Skip to main content

Headlines

Capitals look to turn talent into more victories

by Adam Vingan / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

It was a statement profound in its simplicity.

In a midsummer interview with CBC, new Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz provided what could be considered an apt assessment of the team he would soon lead.

"There's a big difference between a good team," Trotz told Elliotte Friedman, "and a team with talent."

Washington is undeniably a team with talent. Alex Ovechkin is the NHL's premier goal-scorer. Nicklas Backstrom may be its most underappreciated superstar. Mike Green might not wow fans like he used to, but he is still capable of awe-inspiring rushes.

Yet the Capitals were not a good team last season, at least according to their lofty standards. Their absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007 served as proof and an awakening. General manager George McPhee, the franchise's architect for nearly two decades, was not offered an extension. Coach Adam Oates was fired after two seasons.

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
A. Ovechkin N. Backstrom T. Brouwer
B. Laich E. Kuznetsov E. Fehr
J. Chimera M. Johansson J. Ward
A. Volpatti J. Beagle T. Wilson
Extra:  M. Latta
DEFENSEMEN
B. Orpik J. Carlson
K. Alzner M. Niskanen
D. Orlov M. Green
Extras: J. Hillen
J. Erskine
GOALIES
B. Holtby
J. Peters

"Responsibility on us, is always on us," Ovechkin said. "[Owner Ted Leonsis] give us a wake-up call, say, listen, you have to do something. You guys have to win or you guys [are] going to be next. I'm pretty sure this organization and the fans [are] tired [of] losing and not [showing] exactly what we can do. That's why we made the changes."

After 15 seasons guiding the Nashville Predators, Trotz will be the latest coach (and fourth since the start of the 2011-12 season) expected to translate the individual talent that the Capitals possess into the collective success that has largely eluded them. It begins with cultivating a familial environment that promotes structure and accountability, attributes not necessarily associated with Washington in recent seasons.

"There's no bond like it when you have great success as a group," Trotz said last month. "When you have it individually, you feel good and it's great, but you don't share it with anybody. To me, the whole thing is having an opportunity to share something with someone. The greatest need of any player is to be a part of something."

The Capitals' roster returns essentially intact, though how exactly the talent will be deployed is an open question.

Entering training camp, two things were almost certain among the forwards: Ovechkin and Backstrom, longstanding linemates, and Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, who possess undeniable chemistry, will continue to skate together. The rest of the lineup is a work in progress.

CAPITALS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Washington Capitals players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

6. Alex Ovechkin, RW (No. 2 among RWs)

25. Nicklas Backstrom, C (Best of mock draft)

103. Braden Holtby, G (Offseason changes)

109. Evgeny Kuznetsov, LW/C (Jensen's sleeper)

131. Mike Green, D (Overvalued)

148. Matt Niskanen, D (Trending up)

194. John Carlson, D

199. Troy Brouwer, RW

273. Justin Peters, G

Trotz said he will transition Ovechkin back to his natural left wing position after two successful seasons on the right side. He said Ovechkin's "dangerous" offensive game from the left side served as the impetus for that decision.

"He's better on the right side defensively, but his talent is on the left side," Trotz explained. "If I'm going to maximize his talent, I need to get him on the left side. The stuff that he does on the left side, there's no coach on the planet that can teach him what he does."

With Ovechkin's previous position now open, Troy Brouwer may be the most logical fit to join him and Backstrom, considering their previous experience as a trio.

As for second-line center, rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov is often mentioned as the leading candidate to fill a position that has seen constant turnover over the past several seasons, though there will be an open competition.

Assuming Kuznetsov does in fact start there, any combination of Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr or Tom Wilson (who is recovering from a fractured left fibula) could possibly flank him. A potential surprise could be 2013 first-round draft pick (No. 23) Andre Burakovsky, who the Capitals are experimenting with at center but is a natural wing.

Regardless of how Trotz deploys his forwards, they will have to improve their play at even strength. With the departure of Mikhail Grabovski to the New York Islanders via free agency, the Capitals do not return any forwards who had a Corsi percentage of at least 50 percent at 5-on-5, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

"I honestly think we've got to be better defensively," Backstrom said. "If you play good defensively, the offense will create from that. The other team had the other puck in our zone too long [last season] and then we were supposed to attack, we were tired."

Fortifying the Capitals' defensive depth was new general manager Brian MacLellan's most pressing priority this summer. With the blessing of ownership, he committed a total of $67.75 million to lure former Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Matt Niskanen (seven years, $40.25 million) and Brooks Orpik (five years, $27.5 million) to Washington.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: RW Chris Conner (free agent, Penguins); LW Tim Kennedy (free agent, Coyotes); C Kris Newbury (free agent, Flyers); D Matt Niskanen (free agent, Penguins); D Brooks Orpik (free agent, Penguins); G Justin Peters (free agent, Hurricanes)

SUBTRACTIONS: C Mikhail Grabovski (free agent, Islanders); RW Dustin Penner (free agent); D Tyson Strachan (free agent, Sabres); D Julien Brouillette (free agent, Jets); G Jaroslav Halak (trade, Islanders)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: LW Andre Burakovsky; C Chris Brown; C Casey Wellman; D Nate Schmidt; D Connor Carrick; D Cameron Schilling; D Steve Oleksy; D Patrick Wey; G Philipp Grubauer

By adding Niskanen to a group that already includes Green and John Carlson, the Capitals arguably boast one of the better puck-moving defensive corps in the League. All three will be encouraged to carry the puck and join the attack.

Orpik will function as a stabilizing presence in the defensive zone, a trait noticeably absent among Capitals defensemen in recent seasons. He and Karl Alzner will be expected to balance out their freewheeling, right-handed counterparts with steady play.

MacLellan hopes his remodeled defense form a formidable nucleus that inspires more confidence than the dubious unit that rotated through a League-high 14 players last season.

"If I was another team, I'd be a little bit worried, to be honest," Green said. "The depth that we have is incredible. Anybody can be top-two pairing right down to the bottom. It's not about who's the top pairing, it's about what the coaches want, who they want to put out there."

In an August conversation, Trotz offered potential pairings of Alzner and Niskanen, Orpik and Carlson (who played together for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics) and Green and Dmitry Orlov. Veterans Jack Hillen and John Erskine will also compete for playing time.

"That's a pretty good group," Niskanen said. "I don't think we're going to have one guy that's going to play 27 or 30 minutes. We're going to have a pretty good committee back there. We've got a good mix of players too. We have different things that we can all bring."

There was little solidity in Washington's crease last season, when four goaltenders started at least 11 games.

Braden Holtby, restrained by stylistic adjustments that clashed with his natural assertiveness, visibly struggled, triggering the turbulence.

Despite Holtby's forgettable season, the Capitals reaffirmed their faith in the 25-year-old this offseason, anointing him their clear-cut starter.

Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 23-15-4
GAA: 2.85 | SVP: .915
"It is a confidence boost in some ways, but at the same time, I know what the position entails and that means you can't take any days off," Holtby said. "No matter what is said or whatnot, you have to perform and that's my main goal is to make sure I'm giving this team the best chance to win all the time. If I do that, then the starts will come."

The hiring of esteemed goaltending coach Mitch Korn, a longtime Trotz confidant, was arguably the Capitals' shrewdest move this summer. Korn's literal bag of tricks, from screen boards that simulate heavy traffic to white pucks that blend into the ice, has been on prominent display.

"He's definitely an innovator when it comes to ways to train and ways to improve certain aspects," Holtby said of Korn. "You can tell he's always thinking and it's a great quality and one that I'm very fortunate to get a chance to learn from."

Backing up Holtby is Justin Peters, who signed a two-year contract on July 1 following 68 games over five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. Philipp Grubauer, who started 14 games for Washington last season, will continue his development as the No. 1 goaltender for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.

View More