- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Washington Capitals opened training camp Sunday and will skate as a team Monday, together for the first time since their first-round playoff loss in August.

Plenty has changed since then. Washington fired coach Todd Reirden three days after the team lost in the Eastern Conference first round for the second straight season. The NHL is moving forward with an altered season in response to the coronavirus pandemic, with a 56-game schedule and new division alignments.

Now, with training camp here, coach Peter Laviolette — who the Capitals hired in September — finally has a chance to assess his players in person after an unusual offseason of phone and Zoom calls. He’ll lean on 18 years of NHL coaching experience to navigate a short training camp, with Washington’s season opener coming Jan. 14 against the Buffalo Sabres.

Here are three Capitals storylines to follow as training camp opens.

Goaltenders



After Washington allowed longtime shot-stopper Braden Holtby to depart in free agency, the team thought it solved its goalie conundrum with the addition of Henrik Lundqvist to partner with Ilya Samsonov. But the 38-year-old Lundqvist announced he will undergo open heart surgery, missing the season.

Samsonov, the 23-year-old netminder entering his second season, will handle the bulk of the load. But in a season with 10 sets of back-to-back games, depth in goal will be imperative. There will be a training camp competition for the second spot between Vitek Vanecek, Pheonix Copley and Craig Anderson — the latter a 39-year-old who joined on a professional tryout agreement.

Washington also has Zach Fucale on its training camp roster, a 25-year-old netminder who has yet to break into the NHL. Between those four options, the Capitals should have enough depth to ride out the season.

“We’ve got pieces that we’re really excited to get into training camp and see,” Laviolette said last week. “The young goalkeepers that we have in place, as well as bringing in a guy like Craig Anderson and his experience and adding him to the mix, I think it’s going to be a great battle through the course of the training camp.”

Defensive pairings

Even in the most rudimentary offseasons, the exact defensive pairings a team will use can be difficult to guess. That’s especially the case heading into Washington’s 11-day training camp period.

Beyond Brenden Dillon and John Carlson — the likely first-line pairings — Laviolette could align his defenders in numerous ways. The Capitals made four additions this offseason — Paul LaDue, Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsyk and Zdeno Chara — and enter training camp with 12 defensemen.

With a taxi squad, a few of the players who don’t make the roster will likely hang around the organization. Chara, the longtime captain of the Boston Bruins who joined Washington last week, adds another experienced blueliner to the mix, competing for playing time alongside Nick Jensen, Dmitry Orlov and Jonas Siegenthaler, among others.

Plus, with Michal Kempny likely out for the season after undergoing Achilles surgery in October, Washington will need to fill his role on the penalty kill. Chara could be the logical option, another lefty defender who averaged 3:11 minutes per game on the penalty kill last season with Boston.

“I definitely see a new opportunity, new challenges,” Chara said Thursday. “Like I said, there are no guarantees. We all have to compete, and play our best, and the most important thing is to win games as a team.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov

When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup title in 2018, it was with Evgeny Kuznetsov playing at his best. The center recorded a career high 83 points in the 2017-18 regular season, then erupted in 24 playoff games: 12 goals, 20 assists.

Kuznetsov’s output during Reirden’s two seasons as coach were more underwhelming, finishing with 72 points in 2018-19 and then dipping to 52 last season to go along with a plus/minus of -2.

On a team with ample scoring threats, Kuznetsov isn’t relied upon as the main facilitator. There’s Alex Ovechkin, who’s entering the last season of his deal but is coming off a 48-goal campaign. Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana all can find the back of the net.

But if Kuznetsov performs closer to his 2018 self, the Capitals could pose a greater threat in the East Division.

“For a new coach coming in, your job is really to try to get the most out of the team, the most out of each player,” Laviolette said. “So, that won’t change for Kuzy or Alex Ovechkin or whoever you might talk about. That’s the responsibility of the coaches, to try to push guys to be their best.”

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