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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Team Preview – Player Profiles

Review: For the first time since 2013-2014, the Capitals missed the playoffs, and their .488 points percentage was the club’s lowest since 2006-2007. It’s not as though a 35-37-10 record is egregiously bad, but it was a sign of slippage for a team that leans on a lot of older players. Washington ranked 20th with 3.11 goals per game, and 19th with 3.23 goals against per game. Alex Ovechkin and Dylan Strome were the only two Capitals to cross the thresholds of 20 goals and 60 points, which was not enough to keep pace in a league that was scoring more goals. The challenge for the Capitals is going to be reversing that trend when so many of their key players are on the back nine of their careers.

What’s Changed? The big addition for the Capitals is veteran Max Pacioretty, who is a premier goal-scorer, but he is also a 34-year-old winger who suffered two Achilles tears last season and has played a total of 92 games in the past three seasons. Washington also traded for defenseman Joel Edmundson, a 30-year-old who has battled injuries in the past two seasons. Pacioretty has a chance to be a difference maker if he stays healthy, while Edmundson is a lower-key addition, but it is fitting for the Capitals to add players in their thirties who have been battling injuries. If the Capitals are going to rebound, it is going to be because Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, and John Carlson are going to be healthy and productive in the ways that they were previously.

What would success look like? A return to the playoffs would be a successful season, but it also would rely on a lot going right, in terms of veteran players staying healthy and producing. In addition to the players who missed substantial time with injuries last season, the Capitals also need the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Anthony Mantha to deliver more. Those are possible outcomes, but in a league that is increasingly being ruled by the young, the Capitals are dependent on players in their thirties, and led by Ovechkin, who will be 38. These core players have achieved success, so they know what is required, but know-how is not the challenge facing them. It’s much more about whether they can stay healthy enough to surprise some teams.

What could go wrong? If the core veterans can’t stay healthy, the Capitals are not equipped to make up for that situation. Nicklas Backstrom has the potential to be a make-or-break type of player for the Capitals because he returned from hip resurfacing surgery last season and was nowhere near the elite two-way player that he was in his prime. If he can approach that level, then that would go a long way towards the Capitals contending for a playoff berth. If the 36-year-old is not going to get back to that level of play, though, things could start to unravel, especially if Evgeny Kuznetsov does not have a big bounce back after a tough season.

Top Breakout Candidate: On a team with few young players in any kind of significant role, defenseman Rasmus Sandin looks like the best breakout candidate on the roster. The 23-year-old defenseman scored a career-high 35 points (7 G, 28 A) last season, but more importantly saw a major spike in his ice time after landing in Washington, averaging nearly 23 minutes per game with the Capitals. With John Carlson healthy, Sandin will not have first-unit power play time, but if he retains a steady top-four role, playing upwards of 20 minutes per game for a full season, Sandin will have the chance to carry his game to a whole new level.


Alex Ovechkin

After burying 42 goals last season, Ovechkin is up to 822 goals for his career, in the hunt for Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record of 894 goals. Ovi is not quite the dominant force of his peak years, but he can still launch one-timers from his spot on the power play and is still a physical presence. As he chases down the Gretzky record, a seemingly inevitable conclusion, one of the challenges that Ovechkin will face is not merely his own mortality, but that of the setup men who have helped him get to this point. He barely played with Nicklas Backstrom during five-on-five play last season, and they have a long and illustrious history together. Dylan Strome ended up being Ovechkin’s most common linemate in 2022-2023. Whether the Capitals are good or not, Ovechkin is likely to score goals, but his impact during five-on-five play is waning, which should not come as a surprise for a player who will be 38 by the time the puck drops on the new season. Ovechkin has never been a stellar defensive performer, but he is much more in the category of liability without the puck on his stick. Even if that is the case, Ovechkin can still fill it up when he is on his game. From mid-November through early January, he had 33 points (20 G, 13 A) while recording 109 shots on goal in 22 games. The shot rate is the key for Ovechkin. During that hot streak, he was pushing five shots per game but his 4.03 shots per game in 2022-2023 was the third lowest rate of his career. There is nothing wrong with decline at this age, especially when Ovechkin is still capable of putting up 40 goals and 70 points.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

A talented but inconsistent center, Kuznetsov had 55 points (12 G, 43 A) in 81 games last season, which is underwhelming for a player who has surpassed 70 points four times in his career. At a salary cap hit of $7.8 million for the next two seasons, he is expensive, especially if he is not producing. One reason to be hopeful for Kuznetsov to bounce back is that he scored on just 7.0% of his shots last season, the lowest mark of his career and the first time since 2014-2015 that he finished under 10.0%. It is telling that Kuznetsov played a career high 20:17 per game in 2021-2022 and then saw his ice time drop to 18:04 per game last season, when he had a hard time at both ends of the rink. The Capitals managed just 42.5% of expected goals during five-on-five play with Kuznetsov on the ice, the lowest rate among Washington players that played at least 10 games. Some of that could be due to linemates. Aside from Ovechkin, who was his most common linemate, Kuznetsov played the most with wingers Sonny Milano, Anthony Mantha, and Connor Sheary. For whatever strengths those players offer, they are not first line players, and the Capitals would, at least theoretically, like Kuznetsov to be a first-line center. He staggered into the finish, managing a meagre five points (1 G, 4 A) in his last 20 games. It is certainly possible that Kuznetsov could decline, but he is one year removed from scoring 78 points in 79 games, that is not a foregone conclusion. While 60 points might be a fair expectation for Kuznetsov, he is skilled enough to push a point-per-game in the right circumstances, too.

Tom Wilson

Wilson is often described as a unicorn, for his rare ability to play the role of heavyweight enforcer and still contribute as a scoring winger, too. He had career highs of 24 goals and 52 points in 2021-2022, but suffered a torn ACL and recovering from injury limited him to 33 games last season. He still put up 13 goals and 22 points with 82 shots on goal and 78 penalty minutes and 97 hits. He really seemed to be rounding into form late in the season, scoring 11 points (5 G, 6 A) and generating 41 shots on goal in his last 12 games. Health is a major factor when trying to project Wilson’s production for 2023-2024. 20 goals and 45 points is a reasonable target, knowing that there is further upside if he can stay healthy for most of the season. Wilson signed a seven-year contract extension this summer, which is a risky move since his style of play tends not to age very well. In the short term, though, Wilson can be a valuable contributor to the Capitals, albeit one that might get more appreciation from old school evaluators.

Dylan Strome

With uncertainty around the Capitals’ other centers, Strome took advantage of the opportunity and produced a career-high 65 points (23 G, 42 A). He has never been fleet afoot, but he has always known what to do with the puck in the offensive zone. If 26-year-old Strome can build on his production from last season, that could also help the Capitals stay competitive, but asking anyone to duplicate their career-best season seems like a lot. Strome’s most common linemate was Alex Ovechkin, which is not a bad situation for a playmaking center. Strome had a monster finish to the 2022-2023 campaign. Following the trade deadline, he produced 25 points (10 G, 15 A) in 19 games. There is an uneasy balance for ice time down the middle if Kuznetsov and Backstrom are healthy, too, but the Capitals will find time for Strome and he should be counted on to produce at least 50 points, with room to go even higher depending on how much ice time is available.

Max Pacioretty

It is difficult to put any expectations on a 34-year-old winger who tore his Achilles twice last season, but Pacioretty is such a premier scoring winger that he is an interesting low-risk investment for the Capitals. In 163 games since the start of the 2019-2020 season, Pacioretty has tallied 78 goals, so on pace for more than 39 goals in a full season. Although Pacioretty is not likely to be ready for the start of the 2023-2024 season, he may not miss too much time and, could be a fantastic source of secondary scoring if he gets healthy. He is a six-time 30-goal scorer who has 326 goals in his career. In very little playing time last season, Pacioretty scored three goals in five games. Pacioretty has 91 points (46 G, 45 A) in 92 games across the past three seasons, so there is little doubt that he can be productive. The bigger concern is that he played just 92 games in three seasons, so he will likely challenge for a point-per-game but who wants to guess how many games he will play? Pacioretty has played at least 60 games eight times in his career, so if that is a fair baseline, then the veteran winger could still put up 25 goals and 50 points.

Nicklas Backstrom

After having hip resurfacing surgery, the 35-year-old pivot was a shell of his former self. While he held his own defensively, he was ineffective offensively, which is so unlike Backstrom. That is entirely understandable given that he is coming back from major surgery, but it also showed how far his game had declined as he managed just 21 points (7 G, 14 A) in 39 games. During his peak years, Backstrom was an elite two-way playmaking center, but it is probably not reasonable to expect that from him any longer. If he feels healthier this season, maybe he can bounce back and deliver a strong season and that would go a long way towards making the Capitals more competitive, but how often do players in their mid-30s experience significant bounce-back campaigns? It is entirely reasonable to expect Backstrom to be better than last season, but he was practically unplayable last season. If he can stay mostly healthy, and his hip really is better, Backstrom could produce at least 50 points, but there is a lot of uncertainty that comes with any Backstrom projections because of his age and injury history.

T.J. Oshie

The hard-driving 36-year-old winger remains productive but is showing the effects of a career that has been marked by hard physical play. He has always played bigger than his size but that has an impact on his body. Oshie played 58 games last season and has surpassed 70 games just once in the past seven seasons. He also scored 19 goals and his 2.17 shots per game was his highest rate since 2015-2016, so Oshie can bring production when he is healthy, though a lot of that is tied to what he can do on the power play. Oshie was scoring down the stretch. He had 15 points (8 G, 7 A) in his last 17 games, despite being held off the scoresheet in his last four games before getting hurt. Oshie could still produce 40 points, maybe even 20 goals, but his scoring is so dependent on how many games he will play, and recent seasons suggest that he will miss significant time.

Anthony Mantha

A towering winger who has two 20-goal seasons to his credit, Mantha managed just 11 goals and 27 points last season. That lack of production led to a diminished role down the stretch as Mantha produced just three points (2 G, 1 A) in his last 21 games. With his rare size and soft hands, Mantha is capable of so much more but with 420 NHL games to his credit, this inconsistency may just be par for the course. He had a 20-game goal-scoring drought to start 2023, which seems preposterous for a player with his talent. For all of his inconsistent production, Mantha does drive strong possession results. His team has always fared better with him on the ice in that regard and even with his limited production, Mantha’s defensive results were strong in 2022-2023. Mantha is impossible to trust for significant production. If he manages 30 points, it will be the first time since 2018-2019 that he even hit that modest threshold.

Sonny Milano

Signing as a free agent at the start of last season, Milano made the most of his opportunity with Washington, producing 33 points (11 G, 22 A) in 64 games. Milano has always had outstanding skill with the puck, but the challenge for him securing a full-time role in the NHL is rounding out his game. He is never going to be a physical presence, but he must at least be responsible when the puck is not on his stick. One point of caution when it comes to Milano is that his 5-on-5 on-ice shooting percentage last season was 11.1%, notably higher than his career mark of 8.1%, so there is a good chance that he runs into regression in 2023-2024. He could offset some of that regression by earning more ice time, as he played just 12:54 per game last season. That should help Milano to put up at least 30 points for the third straight season.


John Carlson

Carlson had to have an ear surgically re-attached last season, a gruesome injury that helped limit him to just 40 games, but the veteran defender has a track record as an elite point producing defenseman. Since 2017-2018, he has recorded 357 points (79 G, 278 A), which ranks second among defensemen, five points behind Nashville’s Roman Josi. At 33 years old and coming off an injury-marred campaign, though, Carlson brings more risk than he has in previous seasons. It’s possible that he resumes his place on the Washington power play and keeps piling up points or maybe decline will start to set in. Given Carlson’s track record, he probably has a few more productive seasons up his sleeve. The good news was that, after being sidelined for three months, he played 10 games at the end of the season, picking up eight points (1 G, 7 A). Carlson has been so consistently productive that even on a Capitals team that looks like it could struggle, he should be expected to produce 55 to 60 points.

Rasmus Sandin

Acquired from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, Sandin produced 15 points (3 G, 12 A) while playing nearly 23 minutes per game in 19 games with Washington. He is a smooth puck-moving defenseman who is an excellent passer, but even though he is on the smaller side, Sandin is not afraid to get involved physically and he recorded 136 hits in 71 games last season. He could still afford to improve his play without the puck, especially because he can get outmuscled by bigger forwards, forcing him to use his savvy and smarts to win those battles. Sandin’s upside is likely going to be limited by a healthy Carlson returning to Washington’s top power play unit, but 23-year-old Sandin is looking at a much bigger role in Washington than he ever had in Toronto. Sandin recorded 12 points (1 G, 11 A) in his first nine games with Washington, but his production tailed off after Carlson returned from his injury. Even with Carlson back in the lineup, Sandin should have a bona fide chance to produce 35-40 points in a bigger role for the Capitals.

Nick Jensen

A quietly reliable and steady veteran, Jensen played a career-high 20:37 per game last season and the right-shot defenseman finished with a career-high 29 points (5 G, 24 A). Jensen handles more defensive responsibility, starting fewer shifts in the offensive zone, but the late bloomer has made the most of his opportunity since sticking in the NHL. Last season, his most common partners were Martin Fehervary and Dmitry Orlov. Jensen was more successful with Orlov, which is not surprising, but now that he has moved on, Jensen could face more challenges on the Washington blueline this season. He is efficient and takes care of business, but that can fly under the radar. Jensen started last season with seven points (1 G, 6 A) in 10 games, but that pace was never going to last. A 25-point season is a very reasonable expectation for Jensen, but his contributions are beyond what kind of point production he can muster.

Martin Fehervary

An intriguing young defenseman, Fehervary has good size and is not shy about using it to break up the opposing team’s cycle in the defensive zone. He has recorded 482 hits in 152 career games, so that part of his contribution has been quickly established. Fehervary might have some latent offensive upside, too, as a strong skater who can move the puck a bit. However, circumstances are not lining up with Fehervary getting a great opportunity to produce points. He has 34 points (14 G, 20 A) in 152 career games, and with Carlson and Sandin on board, Fehervary is not an early choice for power play time. As it is, if he could hit 20 points in a season that would have to be considered progress.


Darcy Kuemper

Darcy Kuemper might not be playing for a team chasing the cup anymore, but he finally got what he spent so long working for – a long-term contract with term, security, and the pay he’d earned through a series of impressive outings in Los Angeles, Arizona, and Colorado. He’s now set to enter year two of his five-year campaign with the Washington Capitals, where he’s the very obvious number one for the foreseeable future.

Kuemper didn’t quite dazzle last season the way he did in his lone season with the Colorado Avalanche, seeing his numbers dip in every statistical category over his second consecutive 57-game outing. Some of that may have been from the wear and tear of shouldering back-to-back years of heavy workloads; his game can backslide a bit when he’s fatigued or thrown off by bad goals, revealing a tendency to overslide his marks and open up holes in his coverage by staying too long on his knees. He wasn’t the reason for Washington’s struggles last season by any stretch, but he didn’t rise up and carry them out of lottery contention and into the postseason. The lack of a healthy and consistent roster for the Capitals exposed Kuemper’s minor – but predictable – weaknesses in his game, lending further evidence to the theory that he had been a solid contributor to the Colorado Avalanche but not the difference-maker that pushed them up to the top of the league. That could spell trouble for any Capitals fans hoping to see their team make a significant bounce-back this upcoming season, as their roster’s core pieces continue to get older. But Kuemper wasn’t brought on board to be the team’s savior – he was brought on to make sure goaltending wasn’t the team’s achilles heel, and it’s likely he’ll continue to deliver in that area next year and beyond.

Projected starts: 50-55