The Washington Capitals have been one of the frustrating teams in the NHL since 2009. They were an exciting offensive powerhouse led by superstar Alexander Ovechkin, as they scored goals at a prodigious rate. Much like the San Jose Sharks, the Caps dominated in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs. However, the time has come for the Washington Capitals to be a serious contender and win in an Eastern Conference that doesn’t have many contenders.
Last summer, Washington underwent a series of changes. George McPhee was fired as general manager and assistant GM Brian MacLellan was promoted to GM. Barry Trotz was brought in as head coach and it has paid dividends so far. Trotz coached some excellent defensive teams during his time in Nashville but never had any sublime offensive talents to work with like he does in Washington. With Trotz at the helm, the team has finally found a balance of playing two-way hockey without sacrificing one for the other.
Another underrated move has been the addition of goalie coach Mitch Korn, who worked alongside Trotz in Nashville. Goalie Braden Holtby turned in his best NHL season under Korn’s tutelage and played 73 games for the Capitals this past season. The Capitals have gone through several young goalies as their number one in recent years including Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, but Holtby has cemented himself as the guy for the foreseeable future.
Ovechkin has a number of individual accolades as well as extensive success with Team Russia internationally but his legacy as an NHLer will be defined by whether or not he can captain the Capitals to a Stanley Cup. Ovechkin played some of his best hockey during the 2015 playoffs but fell short again in a second round heartbreaker in game seven OT to the New York Rangers. Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who is one of the game’s most underrated number one centres, are both in their primes while other players like Holtby, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson are fast approaching theirs.
Up front, the team signed free agent Justin Williams, who brings valuable playoff experience to a team who struggles to get past the second round. With three Stanley Cup rings and a Conn Smythe trophy, Williams is clutch in pressure situations. The Capitals need to make a statement in order to justify keeping the core together. If a team needs that extra goal in a do-or-die game, chances are Williams will deliver.
The other major addition was trading for T.J. Oshie, whose stats show he isn’t exactly a playoff performer (9 points in 30 NHL playoff games) but the Capitals have long looked for a running mate to play on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Oshie plays an up-tempo, speedy game and the team had to sacrifice a big power forward in Troy Brouwer to get the American Olympian, who famously dazzled in the shootout at the Sochi Olympics.
The team has continued to draft well, as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two slick offensive talents who have already begun to make their mark in the NHL and were big for the Caps in the playoffs. Other talented prospects in the system include defenceman Madison Bowey, forward Jakub Vrana and goalie Ilya Samsonov. Another young player who has more to give is forward Tom Wilson. Wilson has played a fourth line energy role so far in his career but he has skill for a big player and has the potential to be better than a fighter or fourth line checker.
Long time Capitals defenceman Mike Green left as a free agent and the team will miss his offensive game. But with Carlson, Alzner, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik as the top four with Bowey pushing for a spot next season, there wasn’t any space to pay Green to be a fourth or fifth defenceman. Joel Ward also left as a free agent but his absence won’t be felt as hard with the additions of Williams and Oshie and the continued development of Kuznetsov and Burakovsky.
The expectations have risen once again for the Washington Capitals and the team looks as good if not better than the one that won the Presidents’ Trophy back in 2010. The pressure is on Ovechkin and co. to get over the playoff hump. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the favourite in the East but the Caps have done a lot to put themselves in the conversation. At this point in the Ovechkin era in Washington, it’s time to put up or shut up.