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Steady Rise of Youth

A slew of youth contributors are gaining experience with each game for the Washington Capitals

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Travis Boyd may be four years removed from his senior season at the University of Minnesota, but the Capitals forward says he feels a bond in Washington that reminds him of his time on campus.

Boyd, 25, is in his first full season in the NHL after playing more than 200 games with the AHL's Hershey Bears from 2015 through 2018. His teammates in Hershey included Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, and goaltender Pheonix Copley. All six now call Washington home.

"I think of it like I'm back in college and to me those would be like the people I came into college with, says Boyd. "It's like we're a class together."

If there's no better teacher than experience, a case can be made that some of the Capitals youngest players have already received a crash-course on life in the NHL.

As rookies last spring, Stephenson, Vrana and Djoos all emerged as fixtures in the Capitals' lineup en route to the Stanley Cup. Stephenson had perfect attendance while playing in all 24 postseason games. Vrana worked his way up the depth chart and finished the playoffs as a top-six forward. Djoos provided a steady presence from the backend.

There's no denying that all three have carried over plenty of confidence from last spring's playoff run.

"We played arguably the highest caliber of hockey," says Stephenson. "And now to build off that, it helps a lot with your personal game. Getting thrown into the fire right away, it's an experience that gives you a lot of confidence."

A case can be made that Vrana may have grown the most during last year's postseason as he went from a healthy scratch in the first round to a top-six forward by the end of Round 2.

Vrana played primarily with veterans Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie in the playoffs and gradually took on more defensive responsibilities as the Capitals advanced. Now in his second full NHL campaign, Vrana has picked up where he left off last spring and been a key cog among Washington's forwards this season.

"He took a lot from it," Oshie says of Vrana's playoff experience. "One thing you get from success is confidence. And confidence can go a long way for a young guy. The confidence he built during the postseason is going to propel him to get through some tough times whenever those may come. He can look back on that experience and remind himself that he has a high level in him."

Those who played with Vrana in Hershey say that the 22-year-old has quickly matured and can better handle the ebbs and flows that may come over the course of a season.

Just two seasons ago, Vrana was a healthy scratch during the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs with Hershey. He admits he didn't handle it especially well and didn't respond as well as he needed to when challenged by his coaches. He has grown up since and is constantly praised in Washington for his work ethic - he is often among the last players to come off the ice at practice - and for his ability to respond from a poor performance.

"There's a big change in how he handles adversity now," says Boyd, teammates with Vrana for parts of four seasons in Hershey and Washington. "Everyone goes through adversity, but he's maturing. Look how he responded to being put on the fourth line [in early November]."

Following a home loss to Dallas on Nov.3, in which a Vrana turnover led to a Stars goal, he found himself on the fourth line two nights later. Vrana responded, though, with a goal on his first shift. Despite playing fourth-line minutes, he took advantage of his limited opportunities and worked his way back up the depth chart within the week.

"If you have a bad game," Vrana says, "you have to forget it right away. Maybe you think about it a bit, but you have to find a way to build back your confidence and the best way to do that is to turn the page."

While Vrana concedes that he can still improve his puck management and cut down on the turnovers, he's arguably been among the club's most consistent forwards over the first third of the season.

"I've liked his overall game," says head coach Todd Reirden, who primarily played Vrana with Backstrom and Oshie to start the season.

"I don't have any troubles at all having him out there against other teams' top players, playing with Nick and T.J., who are really defensively responsible. They've done a great job of mentoring and helping him with the overall importance of the all-around game."

As Vrana continues to better handle his defensive responsibilities, the offensive game hasn't suffered. With two goals Tuesday in Las Vegas, Vrana is up to 8 goals and 16 points through 27 games. All but one of his 16 points have come at even-strength. Vrana's eight even-strength goals are second most on the Capitals, behind only Alex Ovechkin.

"He brings a lot of speed to the table and he can challenge the opponents' D men," says Backstrom. "In just one year, I've seen a lot of development. He can score and he can make things happen."

Adds Boyd: "He's so fast and so skilled. He'll have some rushes up the ice and it's like, 'Dang! That was sick.' When he gets going, and it doesn't take much for him to get going, he can do some super-elite things… He's going to be a really good player for the Capitals for a long time."

While Vrana, Stephenson and Djoos have been able to build off their rookie campaigns, Bowey, Boyd and Copley all had to exercise patience before taking advantage of their opportunities this season.

Boyd missed the first month of the season due to injury, but has since been a fixture among the Capitals' bottom-six forwards. Copley, 26, has served as Braden Holtby's backup, but he impressed in mid-November when he carried the load with Holtby out with an injury.

As for Bowey, after an inconsistent rookie season, he was a healthy scratch for all but three games in October. An injury to Brooks Orpik, though, created an opening on the blueline in November and Bowey was called upon to fill the void. The consistent workload produced some of his best games in the NHL.

"I think Madison has learned some hard lessons over the last year," Reirden says, "But whether it was from discussions we had over the summer, or watching video early in training camp, he's grown. He looks to be a lot different player than he was a year ago today. It's all about taking advantage of those opportunities. We're pretty fortunate that a lot of our young guys have."

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