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Capitals put pieces in place to extend playoff stay

by Katie Brown / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

WASHINGTON -- After another disappointing exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan again turned his attention to building a championship team.

Washington blew a 3-1 series lead and was eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round by the New York Rangers. MacLellan had to contend with re-signing a handful of restricted free agents (including No. 1 goaltender Braden Holtby) and manage the loss of several veteran players. He signed forward Justin Williams and acquired forward T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues in a trade for Troy Brouwer.

The Capitals believe the additions of Oshie and Williams will give them the edge they've been missing during the postseason.

"I bring a little bit of comfort, as a guy who's been there and gone all the way," said Williams, who has won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and twice with the Los Angeles Kings. "But listen, this is new for me. This is a new team, and I'm just trying to fit in and find my role as best as I can. I'm not a savior by any means of the word. I'm just coming here to be a piece with this team, which I think is a championship team."

Washington's offense ranked sixth in the NHL last season, and the additions of Oshie and Williams should provide a boost to the top six. Alex Ovechkin scored 53 goals but lacked a consistent wing capable of keeping up with his production.

As a result, the top-line right wing position seemed to be a revolving door with everyone from Jay Beagle to Joel Ward manning the position.

With Nicklas Backstrom working his way back from offseason hip surgery, early indications are that coach Barry Trotz will have Oshie start the season on the top line with Ovechkin, centered by Evgeny Kuznetsov. Williams will start on the second line, centered by Andre Burakovsky.

"Trotz gave me a heads up that I'm going to start as a center," Burakovsky said. "I started last year as a center too, so I'm kind of into it, I know how to play. I'm not worried about this; I'm looking forward to starting as a center. I think it's going to be good for me."

Backstrom, Ovechkin's regular center, is likely to miss the season opener. There is no timetable for Backstrom's return. His absence opens the door for Kuznetsov to play an increased role in the top six and on the power play.

Washington's youth will be tasked with greater responsibility as well. Tom Wilson will play on the penalty kill and has been promoted to the third line.

Brooks Laich has two years left on his six-year contract and said he's ready to do whatever the coaching staff asks. At 32, Laich is the longest tenured player in the Capitals organization.

"I put more pressure on myself than anybody does," Laich said. "I've had good success here playing for this team, and I want to get back to that level. I want to get back to leaving the rink and feeling the way I used to feel. Not just being a part player, but being a driving element on the team."

Replacing Mike Green's ice time (19:06) and 45 points from last season may be a larger hurdle to clear than the Capitals expect. Having a player of Green's caliber as a No. 5 defenseman was a luxury, and Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov will likely make up the new third pairing.

This season, the depth chart is a little bit shallower and younger talent will have increased responsibility.

Orlov hasn't played an NHL game in nearly two years because of a wrist injury. Schmidt played in 39 games with Washington last season, and Trotz said he sees him as the leader of the group of young defensemen vying for a shot at the NHL.

The top two defensive pairings of Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner will stay the same but will have to find ways to disperse minutes and make up for some of the offense Green used to produce.

Holtby, 25, has established himself as the franchise goaltender. He started a League-leading 72 regular-season games last season, set NHL career highs in wins (41) and save percentage (.923), and was rewarded with a five-year, $30.5 million contract.

"It's just in my DNA: I like to work, I like to try and get better," Holtby said in July. "I'm not worried about that. Obviously it's going to be a new set of challenges. The low points of seasons are going to be a little harder to get through because of the added pressure, but that's just another challenge I'm looking forward to, to fighting through it and keep improving every single year."

Justin Peters played 12 games last season and had an .881 save percentage and 3.25 GAA. Peters said he is fully recovered from knee surgery he had in July and has been given a chance to win the backup job during training camp.

Peters has been competing with Philipp Grubauer, who signed a two-year, $1.5 million contract on June 15.

Last season with Hershey of the American Hockey League, Grubauer, 24, set records in games played (49), wins (27), shutouts (six) and save percentage (.925). Hershey coach Troy Mann said Grubauer has nothing left to prove in the AHL.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
45-26-11 (101 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Defeated the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round in seven games; Lost to the New York Rangers in the Second Round in seven games

Key additions: RW Justin Williams, RW T.J. Oshie

Key subtractions: D Mike Green, C Eric Fehr, RW Joel Ward, RW Troy Brouwer

Washington had the top-ranked power play in the NHL last season, but Green's departure will make it difficult to replicate that success. Carlson had an NHL career-high 55 points last season and could eclipse that number.

The Capitals could look to Niskanen and Orlov, players with goal-scoring talent, to reprise Green's role on the power play.

Green scored 17 of his 35 points on the power play, though he was relegated to the second unit for much of that time.

Losing three of its top 10 penalty killing players presents a challenge for Washington. Brouwer, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr ranked fifth, seventh and 10th in shorthanded ice time last season, so the Capitals will look to younger forwards like Wilson to play a larger role.

"I'm the kind of guy that'll block shots; I'm not scared to do that," Wilson said. "I've spent a lot of time in the box, so I know how it feels to have a PK bailing you out. That would be exciting and hopefully I can contribute to that group."

Last season, his first as coach of the Capitals, Trotz spent a lot of time getting to know his players. This season, though there are new faces, he can focus less on teaching systems and more on helping the Capitals do the things they need to do to win.

"I think a lot of changes were instituted last year by the coaching staff," MacLellan said. "There's a strong base there, and we should be a better team."

Trotz said the Capitals are prepared to deal with the challenges a new season may present, and he maintains an unwavering faith in the Capitals' ability to win a Stanley Cup.

"I think we have a pretty good club," Trotz said. "It's all going to depend on a couple factors and where our young guys can get to. I'm pretty confident that they all can get to those levels. It doesn't mean we're not going to be as good, there's just a lot of people that are up for the challenge."

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