Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Washington Capitals Focus On Youth As Key Veterans Depart

Following another early exit from the playoffs, the Washington Capitals are eager to get back to hockey and put the specter of last season behind them. To aid in that effort, a new team identity has been built that’s largely dependent on its young talent, following years of leaning heavily on a veteran-laden lineup.

The Capitals really have no other choice. Pressed up against the salary cap limit mandated by the league, general manager Brian MacLellan was forced to make some tough personnel decisions during the offseason. As a result, six veterans who had been on last year’s roster found themselves on new teams this summer, including talented forward Marcus Johansson, who had 58 points last year but was traded to the New Jersey Devils for draft picks to create cap space.

The freed-up money did allow MacLellan to retain first-line winger T.J. Oshie and hand out new deals to several other key players, so Washington is still loaded with experienced players at all positions. But head coach Barry Trotz knows that there are openings for several of the team’s young talent, and he expects them to impress this coming season.

“The younger players are more ready than they’ve ever been,” Trotz told On Tap. “We’ve been a veteran team the last few years and there hasn’t been a lot of competition for spots. We’re now back to getting some young guys into the lineup, which is okay. I think it’s needed.”

Trotz acknowledged that a lot of leadership experience exited this summer, and the team likely will not be as lethal offensively. Still, after being pegged as one of the top three teams in the league in recent years and having every other team gunning for them, this year’s more nondescript squad may have a chance to surprise other teams and finally get to that ever-elusive third round of the playoffs.

Rookies Riley Barber, Christian Djoos, Jakub Vrána and Madison Bowey, among others, were all expected to get long looks at training camp and exhibition games. And returning players like Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly and Taylor Chorney are being counted on to move up in the depth chart and assume bigger roles.

“We’ve got structure, leadership and commitment,” Trotz said. “The biggest difference is on the back end, and up front, we’re not as proven.”

The Capitals still boast an impressive collection of players that is the envy of many teams, starting with superstar Alex Ovechkin. The captain saw his goal production dip from 50 goals to 33 last year, and another early playoff exit at the hands of the archrival Penguins had some pundits wondering whether it was time to trade Ovie and conduct a vast overhaul.

Instead, Washington did some retooling and kept the team largely intact. Trotz is impressed with the work put in over the summer by Ovechkin, who looked noticeably leaner when he reported early for summer workouts.

“One of the things you look to do is evolve as a player,” Trotz said. “I think Alex is at that point in his career where he recognizes there’s still evolution to his game. As you get older, the game changes. It’s gotten way faster the past 10 years. I think he’s training to be faster. He’s probably a little leaner and lighter. He’s still very powerful – a big man. He’s making some adjustments.”

Also under the microscope will be star center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract over the summer. Part of the plan to sign Kuznetsov and others included allowing some players to walk in order to create the necessary cap space, including Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik and trade deadline pickup Kevin Shattenkirk. In addition, Johansson was traded and Nate Schmidt was scooped up by the new Vegas Golden Knights team during the expansion draft.

Kuznetsov’s point totals dropped from 77 to 59 last season, but Trotz is expecting a return to form for the young Russian. Veteran star center Nicklas Bäckström – who had 86 points last season – returns, as do key defensemen John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov. The team’s last line of defense, goaltender Braden Holtby, will also be back to provide a workhorse presence between the pipes. Holtby is a Vezina trophy winner for the league’s top netminder, and is one of the best at his position.

All of which leaves Trotz confident that the Capitals will once again be a dangerous hockey team, despite some of the personnel changes.

“We’re probably not as deep as we were, but we have some high-end players. As long as we can stay healthy, I think we’re going to be a team still fighting for our division and making the playoffs.”

Hopefully for the fans and the city, the Capitals are able to punch through this year and dispatch the Penguins and other foes along the way. With expectations a bit lower than previous years, perhaps Washington will be able to surprise their faithful followers this season.

Learn more about the Washington Capitals and their upcoming season at www.nhl.com/capitals, and don’t miss the first home game on Saturday, October 7 at 7 p.m. against the Montreal Canadiens.