Washington Capitals, 55-19-8, lost in second round, $4.1 million in cap space
Biggest changes: The Caps signed right winger Devante Smith-Pelly (4 goals in 53 games with the New Jersey Devils) to a one-year, two-way contract that pays the 28-year-old checker the league minimum of $650,000. That will seem like little consolation to fans who saw productive forwards Marcus Johansson (24 goals) and Justin Williams (24 goals) move to the Devils and Carolina Hurricanes, respectively. But the Capitals will feel the biggest sting on the back end. Salary-cap restrictions prevented the Capitals from re-signing Kevin Shattenkirk (who signed with the New York Rangers) and Karl Alzner (who signed with the Montreal Canadiens), and they lost Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft. That puts serious pressure on rookie blueliners Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos and/or Lucas Johansen to step up. Rookie left winger Jakub Vrana also will be given the ice time to show whether he was worth the 13th overall pick in 2014. Vrana has three goals in 21 NHL games and could begin the season on the Capitals' second line.
Case for: Alex Ovechkin's announcement that he will not -- begrudgingly -- represent Russia in the 2018 Winter Olympics is a very good thing for the Capitals, extinguishing a season-long controversy before it had a chance to divide the locker room. Instead, the 32-year-old captain can concentrate on boosting his goal totals, which dipped from 50 to 33 last season, and getting the Caps past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career. At 239 pounds, Ovechkin was asked to train differently in the offseason with the hope of gaining more speed. It will be intriguing to see if he spends more time alongside crafty center Nicklas Backstrom or with Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is beginning his fourth full NHL season under the weight of an eight-year, $62.4 million contract. If Kuznetsov lives up to that contract and Andre Burakovsky can rebound from a disappointing 12-goal season, the Capitals should have enough offense to win games.
Case against: Two years ago, general manager Brian MacLellan acknowledged the Caps had a two-year window to win a Stanley Cup with the roster he helped assemble. With that roster torn apart and new responsibilities placed on unproven forwards and a revamped blue line that could feature two rookies and an aging Brooks Orpik, it's reasonable to suggest the Caps will take a step back this season. There was a fair share of discontent after last year's playoff exit. And the heat has been turned up on head coach Barry Trotz, who will need a strong start in his fourth season behind the bench to ward off calls for his dismissal. The Caps' biggest weakness is on the back end, where Bowey hopes to rebound from an AHL season shortened by a severed ankle tendon and Djoos tries to prove he's ready to make the leap after two full seasons in Hershey. Capturing a third straight Presidents' Trophy appears to be a tall order for a team that lost three of its top seven defensemen.
Trade bait: Philipp Grubauer could have the chops to be a No. 1 goaltender, but as long as he's playing behind Braden Holtby, we'll never know. The 25-year-old German appeared in a career-high 24 games last season and went 13-6-2. With a $1.5 million salary, he's a bargain and can become a restricted free agent after this season. If the Caps can get a scoring forward or a young defenseman in return, they might make the deal. Forward Lars Eller is another potential trade piece, but his $3 million cap hit is restrictive. And the Caps could be growing tired of waiting for Tom Wilson (21 goals in 313 games) to be the power forward they anticipated when they took him with the 16th overall pick in 2012.
Goalie situation rating: 10. Since being anointed the Capitals' No. 1 netminder in 2014, no NHL goaltender has won more games than Holtby's 131. His career goals-against average (2.31) is a credit to the sound checking game employed by Trotz. Still, Holtby's competitiveness and puck-moving ability puts him among the game's top five netminders. Grubauer also has benefited from the guidance of goalie guru Mitch Korn, who will serve in a consulting role for new goaltending coach Scott Murray.
Scout's take: "Initially, I think there's going to be some growing pains. The last couple of years, the Caps have been able to get out to a lengthy lead early [in the season]; and based upon the turnover in personnel, it may take a little while to get that group to jell. Ultimately, Holtby is the key. They have to put some young guys like Vrana and Djoos into their lineup, and it might take some time for those young players to develop some chemistry. Until they get up to speed, Holtby is going to have to steal them some games. If he can do that, they have a chance to be competing with Pittsburgh. If not, they're going to be scratching and clawing with everybody else."
Prediction: 3rd in Metropolitan