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2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview: Washington Capitals

The Capitals finally have a banner that matters, but it comes with a target on their back.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This may still be hard to swallow for Penguins fans, but it’s still true nevertheless. The Washington Capitals enter the 2018-19 season as the defending Stanley Cup champions, following a dream run last spring that saw them capture their first championship in franchise history. Our only saving grace in the whole ordeal is the NHL schedule makers choosing the Boston Bruins to be on hand for the Capitals banner ceremony instead of the Penguins.

For once, a Capitals offseason was not dominated by negative headlines surrounding the team, or its players underachieving and missing out on their ultimate goal. Instead, the newspapers wrote about the endless partying the team did with the Stanley Cup through the streets of Washington D.C.

Now though, the time for celebration has come to an end, and the Capitals must adjust to life with a target on their back. Everyone will be gunning for them this season in hopes of knocking them off their perch and claiming the holy grail of the hockey world come June. In a stacked Metropolitan division, the Capitals should still battle with the Penguins for the top spot, but they will have to contend with fatigue coming off a short summer.

Washington has very little roster turnover from last season...

Similar to the Penguins following their Stanley Cup run in 2016, the Capitals will enter the new season with very little roster turnover from last year’s team. Long-time depth forward Jay Beagles has moved on, signing with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent. Backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer was traded to the Colorado Avalanche a year after being protected from the expansion draft.

Other than Beagle and Grubauer moving on, the Capitals return almost the same roster from last season’s Cup winning team. Brooks Orpik did briefly leave town as an add-on in the Grubauer deal, but returned to Washington on a much cheaper deal once the Avalanche bought him out.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A major factor in keeping this Capitals roster together was management’s willingness to spend a nice chunk of change to keep key pieces in town. John Carlson was expected to be one of the biggest names available on the free agent market come July 1, but the Capitals put an end to that with a new eight-year deal. Next up was often suspended forward Tom Wilson with a six-year deal, followed by defenseman Michal Kempny getting a four-year deal to remain with the team.

...But there is a new boss behind the bench

Rarely does a team coming off a championship begin the next season with a new head coach, but that will be the case in Washington this year. Former head coach Barry Trotz led the Capitals to the Stanley Cup, then triggered a little known clause in his contract to leave town and head to Long Island to take over the New York Islanders.

NHL: Preseason-Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Rumors of Trotz’s departure from the Capitals had been swirling for quite sometime, especially during rough stretches throughout the season and even following a rather tumultuous first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While Trotz leaving the team may not have been completely surprising, it still shocked the system a bit given what he just accomplished with the team.

With Trotz now gone, long time assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reigns for the first time in his career. Reirden was long believed to be the head coach in waiting and had the support of general manager Brian MacLellan. There will tons of pressure on Reirden and it will be up to him to prove he is a worthy successor to Trotz.

How do they handle the hangover?

NHL: Washington Capitals-Stanley Cup Championship Parade Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Before last season, it had been 20 years since the Capitals made the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. That means this summer was the shortest summer the Capitals have experienced in a long time. Of the players on the Capitals roster, only Brooks Orpik and Lars Eller ever made the third round, with Orpik being the only to ever play in the Final.

By the time the Capitals begin their season on Wednesday, it will only have been 119 days since they last stepped on the ice back in June. For the bulk of their lineup, this will be the shortest offseason of their careers, and they had to juggle rest, training, and celebration into that small window of time.

How the Capitals handle the Stanley Cup hangover will be key to how they perform on the ice this season. The Penguins showed last season just how a real a Stanley Cup hangover can be, and several other teams over the years have suffered a much worse fate coming off a championship. As a veteran-laden team, the Capitals will have to remain focused and conserve their energy if they hope to repeat this spring.

More of the same in the Metro

Unless everything goes sideways in the Metro division this season, you should expect to see the Capitals and Penguins doing battle for the top spot once again. It’s almost a safe bet to book the two sides for another meeting in the second round of the playoffs. From top-to-bottom, the Metro is the strongest division in the NHL, and it could easily send five teams to the playoffs once again.

How the Capitals manage fatigue from a short summer will be the biggest factor in how the division turns out when the dust settles in April. They are the defending champs and bring back most of their lineup who was on the ice in Vegas raising the Stanley Cup. The Capitals will be a force once again, but this time, they have the target on their back.

When all is said and done, expect the Capitals to be right near the top of the division and primed to make another run at the Stanley Cup.