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31 in 31

Inside look at Washington Capitals

Hope new pieces can support championship core in quest to recapture Cup

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

31 in 31: Washington Capitals

31 in 31: Washington Capitals 2019-20 season preview

NHL.com's Dan Rosen and NHL Network's Mike Johnson discuss the biggest questions facing the Washington Capitals for the 2019-20 season

  • 04:51 •

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

The Washington Capitals probably didn't need a reminder of how difficult it is to win the Stanley Cup.

They hadn't advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1998 before winning their first championship in 2018.

 

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But if the Capitals thought they had it all figured out after that, having their repeat bid ended by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference First Round last season provided another lesson they hope will help them in their quest to get the Cup back this season. That the Cup no longer belongs to the Capitals will be driven home again when they watch the St. Louis Blues raise their first Stanley Cup banner prior to their season opener at Enterprise Center on Oct. 2.

"We always want to win and we always want to try to catch that Stanley Cup," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "That's our goal, and that has been our goal for so many years. … All the core guys are here, and I think we've got a good drive in our group with some new, younger players. I think it's perfect. You need a good mix of everything if you're going to go all the way, so why not do it again?"

The Capitals thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with the Cup last offseason, so it's no surprise they'd want to do that again. This offseason has been much longer, and unlike 2018, when they made a coaching change with Todd Reirden replacing Barry Trotz (who resigned and was hired by the New York Islanders) but kept most of their roster intact, there have been a lot of personnel changes.

New players include defenseman Radko Gudas, acquired in a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Matt Niskanen on June 14, and forwards Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic, each signed as an unrestricted free agent July 1. Gone are Niskanen, defenseman Brooks Orpik (retired June 25), and forwards Andre Burakovsky (traded to Colorado Avalanche on June 28), Brett Connolly (signed with Florida Panthers on July 1) and Devante Smith-Pelly (unrestricted free agent).

Washington's objective was to retool its bottom two forward lines and change the mix a little at defenseman. But the championship core of Backstrom, forwards Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, and goalie Braden Holtby remains.

Video: Braden Holtby takes the No. 7 spot on the list

"The core guys played well in the playoffs, I thought," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "It was the people around the core that could have been criticized a little bit. So we changed the people around the core. Hopefully, we addressed what we thought was the reason we lost to Carolina."

Four months later, MacLellan has a general idea but isn't sure precisely why the Capitals failed to close that series, which ended with Carolina winning 4-3 in the second overtime in Game 7. Similar to the regular season, when Washington (48-26-8) finished first in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth straight season, it showed flashes of being the team that won the Cup and appeared to lose focus mentally at other times.

The Capitals led 2-0 and 3-2 in the best-of-7 series, but lost Games 3, 4 and 6 at Carolina and then let leads of 2-0 and 3-1 slip away in Game 7 at home.

"We ended up having a good year," MacLellan said. "But in the playoffs, it was inconsistent, for me, and I don't know if it's a fatigue thing or some other thing that we realized the battle that was ahead of us and weren't up to the challenge. I'm not sure. I don't have the exact thing pinpointed, but because of that, we felt we needed to change the group a little bit."

Players are used to having some roster turnover each offseason. In 2018, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer (traded to Colorado) and fourth-line center Jay Beagle (signed with Vancouver Canucks) were the only departures from the Cup-winning lineup. That turned out to be an aberration.

But with seven players from that championship team now gone -- Niskanen, Orpik, Burakovsky, Connolly, Smith-Pelly, Grubauer and Beagle -- Washington clearly has turned the page and now is focused on what it needs to do to win this season.

"I'm excited to meet the new guys and see what they're able to bring to the table," Oshie said. "It's a fun place to play here, but it's also a very detailed place. Even though we're smiling all the time, we're still working hard and we're still getting down to business. So it will be nice to bring them on board."

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