ARLINGTON, Va.-- Entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April, the Washington Capitals were the Presidents' Trophy winners and viewed by many as the team to beat. Then, the Pittsburgh Penguins knocked them out in the second round and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
That makes the Penguins the team to beat when the 2016-17 season gets underway and leaves everyone else trying to figure out how to do it.
That includes the Capitals.
"They're a good hockey team and they're the champs," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Thursday.
Trotz believes the Capitals are still a good team as well, but the clock is ticking for this particular collection of players. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan has stated multiple times that they have a two-year window to win a championship with Karl Alzner, T. J. Oshie and Justin Williams due to become unrestricted free agents and younger players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky expected to receive significant raises as restricted free agents next summer.
Next season is Year 2 in that window, so there is no time to waste for Trotz and MacLellan. The Capitals added the third line center they were seeking in acquiring Lars Eller from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade at the NHL Draft last weekend, so they're not expecting to be aggressive when unrestricted free agency opens for business at 12 p.m. ET on Friday.
Trotz speculated the Capitals might add a forward to play in their bottom six, but, barring a surprise, the only additional changes coming personnel-wise will likely be limited to leaving room for some prospects to compete for jobs. Otherwise, his lineup is nearly set.
"I know who my 12 forwards are," Trotz said. "Who is playing with who is I can go on the board and move a couple magnets here and there and it changes the whole thing. And we will do that."
Video: Lars Eller on heading to the Washington Capitals
The Penguins broke the mold a little bit by spreading out their scoring over their top three lines and filling in with fast but lesser-skilled wingers. Sidney Crosby centered a top line with AHL call-up Conor Sheary on his left wing and Patric Hornqvist on the right side. Evgeni Malkin centered a second line with Chris Kunitz and Bryan Rust, another AHL call-up, on his wings.
That left right wing Phil Kessel, who would play on the top line on a lot of teams, to skate on a third line with Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino that gave opponents matchup problems.
In falling to the Penguins in six games, the Capitals limited Crosby (two assists) and Malkin (one goal, one assist) to a combined four points, but were torched by Hagelin (three goals, four assists), Bonino (two goals, three assists) and Kessel (two goals, four assists) for seven goals and 11 assists, including Bonino's series-clinching overtime winner in Game 6.
Trotz pointed out how the Penguins also had a solid fourth line with Tom Kuhnhackl and veterans Matt Cullen and former Capitals forward Eric Fehr that played a key role in their success.
"To me, when you look at it, it wasn't Sidney Crosby or Malkin beating us," Trotz said. "I thought our top six might have outplayed their top six. Where we couldn't swing with the Penguins is more in the bottom six."
After upgrading their third-line center position with Eller in place of the departing Mike Richards, Trotz has the capability to copy the Penguins and spread his top-end scorers across three lines if he wishes. But, systematically, Trotz does not see the need for drastic changes.
Like the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks did in the other rounds, the Capitals had some trouble with the Penguins' speed game. The Capitals also had some speed, but their approach focused more on trying to wear the Penguins down with their size-and-strength advantage.
Although they had success with that at times, they, ultimately, came up short.
"I talked to the Pittsburgh people [at the draft], their coaching staff, congratulated them and they said, [with] chances and shots against, we were the team that sort of had the better of them in some of those things and they didn't have that problem in their other series," Trotz said. "So, we're really close. Will we try to be faster, play faster? That's going to be a mandate around the League."
But, Trotz doesn't plan for the Capitals "to play a lot differently."
"We had 120 points and we're probably as close to the Penguins as you're going to be," he said. "We just need to get more production out of those bottom six."
As Trotz noted, however, "We're a copycat League." So some teams will try to follow the Penguins' blueprint by adding speed to play a pressure game at both ends of the rink and mix that with scoring depth throughout the lineup.
"Teams will emulate some of that. Teams will emulate how they built their roster," Trotz said. "You can emulate all you want, but when you're starting with Crosby and Malkin, there's not that many teams that can match the Crosby-Malkin and then you go to their third and fourth line. So, a lot of teams will be able to emulate the third and fourth [lines], but they won't be able to touch their top two.
"You've got to be in the right window as an organization to do that."
The Capitals feel they are in that window.
"I believe we are and I'm not shy about talking about that," Trotz said. "We're a good hockey team. We have good pieces."