in 24 games, including a goal in each of the final three games against Vegas in the Cup Final. Smith-Pelly has been held out of preseason games to this point as Reirden has stated he is not at the level he was last year. Most likely this means Smith-Pelly showed up to camp not in the best shape although Reirden nor DSP are willing to indulge us with the reason. With the Caps having a short summer, it might take some players longer than usual to get up to speed on their conditioning. It will be interesting to see how many other players are a little slow in the early part of the season.
The Capitals are very excited about the prospect of Sergei Shumakov becoming an impact scorer after coming over from the KHL. Shumakov was delayed getting into training camp due to visa issues and does not speak English. The Capitals have several Russian speaking players to help him adjust to North American life, but it is going to take a while for him to adapt. With Shumakov being waivers-exempt, the Caps have the luxury of sending him to the AHL without worry to begin the season, but he is a name to keep in mind for later.
NHL RANK: 26
The Caps defense was a question mark entering last season after the loss of Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner and remained that way most of the season. A trade at the deadline brought over Michal Kempny who had excellent possession numbers in limited action with Chicago. He was thrust into top line minutes beside Carlson and while he struggled a bit over the final 22 games of the regular season, did improve the top pair and found his footing in the playoffs to be a key contributor.
Dmitry Orlov provides solid numbers on the offensive end while suppressing shots at a high level on the defensive end as part of the team’s top shutdown pair alongside Matt Niskanen. Orlov has not missed a game in three seasons and is the Capitals most important player on the left side.
The most important factor of the Kempny addition at the deadline was that it allowed Brooks Orpik to drop from the top pair down to the third where he was less of a liability due to the sheer fact of less ice time. Despite what some people will tell you, the 37-year old veteran was a very responsible defensive player the year prior but was caved in on shot differentials on the top pair last season. Getting Orpik out of that position was a huge boost for the team. Unfortunately, Orpik was destroyed even more on the third pairing when beside the rookie Bowey who was not able to cover Orpik’s mistakes.
This season, Orpik is expected to pair with Djoos on a more regular basis, who will flip to his off-side on the right. This duo only spent 105 minutes beside each other last year (a quarter of the time he spent with Bowey) but held a respectable 48% shot share and were even in goal differential. Djoos is an outstanding young defenseman and should be able to continue to help mask some of Orpik’s deficiencies but there will be some tense moments when he is on the ice with Bowey.
NHL RANK: 5
Washington is stacked along the right side with one of the best offensive defensemen in the league and one of the most underrated shutdown defenders. John Carlson led all blueliners last season with a career-high 68 points. Carlson has not put up the best shot differentials over the course of his career and his offensive outburst was aided by 32 points on the powerplay so there should be some concern about whether he can duplicate those numbers. His average points per game was just 0.62 over the three previous seasons before jumping to 0.83 last year. The Caps paid him a ton of money and traded away an outstanding backup goaltender to keep him, so Carlson had better deliver.
Matt Niskanen quietly goes about his business for more than 22 minutes per night, playing the tough minutes against the opponent’s best forwards while also contributing 30-40 points on the offensive end. Niskanen and Orlov take the pressure off Carlson so he can do his thing offensively while also allowing the third pair to remain sheltered in their usage.
That heavily sheltered third pair included Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey for 63 and 51 games last year, respectively. Djoos possesses good offensive skill and was put into extremely favorable situations, being deployed in the offensive zone 59.8% of the time, the highest on the team among the blueliners and second to only Vrana overall. He did an excellent job controlling shot shares and was an effective player.
Bowey was deployed in the offensive zone 54.6% of the time, second among Caps defenders. As I mentioned above, shot differentials were a mess when he and Orpik were on the ice together, controlling just 42% overall but Bowey was much better when paired with anyone else, controlling possession over 49%. Bowey, Djoos and Orpik will share third pair duties again this year and Caps fans should hold their breath anytime they see Orpik come over the boards.
NHL RANK: T-10
(Starter – 12, Backup – 47)
Braden Holtby had an interesting timeline last year which started with the worst regular season of his career, followed by losing his starting job entering the playoffs, then returning in Game 3 of the opening round and dominating on his way to a Stanley Cup victory.
Holtby led the league in shutouts with nine in 2016-17 but remarkably did not record a single goose egg all regular season. I remember being fascinated by this in my daily preview articles last year, constantly mentioning the run of games he was on where he was not even close to shutting the door. Holtby went an astonishing 39 games from November 20 right until the end of the regular season where he allowed at least two goals per game. I am still amazed by that stat for one of the best goaltenders in the league over the previous five years and one who led the league in shutouts the year prior.
Holtby finished the regular season with a .907 save percentage, well below his eight-year career average of .919 overall (including last year). Philipp Grubauer started 10 of the final 16 games and was given the start in Game 1 of their playoff season versus Columbus. Grubauer lost the opener in overtime, allowing four goals. In Game 2, Grubauer again struggled, allowing four goals late in the second period which prompted a switch back to Holtby who although gave up the winning goal in overtime, was solid in 32 minutes of action. The Caps rolled with Holtby in Game 3 and the rest is history, as Holtby shut the door over the next 22 games going 16-6 with a .922 save percentage and finally broke into the shutout column along the way – back-to-back in Game 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to stun Tampa Bay.
For whatever reason Holtby struggled last season, his history is too strong to ignore and the way he finished in the playoffs should give hope for a bounce back this year. Holtby had a Point Shares value of just 8.3 last season so I am projecting a healthy bounce back with the above 11.3 number, just below where he was in 2015-16 (12.1) and 2016-17 (12.3).
Phoenix Copley has big shoes to fill this season for the departed Philipp Grubauer. Copley is 26 years old but has been highly regarded in the Capitals system. A quick look at his numbers last year with Hershey in the AHL might not inspire much confidence, where he went 15-17-6 with a 2.91 goals-against-average and .896 save percentage. Digging a little deeper though you will find Copley suffered a significant groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs which limited his training last summer. He then aggravated the same injury upon his return which caused him to miss the first month of the season and likely contributed to his poor stat line when he finally did return. Copley’s AHL numbers from his previous season may be a better reflection of his skill level – a .920 save percentage over 25 games with the Chicago Wolves and a .931 save percentage with Hershey for 16 games, followed by a .933 mark in nine playoff games.
Not to mention, the Bears were downright terrible in their defensive end last season, so it is hard to say how much that also played a factor. Copley’s numbers did improve as the season wore on though and he was promoted to the Capitals playoff roster at the end of the season. He took shots both during and after practices from Caps players which had to be a big step for his development and confidence.
With Holtby’s heir-apparent Ilya Samsonov still likely a good year away from being ready for a full-time role in the NHL (although he has been very impressive in camp this year), it will be up to Copley to hold down the backup role this season. With good health, fans should be pleased with what Copley will provide.
This is the year Alex Ovechkin is dethroned for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Write it down, seal it in an envelope and lock it away until playoff time as this might be my boldest prediction of the season. Okay, so maybe it is not quite so bold considering all the amazing young snipers in the league now and the fact Ovechkin will be a year older at 33 now. How about, Ovechkin will not even finish second in the goal scoring race? It could happen, and I believe it will, so I will not be looking at Ovechkin for any trophies this season. Regarding any other Capitals, there really is not any one who I have an eye on this season for a possible run at the Hart, Norris, or Vezina trophy but if the Capitals are to stay atop the division, they may need Carlson or Holtby to be nominated in the end.
My point projection of 95.2 is slightly lower than the 97.5 currently being offered at offshore sportsbooks. That is a small edge but not enough for me to bet at this time. The Caps are comfortably projected to be a playoff team in the -300 to -325 range, but I do not believe it should be so cut and dry. I have them currently making the cut as the second Wild Card team but the Carolina Hurricanes might have something to say about that.
Current Stanley Cup Futures list Washington anywhere from the fourth favorite down to the tenth, making my projection of 18th overall significantly lower. Most places still have the Caps instilled as the second best team in the Metro Division, but I believe both the Blue Jackets and Flyers will surpass them this season. Therefore, I am not interested in any Capitals Futures at this time.
As a team last year, Washington had 31 players who suited up for them at some point. Their combined Point Share value, as a team, was 97.2 which shows they may have overachieved by a fair margin with their actual 105-point finish.
Changes to the lineup are minimal with Jay Beagle and Alex Chiasson out and Nic Dowd in among the skater group. That accounts for about a three-point loss. Philipp Grubauer is the biggest difference, having contributed 6.5 points of value last season. His replacement, Pheonix Copley, is projected to contribute 3.8 points, another 2.7 loss overall. That is almost a six-point drop with the lineup changes which would theoretically put the Caps around the 91-92 point mark for this season.
Factoring in a Holtby bounce back (+2.8) and age effects (varying small bumps for players in their early 20s and small declines for the over 30 crowd), the Capitals get a bump to my projected total of 95.2 points which is only a very small decline from last year’s 97.2 value. I do not think too many people would object to thinking the Caps might take a tiny step back this season, especially if there is a bit of an early Stanley Cup hangover.
Now, if Washington overachieves again (completely possible) then of course they can still hit the 100-point mark but if they play to the ability of the roster, they should be very similar to last year’s talent level which is a 95-97 point team. If they happen to regress a little bit on the lower end, this team really could miss the playoffs, which sounds foolish to some of you, I am sure, but it’s true. It’s damn true.
Finally, I will leave you with this. Chris Luc, an amazing writer and new Capitals beat writer for The Athletic recently made an interesting comment to a question in a mailbag segment. Mr. Luc has a unique advantage in covering the team this season having also covered the Chicago Blackhawks during their championship runs earlier this decade. He says there is a different feeling around this Caps team returning to camp this Fall compared to the feeling around the Blackhawks team, where the Hawks “carried an aura of invincibility” and “knew it was good and would be for a long time”, while this Caps team has “more of a sense of relief surrounding” them, having cleared the hurdle and finally winning it all.
The Capitals were not the most talented team in the playoffs last season, but they were certainly the hungriest. They publicly celebrated their championship victory this summer harder than any team in recent memory from any sport. Washington still possesses a very talented team with a strong core but the idea of them being content and not as driven – even if only early on – is not that difficult of a theory to get behind. It is going to be an interesting title defense this season.
Salary numbers from capfriendly.com, stats from hockey-reference.com and naturalstattrick.com
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