If you ask Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan, his team is right smack in the middle of a two-year window for the current core to capture the organization’s first championship. In many ways, this is the correct assessment. At 30, the face of the franchise, Alex Ovechkin, has yet to experience an Eastern Conference Final berth despite the fact that he has been one of the NHL’s best players on a yearly basis.
The Washington Capitals have several aging veterans, such as Brooks Orpik and Justin Williams. Williams, along with several other important players including T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Karl Alzner, will be due to either hit free agency or re-up with the team next offseason. Without a doubt, there will be a lot of changes coming to the team once the 2017 offseason hits, so it is that much more important for the team to win a championship next season.
However, any line of thinking insinuating that the Capitals will suddenly drop from the league’s elite teams starting next offseason is without much basis. This is largely due to the fact that, despite not having one of the league’s deepest prospect pools, the Capitals have several high-end, young players that are already in the NHL or are knocking on the door.
Dynamic Duo in DC
One of those names is Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 24-year-old Russian made his long-awaited jump to the NHL at the tail end of the 2013-14 campaign, and then took the league by storm in his second full season this past year by exploding for 20 goals and 57 assists, and leading the Capitals in overall points with 77. His spectacular play-making ability was on full display for most of the season, earning him a lot of individual recognition and helping fill the organization’s second line center hole that has been an annual revolving door.
Not only has Kuznetsov emerged as a terrific second line center, there is an argument to be made that he could begin next season on the team’s first line along with Ovechkin and Oshie, a trio that was impressive in their time together last season.
Another young Capital that has gradually emerged as a difference-maker is 21-year-old Swedish forward Andre Burakovsky. Now through his first two full seasons in the NHL, he is likely to establish himself as the team’s permanent second line left-wing next season after posting 38 points in 79 games last season. Though he went through several rough patches, including one in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs where he only managed one goal in 12 games, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic about Burakovsky.
Though he only played around 13 minutes per night last season, Burakovsky’s production will likely explode when given a bigger role. This is because he ranked third on the team with 1.98 points per 60 minutes of time on ice at even strength. He trailed only Ovechkin (2.03) and Kuznetsov (2.54). Due to the fact that he has played in the league for two years now, it would seem that he is becoming a veteran. Realistically, though, this young player has a lot more growing to do, and is already posting impressive numbers. The best has yet to come for number 65.
Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two players on the current NHL squad that will make a growing impact for years to come, but there are also players waiting in the wings in Hershey and beyond that will look to be difference makers as well.
Waiting in the Wings
Jakub Vrana had an impressive first full season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears, posting 16 goals and 18 assists in 36 games despite missing significant time with an injury. During the Bears current playoff run, he has eight goals and six assists in 20 games. He was viewed as a bit of a reach-pick at 13th overall at the 2014 draft, but has evolved into an elite prospect that looks like a huge part of the Capitals’ future.
Riley Barber is another player to watch moving forward. A sixth round pick in 2012, Barber followed his selection with three strong seasons at the University of Miami (OH), and in his first full season with the Bears in 2015-16, contributed 55 points in 74 games. There were some questions about how Barber would adjust to the pro game, and it appears that he has what it takes to succeed at this level as well after a solid rookie season. Barber has a good chance at becoming a very reliable depth player in Washington someday.
Madison Bowey is the prized defensive prospect of the organization, and put up 29 points in 70 games in his first professional season with Hershey. With a little more seasoning, he could be a big-time player down the road for the Capitals.
You cannot overlook the organization’s two prized goaltending prospects, either. Vitek Vanecek had a strong season with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, and Ilya Samsonov surprised many in the KHL with a 2.04 goals against average and a .925 save percentage with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in his first full professional season in Russia’s top league.
The Capitals are not your typical “all-in” team. With the exception of Connor Carrick going to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Brooks Laich cap-dump, the team has done a good job of holding onto young talent under Brian MacLellan’s watch. If this doesn’t change, and the strong drafting that has become a staple of the Capitals’ success continues, then this organization will be a contender for years to come.
If the Capitals don’t win a Stanley Cup next season, major changes are likely. However, a plethora of emerging talent both already in DC and waiting to make the jump will make or break the organization’s long-term chances at a championship. If the early signs are any indication, the Capitals and their fans are looking at many more years as a true contender.
Brad is a recent graduate of Salisbury University in Maryland and is pursuing a career in sports journalism.