With just two minutes left in the third period in game five of its second round playoff matchup with the New York Rangers, the Washington Capitals were poised to advance to its first Eastern Conference Finals in the Alexander Ovechkin era. They had smothered the favored Rangers through the majority of the first five games, and only needed to hang on for a few moments to wrap the series up.
Well, as you probably remember, time didn’t tick off fast enough for the Washington Capitals and three games plus a couple of overtimes later, the Capitals completed a feat that only few like them can: they choked away a Conference Finals appearance. Will they be able to recover? Time will tell.
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For now though, the Washington Capitals have high expectations and will contend for a Metropolitan Division title. However, their success will be measured come the spring; regular season success should mean nothing to this veteran team.
Below I take a closer look at the different components of the organization and see how the Washington Capitals grade.
It didn’t take long for rookie general manager Brian MacLellan to put his stamp on the team last summer. After being named general manager in May 2014, MacLellan went out and brought reinforcements to a team that had missed the playoffs in 2013/14. He splurged on Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik on defense, and while those two contracts may not look good in the future, each paid enough dividends last season to help the Washington Capitals return to the playoffs. MacLellan has continued to demonstrate an ability not to be satisfied and continued to tinker with the roster, even though they were less than two minutes away from a Conference Finals.
Of course MacLellan’s best decision so far has been the hiring of Barry Trotz as head coach. Trotz was out of work for about ten minutes after being dumped by the Predators and before being snapped up by the Washington Capitals. All Trotz did was fix a team defense that was in the bottom-ten in goals allowed per game and bottom-five in shots allowed per game in 2013/14, helping the Capitals improve to 7th in goals against and 11th in shots against per game this past season. The Capitals were able to elevate their defensive play while maintaining an elite offense (sixth most goals scored.)
Yes, Trotz, like his superstar Ovechkin, has never been to a Conference Finals. But, with Trotz and MacLellan directing the franchise, the Capitals are in good hands going forward.
To the casual fan, Alexander Ovechkin is the Washington Capitals. While he did record his second straight 50-goal season (and sixth of his career), clearly those casual fans couldn’t be more wrong. This roster is loaded up and down with talent. Niklas Backstrom is still one of the league’s more underrated stars, despite being almost a point-per-game player throughout his career. Evgeny Kuznetsov should be the next Capitals’ star forward as he continues to develop. The 23-year old scored 5 goals in 14 playoff games this past year, including the winner in game 7 of the opening round. Marcus Johansson is developing into a strong second-line forward and hit the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career. At just 25 years old, his best days should still be ahead.
Despite the firepower up front, the Capitals added T.J. Oshie from the Blues in a deal involving Troy Brouwer. They also signed veteran winger Justin Williams, who has lost a step recently, but brings Stanley Cup pedigree to a roster that is known for playoff failure. He’ll replace Joel Ward who signed in San Jose.
Even with the loss of Mike Green to free agency, the Washington Capitals still boast a solid top-four on defense in John Carlson, Karl Azner, Orpik and Niskanen. There isn’t a Norris-candidate amongst the bunch, but it is good enough to win. A large reason for that is the development and emergence of goalie Braden Holtby who completed the best season of his career, posting a .923 save percentage in 73 games played. He followed up that regular season with a fantastic postseason, finishing with a .944 save percentage and nearly knocking off Henrik Lundqvist in the process.
The bottom line is, this is a very good roster.
If you just looked at the Washington Capitals’ farm system, you may think the future is bleak. There have been recent articles about the low-ranking of the organization’s prospect pool which only tells half the story. While forward Jakub Vrana and defenseman Madison Bowey lead the pack down below, the team has several key contributors on the big squad that will be around for a while. Holtby, Carlson, Kuznetsov, Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky are all 26 and under and expect to be in Washington for the long-term. Ovechkin will turn 30 later this year, and while that could be a scary number for a hockey player, he hasn’t shown any signs of physically slowing down. Backstrom, Alzner, and Oshie are all under 30 and are in the middle of their prime years.
The Washington Capitals are set up for success now and in the near future. Even as Ovechkin eventually slows down as the years pile on, the Capitals have positioned themselves well to maintain a high level of play.
As you can tell, the Washington Capitals will be a force this season and it would not surprise me one bit to see them playing for the Stanley Cup in June.
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