Capitals season preview: Revamp goaltending under new coach Laviolette

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The 2020-21 NHL season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Washington Capitals, who will play in the East Division.

 

Coach: Peter Laviolette (first season)

Last season: 41-20-8 (.652 points percentage); third place in Eastern Conference, lost to New York Islanders in Eastern Conference First Round

 

3 KEYS

1. Samsonov stepping up

Ilya Samsonov is the clear No. 1 goalie for the Capitals after Henrik Lundqvist announced Dec. 17 that he won’t play this season because of a heart condition. Washington signed Lundqvist planning for the 38-year-old to help groom and compete with Samsonov for the starting job that was vacated when Braden Holtby signed with the Vancouver Canucks. The Capitals hope Samsonov will grow into the starting job after the 23-year-old went 16-6-2 with a 2.55 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and one shutout backing up Holtby as a rookie last season. The Capitals signed 39-year-old Craig Anderson to a PTO on Dec. 27, and he’s expected to compete with rookie Vitek Vanecek, who turns 25 on Jan. 9, for the backup role.

 

2. Improved defense

The Capitals allowed 3.44 goals per game after Dec. 22, 2019, last season, 29th in the NHL during that span. The problem continued during their five-game loss to the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they allowed 3.40 goals per game. Laviolette, who was hired Sept. 15 to replace Todd Reirden, wants to play an aggressive style, with the defensemen joining the attack to create sustained pressure in the offensive zone, which should result in spending less time in the defensive zone. Defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk were signed as unrestricted free agents to help.

 

3. Kuznetsov’s production

After firing Reirden, general manager Brian MacLellan said the Capitals needed a coach to “push some buttons on some players, some good players,” to get more out of them. For Laviolette, Evgeny Kuznetsov is at the top of that list. The center showed he can be an elite player during Washington’s 2018 championship run when he led the NHL with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 postseason games. But inconsistency has held him and the Capitals back at times. Kuznetsov, who scored 52 points (19 goals, 33 assists) in 63 games last season, has averaged one point per game only once in his seven NHL seasons, when he scored 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in 79 games in 2017-18.

Video: Top 5 Evgeny Kuznetsov plays from 2019-20

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

After signing Schultz and van Riemsdyk, the Capitals have four right-shot defensemen: John Carlson, Nick Jensen, Schultz and van Riemsdyk. With Carlson and Schultz locks to be in the top two defense pairs, it appears van Riemsdyk and Jensen will compete for playing time in the third pair. Martin Fehervary, a 21-year-old left-shot defenseman, is close to being ready to play regularly in the NHL, but barring a trade or health issue, there probably isn’t room for him on the roster.

 

Most intriguing addition

Schultz’s production has dropped since he set NHL career highs with 12 goals, 39 assists and 51 points in 78 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016-17, to 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 46 games last season with Pittsburgh. But he should thrive in Laviolette’s attacking system and will also get time on the second power-play unit.

 

Biggest potential surprise

Connor McMichael might will miss the start of training camp while representing Canada at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, but the Capitals hope the forward, who turns 20 on Jan. 15, can join them afterward so they can gauge his progress. McMichael, the No. 25 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, finished third in the Ontario Hockey League with 102 points (47 goals, 55 assists) in 52 games for London last season. With Washington desperate for scoring depth from its third line, he has a long-shot chance to force his way on to the roster or the taxi squad.

 

Ready to break through

Vanecek, a second-round pick (No. 39) in the 2014 NHL Draft looking to make his NHL debut, has been waiting for this opportunity since he came to North America in 2015 and played for South Carolina in the ECHL. Vanecek went 19-10-1 with a 2.26 GAA, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts in 31 games with Hershey in the American Hockey League last season, and the Capitals believe the two-time AHL all-star is ready to play in the NHL. In fact, Washington considered going with Samsonov and Vanecek as its two goalies this season before signing Lundqvist.

 

Fantasy sleeper

Schultz (undrafted on average in fantasy) is likely to be their second most valuable option at the position behind Carlson (first in NHL.com’s defenseman rankings). Schultz was fantasy-relevant for most of his five seasons with the Penguins, combining for 123 points (25 goals, 98 assists; 50 power-play points) in 279 games and filling in on the first power-play unit whenever Kris Letang was out. Schultz’s points-per-game average in that span (0.44) was tied for 42nd among defensemen (minimum 250 games played) and going to Washington is a lateral move in terms of moving from one proven fantasy team to another. — Pete Jensen

 

Projected lineup

Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson

Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Carl HagelinLars EllerConor Sheary

Richard PanikNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Brenden Dillon — John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov — Justin Schultz

Jonas Siegenthaler — Nick Jensen

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek

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