WASHINGTON -- In an effort to keep the Stanley Cup window wide open, the Washington Capitals spent last season introducing young players into their lineup. Now it's time for them to become bigger contributors.
Evgeny Kuznetsov starts his second full NHL season, and Andre Burakovsky should be in the NHL full-time after spending a portion of last season with Hershey in the American Hockey League. How those forwards perform will go a long way to competing in what is primed to be a tough Metropolitan Division.
Here are three X-factors that will impact whether the Capitals then can get over the hump in the postseason:
Second-line center: Burakovsky started last season at center but ended up playing primarily on the wing. General manager Brian MacLellan said he sees Burakovsky as a natural center, and coach Barry Trotz confirmed the 20-year old will start the season between Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams on the second line.
Evgeny Kuznetsov will center Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on the top line while Nicklas Backstrom recovers from hip surgery. Backstrom is expected to return by the beginning of November.
Washington has a good deal of flexibility at center. Trotz said not to be surprised if Kuznetsov and Backstrom end up alternating first- and second-center duties once Backstrom returns and the coach is comfortable with moving Burakovsky around between center and wing.
"We know we can always move him back to the wall or maybe we can keep him at center," Trotz said. "If he does such a good job, maybe you start moving him around during the year. I think playing center ice is good for everybody. We're going to start him at center ice, then let him do his thing."
Defensive depth: By the time Dmitry Orlov fully recovered from a wrist injury sustained in the offseason, it was too late for Trotz to work him into the lineup. Orlov hasn't played an NHL game since April 13, 2014, a month before he fractured his wrist at the 2014 IIHF World Championship.
The 24-year old defenseman has 31 points in 119 NHL games for Washington and will probably play third-pairing and power-play minutes this season.
"If he has the opportunity to get some power-play minutes and to be in the lineup more consistently and not get hurt, he has a chance to be in the easily 20 points [range], definitely 30 points if he has bounces going his way," defenseman Karl Alzner said.
Last season, the Capitals had the bonus of having Mike Green on the third defense pairing. With Green gone (he signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent), Washington will have to rely on Orlov and Nate Schmidt.
"I don't think you can ever replace the quality of things that Mike Green can bring, but Orlov brings some of them and brings other characteristics that are different from Mike," Trotz said. "Hopefully some of that balances out."
Capable backup goalie: Braden Holtby played in 73 regular-season games last season, due in part to a lack of trust in backup Justin Peters. Holtby has a propensity for a workload of that magnitude, but it's simply not realistic for Washington to expect its franchise goaltender to sustain that pace.
Philipp Grubauer is relatively unproven at the NHL level; he's played 20 regular-season games and one Stanley Cup Playoff game for Washington. Signed to a two-year, $1.5 million contract on June 15, Grubauer is the difference between whether Holtby starts 60 or 70 games this season.
Last season, Grubauer set career highs in games played (49), wins (27), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (six) with Hershey in the AHL.
"He has nothing left to prove at the AHL level," Hershey coach Troy Mann said in July.
Grubauer is the front-runner in the competition with Peters for the backup job, and early indications are he will get the position.
"I'm going to have to evaluate who's giving us the best chance to win," Trotz said. "Right now, we're just looking at the best backup."