Capitals season preview: Health of veterans key to playoff success

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The 2021-22 NHL season starts Oct. 12. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lineup for each of the 32 teams. Today, the Washington Capitals.

Coach: Peter Laviolette (second season)

Last season: 36-15-5; second place in MassMutual East Division, lost to Boston Bruins in Stanley Cup First Round

3 KEYS

1. Staying healthy

The Capitals are off to a tough start in this area with center Nicklas Backstrom out week to week with a hip injury that has bothered him since last season. With 12 players 30 or older — forwards Alex Ovechkin, 36; T.J. Oshie, 34; Backstrom, 33; Carl Hagelin, 33; Lars Eller, 32; and Nic Dowd, 31; and defensemen John Carlson, 31; Nick Jensen, 31; Michal Kempny, 31; Justin Schultz, 31; Dmitry Orlov, 30; and Trevor van Riemsdyk, 30 — Washington will need to manage rest and hope it has better luck with health than last season.

Injuries caught up to the Capitals late in the regular season and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Backstrom, Ovechkin (groin), Oshie (core), Eller (groin), Carlson (knee), Schultz (lower body) and goalie Vitek Vanecek (lower body) each missing games.

2. Goalies taking the next step

The Capitals were satisfied with the young tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vanecek last season but will need each to reach another level this season. Last season, his second in the NHL, Samsonov spent two stints in NHL COVID-19 protocol and the 24-year-old struggled with consistency while going 13-4-1 with a 2.69 goals-against average, .902 save percentage and two shutouts in 19 games (18 starts).

Vanecek filled in when Samsonov was out. The 25-year-old was 21-10-4 with a 2.69 GAA, .908 save percentage and two shutouts in 37 games (36 starts) as an NHL rookie. He was reacquired in a trade July 28 after being selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

3. Kuznetsov redux

Evgeny Kuznetsov has appeared focused and fit from the first day of training camp, which is a positive sign with Backstrom’s status uncertain.

Kuznetsov scored an NHL career-high 83 points (27 goals, 56 assist) in 79 regular-season games and helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup with an NHL-best 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 playoff games in 2017-18. But he’s shown only flashes of that since then.

Last season the center he scored 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 41 regular-season games when he twice tested positive for COVID-19, including once following a suspension for missing a team function. He was out for the first two games of the playoffs while working his way back from his second COVID-19 diagnosis and did not score a point in the final three postseason games.

Video: Washington Capitals 2021-22 Season Preview

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Position battles

The Capitals will need another center if Backstrom misses the start of the season. Candidates include rookies Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre, along with Brian Pinho and Garrett Pilon.

The departures of Brenden Dillon (trade, Winnipeg Jets) and Zdeno Chara (free agent, New York Islanders) created openings on the left side of the defense. Van Riemsdyk, a right-handed shot, likely will take one of the spots. Kempny, who missed last season following surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon and a sprained MCL, and rookie Martin Fehervary, who left a preseason game at the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 4 with an upper-body injury, are the leading candidates for the other spot.

Most intriguing addition

The Capitals added no players this offseason expected in the opening night lineup. Defenseman Matt Irwin, who signed a one-year, two-way contract July 28, played four seasons for Laviolette with the Nashville Predators (2016-20) and might make the roster as an extra defenseman. The 33-year-old had two assists in 24 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season.

Biggest potential surprise

Heading into camp, Lapierre appeared destined to return to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where the 19-year-old scored 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 21 games with Chicoutimi last season (he was traded to Acadie-Bathurst on June 23). Lapierre, the No. 22 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, still might end up in the QMJHL, but he’s pushed his way into contention for an NHL spot, including getting two assists in each of his first two preseason games.

Ready to break through

McMichael, the No. 25 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, might have had to shift to wing to make the opening night roster before Backstrom’s injury created the chance for him to remain at center. After making his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 24, the 20-year-old played the remainder of last season with Hershey of the American Hockey League, which he led with 14 goals and 27 points in 33 games.

Fantasy sleeper

Vanecek (fantasy average draft position: 139.5) led rookie goalies last season in wins (21), and had a .908 save percentage. Samsonov likely will begin the season as Washington’s starter, but Vanecek is worth drafting in the middle to late rounds because of the chance he could outperform Samsonov (.902 save percentage in 19 games last season) and remain the 1A option. — Rob Reese

Projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson

Anthony Mantha — Lars Eller — Daniel Sprong

Conor Sheary — Connor McMichael — T.J. Oshie

Carl Hagelin — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway

Dmitry Orlov — John Carlson

Martin Fehervary — Justin Schultz

Trevor van Riemsdyk — Nick Jensen

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek

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