It’s a new season for the Washington Capitals, but not much is different than a year ago.
Entering Thursday’s start to training camp, the Capitals again own one of the oldest teams in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin is a year grayer, and the roster features 16 players in their 30s.
The expectation, again, is that Washington will compete for a playoff spot, but questions remain about whether this is a roster capable of claiming a Stanley Cup — or even a playoff series, which the Capitals haven’t done since winning the championship in 2018.
And, similar to last year, the health of Nicklas Backstrom is in question after continued issues with his hip.
The Capitals are still hoping they can redirect the ship coming off four straight seasons of first-round exits. The team’s brass moved quickly in the offseason to address some of the team’s biggest needs at all three levels, hoping the reinforcements can vault the Capitals into potentially one last hurrah.
But big question marks stilln. Here are three of the most pressing questions facing the Capitals entering training camp:
1. Can Alex Ovechkin continue defying Father Time?
Let’s start with the question that NHL fans have been asking themselves for years. Can Ovechkin playing this well?
Ovechkin is officially in his late 30s after turning 37 on Saturday and is entering year 18 of his career. Some in the NHL expected Ovechkin’s decline to continue last season after a less-than-stellar 2020-21 campaign. But Ovechkin came out firing to start the season, becoming a midseason MVP candidate and passing Brett Hull and Jaromir Jagr on the all-time goals list along the way.
He ended the resurgent campaign with 50 goals — his first time hitting the mark since 2018-19 and just the second time in the last six years. His 90 points, thanks to an uncharacteristic 40 assists, were the most Ovechkin’s tallied since his age 24 season in 2009-10. “The Great 8” finished 10th in MVP voting — his first time in the top 10 since 2018-19.
He enters this season 21 goals behind Gordie Howe for second all-time and 114 behind Wayne Gretzky. On top of likely passing Howe this season, Ovechkin could also become the only player in NHL history to score 50-plus goals at age 37 or older.
At some point, Ovechkin’s production will decline, or potentially fall off a cliff. But it didn’t happen last season, and anyone who doesn’t want to eat crow should bet against this being the year that Father Time catches up to Ovechkin.
2. Will Darcy Kuemper be what the Capitals need in net?
The biggest question mark all last season — and the year before — was about whether Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek would step up and take over the No. 1 spot. It never happened.
Both youngsters had their moments, but their inconsistency in net marred the Capitals during the middle part of the season and in the squad’s first-round loss to Florida in six games. The team traded Vanecek to New Jersey for draft capital and let Samsonov hit free agency.
To replace them, Washington quickly signed one of the two best netminders on the market in Kuemper, who helped lead the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup last season, to a five-year, $26.25 million contract. The Capitals also inked Charlie Lindgren to back up Kuemper.
Kuemper, 32, is expected to bring consistency to the cage for a team that hasn’t had that since Braden Holtby in 2017-18. His career save percentage is .918 — a mark that a Capitals goalie hasn’t hit in six years.
“Darcy’s a veteran goaltender,” coach Peter Laviolette said in July. “He had a terrific year, brings a lot of experience and history of playing really well. We’re really excited to have him.”
3. When will Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson return?
These are the million-dollar questions, and not just because Backstrom and Wilson carry a combined cap hit of $14.3 million this season.
Wilson tore his ACL in Game 1 against the Panthers, while Backstrom was hampered all year by his left hip, which caused him to miss the beginning of the season after flaring up at the end of the 2020-21 campaign. Backstrom, 34, underwent a second, more invasive surgery on the hip in June.
Wilson is expected to rejoin the team by the middle of the season, and his return to form is vital for Washington. The 28-year-old winger is coming off arguably the best season of his career (24 goals, 28 assists). Backstrom’s return timeline, meanwhile, is to be determined.
While the team will be eager to get Wilson and Backstrom back later in the season, Laviolette will first have to figure out how to fill their spots to open the campaign. Wilson played on the first line last season alongside Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov. T.J. Oshie filled in on the first line during the Florida series after Wilson’s injury, but Anthony Mantha and newcomer Connor Brown, who the Capitals signed in free agency, could fill in there as well. Meanwhile, filling in for Backstrom in the middle of the second line is likely Dylan Strome, another free agent signing.