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Capitals out to prove doubters wrong, remain in contention

Veterans have same high expectations despite turnover on defense

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The Washington Capitals remain a work in progress with several players to replace and an identity to establish heading into their season opener against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Oct. 5. 

After an offseason of roster turnover that has them seeking replacements for two of their top six forwards and two of their top six defensemen, the Capitals are in a transition that might need some time to work itself out. They are also trying to move on from the disappointment of losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round for the second consecutive year despite winning the Presidents' Trophy two seasons in a row. 

Because of the uncertainty following their offseason changes, few outside Washington expect the Capitals to be among the top contenders for the Stanley Cup again. But they believe they have enough left to make a push.

"As a player, you can really feel from the outside [people] don't have high expectations, but at the same time, we still have high expectations of ourselves as players," center Nicklas Backstrom said. 

Here is a look at the five keys for the Capitals, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Piece together defense

The Capitals were expecting to lose defensemen Karl Alzner (signed with the Montreal Canadiens) and Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with the New York Rangers) but hoped Nate Schmidt would step into a larger role before he was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. With two spots in their top six to fill, the Capitals need their young defensemen to seize the opportunity.

Madison Bowey, 22, Aaron Ness, 27 and Christian Djoos, 23, remain in the mix after the most recent roster cuts. Veteran Taylor Chorney, 30, an extra for most of last season, is an option.

2. Continued dominance from Holtby, Grubauer

Braden Holtby has had three consecutive 40-win seasons and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in the past two, winning the award as top goalie in the NHL in 2015-16. But with questions surrounding the defense, Holtby and backup Philipp Grubauer will potentially need to cover up more mistakes and steal some games. 

Washington allowed an NHL-low 2.16 goals per game and was fourth at 27.8 shots allowed per game last season. The number of shots the goalies face, and their quality, is likely to increase.

"What we needed the last couple years was just consistency and not letting in goals that changed the momentum of the game, staying that steady, calming influence," Holtby said. "Who knows? We might still have that again. If we don't, sometimes you need the big saves. You need to make a lot of them at different times in the game, and it's a different mentality sometimes."

Video: STL@WSH: Holtby uses the blocker to deny Jaskin

3. Rebound season from Ovechkin

The Capitals had enough scoring depth that they didn't need left wing Alex Ovechkin to score or play as much. After three consecutive 50-goal seasons, Ovechkin dropped to 33, his fewest in a full NHL season since he scored 32 in 2010-11. He also played the least he has in his NHL career; his average ice time went from 20:18 in 2015-16 to 18:21.

But after losing forwards Justin Williams (signed with the Carolina Hurricanes) and Marcus Johansson (traded to the New Jersey Devils), who each scored 24 goals last season playing in the top six, and fourth-line center Daniel Winnik (on a professional tryout with the Minnesota Wild), the Capitals need to replace 60 goals. That means they need more from Ovechkin.  
 
4. Scoring by committee

The Capitals hope to get more goals from returning forwards Andre Burakovsky (12), Brett Connolly (15), Lars Eller (12) and Tom Wilson (7), who each will have a chance to play a bigger role. If rookie forward Jakub Vrana and tryout Alex Chiasson (12 goals last season with the Calgary Flames) make the team, they'll also have to help pick up the scoring slack.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Burakovsky capitalizes on turnover

5. Survive tough start of season

The Capitals play eight of their first 12 games on the road, including a three-game trip to Western Canada -- at the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 26, at the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 28, and at the Flames on Oct. 29 -- to close October. Three of their four home games during that stretch are against a team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season (Penguins, Maple Leafs, Canadiens). If they can get through that difficult stretch while breaking in two defensemen, they can move past the questions about last season's disappointment and coach Barry Trotz being in the final year of his contract.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Backstrom is the model of consistency and is vastly underrated. He finished fourth in the NHL with 86 points last season and second with 63 assists behind Oilers center Connor McDavid, who had 70. Backstrom averaged 78 points the past four seasons and remains one of the best two-way forwards in the League, though he has never finished higher than seventh in voting for the Selke Trophy. 

Video: Nicklas Backstrom takes the No. 11 spot

Biggest battle

Although the competition on defense hasn't gone as well as the Capitals hoped, they have been happy with their forwards, particularly the candidates to play right wing on the top line with Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Connolly, Wilson, Vrana and Chiasson have had good moments in scrimmages and preseason games, making it a difficult decision.

Most intriguing addition

If Vrana, 21, can be consistent with his compete level and defensive play, each a problem for him in the second half of last season with Hershey in the American Hockey League, he has the potential to be an offensive weapon because of his speed and shot. He showed flashes of it with six points (three goals, three assists) in 21 NHL games last season. 

Biggest potential surprise

Eller needed some time to adjust to his surroundings after being acquired in a trade from the Canadiens on June 24, 2016, but he was solid as the third-line center, getting 25 points (12 goals, 13 assists) in 81 games. Eller appears more comfortable and will have a chance to play a bigger role, which could include time on the second power-play unit.

 

PROJECTED LINES 

Andre Burakovsky -- Nicklas Backstom -- T.J. Oshie

Alex Ovechkin -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- Brett Connolly 

Jakub Vrana -- Lars Eller -- Tom Wilson

Nathan Walker -- Jay Beagle -- Alex Chiasson

Dmitry Orlov -- Matt Niskanen

Taylor Chorney -- John Carlson 

Brooks Orpik -- Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer

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