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Capitals put playoff disappointments in rearview mirror

Backstrom, Washington remain focused after early postseason exits, offseason changes

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

STOCKHOLM -- Three months have passed since the Washington Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round, but the disappointment remains after coming up short again in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

With the start of training camp in September rapidly approaching, the Capitals are looking forward to the season and wondering whether they have enough talent and depth to remain a Cup contender.

Center Evgeny Kuznetsov had a strong answer for those who believe the Capitals are in decline.

"I don't like when people say we're a bad team right now," Kuznetsov said during the European Player Media Tour on Thursday. "That's bull to me. It's not about the names. It's about the guys when they come together."

 

[RELATED: Washington Capitals Team Reset]

 

Still, it will be a different group than the one that won the Presidents' Trophy in each of the past two seasons. The departures of forwards Marcus Johansson (traded to the New Jersey Devils) and Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and defensemen Karl Alzner (signed with the Montreal Canadiens), Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with the New York Rangers) and Nate Schmidt (claimed by Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft) have left the Capitals without two of their top six forwards and three of their seven defensemen who played in the postseason.

Washington plans to fill those holes internally with young players such as forwards Jakub Vrana, 21, and Nathan Walker, 23, and defensemen Madison Bowey, 22, and Christian Djoos, 23. Because of the growing pains those players might experience, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Capitals take a step back, but their expectations haven't changed.

"Our goal is to get a playoff spot," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "I just think we should go one step at a time, get ourselves in the playoffs and then we'll go from there. As you know, everything can happen in the playoffs."

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Backstrom goes top shelf to pad lead

The Capitals were reminded of that the past two seasons when they had teams that looked good enough on paper to win the Cup, but lost to the Penguins in the second round each time and watched their Metropolitan Division rivals go on to win back-to-back championships. Last season's loss was particularly devastating because the Capitals had the banged-up Penguins on the ropes after rallying from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 before losing home ice.

Backstrom's disappointment over how the Capitals played in that game, which he called, "a reality check," has not subsided.

"I think that when it comes to the playoffs it shouldn't be about individuals," he said. "It should be about the team and how we lose as a team. How we acted in Game 7, I think that's telling everything. They absolutely outplayed us in Game 7 at home. That shouldn't be the case."

Whether any fallout from that defeat carries over into this season remains to be seen. Earlier this summer, general manager Brian MacLellan likened the Capitals' situation to going through a Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup.

To Kuznetsov, what happened last season is history already. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov agreed.

"I'm just looking forward to getting going and seeing all the guys," Orlov said. "We still have a dream to win the Cup. We just need to forget what's in the past and move forward like always."

Video: CBJ@WSH: Orlov nets scorching slapper through traffic

Most of the Capitals core remains intact with Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen, Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Orlov returning. Oshie (eight years, $46 million), Kuznetsov (eight years, $62.4 million) and Orlov (six years, $30.6 million) signed long-term contracts this offseason and restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky (two years, $6 million) and Philipp Grubauer (one year, $1.5 million) were also re-signed.

That those contracts meant the Capitals had to part with some other players because of salary cap concerns was expected. And although the trade of his good friend Johansson (salary cap charge of $4.58 million per season) for two second-round draft picks was a little shocking to Backstrom, he also understands it's part of the business.

And Backstrom sees reasons for optimism with who is still in Washington.

"If you look at the roster, we have good lines and it gives an opportunity for the younger guys to come into the League, a couple of D-men and a couple of forwards too," he said. "It's the way it works now with the salary cap. You've just got to try to adjust and make sure things work out."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Ovechkin strikes on second effort

The Capitals will get a better idea of what they have after training camp and likely will be a work in progress over the course of the regular season. Considering their past disappointments, maybe not being in the daily conversation with Stanley Cup contenders won't be a bad thing.

"I think we should be the team that is going to focus game by game and not focus all the way to the Cup," Kuznetsov said. "Of course we have to think about that, but we have to take what we have today. Let's practice together, let's work hard, let's help your partner be better, let's push him. ... It's always good competition, so that's the team we have to be. We're hungry."

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