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2017-18 NHL Team Preview: Washington Capitals

One would think the Washington Capitals have everything required to win a Stanley Cup: a pair of forwards you can build a franchise around in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom;

high-end supplementary scoring provided by players like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie; a world-class goalie tandem in Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby and backup Philipp Grubauer; excellent special teams units (they were the only team to have a top-seven power play and top-seven penalty kill last season); plus a veteran blue line and a lauded head coach.

Yet even when you take all that into consideration it’s difficult to find an optimistic Capitals fan—especially after a quiet off-season that didn’t see the team make any notable improvements in any area on the ice.

Re-signing Kuznetsov and Oshie to eight-year deals and trading Marcus Johansson to the Devils for 2018 second- and third-round picks for some cap relief were the most significant moves. Signing Devante Smith-Pelly was a low-cost, low-risk transaction. He’s a big body that can be a boost to the forecheck and might get you double digit goals.

Kevin Shattenkirk walking in free agency was expected and Justin Williams is getting a bit long in the tooth, but watching longtime Capitals leader Karl Alzner head to the Canadiens on the open market and losing 26-year-old Nate Schmidt to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft are tough pills to swallow.

The 411 on the Capitals
Head coach: Barry Trotz
GM: Brian MacLellan
2016-17 record: 55-19-8
2016-17 result: won Presidents’ Trophy, eliminated by Penguins in second round
Key departures: Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk
Key acquisitions: Devante Smith-Pelly
2017-18 cap: $70.91 million (cap space $4.09 million)

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

Jakub Vrana is the only Capitals draft pick since 2013 to play a regular-season NHL game. That’s a troubling sign for the long-term outlook of this franchise. The Prague, Czech Republic native suited up for 21 games with the Caps in 2016-17 and added a modest 36 points in 49 games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

With a strong training camp, the 13th-overall selection from 2014 could potentially find himself situated nicely as a second-line winger. With Johansson gone and Williams back with the Hurricanes, the Capitals need one of their youngsters to earn a full-time roster spot and step up. If Vrana can’t be that player, he’ll begin to enter “bust” territory.

WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

Did you know that if you utter the phrase “third round of the playoffs” to a person that became a supporter of the Capitals anytime in the 21st century they will stare at you blankly and blink at you slowly until you saunter away? It’s true.

Despite winning nine division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies (including one in each of the past two seasons), the Capitals have failed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs since the turn of the century.

Another Presidents’ Trophy or another division title does nothing for this franchise outside of cementing home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Until they get to the Eastern Conference Final and/or eliminate the Penguins, doubts around this team will linger, as will questions about Ovechkin’s legacy.

Speaking of Ovechkin, it will be fascinating to keep an eye on his performance. Last season he put up his lowest goals-per-game average of his career and he released a statement Thursday night voicing his disappointment in not being allowed to represent his country at Pyeongchang 2018.

Between the NHL’s Olympics decision and a diminished Caps roster, will we see a sullen Ovechkin or could all of this light a fire under the Russian superstar?

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

Is this the year it all falls apart?

The Capitals have been such post-season busts you have to wonder if and when we’re going to see a breaking point with the core of this team.

“I don’t expect us to run away with it like we did the past couple years in the regular season,” Oshie recently told NHL.com. “We lost a lot of really, really good players, and I think we knew that was going to happen. Now we’re going to need a lot of younger guys to fill in for a lot of different roles. We will really need to make it a group effort to make up for players that we’ve lost and to help lead the young guys that are now going to be stepping in.”

With pessimism abound, the 2017-18 season has the potential to be a disaster for the Capitals. On the flip side, lowered expectations means the Caps might be able to surprise people and punch above their weight.
(Mike Johnston)