Capitals need to 'step up' to remain Stanley Cup contenders
By STEPHEN WHYNO
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Facing some salary-cap math that wasn't pretty, the Washington Capitals took a beating in the offseason with the loss of several significant contributors.
Now they go about the unenviable task of trying to fill the void left - including the 68 goals scored last season - by Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.
"It's step up time," coach Barry Trotz said. "It's by committee. Next man up."
For the Capitals to remain Stanley Cup contenders, the burden is on star forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie and goaltender Braden Holtby to step up even more. Coming off back-to-back Presidents' Trophy seasons for leading the NHL in regular-season points and losing in the second round each time to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington is a very different team with an infusion of youth that veterans hope will help rather than hurt.
The Capitals could have eight players age 25 and younger in their opening night lineup, including defenseman Madison Bowey and Australian forward Nathan Walker potentially making their NHL debuts. Center Lars Eller sees those young players and others, like top prospect Jakub Vrana, and feels excitement about what could be.
"Experience is hard to replace, but they're going to bring something else," Eller said. "And the truth is, I think on a Stanley Cup-winning team you got to have all kinds of guys bringing something different to the table. ... I still think we have a very good mix of experience and youth and these guys are going to be really, really hungry to prove themselves and to take the next step."
For the Capitals to take the next step after three first- and six second-round exits over the past decade, Ovechkin and the top players will have to assume a bigger chunk of the responsibility. General manager Brian MacLellan hopes for big things from Kuznetsov and fourth-year winger Andre Burakovsky.
"They want more from me and I understand that," said Kuznetsov, who signed a $62.4 million, eight-year deal that makes him Washington's second-highest paid player behind Ovechkin. "I want people to ask more from me. If they give me a bigger role, I will try to do my best."
Some things to watch with the Capitals this season:
ADJUSTING OVECHKIN: Going into his 13th NHL season at age 32, Ovechkin is hoping to make good on an offseason request to get a bit quicker. MacLellan wanted him to train more for speed than power after the lowest goal output in a non-lockout season since 2010-11. "You always ask players to evolve," Trotz said. "What can you add to your game that you haven't added? In his case, the game is getting quick and he has to stay relevant from the quickness aspect."
HOLTBY WITHOUT KORN: Holtby won the Vezina Trophy in 2015-16 and was a finalist again last season under the tutelage of goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who moved on to director of goaltending with Scott Murray taking over day-to-day duties. Along with backup Philipp Grubauer, Holtby leads arguably the best goaltending tandem in hockey and doesn't expect anything to change with his elite play. "You're not revamping styles or anything like that," said Holtby, who had a combined 2.17 goals-against average and .923 save percentage over the past three seasons. "You're grooming things, looking for trends, looking at little ways to get better."
TROTZ CONTRACT WATCH: Trotz is in the last year of his contract, an interesting situation to say the least for a veteran coach with such a strong resume. But like many of his players, Trotz hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs, and MacLellan said after last season he wanted to see "evidence" of improvements before talking extension. Trotz said his contract status has "0.0 effect" on him, adding he's not worried about it at all.
ROCKY ROAD: Eight of the Capitals' first 12 games are on the road, and six overall come against playoff teams from last season. There won't be any easing into the year, but if Washington can stay afloat through a rough first month and not dig too much of a hole in the stacked Metropolitan, it could be on the way to a third consecutive division title.
WHO'S ON D: Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and pending free agent John Carlson are clearly the top three defensemen. After that, the blue line will be filled out by the likes of Bowey, Christian Djoos, Taylor Chorney, Brooks Orpik and Aaron Ness, whose play will determine a lot of the Capitals' success this season.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno
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Updated September 27, 2017