Are you ready? We’re back to the 82-game regular season format, which means more joy and also more pain. It’s a roller coaster of emotions every season because there are always surprises, and the good ones can make us feel like geniuses while the bad ones feel like belly flopping into an empty pool.
But we’re all gluttons for punishment, so we might as well stay as informed as we can to later rationalize why the fantasy hockey gods hate you. Yes, they specifically hate you.
2021-22 Fantasy Outlook: Washington Capitals
Last season: For the third straight season, the Capitals were bounced in the first round, which was a shame because statistically-speaking they had one of the better seasons yet. They improved virtually across the board, especially on defense and on special teams with the league’s third-best power play and fifth-best penalty kill. It masked a rather subpar season from Ovechkin, who scored at his lowest goal-per-game pace in four seasons, providing less-than-expected dividends from fantasy managers who drafted him early in the first round following three straight Rocket Richard wins.
Their Achilles’ heel was goaltending; Ilya Samsonov started just 18 games due to injury and forced the Caps to start rookie Vitek Vanecek 36 times, more than anyone had envisioned before the season. Craig Anderson, signed one day before their season opener, was called into action and managed to get the Caps’ only playoff win, but despite Anderson’s best efforts he wasn’t always a reliable option. The Bruins’ more consistent play and superior depth came out on top, and the Caps’ top-six forwards mustered only four goals in five games.
Best option: Alex Ovechkin, LW
Ovechkin is truly a once-in-a-generation talent and one of the best goal scorers the league has ever seen. Not having Nicklas Backstrom, who is expected to at least miss the start of the season, will hurt, but they have a good backup option in Evgeny Kuznetsov, who always seems a little invigorated when playing with his fellow countryman. Basically, we’re not writing off Ovechkin just yet; he’s just one of 10 players THN’s Pool Guide has projected to score at least 40 goals. He’s not a playmaker so the drawback to Ovechkin’s fantasy value will always be the lack of assists, but goals are much harder to come by so there’s always a premium for goal scorers. At the very worst, Ovechkin should be an early second-round pick in most fantasy leagues.
Hidden gem: Anthony Mantha, LW/RW
It was a mixed bag for Mantha after a late-season trade to the Caps. His development had stalled with the Red Wings, but the early results were very good after he scored a goal in each of his first four games with the Caps. His play then completely fizzled, going without a goal over the next 15 games in the season and the playoffs. His hot-and-cold play was eventually what ended his tenure with the Wings, but there’s very few players on the Caps roster who has as much upside as him. T.J. Oshie will turn 35 in December, Tom Wilson has never been a big scoring threat, and neither Conor Sheary nor Daniel Sprong possesses close to the same kind of ability as Mantha.
Obviously, playing opposite Ovechkin will boost Mantha’s fantasy value, but at least he’s firmly in the top six. The lack of playmaking centers given Backstrom’s injury is a slight concern, but don’t discount the impact of Connor McMichael, a first-round pick with considerable offensive upside who could be a hidden gem if he can win the second-line spot behind Kuznetsov. Mantha has never scored 30 goals but he’s been on pace to do so in the past, and hopefully a full season – he’s played more than 67 games just once in his career – will help him reach new career highs. Of slight concern is Mantha’s rather pedestrian shooting percentage; he was able to dominate in the QMJHL due to his strength and size, but it’s far less of an advantage in the NHL and his career 12.2 shooting percentage indicates that he’s more of a second-line talent than a premier goal scorer.
Goalies: Samsonov is presumed to be the starter, but don’t forget about Vanecek’s impressive performance last season under pressure. They’ve combined for just 82 games in their young careers, and it’s still much too soon to say who will come out on top. Samsonov has the slightly higher pedigree as the 22nd overall pick in 2015 and generally considered to be the more talented of the two ‘tenders, but the Caps have a history of developing very good goalies (Semyon Varlamov, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby) and the Caps were very keen on re-acquiring Vanecek from the Kraken after he was picked in the expansion draft.
A timeshare will be interesting to see under Peter Laviolette, who has usually been able to lean on one goalie throughout his coaching career, either with Cam Ward in Carolina or Pekka Rinne in Nashville. The Caps have a relatively easy schedule to start until November, when they have two back-to-backs with 10 of their 15 games on the road, including a trip to California and Seattle. I suspect both Samsonov and Vanecek will see a lot of action at that point, and that’s also perhaps when we’ll get a lot more clarity on their goaltending situation going forward. There seems to be a little too much hype for Samsonov, who has an ADP of 71.2 on Yahoo, ahead of starters who could have better seasons or simply get more starts, such as Jordan Binnington (85.6) and Tristan Jarry (115.1). The safest strategy for fantasy managers would be to platoon Samsonov and Vanecek and hope that both can combine to win at least 45 games.
Outlook: Not having Backstrom is going to sting, but that also opens the door for McMichael to win a roster spot. He was brilliant in the AHL last season, leading the Hershey Bears in goals and points, and he could make a huge impact right away. Otherwise, the Caps have remained pretty much the same over the years; Ovechkin and Backstrom (when healthy) are still top-tier fantasy options, John Carlson is a top-five defenseman for points and Oshie will score 20 goals as he always does. Stick with the veteran names on the Caps, then take your shots with Mantha, McMichael and the goalies when there are no more reliable options.