Analyzing the Capitals’ 2022 roster: strengths, weaknesses, question marks

·10 min read

Analyzing the Capitals’ roster: strengths, weaknesses, question marks originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

For the fourth year in a row, the Washington Capitals bowed out early in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a first-round exit. It’s been a frustrating trend since their memorable 2018 championship run, and one the team is eagerly trying to burst out of in 2023.

So now, with the preseason less than a month away, the Caps begin the process of gearing up for another campaign with the same veteran core of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson among others. Beyond those stalwarts, Washington has brought in several new faces in an attempt to inject some youth into the roster as well as shore up positions that were wrought with injuries -- or simply poor performance -- last season.

Washington’s roster faces questions about its depth, health, and consistency. As with every recent year, the Caps enter 2022-23 with a nagging question: will they be good enough to not only make the postseason, but break through the first round for a deep run?

In this article, NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan and Bijan Todd take a deep dive into the 2022 Capitals and go position-by-position with their analysis of how the depth chart could, and should, shake out.

Center

Depth Chart: Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd, Dylan Strome, Connor McMichael, Hendrix Lapierre, Aliaksei Protas, Henrik Borgstrom

Bijan: As if it were a glaring neon sign at the top of the depth chart, the biggest question mark on Washington’s roster is if and when Nicklas Backstrom returns. The franchise legend underwent hip resurfacing surgery on June 17 and is expected to miss the first few months of the campaign. The ambiguity of his timeline is one reason why the Caps went after Dylan Strome, who they signed on a one-year deal in July.

In Strome, the Caps get a young (25), top-six caliber center who is fresh off a 22-goal season with the Blackhawks and is sure to bolster the team’s faceoff percentage. Washington was third-to-last (47.2%) in the NHL in the category last season, while Strome ranked in the top-50 among all skaters (52.3%). Connor McMichael is also an interesting piece, as the 21-year-old fan favorite impressed during his solid rookie campaign last year and is “ahead of schedule” for this year, according to GM Brian MacLellan. However, the center position is the most crowded one on the depth chart even without Backstrom so McMichael will face serious competition for ice time there.

J.J., with Backstrom out indefinitely, how do you think McMichael and maybe some of the guys from Hershey could fit into the depth chart?

J.J.: The unfortunate reality for the younger players is that the Capitals still see themselves as contenders and, as a result, are much more inclined to lean on veterans than prospects to fill out their lineup. That's why general manager Brian MacLellan elected to go out and sign a player like Strome and re-sign a player like Marcus Johansson who can move to center if needed. McMichael is going to have a role to play on this team in 2022-23, but I am not sure any of the younger players like Lapierre, Protas or Borgstrom will unless more injuries strike.

When projecting the 2022-23 season, it would be wise to assume we do not see Backstrom in the regular season. Not only is recovering from a significant procedure, but his return would mean clearing enough cap space to fit him in. That could prove difficult. Still, despite losing such a significant piece of the lineup, MacLellan has done well to set the Caps up in the middle of the ice.

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Strome will likely take the top two jobs. Nic Dowd looks like a lock for his normal role on the fourth line. The third line is where it gets interesting. Lars Eller had a difficult 2021-22 campaign. While I do believe he starts the season as the third-line center with McMichael on the wing, I could see McMichael grabbing that spot at some point. He has to get stronger on the puck -- my main criticism of his game last season was his inability to win puck battles -- but the skill is there. Eller, meanwhile, played limited time on the wing last season and could be moved there if needed.

Wing

Depth Chart: Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Anthony Mantha, T.J. Oshie, Connor Brown, Conor Sheary, Connor McMichael, Marcus Johansson, Garnet Hathaway, Carl Hagelin, Joe Snively, Brett Leason

J.J.: Alex Ovechkin is coming off his record-tying ninth 50-goal season and looking to make it 10 as he continues to chase Wayne Gretzky's 894. Gordie Howe is square in his sights as Ovechkin's 780 goals sits just behind Mr. Hockey's 801 by just 21 goals on the all-time list. Barring injury, Ovechkin will finish the season No. 2.

I'm out on predicting the Great 8's decline. People have been expecting it for years and it just never happens. He will seemingly score 50 forever. But the players who may be joining him on the scoresheet this year are harder to figure out.

Tom Wilson was second on the team last season with 24 goals, but ACL surgery in late May with a recovery time of six-to-eight months will likely keep him out until at least December. A number of ailments limited T.J. Oshie to just 44 games and 11 goals and, at 35 years old, I would expect him to take a third-line role this season.

With the offense banged up and another year older, you can understand why MacLellan felt it was necessary to boost the offense with players like Strome and Connor Brown in the offseason. Brown should play a major role, perhaps even a top-line role with Wilson out, in his first season in Washington after the summer trade with the Ottawa Senators. This season will also have to be Anthony Mantha's best for the Capitals. He will be called upon more than ever to boost the offense.

Bijan, with Wilson out to start the season, does this team have enough scoring depth behind Ovechkin?

Bijan: While he's not a winger, I think the Caps' biggest wild card in terms of scoring will be Kuznetsov. Last year, he gave his best production in a season since the 2018 Cup run and with all the injuries you mentioned to the forward lines, Kuznetsov will need to replicate that output in order for the Caps to maintain pace with the rest of the high-scoring Metropolitan Division.

Mantha's injuries were part of a horrendously long list of ailments Washington faced last season, but when he played he showed why the team felt comfortable acquiring him at the 2021 NHL trade deadline. He put up 23 points in 37 games, showing that when he's healthy he is an extremely valuable component to the team. Strome was a huge pickup and will help facilitate the top six while Wilson and Backstrom remain out. Who is to say guys like Conor Sheary (who finished fourth on the team in goals last year) won't continue their torrid streak into 2023? We can be cautiously optimistic on that front.

Even if the team's veterans take a step back in terms of production, AHLers could step in and step up, as they did throughout last year. I've always been a huge fan of Aliaksei Protas -- a 6-foot-6 forward with a penchant for winning puck battles and facilitating the attack. He and fellow 2019 draft pick Brett Leason could be a solid safety net in 2022-23 if the team needs an energy boost during the season. Combined with McMichael, the first-round pick that year, the Caps are getting bang for their buck from that draft class already.

Defense

Depth Chart: John Carlson, Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen, Dmitry Orlov, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson, Matt Irwin, Lucas Johansen, Alex Alexeyev

J.J.: The 2022-23 Caps do not come into the season with the glaring holes on the blue line they had a year ago. The departures of Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara left massive (literally and figuratively) question marks on defense which is why Martin Fehervary's breakout season was so critically important. John Carlson may be the headliner, but Fehervary's ability to step into a top-four role right away solidified the defense and allowed Dmitry Orlov to play on the second pair.

This year, the top four should remain the same with the only addition coming on the third pair. Erik Gustafsson is expected to play left on the third pair which allows Trevor van Riemsdyk to move to his natural side on the right. This looks like a solid unit returning five out of six starters on a defense that ranked 13th in the NHL in goals against per game despite all the uncertainty in net.

Bijan, with the defense largely returning and upgrades in net, will defense be this team's biggest strength in 2022-23?

Bijan: It very well could be. Fehervary's first full season in Washington was truly something to behold. He led all rookie defensemen in hits by almost 100 this past year, finished fourth in shots, sixth in blocked shots, and sixth in points per games played (min. 50 games). He's the one single player, behind Ovechkin, I'm most looking forward to watching this year. Van Riemsdyk is also one of the unsung heroes of the defensive unit, making very few miscues in an expanded role last year. Many people were confused why the Caps protected TvR during the expansion draft, but he showed why that was a savvy move by bolstering the defense behind Carlson and Fehervary. If the Caps can limit their defensive turnovers and mistakes on the power play, their D-pairings should be able to hold down the fort.

Goalie

Depth Chart: Darcy Kuemper, Charlie Lindgren

Bijan: Out with the old, in with the new. The tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov simply weren’t cutting it in D.C. last year with an average of .902 SV% and 2.85 GAA between the two of them. Washington was therefore content with having zero rostered goalies for a few hectic days this summer after trading Vanecek to the Devils and not offering Samsonov a qualifying offer. Then, in a span of 24 hours, the Caps signed defending Stanley Cup Champion Darcy Kuemper to a five-year deal and Lindgren to a three-year deal.

It's appetizing to think that the Caps could have potentially signed their first long-term solution at netminder since Braden Holtby when they snagged Kuemper. His .921 save percentage during Colorado’s Cup run is a good omen, but it must be noted that the 32-year-old was helped tremendously by arguably the best defense in hockey. Still, it’s an unquestionable upgrade from last season.

The best part of the one-two punch of Kuemper and Lindgren, should they pan out and be the goalies Washington expects them to be, is that they’ll provide stability over the three years their contracts overlap in D.C. while the Caps’ aging core is still on the ice. It’s a window for success that is closing fast, but with Kuemper and Lindgren in net, that might put the forwards and defensemen at ease and give them a chance to make another playoff run.

J.J., are Kuemper’s stats misleading given the defense he worked with in Colorado? Also, can we expect more of Lindgren than to just be a solid backup? 

J.J.: While it is true that Kuemper had a lot of help in front of him thanks to an incredible Colorado roster, he certainly did not have that with the Arizona Coyotes, in the three seasons prior to 2021-22 while with the Coyotes, Kuemper put up save percentages of .925, .928 and .907. The .907 is not encouraging, but you can forgive that after he followed it up with a Stanley Cup while with the Avalanche.

I do not see Kuemper as an Igor Shesterkin who can, by himself, turn a middling roster into a contender, but I do see Kuemper as a dependable goalie and a massive upgrade from what they had previously, especially because I do not think he will have to be a 32-year-old workhorse. Why not? Because I also really like what Lindgren brings.

Lindgren is 28 and has only 29 games of NHL experience, but I really like the potential. In 2022-23 he was 5-0-0 with a 1.22 GAA and .958 save percentage with the St. Louis Blues. It's a small sample size, but you can't do much better than that.

This is a player who has been in line for a backup job for a long time now and I expect him to make the most of it.