The Stanley Cup Finals have now come to a close and, for the third-straight season, the Washington Capitals were not involved in the Stanley Cup festivities. Well, that is undeniably disappointing for the players, management and fans, I would like to steer away from the route that Capitals’ Twitter loves to take and actually compliment this team for a change. It’s ridiculous, every time you scroll through Twitter as a Caps fan, it’s just people chirping John Carlson or Evgeny Kuznetsov or some other elite hockey player and indicating, directly or indirectly, that they aren’t good at hockey (?). I know many would have us believe that it isn’t possible to look at the Capitals fondly if they don’t win the Cup, but it’s important to remember that there are 29 other teams that didn’t get the privilege of lifting Lord Stanley either. So, in the spirit of perspective, I’d like to look back with a positive lens and examine the players that I believe were the most valuable to the team from the past season.
Although I will be presenting my personal top five most valuable Capitals from the 2020-21 (it’s the 2021 season, let’s be honest) season, I have also reached out to people closer to the Caps than I am for their opinions. Not just distance-wise, being from Ontario, Canada, but people who actually have a relationship to the club and not just a bunch of fake jerseys from China on their walls. For this article, I reached out to Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell on Twitter), the beyond-talented beat writer for The Washington Post, to get her opinion on the matter. I also reached out to a source who is, you guessed it, also close to the Capitals to find out who they found to be the most valuable pieces on the team from not just this past season, but also moving forward.
Although they didn’t have the playoff success we all were hoping they would, it is undeniable that this Caps team exceeded expectations set before the start of the season. With the oldest roster in the NHL, lots of fans speculated that maybe this would be the season where Washington finally fell off the hockey pedestal they’ve been on for the better part of the last decade. The team ended up finishing second in the war zone that was the MassMutual East Division with 77 points (tying division leader, Pittsburgh, but finishing second as a result of a tiebreaker). Let’s finally dive into who helped them exceed those expectations laid out prior to the start of the season.
We’ll start with the honourable mentions.
It was massive news when Big Z came to D.C., and if that pun didn’t sell you on readings things I write, well just leave now. Although people weren’t crazy about the move at first (myself included), he made his presence felt early. He was beloved in the locker room and played on a solid defensive pair with Nick Jensen for most of the season. Not to mention, he is one of the toughest and most intimidating bastards in the league and produced one of the coolest hockey photos in recent memory.
I’ll let Sam Pell break it down in a more intelligent manner than I ever could:
I think valuable means a lot of different things, but with Chara it was pure leadership and influence on the D corps plus the room. I think he really really helped Jensen on that third pairing and overall strengthened the group.Sam Pell, The Washington Post
Talk about a guy who gets verbally assaulted for no real reason. Has he made mistakes on the ice? Yes, he has. Does he play the most minutes on the team, and play in all situations, making mistakes more likely? Yes, obviously. Is he arguably the best point-producing defenseman in the NHL? 100%.
Carlson has become a whipping boy to Capitals’ fans, and it’s something that has just absolutely boggled my mind. Carly is a horse on the backend who works his ass off in his own corners to get pucks out and is a complete stud at keeping pucks in the opponent’s zone. Plus, when he has it in their zone, he can either fire one of the hardest shots in the NHL or fire one of the nicest passes you’ve ever seen.
To think of him as anything other than a #1 defenseman in the NHL is incorrect because this guy is an elite talent who is one of the biggest reasons the Capitals power play has been as successful as it has been over the years — including this year.
Here’s what my source had to say about the Norris-nominated defenseman:
When you average 24+ minutes a night and get a majority of specialty team starts, you’re on the ice a lot. And when you’re on the ice a lot – if you’re playing well – there’s a good chance your team’s gonna be on the winning end of things when you’re as talented as John Carlson. But, when you’re not playing well… John has been injured or dinged up the last few years at crucial times for the Caps. Last year in the bubble, he nursed an Oblique injury where he just didn’t look himself. Then, this year, a knee injury saw him miss the last few games of the regular season, which surely was hindering, and only hurt a power play which was a huge disappointment during the last bit of regular season and especially in the playoffs. A healthy, engaged defensively John Carlson is a good sign for the Caps, who finished top three in 5-on-5 points, albeit finishing the season with the team’s second worst plus-minus, unfortunately.
It feels incredibly weird to make a list like this and not include the Great 8, but I think everyone knows this year was not the gr8est for Ovi. I’m sure even he knows that. It took him awhile to get going after he had to miss time due to being placed on the COVID-protocol list and after not having a regular training camp. Plus, he also missed significant time with an injury for the first time in what feels like forever when he suffered a lower-body injury against the New York Islanders late in the season.
However, he still led the team in goals with 24 despite only playing in 45 games, and went on one of his trademark, phenomenal goal-scoring streaks, scoring 11 goals in 12 games. Then, when it came playoff time, he led the team in points with four points in five games. Not to mention he buried his 700th goal this season which, so I’ve heard, is good.
Ovi is the heartbeat of this team and has been since his first game in the national league. Just because he slipped to an honourable mention on this list doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable, he just had an off season by his absurd standards (which is wild because he still had 42 points in 45 games at age 35). He is the epitome of valuable, and, if you don’t believe me, come back after he signs the blank cheque in front of him to remain with the team that not a single fan will complain about.
#5 Nic Dowd
I have to admit, Sam Pell’s inclusion of Dowd on her list definitely helped me realize just how valuable he was to this year’s squad.
This past season, Dowd truly solidified himself as this team’s fourth-line centre on a fourth line that solidified itself as one of the best in the entire league. The fourth line was so good, in fact, that they were the only line on the team that was never split up once throughout the entire season. On a team with three different players named Nick, you have to do something to stand out (other than excluding the “k” from your name), and that’s exactly what Dowd did. Throughout the 56-game season, in which he played every game, Dowd put up a career-high 11 goals in 56 games. This put him on pace to score 16 goals and tie his career high with 22 points. In addition to putting up point totals, he was also an asset for the Capitals in the dot, as he accumulated an impressive 56.3 faceoff-win percentage. This was good enough for first overall on the Caps, and 21st overall in the NHL.
Perhaps where Dowd’s value truly shined through the most this past season were the times the three centremen in front of him went down. Whether it be Nick Backstrom’s and Lars Eller’s injuries, or Kuznetsov’s battles with COVID-19, it was always Dowd who was stepping up to fill in those gaps. As Sam Pell writes:
The Caps were sooo thin at center that he really was an underrated piece to them making it as far as they did in my opinion. That fourth line stayed together all season and, while at times maybe was questionable, I think just having Dowd as that center option when everyone started to get hurt/covid/other, made a big difference.Sam Pell, The Washington Post
Not to mention that the play of Dowd and the rest of the fourth line were one of the few positives to take away from the 2021 postseason for the Caps. He scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game 1, and he and Garnet Hathaway were a force to be reckoned with throughout the rest of the series.
#4 Dmitry Orlov
This guy has been with the Capitals for a long time and has always sort of flew under the radar, but this year I think his play is worth acknowledging.
This one may come as a surprise because neither Sam Pell, nor my source mentioned Orlov. Maybe I picked him so I wouldn’t just copy Sam and I could try to have an original thought, or maybe he just played that damn good. Let’s find out.
After a slow start to the season, many were calling for Orlov’s head. Not me because I am a biased fan who thinks everyone is perfect, but other people were. Then, after the COVID nonsense was done (for him) and he finally got his family over to North America, Orlov played great hockey for the Caps. When the season had concluded, Orly secured 8 goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 51 games. This put him on pace for 12 goals and 35 points in 82 games – both of which would have been career highs for the Russian blue-liner. Additionally, he was a +16, which led the team. I know +/- is admittedly not a great stat, however, when it is that high it generally means you are doing something right when you’re on the ice.
As I mentioned, Orlov’s game noticeably increased after his family arrived in North America. He was stepping up at the right times, intercepting passes, using his stick and making the right decisions with the puck. Plus, on a team that isn’t as mobile as some others in the league, the guy skated like the wind with the puck just like he’s always been able to do. That’s why it was so nice to see him be rewarded offensively for playing so good everywhere else without the puck.
#3 T.J. Oshie
If there’s one player who increased their stock within the Capitals’ organization this past season, it was T.J. Oshie.
It isn’t as if Oshie’s stock was ever low – he’s one of the most talented and most popular players on the team. However, there were rumours circulating that he may be exposed to the Seattle Kraken when the expansion draft happens later this month. And there may be some validity to the rumours. He is on a long-term contract that takes Oshbabe into his late 30s, and he has family ties to the state of Washington. Of course, he made it very clear that he prefers to remain in the city of Washington instead, but I’m positive he heard these rumours because Timothy Jimothy took it upon himself to light up the East Division for arguably his greatest tuck-scoring season of his career.
In just 53 games played, the product of Warroad, Minnesota (which is also the name of a super nice clothing company he runs, but holy hell is it expensive for a schmuck like me) buried 22 goals and appled on 21 goals for 43 points. This had him on pace for 34 goals and 66 points during an 82-game season. Both of these numbers would have been career highs had he been able to play an entire campaign, which is something Oshie doesn’t do regularly, anyway. He did most of his damage on the power play, where he racked up 13 power-play goals, which was good enough to tie him with Joe Pavelski for second-most in the NHL (behind Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl). This helped secure the third-best power play in the NHL for the Capitals.
For someone who, as I mentioned earlier, generally misses time each season with injury, Oshie was miraculously healthy until the home stretch of the season when he went down in the 53rd game of the season with a lower-body injury that kept him out until the start of the postseason.
The reason Oshie was more valuable this season than in seasons past was his consistency. In a unique season like this one that was anything but consistent, Oshie was a pillar of stability for this team as he continued to score on the power play, and continued to score highlight-reel goals (like this one against the scumbag Penguins).
Plus, that hat-trick in his first game after his father passed away and during all the New York Rangers garbage? One of the greatest Washington Capitals moments of all time. That’s a heart-and-soul player who is absolutely beloved by his teammates playing with that aforementioned heart and soul right on his sleeve. That’s a tough trait to find and the Capitals have that in Oshie every single night. That game is just the perfect example of it.
One thing is for sure: T.J. has all but secured his spot in the Capitals’ lineup for next season with his play this season.
#2 Vitek Vanecek
Raise your hand if you saw this guy’s name being on this list before the season started. Now put your hand down and quit lying to people because it’s a bad trait, and it doesn’t make you cool. You big liar.
Like I said in the intro to this selection when I insulted your character, Vitek Vanecek came out of absolutely nowhere this season. Most people understandably believed that the goaltending tandem entering the season would be Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist. Of course, when King Hank announced he wouldn’t play this season due to him dealing with an ongoing heart issue, VV’s window of opportunity turned into a doorway of opportunity which he strolled right on through. This opportunity was to be the backup to Samsonov for both of their first full NHL seasons.
Vanecek’s case for being a regular NHL goaltender grew even stronger when Samsonov and three other average players (kidding) were put on the COVID-protocol list and forced to miss some time. Vitek stepped right into the starter’s net and earned the trust of his teammates and management as he started 12-consecutive games for the Capitals in that time. When his rookie season wrapped up, Vanecek finished leading all rookie goalies in wins with 21 and with a record of 21-10-4. He also finished with a .908 save percentage and a 2.69 goals-against average. Additionally, Vanecek ended up starting in net for the Capitals when the playoffs rolled around, as Samsonov had been placed on the COVID-protocol list again. However, it’s not hard to argue that he deserved the starter’s cage regardless.
Vanecek’s value came in his ability to step up when called upon. He went from a goalie who wasn’t supposed to play this season to playing the most games for the team. That would be impressive for any goalie — what makes it is even more impressive is that he did it as a rookie.
Of course, as a rookie, Vanecek wasn’t perfect, but there is a lot of potential for him to grow and improve moving forward where the Capitals’ goaltending situation still has a fairly large question mark. As my source writes:
Has the 2021 playoffs not taught us what the most important position for any team is? Goalie, Goalie, Goalie… Getting that important save at the right time and just making the saves that need to be made.. too many times this year whether it was a momentum swinging soft goal or big moment where elite goalies would come up big, Caps goaltending was just not strong enough. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the true number 1 and what the Caps goalie situation looks like in general for next season.
Although there were moments of imperfection, it can’t be stated enough just how valuable Vanecek was to the Capitals this past season.
#1 Nicklas Backstrom
Here’s something I am just beyond excited to write: Nicklas Backstrom continues to be elite at age 33.
I have had people tell me that Backstrom wasn’t one of the top-10 players over the last decade. Uhh, pardon? The guy has been the premier playmaker in the NHL for 10+ seasons. You can say there are better playmakers out there but I, personally, will disagree. That’s why I couldn’t have been happier that Backstrom came flying out of the gate scorching hot and ended up finishing the season leading the team in points with 53 in 55 games. This, of course, had him on pace for around a point-per-game in a full season. Nothing out of the ordinary for St. Nicklas.
Again, similar to Oshie, not only was it Backstrom’s fantastic point production that makes him so valuable, it’s his consistency. You always know what you’re getting from Backy. The only thing is that this asset became much more valuable in an irregular regular season where nothing was consistent. For Backstrom to come out of the gate that hot to the point where there were serious debates about where he might be in the Hart conversation (while Ovi and Kuzy were forced to miss time with COVID-protocol) only speaks to the leadership style that Backstrom has demonstrated throughout his entire career – by example. Although he cooled off near the third quarter of the season, he still nearly maintained a point-per-game average, and, at 33-years old, to still be that dominant speaks to how well Mr. Backstrom thinks the game.
Not to mention, he played in his 1,000th game of his career, and as a Capital this season, making him only the second player to ever do so after Ovechkin. And my God, that ceremony. Talk about chopping onions.
Although he didn’t have his greatest postseason, it’s forgiven because he was one of the few players all season where we knew we what we were getting from him every single game.
Backstrom’s value can’t be stated enough and his impact on the game is evident. My source writes:
Not many players who are into their mid 30s can still affect a game as much as Nick Backstrom. Slowing the game down, making what seems to always be the right play, Backy, as Capitals faithful call him, has 700+ assists for a reason. He continues to be so smooth and dominant. The first half of the season and the second half (plus playoffs), we kind of saw a different Nick Backstrom, as he was rumored to be nursing a hip injury for a majority of the year. For centermen who are constantly taking faceoffs and skating 200 feet of the ice, a hip injury can really impact a player and we saw that after a scorching hot start and going on to lead the team in points. A healthy Nick Backstrom is huge for the Caps. With a Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Eller, Dowd center-ice depth all firing and healthy, the Caps are beyond deep at the most important skater position.
A big thank you goes out to those who helped me write this piece. Please make sure to check out Sam Pell’s work at The Washington Post. She just covered the Cup Finals for Post Sports as well so be sure to give that a read. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without her list of valuable players to copy. I’m semi-joking, but her insight was very valuable!