Is the left side of the defense a major weakness for the Capitals?

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Is the left side of the defense a major weakness for the Caps? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.

Today's topic: Is the left side of the defense a major weakness for the Caps?

Andrew: I would say right now it doesn’t qualify as a weakness in the traditional sense, but it certainly could become one if a few things don’t break right.

Dmitry Orlov is a good top-pairing defenseman, but the bottom four are left unknown with Michal Kempny, Martin Fehervary and Alexander Alexeyev.

Kempny is working his way back from a torn Achilles and suffered a severe hamstring injury late in the 2018-19 season that hampered his next season. Fehervary, who general manager Brian MacLellan spoke highly of, has just six NHL games under his belt. Alexeyev has never played in the NHL. 

I think the Capitals have enough on the right side (John Carlson, Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen and Trevor van Riemsdyk) to help take the burden off that unproven left side early in the season. The right side is certainly talented and has clear roles, which I think eases the transition for a player like Fehervary making the jump if he can play with a Schultz or Jensen or van Riemsdyk.

If Kempny and/or Fehervary need more time, the Capitals can always call up Alexeyev and see what he can do at the NHL level. But of course, that’s not a preferred option at the moment and this entire operation could fall like a house of cards.

So I think right now it can be classified as a weakness, but it absolutely can become a strength, or decline, very quickly.

JJ: It looks to me as if the Caps are going to head into next season replacing Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara on the left side of the defense with Michal Kempny and Martin Fehervary. That should make fans nervous.

Kempny was a key piece in the Caps' championship run. During that run, he established himself as a top-pair defenseman alongside John Carlson. Kempny, however, is coming off a second major injury. He tore his hamstring in 2019 and did not look quite right in his return for the 2019-20 season. The end of the season was then delayed due to COVID-19, but he still struggled when the team returned. Then he suffered an Achilles injury that kept him out of the entire 2021 season. The last NHL game he played was Aug. 14, 2020.

Fehervary is a highly-touted defensive prospect who looks like he is ready to graduate from the AHL. It just does not look like there is anything more for him to learn there. But he also has just six games of NHL experience.

I have no idea what to expect from either Kempny or Fehervary next season. The problem is that not only are both players probably going to have to be everyday players, one of them is going to have to play in the top four. Yes, Trevor van Riemsdyk could potentially step in and play on the left, but as a right shot, it is not preferable. Also, he was Washington's No. 7 last season so it is not as if the Caps would or should plug him onto the second defensive pair. We are talking about him on the third meaning Kempny or Fehervary is still going to have to play in the top four.

This could work out. Kempny could look like his old self again after a lot of time off to rest and recover. Fehervary could step in and immediately thrive. Both players, however, could just as easily struggle and then the Caps are in trouble.

We have talked about the team's thin center depth as a weakness, but that's only if one of their top four centers gets injured. We have talked about how the goaltending needs to be better, but that's for a potential playoff run as the Ilya Samsonov/Vitek Vanecek tandem was at least good enough last season. The reason why the defense is scary is that the Caps need Kempny and Fehervary not just to contribute, but play a significant role on the second defensive pairing. If they are not up to that, that is a major hole in the lineup and one the team cannot easily fill with its cap limitations.