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Season Preview: Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, reigning Presidents' Trophy winners have Stanley Cup dreams

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer
At a glance

2015-16 record: 56-18-8, 120 points, 1st in Metropolitan Division, 1st in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Defeated Philadelphia Flyers in six games in Eastern Conference First Round, lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in Eastern Conference Second Round

Additions: F: Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, Zach Sanford

Subtractions: F: Jason Chimera, Michael Latta, Mike Richards; D: Mike Weber

 
Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson -- Nicklas Backstrom -- Justin Williams

Andre Burakovsky -- Lars Eller -- Tom Wilson

Daniel Winnik -- Jay Beagle -- Brett Connolly

Zach Sanford

Defensemen

Karl Alzner -- Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov -- John Carlson

Brooks Orpik -- Nate Schmidt

Taylor Chorney

Goalies

Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer

 

Video: STL@WSH: Holtby snags Rattie's deflection

The Washington Capitals head into this season knowing their success won't be measured until the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They were the Stanley Cup favorites last season after winning the Presidents' Trophy and setting a Capitals record with 56 wins but again came up short in the postseason, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. For a team that hasn't advanced beyond the second round since its only Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, any regular-season accolades will feel empty if they aren't followed by a long playoff run and, ultimately, a championship.

Believing only minor adjustments were needed, the Capitals brought back most of their players from last season. After watching the Penguins go on to win the Stanley Cup by utilizing three balanced scoring lines and a reliable fourth line, the Capitals decided they needed to upgrade their bottom six forwards and did so by trading for center Lars Eller (sending two future draft picks to the Montreal Canadiens) and signing right wing Brett Connolly as an unrestricted free agent.

Coach Barry Trotz is toying again with the idea of splitting up Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line. Ovechkin, who scored at least 50 goals in each of the past three seasons, and T.J. Oshie played with Evgeny Kuznetsov as their center at the start of last season when Backstrom was recovering from hip surgery. Putting Backstrom on the second line might help spread out the scoring.

With Kuznetsov, 24, and Andre Burakovsky, 21, continuing to blossom, the Capitals should have plenty of offense.

On defense, Dmitry Orlov, 25, will get a chance to have a bigger role and, perhaps, take some of 36-year-old Brooks Orpik's minutes. The Capitals were fine defensively with Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Orpik, Orlov, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney during the regular season, but their lack of depth was exposed in the playoffs against the Penguins when Alzner was trying to play through a groin injury and Orpik was suspended for three games.

Goaltending will continue to be a strength with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby.

This is the second season of what general manager Brian MacLellan labeled as a two-year window for this group to win. Alzner, 28, Oshie, 29, and right wing Justin Williams, 35, could become unrestricted free agents after the season, and Kuznetsov and Burakovsky will be due significant raises as restricted free agents, so changes likely are coming. And with Ovechkin, 31, nearing the end of his prime, the Capitals' Stanley Cup clock is ticking.

 
Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Capitals have essentially the same team that won the Presidents' Trophy last season other than adding Eller and Connolly and losing Jason Chimera, who signed with the New York Islanders.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm 5: Ovechkin fires a one-timer for PPG

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Injuries to key players or a loss of focus are the only things that can prevent this deep team from qualifying for the postseason.

 
Breakout candidate

Zach Sanford. After leaving Boston College to sign with the Capitals on July 11, the 21-year-old appears to have earned a roster spot with a strong training camp. At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Sanford looks NHL ready. He is a center, but the Capitals tried him at wing in the preseason and he did not appear out of place.

 

On the hot seat

Orlov. When he was a restricted free agent this offseason, he expressed a desire to play a bigger role for the Capitals, and Trotz appears intent on giving him one. Orlov played in all 82 regular season games last season after missing the entire 2014-15 season following wrist surgery, and had 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) averaging 16:02 in ice time per game, least among the Capitals' top six defensemen, with limited time on the power play (31 seconds per game). With a top-four role and a regular spot on the power play, he'll need to elevate his game.

 

Trophy candidates

Holtby (Vezina, Jennings); Kuznetsov (Ross); Ovechkin (Hart, Richard, Lindsay); Trotz (Adams)

 

Quotable

"This is a new group and this is sort of a new beginning. I know we can talk about history and all that, but every year is a new beginning of a journey that this group will take. I can't tell you how it's going to go. I can't tell you what road. We sort of have a GPS map, but sometimes you get off a course a little bit and you have to get rerouted. So we don't know how that's going to play out, but I know that we've got really good people." -- coach Barry Trotz

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