Welcome, once again, to the newest edition of the THN Hot Seat, a continuing series of THN.com files in which we identify one member of each NHL team who’ll be dealing with considerable pressure in the upcoming season. Our selection for the Hot Seat can be an NHL player, franchise owner, GM, or head coach.
In this file, we’ll be examining the Washington Capitals.
CAPITALS HOT SEAT: DARCY KUEMPER, GOALTENDER
WHY: It’s not often a goaltender coming off a Stanley Cup championship finds themselves in the Hot Seat the following season, but then, it’s not often a goalie coming off a Cup win is jettisoned from their championship team, the way Kuemper was after winning it all with Colorado last year. The 32-year-old Kuemper was an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2021-22 campaign, and the salary cap-conscious Avalanche chose to go with former New York Rangers netminder Alexandar Georgiev at a $3.4 million annual salary.
Kemper, meanwhile, shopped his services around before agreeing to a five-year, $26.25-million deal with Washington. He didn’t break the bank in terms of his average annual value, but he did get the contract term most 32-year-old goalies would kill for. That said, he’s now got all sorts of pressure to immediately produce positive results, on a Capitals team that is starting the season without three elite forwards: center Nicklas Backstrom (who may miss the entire regular season after hip surgery in June), Tom Wilson (who could be out until January after reconstructive knee surgery in May), and Carl Hagelin (whose career may be over after a devastating eye injury in practice on March 1). Granted, the Caps still have offensive powerhouses in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie new acquisition Dylan Strome, and defenseman John Carlson, but there’s no question the absence of Backstrom, Wilson and Hagelin will test the depth of Washington’s lineup.
The other big problem for Kuemper is the Capitals’ defense corps. After Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, there is no Caps D-man who averaged more than 20:00 minutes of ice time per game, and five of their current top-six blueliners are at least 30 years old. This is not a group that is regarded as one of the NHL’s better defensive squads, and that means Kuemper will have to shoulder more of the load than he did in Colorado last season.
In addition, Kuemper’s backup – former Canadiens and Blues goalie Charlie Lindgren, another off-season pickup – has only 29 games of NHL experience since he made his debut in the 2015-16 campaign. For the most part, Lindgren has been an American League fixture, and there’s no assurance he’ll be able to give Kuemper 25-30 games of rest this coming year. Kuemper set a new personal best in games-played last season, with 57. However, in an era where teams are looking for a more even split of playing time between their goalie tandem, the Caps are moving into uncharted territory with Kuemper and Lindgren.
Per CapFriendly.com, Washington is currently $6.3 million over the cap ceiling, but with Backstrom, Wilson and Hagelin on the sidelines, Caps GM Brian MacLellan does have some wiggle room roster-wise during the season. The issue there is the same one for many NHL teams – there aren’t proven commodities in net that are available, and it seems rather unlikely they’ll be able to trade for a difference-maker between the pipes. The Capitals’ competitive window with their present core of talent is closing, and if they fail to make the playoffs – which is possible, given the improvements made in the Metropolitan Division this summer – it’s going to be problematic having Kuemper’s contract locking him in for another four years.
Will the Caps be at a crossroads at the end of this season? Stranger things have happened. But it won’t be pretty if Kuemper buckles under the pressure, and it could lead to bigger changes in the 2023 off-season.