It seems like an eternity since Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin were the foundation of the Washington Capitals, when the Caps played a high-flying offensive game under former head coach Bruce Boudreau. And while it has been just five seasons since the Caps captured the President’s Trophy for having the best record in the NHL, the current edition of the Washington Capitals features just two of the four “Young Guns”, in Ovechkin and Backstrom.
With the offseason departure of Green in free agency, the Capitals are entering a new era in franchise history. Neither Ovechkin or Backstrom are “Young Guns” any more: Backstrom will be 28 on November 23, while Ovechkin turned 30 on September 17. With the aging of their star players the Caps now turn to a new wave of “Young Guns”. The new blood consists of forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, and Michael Latta, and defenseman Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov. Both Schmidt and Orlov figure to play prominent roles this season with the departure of Green. Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Latta look to earn more playing time this season with the departures of longtime players Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, and Troy Brouwer. NoVa Caps is taking a look at each and what they bring to the table.
Draft: 26th overall in 2010
What He Brings: Kuznetsiv brings a blend of speed, skill, and intelligence. His creativity with the puck is truly remarkable and his transition to center should help the Capitals a lot this season.
Long-Tern Outlook: Entering the first year of a two-year, $6 million contract signed this summer, Kuznetsov will be a restricted free agent when his deal ends and the Caps will likely lock him up for the long-term then.
2015-16 Expectations: With number one center Nicklas Backstrom expected to miss the first several games of the regular season, Kuznetsov will be given time on the top line with countryman Alex Ovechkin and newcomer TJ Oshie. A 20+ goal, 50-point season shouldn’t be out of the question.
What He Brings: Burakovsky is entering his second season in the NHL at the ripe old age of 20. As was expected, it took him some time to adjust to the pro level, but with some seasoning in Hershey, Burakovsky showed improvement at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. He possesses a deadly shot and can handle the puck extremely well. He also uses blazing speed to outmaneuver his opponents.
Long-Term Outlook: Burakovsky is going nowhere anytime soon. While still on his entry-level deal, the Caps will certainly be prepared to lock him up for the foreseeable future when the time comes.
2015-16 Expectations: With an increased role this season, Burakovsy should see an improvement from his nine-goal, 22-point performance in 2014-15. He could score 20+ goals, and maybe 40+ points if he plays on the left-wing spot on the second line once Backstrom returns from his injury.
What He Brings: Wilson’s game has been compared to Milan Lucic in the past and if he can finally show his full offensive potential playing on a third-line this season, it will be a welcome addition to the Capitals. After being highly underutilized his first two seasons, Wilson needs to deliver on his first-round pedigree. Entering the final year of his entry-level deal, Wilson needs to prove he’s not a fourth-liner at best.
Long-Term Outlook: Even if Wilson struggles again this season, the Caps will no doubt lock up him up for the future, given his draft selection and his status as a fan favorite. Wilson is a valuable piece of the Caps’ future.
2015-16 Expectations: With more playing time this season (finally!), Wilson should be able to do better than his 17-point season last year. A 15-goal, and 35-40 points should be an attainable number for Wilson to reach
What He Brings: Vrana is in a similar position that Burakovsky was in last fall: 19-years old, excellent skills, and not a lock to make the team. However, unlike Burakovsky, Vrana has just three games of North American hockey under his belt. Burakovsky played a season with the Erie Otters of the OHL before making his NHL debut last October; Vrana played three games with the Hershey Bears at the end of last season. Vrana possesses incredible speed, a deadly shot, and handles the puck very well. His ability to handle the puck and make plays were on full display on Monday night in the Caps’ preseason opener. He was denied an excellent opportunity by Carolina Hurticanes goalie Eddie Lack, and also made some excellent passes.
Long-Term Outlook: Vrana is entering the first season of his entry-level contract and it is likely he starts the season with Hershey. He figures to be a very important piece of the future for the Caps and it’s not a stretch to think he could have a long, productive career in DC. He likely won’t pull a Burakovsky, but there’s no doubting his talent. In 44 games with Linkoping HC of the SHL, Vrana put up 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists). In his first three North American games, Vrana posted five assists.
2015-16 Expecatations: As mentioned above, Vrana is expected to start the season in Hershey. He will be joining a young team that will feature other promising prospects ; Riley Barber and Madison Bowey among them. Vrana could be the Bears’ best player next season, and if his transition to North America hockey goes well, could have 15-20-goal season, with 40+ points.
By Michael Fleetwood