Take a glance at the Washington Capitals‘ depth chart and it looks thinner than when they last took the ice.
But that doesn’t mean expectations are any different for the perennial NHL frontrunners.
“I actually like our team,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “With some of the departures, we’re not quite as deep in some areas. But I know we’re a really good hockey team.”
The Capitals open training camp on Friday and some familiar faces won’t be there.
Gone are defencemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk, plus winger Justin Williams, causalities to free agency due to salary cap issues. Financial considerations also forced the Caps to deal centre Marcus Johansson, their fourth-leading scorer, to New Jersey. Promising blueliner Nate Schmidt was lost in the expansion draft to Vegas.
The only additions to replace them were fringe NHL forwards Devante Smith-Pelly and Tyler Graovac.
But Trotz believes the dropoff in output will be minimal thanks to internal improvement. He points to forwards Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson as players who will take on bigger roles.
“They’re two younger guys that have developed quite nicely,” Trotz said.
The Capitals are a little more than $4 million below the team salary threshold. However, they only have 10 forwards and five defencemen on one-way contracts. So, it appears they’ll have look from within the organization to fill out their roster.
Up front, Trotz believes the time is now for Chandler Stephenson to make the team. He said it will probably require Stephenson to shift to the wing from centre where Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle will take up most of the minutes. The 23-year-old has played 13 games with the Capitals over the past two seasons.
The coach is also counting on big things from 2014 first-rounder Jakub Vrana, who suited up in his first 21 NHL games last season and recorded three goals and six points.
“He’s going to get an opportunity to play in a top-nine role for sure, but he’s going to get a good look in the top six as well,” Trotz said.
On defence, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik are the returning veterans.
Trotz said prospects Connor Hobbs, Christian Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler, Madison Bowey, and 19-year-old Lucas Johansen – the team’s 2016 first-rounder and younger brother of Nashville Predators’ Ryan Johansen – will get long looks.
“There are about five or six guys who are going to be in a battle for a couple spots on the backend,” Trotz said.
“We’ve got some tough holes to fill,” Trotz added. “But I think because we’ve been an older team for the last two years, some of those young guys have spent a little more time in the minors playing big minutes in key situation. They’re ready for this now. I’m looking forward to putting them on the team and them making the team.”
For several reasons, it’s an important season for Trotz and the Capitals.
For one, he’s entering his fourth season in Washington, and hasn’t made it past the second round. The last two playoff losses have come at the expense of the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When you have the best teams in our division, it’s sometimes hard to get out of your division. Pittsburgh’s been a thorn in the Washington Capitals’ side for a dozen years now,” Trotz said.
“We’ve done a lot of good things. But we’ve been judged the last few years to win a Stanley Cup – not necessarily three years ago, but the last two for sure.”
It also happens to be the last year of his contract with the team.
“What we’ve done here says volumes about what I’m able to do or my staff’s able to do,” Trotz said. “I’m not concerned at all. At the end of this season, we’ll talk – or we won’t talk. That’s the way it goes.”
The Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy in each of the last two seasons. That hasn’t translated into playoff success. (Only the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks and 2008 Detroit Red Wings have won the Presidents’ Trophy and Stanley Cup in the same season in the salary cap era.)
Given the roster turnover, Trotz acknowledges the Capitals may be an under-the-radar team to capture a third-straight regular season title. It’s not essential, he said, because winning a Presidents’ Trophy doesn’t necessary make a team the favourite heading into the post-season.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try – roster turnover and all.
“One thing I provide ourselves in is that we play every night to try to win the hockey game. We take a lot of pride in that,” Trotz said. “That’s why we’ve won two Presidents’ Trophies. We want winning to be ingrained.”