The Capitals lost key pieces such as Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Nate Schmidt, and Karl Alzner this summer as a result of re-signing veteran T.J. Oshie, and key young players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, Brett Connolly, and Philipp Grubauer. With only 17 players signed and just over $4 million of cap space to flesh out the roster, training camp, which starts on Friday, September 15, will be more important than it has in the past. Here are the Top 10 storylines heading into this year’s training camp.
10. Hole in the Top-Six?
The Capitals lost two top-six forwards over the summer in Marcus Johansson, who was traded to the New Jersey Devils, and Justin Williams, who signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Those two forwards combined for 48 goals last season (24 each) and both played on the second-line with Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Caps are hoping that Andre Burakovsky can step up and play with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie on the top-line, on which he scored three goals and four points in Games 5 and 6 in the Capitals’ second round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguisn in May, and top prospect Jakub Vrana will be able to play on the second-line with Alex Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Vrana got off to a hot start in the AHL with the Hershey Bears last season, scoring 10 goals in the first 20 games, and scored three goals and six points in 21 games played in Washington last year. All three of them were scored when Kuznetsov was on the ice. The Capitals need Vrana to have a good training camp and preseason or they will be left looking to fill a hole in the lineup.
9. Under the Radar Prospects
When one thinks of the Capitals’ prospects, forwards Vrana, Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, and defensemen Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey usually come to mind. They may be the most likely to have a chance to make the Caps’ Opening Night lineup, but prospects such as defensemen Connor Hobbs, Tyler Lewington, and Jonas Seigenthaler will get a look when training camp starts next Friday.
Lewington, 22, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2014. His offensive numbers don’t stand out in the way that Djoos’ do, but he is a solid shutdown defenseman. Lewington was a plus-16 in 72 games played with the Bears last season. If he is going to see playing time in Washington, Lewington must be more disciplined. He finished last season with 142 penalty minutes, which would’ve ranked second on the Capitals behind Tom Wilson. He also had 89 PIM in 2015-16, which would have ranked him second behind Wilson as well. Lewington must fix that issue or he will risk being sent back down to Hershey.
Connor Hobbs, a fifth-round pick of the Capitals in 2015, barely had any time in Hershey this year. Instead, he played for the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats, and scored 31 goals and 85 points and finished with a plus-30 rating. In the playoffs, he registered six goals and 24 points in only 23 games played. He was also named a WHL All-Star. Hobbs is certainly a prospect to be excited about.
Jonas Seigenthaler arrived in Hershey from the Swiss league at the end of last season and was a plus-2 in only seven games played with the Bears. He did not put up sparkling offensive numbers, but at the World Junior Championships last December, he scored a goal and six points,, and a goal and eight points in 10 international games. He was also a plus-16 in the Swiss league last season. Seigenthaler could get an opportunity in Washington for a few games this year, depending on injuries to established roster players and his performance, and with the possibility of having two rookies in the Opening Night lineup, Seigenthaler must have a strong showing in camp and show the Caps what he can do.
8. John Carlson‘s Contract Situation
Defenseman John Carlson is entering the final year of a six-year contract worth $23.8 million ($3,966,667 million cap hit). After a slow start last season, Carlson scored nine goals and 37 points in 72 games played. He had a plus-7 rating in the regular season and two goals and four points with a plus-1 rating in the postseason. He finished tenth in Norris Trophy voting after the 2014-15 season, in which he had 12 goals and 55 points. While Carlson has been productive, he has also been bitten by the injury bug the past couple of years, playing just 56 games in 2015-16, and 72 last season. After having an iron man streak of 412 games, Carlson has had some injury issues lately, and that must stop if he’s going to earn himself a long-term contract, whether it be from the Capitals or another team.
Carlson, 27, will have the responsibility of mentoring a young defenseman this year (most likely Christian Djoos or Madison Bowey), and must be a strong leader. He is projected to make around $6-7 million on his next contract, but must be healthy and more consistent if he’s going to cash in.
7. Bigger Roles for Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson
With Johansson and Williams both gone, youngsters Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson are expected to pursue bigger roles.
Burakovsky, 22, flourished with three goals and four points in Games 5 and 6 against the Penguins last season while playing with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. He has been inconsistent during his NHL career so far, going through long scoring droughts and hot streaks. Burakovsky is expected to increase his offensive production, after scoring 35 points (12 of them goals), in 64 games played last season. He must stay healthy if he’s going to produce the point totals the Capitals will need him to reach this season. With better linemates and a new contract, there is no reason why he shouldn’t make an impact this year.
Wilson, 23, is expected to see time on the third-line with (most likely) Brett Connolly and Lars Eller. He too is expected to increase his point total, as seven goals and 19 points are not going to cut it for the 16th overall pick in 2012. Wilson needs to continue to draw penalties and take less of his own, as the Capitals will need him on the ice and not taking in excess of 133 penalty minutes, which led the team last year. Wilson shone in the Caps’ playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, scoring three goals, all which gave the Capitals life in the series. Wilson will have to show that the Toronto series was a sign of things to come. With better linemates, more ice time, and more opportunities, there is no reason why Wilson can’t be the player everyone expects him to be this year.
6. Trotz entering contract year without extension
Despite the fact that Head Coach Barry Trotz has gone 156-63-27 in his three seasons with the Capitals, he is entering the final year of his current contract without an extension in place. It is undeniable that the Capitals have had great regular season success under Trotz, winning two President’s Trophies in three seasons. Despite this, the Capitals have gone 20-19 in the postseason, falling to the division rival New York Rangers once in 2015, and Pittsburgh Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup in both years, twice in the past two seasons. In his 17 years of coaching in the NHL, Trotz has never made it past the second round of the playoffs.
General Manager Brian MacLellan may be trying to motivate Trotz to earn his next contract, or he could simply want to wait until the end of this year to see how the Capitals do in terms of success. The big questions for the seasoned bench boss will be: Can he get Alex Ovechkin back to scoring 40 or more goals? Can he get the Caps to the playoffs for the fourth straight season? Can he get the most out of the young players coming in? They will all be important factors that will influence whether Trotz will stay beyond 2017-18.
5. New faces on the Blueline
The Capitals lost defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency, and Nate Schmidt in the 2017 Expansion Draft. The Capitals expected to lose Alzner and Shattenkirk, but had penciled in Schmidt on their second defensive-pairing with Carlson. One of the worst case scenarios that could have happened to the Capitals, did in fact, happen. The three departures give young prospects Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey a chance to see some playing time in Washington and hopefully make an impact. Veteran Taylor Chorney will also be in the mix. The Caps also signed defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka to a professional tryour offer, which should challenge the young players in earning a roster spot.
Djoos, 23, will stand the greatest chance of making the Capitals’ Opening Night roster for several reasons. In order for him to be returned to the AHL, he will need to clear waivers, which would almost certainly result in him being plucked by another team. Another reason is that he finished last season as the third-highest scoring defenseman in the AHL with 58 points. With his impressive offensive prowess, Djoos should be an interesting player to watch next season.
Bowey, a second-round pick in 2013, could see some time in Washington this season, but unlike Djoos, he does not have to clear waivers to be sent back to Hershey. Bowey was injured and missed most of last season, but managed to score three goals and 14 points in the 34 games that he did play, and was plus-6 in those games. He finished 2015-16 with a plus-22 rating in 70 games played. Bowey was a two-time, 60-point scorer in the WHL and has been strong defensively throughout his entire career, finishing better than a plus-35 in three of his seasons in Kelowna.
4. Can Alex Ovechkin Regain His Scoring Prowess?
Alex Ovechkin, who will turn 32 on September 17, had a down year by his standards in 2016-17. After scoring at least 50 goals and 70 points in the three seasons prior to 2016-17, Ovechkin’s goal total dipped 33 goals (17 of them on the power play) and 69 points with his 16 even-strength goals his lowest in a non-lockout year.
Despite that, there is hope that he can score 40 or more goals again. He spent most of last season playing on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Despite their relative success, Ovechkin is expected to start the season on the second-line centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov, with whom Ovechkin has been quite productive with.
3. Franchise Cornerstones Locked Up
The Capitals locked up three key players for the long haul this offseason. Veteran right wing T.J. Oshie signed an eight-year contract worth $46 million ($5.75 million cap hit), center Evgeny Kuznetsov also signed an eight-year contract worth $62.4 million ($7.8 million cap hit), and defenseman Dmitry Orlov signed a six-year contract worth $30.5 million ($5.1 million cap hit).
With long-term security and lots of money in their new contracts, all three of these players must continue doing what got them these extensions. Oshie may not reach 30 goals again, but he must 25 or more goals this year to make this contract a good one. Oshie took a little bit of a discount after scoring 33 goals, in a season in which he was one of the team’s most consistent players last season, with all due respect to Backstrom, and must keep it up.
Orlov had a breakout year playing on a one-year contract and got quite the pay raise. He scored six goals and 33 points while setting career-highs in points, assists (27), and plus/minus (plus-30). Orlov’s breakout year earned him a spot on the Capitals’ top defensive-pairing on Opening Night with Matt Niskanen. Orlov will have to continue to produce offensively, and continue playing strong defensively to live up to his new contract. Orlov could see some more power play time, which should boost his value.
After a breakout year in which he scored 77 points, Kuznetsov had an inconsistent year in 2016-17. He scored only three goals in the first three months of the season, but still finished the year with 19 goals and 59 points. Kuznetsov had a strong postseason, one in which he scored five goals and 10 points. Kuznetsov will have to be part of replacing the offense the Caps lost this summer, which means that he will be relied on heavily throughout the season. With Johansson gone, Kuznetsov is expected to take his spot on the first power play unit, which should help him in terms of production, but he still needs to produce at even-strength. Kuznetsov will also need to shoot the puck more, as there were lots of times last season where Kuznetsov held the puck for too long after getting great scoring chances.
2. Prospects Expected to Take on Bigger Roles
With Johansson, Williams, Daniel Winnik, Schmidt, Alzner, and Shattenkirk gone and the Capitals facing salary cap constraints, their prospects will get an opportunity to fill those holes. As noted above, defensemen Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, and forwards Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, and Nathan Walker are in the front of the line for opportunities to fill those holes. Walker and Djoos are waiver exempt, so there’s a strong likelihood fans will get to those two a lot throughout the year.
Walker is the “most ready for the NHL,” according to Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann. “I think when you look at our guys, Walker comes to mind,” said Mann, who ran the Capitals’ Development Camp. “He plays the game the right way. He’s a 200-foot player. He gets in on the forecheck. He has good stick detail,” adding, “I’d love to see him slide into Winnik’s spot, from my standpoint, because he’s really grown here the last couple of years.” Walker can become the first Australian in NHL history to play in the league should he see time in the NHL this season. Last season in Hershey, Walker had 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games played, but had 17 goals and 41 points in 73 games played in 2015-16. He signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Caps on June 1. He can also be a pest on the ice, finishing checks and protecting his teammates on the ice,
Barber was one of the Bears’ best players in 2015-16, notching 26 goals and 55 points with a plus-4 rating. Barber plays similar to the style that Oshie plays, in which he hits to produce offense. Last season, Barber had 13 goals and 27 points in 39 games played. He was really impressive in college, where he led the University of Miami in shots on goal with 180 shots and ranked second with 40 points in 2014-15. He was also named rookie of the month in October and November of 2012.
1. Are the Capitals still a Stanley Cup Contender?
As mentioned above, the Capitals have had significant roster turnover since they lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in May. Training camp and preseason games will give everyone a look at the prospects. They will all need to show that they can handle the NHL. Despite the roster turnover, the Capitals’ core remains mostly intact, with Ovechkin, Backstom, Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby, Oshie, Burakovsky, Orlov, Niskanen, Carlson, and Wilson locked up for the season. The prospects will have to step up in a big way and the goaltending has to continue to be strong. Philipp Grubauer and Holtby are arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league and were a huge reason the Caps had the success they had last season, in which they gave up a league-low 177 goals against. The Capitals should have strong special teams and if the prospects show they can handle the NHL, there is no reason why they can’t be one of the best teams in the league. With lower expectations, a good team, and some good prospects, there is no reason why the Caps can’t compete for the Cup.
By: Harrison Brown