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31 in 31

Inside look at Washington Capitals

Presidents' Trophy winners seek to prove Stanley Cup window hasn't closed despite key offseason losses

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Washington Capitals.

The start of practice at training camp on Sept. 15 will give the Washington Capitals the opportunity to begin channeling some negative energy in a positive way.

The Capitals have spent much of the offseason dealing with anger and disappointment from being unable to get past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs again after winning the Presidents' Trophy for the second consecutive season. They've also been hearing and reading about how their days as Cup contenders might be over after several player departures during the offseason.

There's nothing the Capitals can do to change those assessments now, but it's clear that disproving them will be a motivating factor when their season begins Oct. 5 at the Ottawa Senators.

 

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"People can make their own evaluations," Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said. "I think we're trying to throw out as an organization that we think we're better than outside people think we are as a team and, hopefully, we'll prove it here going forward."

The Capitals have good reason to believe they can do that because much of their core remains intact with forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, defensemen Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson, and goaltender Braden Holtby returning. Although they lost some key players, most of the roster turnover was expected.

The Capitals gave Kuznetsov (eight years, $62.4 million, $7.8 million average annual value), Orlov (six years, $30.6 million, $5.1 million AAV), forward Andre Burakovsky (two years, $6 million, $3 million AAV) and backup goalie Philipp Grubauer (one year, $1.5 million) significant raises as restricted free agents, and because of that, had limited NHL salary cap space to re-sign their unrestricted free agents. Of those players, they targeted Oshie, who tied Ovechkin for the Capitals lead with 33 goals last season, as their priority, and re-signed him to an eight-year, $46 million contract ($5.75 million AAV) on June 23.

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After that, it was virtually a foregone conclusion that right wing Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and defensemen Karl Alzner (signed with the Montreal Canadiens) and Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with the New York Rangers) would leave after they became unrestricted free agents on July 1.

"I think internally we thought we could bring one guy back of the UFAs and we tried for [Oshie], ended up getting him, and we signed our RFAs," MacLellan said. "I think we did what we said we were going to do."

The loss of defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21 also wasn't a surprise because the Capitals figured they'd lose either Schmidt or Grubauer. However, it was a bit of a blow because Schmidt would have played in the top four if he had stayed.

The move that surprised many was the trade of forward Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for second- and third-round picks in the 2018 NHL Draft on July 2.

MacLellan said he knew the Capitals might have to trade Johansson, who set NHL career highs with 24 goals and 58 points last season and is entering the second year of a three-year $13.75 million contract ($4.583,333 million average annual value). It wasn't until after Oshie, Orlov and Kuznetsov were re-signed that Johansson was traded, freeing some cap space.

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"We had a couple of options for getting salary down to the level depending on where the contract levels ended up, and [trading Johansson] was our last option," MacLellan said. "We had a couple more things we were going to do if some of the contracts didn't get as high as they did and unfortunately they went to that level, and we needed to trade Marcus."

The net result means the Capitals need to replace two of their top six forwards (Johansson and Williams) and three of the seven defensemen who played for them in the playoffs last season (Alzner, Shattenkirk and Schmidt). They expect Burakovsky, 22, to move up and fill one of the forward spots and believe he is ready to take the next step in his development after he had 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 64 games last season.

Rookie Jakub Vrana, 21, will get a shot at the other top-six opening after he had six points (three goals, three assists) in 21 NHL games last season.

At defenseman, rookies Madison Bowey, 22, Christian Djoos, 23, Tyler Lewington, 22, Jonas Siegenthaler, 20, and Lucas Johansen, 19, will be part of the training camp competition. Two of them could end up on the opening night roster.

MacLellan said he views it as having to replace Alzner and Schmidt because Shattenkirk didn't join the Capitals until a Feb. 27 trade with the St. Louis Blues.

"Schmidt was more our sixth defenseman last year, and I don't foresee that being a huge issue," MacLellan said. "Alzner will be the more difficult one to replace. [The question is], how we end up doing that, how the young guys play, and do we need to look to the outside for help to replace him?"

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