The 25 most important players for the Caps
The 25 most important players for the Caps
Every player on an NHL team plays a role. Some roles are bigger than others. The Caps will look to their prospects to take carry a bigger load then in recent years while there while the team’ leaders and superstars will continue being tasked with leading the way.
Tarik El-Bashir and JJ Regan are counting down who the 25 most important players for the Caps will be in the 2017-18 season.
25. Aaron Ness
Don’t forget about Aaron Ness.
He is likely not the first player people think of when thinking of options for the Caps on defense, but among the prospects who will be competing for playing time Ness is the most experienced with 39 NHL games and the cheapest with a cap hit of only $612,500.
Ness could very likely start the season with the NHL club as a cheap, veteran insurance policy for the Caps.
24. Chandler Stephenson
Chandler Stephenson has the size, speed and skating ability to be an NHL player.
Plus, as a center, he stands to be the team's top replacement if they suffer an injury in the middle.
23. Riley Barber
As a sixth-round draft pick, not much was expected of Riley Barber at the NHL level.
In his career, he has established himself as a consistent scorer in both college and the AHL. His two-way style of play will serve him well as he competes for a roster spot on the fourth line.
22. Pheonix Copley
How does the team's No. 3 goalie make this list? Because there is a good chance he will not be the No. 3 goalie for long.
Copley managed a 2.31 GAA and .920 save percentage in 25 games with the Hershey Bears last season after he was acquired in a trade.
If Philipp Grubauer gets dealt at some point this season, then Copley is the most likely choice to step into his spot as a backup to Braden Holtby.
21. Devante Smith-Pelly
Can Devante Smith-Pelly be this year’s Brett Connolly?
When training camp opens, the Caps are going to need a pair of wingers to play on the fourth line.
Smith-Pelly would seem to have the inside track based on experience. In the 2014 playoffs, he amassed five goals in 12 games while averaging 4.4 hits per. In 2016, he was dealt to the Devils late in the season and ended up racking up eight goals and five assists in only 18 games.
Smith-Pelly can be productive, he just hasn’t been consistent.
20. Taylor Chorney
There are spots available on the Capitals' blue line this season, and the 30-year-old Chorney could be in-line to grab one of them.
Expect him to be penciled in to the top six when camp starts, but he will have to fight off young guns Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos.
19. Nathan Walker
Walker is on course to become the first Australian to ever play in a regular-season NHL game. Despite being a bit undersized, he makes up for it with an agressive playing style and a stellar work ethic.
With positions for the taking, 2017-18 appears to the right time for him to make history.
18. Philipp Grubauer
The Capitals' backup goalie is in a difficult position. Grubauer is arguably the best backup goalie in the league, but the man in front of him on the depth chart is the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner and the 2016-17 Vezina Trophy runner-up.
Grubauer is good enough to start on several NHL teams.
So whether or not he finishes the season with the Capitasl's is a major storyline to watch for.
17. Christian Djoos
Christian Djoos had a spectacular 2016-17 campaign in Hershey. His 45 assists tied for the most among AHL defensemen and 68 points ranked third. He is a tremendous puck-moving defenseman with a great breakout pass and smooth skating ability. As a left-handed shot and sound defensive player, he seems like an ideal fit to play alongside John Carlson on the team’s second pairing.
But at just 6-foot, 164-pounds, Djoos' size is a major concern. How Djoos will be able to handle the war and tear of the NHL or power forwards like Milan Lucic barreling into the offensive zone remains to be seen.
16. Madison Bowey
Madison Bowey certainly looks the part of an NHL player standing at 6-foot-2, 206-pounds. But can he play like one?
For the first few months of the 2016-17 season, the answer was an emphatic yes. Bowey was playing the best hockey of his professional career with the Hershey Bears until a lacerated tendon in December derailed his season. He ultimately projects as a top-four defenseman as a puck-mover with a great first pass and solid offensive instincts.
While many prospects will vie for time with the Capitals this season, Bowey’s skill and size make him the most likely of those prospects to cement a spot with the NHL squad and play a significant role this season.
15. Jay Beagle
Jay Beagle set career highs last season in goals (13), assists (17) and points (30), but his true value does not stem from his offensive production. Beagle is both a key penalty killer and led the team with a faceoff win percentage of 56.4-percent. He was the only Caps center with a positive faceoff percentage in the defensive zone (56.8-percent) and shorthanded (55.7-percent).
With no Daniel Winnik and Tow Wilson expected to move up the depth chart, Beagle will be dealing with new linemates this season. That means the 31-year-old Beagle will likely find himself playing alongside at least one prospect every given night, sometimes two, in what could very well be a revolving door on the fourth line.
14. Brett Connolly
Connolly scored 23 points including a career-high 15 goals in very limited minutes this season. That earned him a second contract with the Caps and, one would assume, a much bigger role.
But there is a reason Connolly was a healthy scratch for six games in the playoffs last season. A lack of versatility will continue to limit him.
Connolly is not a penalty killer, and, given the team’s talent offensively, he’s not likely to get much time on the power play either. He may get some with the loss of Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, but not a lot. As he is projected to start the season on the third line again, just how much more significant his role can be is a fair question to ask.
13. Tom Wilson
The Capitals drafted Tom Wilson 16th overall in the 2012 draft and it wasn’t just to be a fourth-line goon. At 23 years old, he is still very capable of further developing his offensive game and that is what the Caps will need from him.
The playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs shows just how important a player he can be when he is producing. Wilson scored the overtime winner in Game 1 and may well have saved that series for the Caps with a masterful two-goal performance in Game 4.
With holes in the lineup, Wilson will almost certainly move into the third line. He should never lose the physical aspect of his game, but he needs to produce to stay in the top nine and the seven goals, 12 assists he had last season just won’t cut it.
12. Lars Eller
Lars Eller was brought to Washington as Brian MacLellan's answer to Pittsburgh's HBK line. Eller’s adjustment took some time but things started to click at the start of 2017. After a slow start, Eller scored 16 of his 25 points of the season in January and February.
With the first year in Washington now under his belt, the hope is that Eller will not suffer the same growing pains and will be able to produce at the rate he showed in the latter half of the season. Like many players adjusting to a new team and a new coaching scheme, it took time for Eller to acclimate to the Capitals. Once it clicked, it was evident just how talented he was. There’s no reason to think he can’t top 30 points in his second season in Washington.
11. Jakub Vrana
There is an opening for Jakub Vrana on the right side of the second or third line, but the Caps are not simply going to give him a spot. In two call-ups to Washington last season, there were times when he showed flashes of the elite skill that made him a first-round draft pick in 2014. With only six points in 21 games, however, he was sent back down to Hershey where he appeared to lose focus.
Vrana is an exceptionally talented goal scorer who could provide a boost of youth and skill to the top-six, or he may struggle to make the team out of camp. If that happens, what will the Caps do with him? Washington may not have enough forward depth to wait another year, or even half a season for Vrana to continue developing.
10. Brooks Orpik
Brooks Orpik, who will turn 37 before the start of the season, is a physical, shutdown defenseman who the Caps will continue to rely on as an everyday player. He does not have great speed which can get him into trouble in this age of hockey when speed and quick transitions are more the norm. He also has a tendency of getting caught pinching in the neutral zone looking for a hit and does not have the wheels to get back in time when he gets caught.
Why does a bottom-pairing defenseman climb all the way to No. 10 on our list? Because of how much the coaches will lean on him to help the younger players transition to the NHL. The Caps will have several prospects in the lineup this year, and they will look to Orpik as a locker room leader. The more he can help those rookies adjust, the better the Caps will be.
9. John Carlson
John Carlson is slated to play on the team's second defensive pairing, but we don't know who his partner will be just yet. Regardless of who wins the job out of camp, it would not be surprising to see a rotation of sorts on that pair. That will present an added challenge to Carlson who will have to adjust to a new partner night in and night out. That will present him with challenges not only on defense, but on offense where the team will need more production from him.
Washington ranked 26th in the NHL last season in goals from defensemen. The Caps lost a lot of offensive production this offseason and they will need more goals from their defense to help make up for that. As the defense's best offensive weapon and a key cog on the team's power play, the pressure is on for Carlson to produce.
8. Dmitry Orlov
The biggest issue that has held Dmitry Orlov back was a tendency for making egregious mistakes in the defensive zone. He cut back on those turnovers significantly in 2016-17 and is now poised to enter the upcoming season on the top pair alongside Matt Niskanen.
Orlov's importance to the team was reflected in the new contract he signed in the offseason. After playing on a one-year deal that paid him $2.57 million, Orlov re-signed for six years, $30.6 million. That deal carries a cap hit of $5.1 million.
7. Andre Burakovsky
After losing so much socring in the offseason, one player the Capitals will absolutely need to step up is Andre Burakovsky. Scoring 12 goals in 64 games is not going to cut it and Barry Trotz let him know it by making him a healthy scratch last season after a lengthy dry spell
The good news is that Burakovsky showed he could handle a top-line role in the playoffs. With Alex Ovechkin dealing with a knee injury and the team facing elimination, Trotz moved Burakovsky to the first line and he responded with three goals and one assist in three games. Whether he is on the top line to start the season remains to be seen, but he will almost certainly be in the top six and the Caps will need 20-30 goals from him. He has the talent to do it, but it's prove it time for the young Swede.
6. Matt Niskanen
No one would say Matt Niskanen's is the Caps' best player, but you can sum up just how important he is to the team with one question: What would they do without him? If Niskanen were to suffer an injury this season, the Caps do not have anyone who could replace what he brings to the lineup. He is the team's best defensive-player, the anchor on the top pair of a blue line that currently only has five players on it.
Niskanen established himself as the team's most important defenseman last year and his position has been further cemented by the loss of Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt. He is a two-way defenseman as a great shutdown player with an offensive upside as well. Guess who led the Caps' defensemen in points last season? It was Niskanen whose 39 points were two more than John Carlson.
5. Evgeny Kuznetsov
The Caps showed exactly what Evgeny Kuznetsov means to them by giving him an eight-year, $62.4 million contract over the summer, but he has a tough task this season after losing not one, but both of his wingers from last year's second line. Gone are Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams so Kuznetsov will have to adjust to playing alongside two different players. But will he be adjusting on the second line or the first? Based on his contract, it's clear the Caps see him as someone with top-line talent and could perhaps promote him to the top-line this season.
The 2016 postseason showed this team cannot be successful if Kuznetsov does not produce. He is incredibly important to the Capitals and now he has the contract to prove it.
4. T.J. Oshie
Even with the team facing a serious cap crunch, Brian MacLellan determined T.J. Oshie was a player the Capitals could not afford to lose and signed him to an eight-year contract. Oshie's 33 goals last season were a career-high. It was the first time since 2004 that Alex Ovechkin was not the sole leader in goals on the team. Prior to the injury problems he faced last season, Oshie was the team's MVP. He is an emotional leader on the ice and someone you know will give 100-percent on each and every shift. For a team with young prospects, Oshie is the kind of person Barry Trotz can point to and tell his prospects that is the level of effort that is expected each and every night.
3. Alex Ovechkin
As the Caps will look more and more to their younger players for production and leadership, Alex Ovechkin now falls to No. 3. There's been a lot of talk this offseason about the offensive production the Caps lost in the summer, but notice that no one is talking about how much pressure Ovechkin is under to make up for that loss. Instead, the team will look to players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson to start racking up the goals.
Soon to be 32 years old, Ovechkin is still the captain, he will likely still lead the team in goals and will be a very prominent figure in the team's success or lack thereof this season. He comes in third on this list not because his production is about to drop off or because he's no longer a leader on the team, but rather because the Caps will look for more from their other players both offensively and in terms of leadership.
2. Nicklas Backstrom
Nicklas Backstrom has been overshadowed by Alex Ovechkin and underappreciated throughout his career despite being an elite franchise-caliber center. His 86 points last season led the Caps and ranked fourth overall in the NHL. It was his best season since 2009-10 when he scored 101 points.
In addition to his offensive acumen, Backstrom is a great shutdown forward and has established himself as the team's vocal leader. It was his words in a team meeting after a Game 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that seemed to boost the team to force seven games after facing a 3-1 series deficit.
1. Braden Holtby
Braden Holtby is an important player to the Caps just by the nature of his position. He becomes the most important because he is one of the best in the NHL. A poor postseason had some wondering if it was time for the team to move on and turn the starting mantle over to Philipp Grubauer, but the 2017 postseason was very much an outlier. Holtby ranks first among active goalies and second all-time in career playoff save percentage with a .932 and second among active goalies with a playoff GAA of 2.00.
At 27 years old, Holtby is still very much in his prime and has established himself as one of the top netminders in the NHL with a Vezina Trophy in 2016. Washington has questions at both ends of the ice this season so Holtby will be relied upon to keep the Caps at a level good enough to reach the postseason despite competing in the best division in hockey.