Adam Reid The Hockey Writers
Capitals’ Key Questions as Playoffs Approach
As the Washington Capitals continue to dominate the 2019-20 NHL season, a few questions loom in the face of Capitals fans. With two-thirds of the season now in the books, anything short of a Stanley Cup would be a disappointment for the NHL-leading Capitals. Is their performance this season enough to make them comfortable that they have a championship-calibre team, or will a few unknowns derail their hopes of another Stanley Cup?
Will Holtby Retain His Starting Job?
Uncertainty of who the starting goaltender will be for the playoffs is a narrative Capitals fans are all too familiar with. Although it resulted in a Stanley Cup, there was a lot of uncertainty in the goaltending position entering the 2018 Playoffs. Before the playoffs, former head coach Barry Trotz announced now Colorado Avalanche starting goalie Philipp Grubauer as the playoff starter.
Grubauer’s numbers were far better down the stretch in 2017-18, but after allowing four goals in the Capitals Game 1 loss and getting pulled in Game 2, Trotz turned to Braden Holtby and never looked back.
Fast-forward to present day, the Capitals appear to be faced with a similar situation, but the leadership seem to want to stick with their trusted netminder. Holtby has been a dominant goaltender since the 2014-15 season, leading all NHL goaltenders with a 216-87-36 record. While his 19 wins and 19-10-4 record in 35 games this season is respectable, the statistics supporting that record are not. His 3.11 goals against average (GAA) and .896 save percentage (SV%) are good for 46th and 49th best of the 56 goalies that have started a minimum of 15 games this season.
When Holtby has faltered this season, 22-year-old goaltender Ilya Samsonov has been there to pick the Capitals up. The rookie has posted a 16-2-1 record and a phenomenal 2.06 GAA that is best in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 15 starts.
His impressive .927 SV% is fourth best in the league among the same group. With playoffs approaching quickly the Capitals will have to make the decision whether to trust the young Russian goaltender with playoff hockey or stick with their veteran who has been a rock over the past five seasons.
Can Vrana Maintain His Consistency?
As a first-round pick, the Capitals have always had high expectations for Jakub Vrana. With 23 goals already this season, the speedy Czech winger is just one goal away from tying his career high with over two thirds of the season still to play. It seems Vrana is on track to become star in the NHL as he is currently second in goals on the Capitals next to arguably the greatest goal scorer of all-time, Alex Ovechkin. This added depth in scoring has been crucial to the Capitals success this season on a team where top-tier scoring is almost never an issue.
If Vrana can continue to be the scorer he has shown he can be this season, he could evolve to be one of the premier scorers in the NHL. Not to be a pessimist, but there is some indication that this production may not be sustainable. Eight of his 23 goals this season came during a nine-game stretch to start 2020, a period which he had a remarkable shooting percentage of 30%. His shooting percentage on the season is 16.2%, almost three percent higher than his career average. For comparison, Ovechkin’s career shooting percentage is 12.7% far lower than Vrana’s this season.
If Vrana can maintain this hot streak, he could add the depth scoring the Capitals need to make a run to the Stanley Cup. With this scoring touch, it also makes him one of the best value players in the NHL at a $3.35 million AAV. Vrana will become a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season and will be in for a monster payday.
Do the Capitals Need to Add Deadline Depth?
As the Capitals sit atop the NHL, many people are arguing there is no reason to give up assets to acquire talent at the deadline. But if the Capitals were to make a move, what would they be looking to acquire?
With one of the deadliest offences in the NHL, it is unlikely the Capitals will look to add scoring. Their depth of talent up front, coupled with John Carlson’s explosive season thus far should be enough to take them deep into the playoffs. It is possible the Capitals look to add some scoring depth to their top-heavy power play, but it doesn’t seem to be their priority. Goaltending is not an issue either. Even though Holtby has not been at his best, the rookie Samsonov has been nearly unbeatable this year and his 16-2-1 record reflects that.
If the Capitals were to make a move, it would be likely they do something to stabilize their blue line. Two right shot defensemen come to mind, Josh Manson of the Anaheim Ducks and Sami Vatanen of the New Jersey Devils.
Manson has two years remaining on a $4.1 million AAV deal, and his physicality and defensive style would be exactly what the Capitals need come playoff time. Vatanen is in the final year of his $4.875 million AAV deal and would likely end up being a rental, meaning he would likely require fewer assets to acquire. Vatanen is slightly more offensive minded and could be a solid addition to the second power play unit.
Does Ovechkin Have Another Playoff Run in Him?
Over the past five seasons, Ovechkin has played more games than almost anyone else in the NHL. This, coupled with his aggressive highly physical style could bring his stamina into question down the stretch. Ovechkin has only played fewer games than Phil Kessel over the past five seasons, but it is clear Ovechkin plays a much more physical style.
That being said, the way Ovi is playing right now he shows no signs of slowing. At this pace, he has a chance to catch The Great One as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. Only time will tell if Ovechkin’s body can hold up in the modern, fast-paced NHL.
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