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Young Vets

Fresh off signing a lucrative contract extension last summer, Evgeny Kuznetsov recognizes that with more security comes greater responsibility

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 /

"If you think I'm going to be settled down right now and enjoy the life, no. It's not who I am," Kuznetsov said before the start of the season.

Instead, Kuznetsov says, he wants to make good on the eight-year $62.4 million extension he signed in June.

"They want more from me and I understand that," he says of the pressure and expectations that may accompany his new deal. "I want people to ask more from me. If they give me a bigger role, I will try to do my best."

With the offseason departures of 20-goal scorers Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, Kuznetsov is among a group of forwards entering the prime of their careers who will be looked upon to help fill the void.

"It's step-up time for a couple of guys," says head coach Barry Trotz, whose club averaged 3.18 goals-per-game last season, third most in the NHL.

"We need some goals. In the past, especially last year and the year before we were deep and didn't have many injuries, so some guys could have an easy night on the ice and we'd still be able to find a way to win because we were so deep. It's by committee now. Next man up."

In addition to the 25-year-old Kuznetsov, other young veterans the Capitals will be counting on for increased productivity include Brett Connolly, 25, Tom Wilson, 23, and Andre Burakovsky, 22.

The quartet accounted for 20.3 percent of Washington's scoring last season and all have shown flashes and the ability to score goals in bunches. Doing so consistently is a welcome challenge.

"Right from day one, I want to get after it," says Connolly, who signed a two-year deal to remain with Washington after a successful maiden campaign with the Capitals in 2016-17. "I want to play a couple more roles, maybe some power play. That's kind of where I was drafted, so hopefully I can build off of last season and now I want to have more."

Connolly had 15 goals and 23 points in 66 games last season, while averaging 10 minutes 41 seconds of ice time. His career-high 15 tallies were the most by any NHL player who skated fewer than 11 minutes per game. With an anticipated bump in playing time and the potential for more time on the power play, Connolly is eyeing a breakout season.

"My goal is to score at least 20 and help the team win," says Connolly, the sixth overall pick from the 2010 NHL Draft. "That's a very realistic goal for myself coming into the season with a little more ice time. I'll play, I'm assuming every game, so it's a good challenge and a good opportunity and hopefully I can take advantage of it."

Much has changed for Connolly in the last 12 months. A year ago, he arrived at Capitals training camp with a one-year deal and looking for a shot to revive his career as a depth forward. But after making the most of the opportunity while playing primarily on the third line with Burakovsky and Lars Eller, Connolly was rewarded with a two-year pact. It's the first one-way, multi-year deal of his NHL career.

"We're going to have guys that maybe didn't have as big roles last year that are going to have bigger roles now and we're going to need them to produce," he says. "I think guys are ready for that and excited and hopefully we can grab the bull by the horn."

Connolly worked out with Wilson over the summer at the BioSteel Camp in Toronto, which hosts more than 40 NHL players for intense fitness programs each August.

Wilson, who has been training at the camp for the past six years, says he and his trainer Matt Nichol put an emphasis this summer on conditioning and endurance. While Wilson was most frequently deployed on the fourth line last season, he saw increased ice time in the playoffs. The Toronto native played some of the best hockey of his career in the Capitals' first-round series against the Maple Leafs, netting the overtime winner in Game 1 and scoring twice at the Air Canada Centre in Game 4.

The hope is that Wilson can translate that springtime success across an 82-game regular season.

"We've got to get more production out of Tom Wilson," says Trotz. "We're going to need some more goals out of him"

Wilson had seven goals, 19 points and 133 penalty minutes in 82 games last season. He also skated 2 minutes 4 seconds per game on the penalty kill- the fourth highest total among forwards.

"He has that physical element," Trotz says. "He's reliable, he can kill penalties and he can play late-game situations. He's developed that; now he's got to add that offensive side. Now we need a guy like Tom Wilson to get into double digits. That's how you chip away at the losses of a few guys. I think it's very attainable. That's how we'll chip away. But that's the evolution for Tom- to have a little more production now. He can be a good offensive guy."

The possibility for greater opportunities has been there before for Wilson - he briefly played alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in 2014 - but his top-six stints have been short lived. As he enters his fifth season in Washington, Wilson is confident that he's taken the appropriate measures to earn a long-term look as one of the team's most utilized forwards.

"I worked a lot on my skill and on my conditioning," he says of his summer training at the BioSteel Camp. "First and foremost, if you're playing top-six, you have to have your legs. You've got to be able to skate and you've got to be able to play more minutes. If you don't have your legs, you may not have the mental capacity to take on more minutes, and it's not going to work.

"My speed has always been there, but for me, I was really focussed on my conditioning. If you play more minutes, you need to be able to keep your feet moving for 18 or 20 minutes. It's easy to have a burst of speed, but [Backstrom] and guys like that, their speed is consistent the whole game. So, first and foremost you need conditioning."  

Burakovsky has also worked on his conditioning and is expected to spend much of the season in a top-six role. The Capitals' first-round pick from 2013 had 12 goals and 35 points in 64 games last season, but is thought to have 25-to-30 goal potential.

"I think Burakovsky is going to have a good year, especially if he's playing as a top-six," MacLellan says. "Kuzy and Backstrom can increase any winger's production. They're that good at playmaking. I think if you're a winger playing with those types of players, your numbers are going to increase."

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