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Capitals brace for unfamiliar role of defending Stanley Cup champions

In reversal, GM leaving big changes to challengers

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Like many NHL fans, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was keeping an eye on whether John Tavares was going to return to the New York Islanders or sign with another team as an unrestricted free agent July 1.

After winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43-season history, the Capitals weren't involved in the bidding. But Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs might impact their chances of repeating.

It certainly gives the Capitals another team to worry about, one that is now as deep as any team in the NHL at center with Auston Matthews, Tavares and Nazem Kadri as its top three.

"Yeah, for sure," MacLellan said Tuesday. "They're strong up the middle, I think, just like we are. A big part of our success this year was our strength up the middle. I think they're going to be able to match it next year."


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The good news for the Capitals is their top three centers, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller, are each under contract for at least two more seasons. In fact, most of the roster will be back for their repeat bid, including defensemen John Carlson (eight-year, $64 million contract) and Michal Kempny (four-year, $10 million) and forward Devante Smith-Pelly (one-year, $1 million), who were each re-signed before they could become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Of the 20 players in uniform for Washington in its clinching victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, the only departures will be fourth-line center Jay Beagle (signed with the Vancouver Canucks), backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer (traded to the Colorado Avalanche), and possibly third-pair defenseman Brooks Oprik (traded to Colorado and subsequently bought out).

Although coach Barry Trotz left after being unable to agree on a contract extension, the Capitals believe promoting associate Todd Reirden to succeed Trotz was the next best thing. Reirden was introduced as Washington's coach at a news conference Tuesday.

"It's important to keep continuity for me, especially after you've won," MacLellan said. "I think we've established some things, especially at the end of the year here culturally and the way we play, that we can build on this year."

That's been the biggest change for the Capitals from past offseasons. After trying for so long to make moves to catch other teams that won the Stanley Cup, the Capitals' challenge is to keep their team as good as it was last season.

"It's different because we're always looking to improve certain areas," MacLellan said. "We always look at, 'We've got a hole here. We need to fix that.' Or, 'This is a way we can get to that next level.' We've always had that type of attitude.

"This year, it's trying to maintain what we had."

At the same time, other teams have been trying to upgrade their roster to give them the best chance to knock off the Capitals. Some have done it by following Washington's example of building depth at center.

The Maple Leafs did that by signing Tavares. The St. Louis Blues traded for center Ryan O'Reilly and signed center Tyler Bozak, giving them a top three of Brayden Schenn, O'Reilly and Bozak.

And after being overmatched against the Capitals in the Cup Final, the Golden Knights signed center Paul Stastny.

MacLellan pointed out that wanting to be strong up the middle is not a new concept. The Capitals traded for Eller two summers ago to try to match the Pittsburgh Penguins' top three at the time of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino.

But now instead of being one of teams trying to catch the Cup champions, the Capitals are the ones being hunted. That's something they'll have to get used to. Being viewed as one of the best teams in the NHL is nothing new for the Capitals, who won the Presidents' Trophy in 2015-16 and 2016-17. But as defending champions, they'll face an opponent determined to play its best game on a nightly basis.

How they handle that will be pivotal in their bid to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons.

"Teams have always chased us during the regular season because we've always been successful," MacLellan said. "They've always used us as a measuring stick. [With] the playoff success, I think it changes a little bit, but we're still a team that they want to beat."

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