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Washington Capitals: Are the Kids Alright?

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As one window closes, another opens...

NHL: Preseason-Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

And now, the kids.

In February 2016, as the 2015-2016 trading deadline was approaching, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said of his team at the time, “I view it as a two-year window. We're going for it this year, we're going for it next year, and then after that we're evaluating where we're at." That team had a core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby among the home-grown products; defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik on long-term deals as free agent defensemen, and perhaps the finishing touch wingers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, each of whom were in the first year of two-year contracts with the club. Hence, the reference to a two-year window.

As any Caps fan knows, the club was unsuccessful in stepping through that window to a deep playoff run, let alone a Stanley Cup, and the day of reckoning is at hand. Gone are Williams, long-time defenseman Karl Alzner, trading deadline rental defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, and Paul Carey. The Caps did re-sign Oshie and forward Brett Connolly to new deals, but the club will certainly have a very different look when the curtain of the 2017-2018 season rises in October.

That different look is likely to have very little gray hair in it. It might even be that the new look will have a hard time growing decent playoff beards, because the Caps might be getting younger… a lot younger.

Since the 2005-2006 season, the Caps have had 86 rookie seasons recorded by skaters and goaltenders (some of those represent a player having multiple “rookie” seasons because of how rookies are defined in the NHL). In three of those seasons, the Caps dressed at least 10 rookies in at least one game. Two of those seasons (11 players in 2005-2006 and 10 in 2006-2007) came as the Caps were coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout and still in the middle of their rebuild from the pre-lockout teams that were bad enough to enable them to draft Alex Ovechkin as the first overall pick in 2004. The other instance (12 players in 2013-2014) was one in which regulars – Mike Green, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, John Erskine, and Jay Beagle among them – all missed at least a dozen games to injury, and the Caps missed the playoffs for the only time over the past ten seasons.

Salary cap restrictions meant that the Caps could not re-sign Williams, Alzner, or Shattenkirk, even if they were so inclined, unless they moved other pieces. Those same considerations will limit the Caps’ ability to sign other free agents this summer and could mean that the team will embark on a new path. The next generation of Capitals might be getting more than a look this coming season. It is entirely possible that ten or more rookies will dress at some point for this team this season, among them including (if not limited to):

  • Jakub Vrana
  • Connor Hobbs
  • Madison Bowey
  • Chandler Stephenson
  • Pheonix Copley
  • Nathan Walker
  • Christian Djoos
  • Travis Boyd
  • Riley Barber
  • Liam O’Brien

As a group, these ten players have a total of 51 games of NHL experience, Vrana leading them with 21. Five of them are waiver exempt, according to capfriendly.com (Vrana, Bowey, Copley, Boyd, and Barber). Not all of them will be in the Opening Night lineup, of course, but the 2017-2018 season could be one of transition for the Caps. It could be a season having left one “window” closed and about to see if another one is opening with these kids getting started in earnest on the NHL phase of their careers.

What complicates the matter for the time being are two actions taken on the weekend. The first was the contract announced on Sunday keeping Evgeny Kuznetsov in the fold. As of late Sunday afternoon, the eight-year/$62.4 million deal left the Caps with eight players with contracts having an average annual value (AAV) of at least $5.0 million. The odd part of that extended past the raw numbers. Washington has $14.5 million in AAV tied up in their top two centers after the Kuznetsov deal. Compare that to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have $18.2 million tied up in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. In that sense, the cap room encumbered by Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov isn’t bad. But the Caps also had $19.9 million tied up in three wingers before finalizing the expected deal to keep Andre Burakovsky on the roster.

That latter problem was solved, in a manner of speaking, by the second action announced shortly after the Kuznetsov contract. The Caps traded Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for a second round and third round draft pick in 2018 (which, as Elliotte Friedman tweets, have an interesting history of their own:

That move relieves the Caps of $4.58 million in cap burden this season and next, but it brings us back to the kids. The spotlight will be shining brightly on Tom Wilson, who has to be counted on to take the next step in his development, but it also shines a bright light on Jakub Vrana. One would expect that he will be given every opportunity to slide into the second line left wing spot vacated by Johansson, or if Burakovsky takes that spot, the left wing on the third line centered by Lars Eller.

But with nine spots on the roster still open (as of Sunday evening; this is a fluid situation) and $9.2 million in cap room, the Caps are likely to need others from the youth brigade to step up to remain competitive for a playoff spot. For instance, Washington has five roster defensemen under contract (Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, and Taylor Chorney). One or both of Madison Bowey or Christian Djoos will have to contribute minutes and give indications that they can bear the burden of at least third-pair responsibilities. Even with all the fireworks on the Fourth of July weekend among the forwards, the blueline is the enduring issue that has to be managed. The Caps just are not going to be successful if both of those kids disappoint, given that the options for bringing help from outside are limited (unless the front office shows uncommon creativity).

At forward, the situation might be a little clearer. Chandler Stephenson, Riley Barber, Nathan Walker, and Travis Boyd could legitimately compete for a bottom six spot among the forwards and/or might rotate on a call-up basis from the Hershey Bears. Stephenson could be auditioning for a more permanent role given that Jay Beagle is entering the last year of his current contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017-2018 season. Barber and Boyd carry with them the pedigree of having completed tours at very well-respected NCAA college programs, at Miami University and the University of Minnesota, respectively. They are well-prepared for being given a look.

Pheonix Copley is the insurance policy of a sort the Caps do not want to use, depending on how one feels about moving backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer. In each of the last two seasons, the Caps employed just two goaltenders, avoiding the need for having to dip into the AHL for a backup. But the club bringing him back to Washington from St. Louis after being traded there as part of the T.J. Oshie trade in 2015 does bolster the Caps’ depth at that position, at least on paper. That he has only two games of NHL experience leaves a question mark, just one more among a large cadre of youngsters who could be called upon to fill out the roster.

When the Caps were rebuilding in those early years after the 2004-2005 lockout, they leaned heavily on youngsters. Eleven rookies played 275 games in 2005-2006, and ten rookies dressed for 227 games in 2006-2007. But what the Caps might be hoping for this coming season looks more like the 2010-2011 season. That was a playoff team coming off the considerable disappointment of a first round playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens, and they brought along one of the best rookie classes in team history in that 2010-2011 season:

  • John Carlson (82 games)
  • Marcus Johansson (69)
  • Mathieu Perreault (35)
  • Jay Beagle (31)
  • Michal Neuvirth (48)
  • Braden Holtby (14)
  • Andrew Gordon (9)

Seven players combined to appear in 288 games that season. In addition to hopes that this year’s crop of rookies can rise to this level to fill in the roster gaps in the regular season is that some of them carry what contributions they make into the postseason. Remember that of those seven rookies logging time in the regular season, only Johansson and Carlson dressed for any 2011 postseason games.

This is not a “rebuild” situation for the Caps. This is a live-fire evaluation that they are about to undertake with their youth. It would seem that the club can go in either of two directions here. They can find that the kids can take the next step, at least into bottom-six forward and third-pair defenseman roles in which they are not liabilities and show promise of improvement. Or, the Caps might find that there are plateaus being hit by these players. If that is the discouraging result, then the next true “rebuild” might not be that far off. Either way, 2017-2018 has begun with the departures of Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Justin Williams; the signing of Evgeny Kuznetsov; and the trade of Marcus Johansson. An interesting start, to be sure, but the most interesting, most fascinating part of the season is just over the horizon, finding out just what the Caps really do have in the pipeline.