Whether it is Alexander Ovechkin blasting a one-timer from his office, or Evgeny Kuznetsov pulling off a behind-the-net, behind-the-back pass to an awaiting teammate, the Washington Capitals are in a fortunate position. They have a strong mix of veterans and young guns up and down the lineup that can contribute in big ways.
Due to some strong drafting over recent years, the Capitals have had some of their younger players win battles for roster spots at a young age. The most recent example being Andre Burakovsky, the 23rd overall pick in 2013 by Washington. Just over a year after being drafted, he won a spot on the Capitals roster and got valuable experience despite not always being placed in the best role to succeed.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, after playing several seasons in Russia following his draft year, came to the NHL and struggled at times over his first full season in North America. Suddenly, he turned into one of the league’s hottest young superstars, leading the Capitals with 77 points in 82 games during the 2015-16 season. This all came after a personal breakout in the 2014-15 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he scored five goals in 14 games.
The Capitals will have several candidates for a breakout season just like Evgeny Kuznetsov saw last season. Surely, these candidates might not hit the 77 points that Kuznetsov did, but they could surpass their career highs by significant margins. Such an improvement from one or more of the following players would be huge for the Capitals, and potentially help lead them to their first title, as they are occupying important roles heading into next season.
This is a bit of an odd pick for a breakout campaign given that he is 27-years-old. However, Lars Eller is a player that has never been given a true opportunity to turn into the player he was expected to be when he was drafted 13th overall in 2007.
According to Corsica, since the 2011-12 season, he was most commonly on a line with Brandon Prust and Jiri Sekac in Montreal, a group that saw about 237 minutes of even-strength time together. His next most common linemates were Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher (235 minutes) followed by Travis Moen and Andrei Kostitsyn (194 minutes). Surely, you can guess which of those three lines performed the best.
With those appropriate linemates, he posted a Corsi For of 53.69%. With the others, he was sub-50%. Eller’s career high of 30 points doesn’t sound overly impressive, but it should be noted that those numbers came during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. His most common linemate was Alex Galchenyuk that season, but for whatever reason, he was not put in a similar position to succeed moving forward.
With Marcus Johansson locked up long-term and a healthy battle likely to commence in training camp for the third-line right-wing spot, Eller will have some of his strongest options ever on the wings this season. He could be a part of a very threatening third line, and make it that much easier for Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz to roll all of his lines on a nightly basis. Given the assumption that Washington will be one of the league’s best teams again next season, a career-best season for Lars Eller is very much possible.
Andre Burakovsky continued improving last season, putting up 38 points in 79 games. Most of his production came while he was receiving second-line minutes during the second half of the season after experiencing several dry spells early on in the year. For a 21-year-old, almost reaching 40 points in his second NHL season is not something to ignore.
Burakovsky is likely to be on the second-line full-time next season as he continues to get stronger and fill out his lanky frame. He possesses a lethal shot and is a smooth skater who has been a positive possession player throughout his young career. Alongside him on that line will likely be Evgeny Kuznetsov and veteran Justin Williams, a trio that posted strong number during the regular season but struggled to score during the playoffs. As both Burakovsky and Kuznetsov continue to mature, more production will come.
With Jason Chimera gone and thus not available to take up power play time that should belong to Burakovsky, the young Swede will get many more opportunities to continue building on his point totals from the past two seasons.
One of the more interesting players on the Capitals roster is right-winger Tom Wilson. The 22-year-old just re-upped with the Capitals for two more years this summer, a deal that will bring more responsibility and thus, higher expectations. There’s a good chance he will see significant time on the Caps’ third line this year, giving him a chance to grow into the potential the team saw in him when he was drafted 16th overall several years ago.
He posted a career-high 23 points last season, including seven goals, all of which came at even strength. Wilson has displayed strong offensive instincts at times, though his discipline and willingness to drop his gloves at a moment’s notice have suppressed most thoughts of him as an offensive threat.
Despite his young age, Wilson is about to enter his fourth full season as an NHL player. If he is ever going to realize his potential and become more than a bottom-six grinder, that movement will start this year. He is already one of the team’s top penalty killers, and an increase in ice time could push Wilson towards becoming a force in this league both physically and offensively.