Last season marked a changing of the guard for the Washington Capitals, with longtime general manager George McPhee replaced by Brian MacLellan and longtime Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz brought in to redefine the team's identity. For most of the season and into the second round of the playoffs, few could argue that the Caps had achieved most if not all of their goals. But in the end, the playoff result was all too familiar, as the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead against the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers, losing in overtime in Game 7.
"It always takes a couple of weeks to get over it because you're still frustrated when you start thinking about it," top center Nicklas Backstrom said. "It keeps going in your brain. It was especially tough because we were up 3-1 and you, you were so close."
McLellan didn't rest on his laurels in the offseason, bringing in T.J. Oshie from the St. Louis Blues and signing three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams, who moves on from his time with the Los Angeles Kings in the hopes of finding just the right tumblers to unlock a long-awaited Stanley Cup formula.
BEST NEW FACES
The arrival of Oshie and Williams has to be seen in the context of some of the players who departed in the offseason, including proven playoff performer Joel Ward (signed by the San Jose Sharks) and Troy Brouwer, who went to St. Louis as part of the Oshie deal. Look for Oshie to play with Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom when Backstrom returns from offseason hip surgery. Williams always rises to the occasion in the playoffs, and he'll be counted on to do that in a top-six role where, frankly, his regular-season production will mean far less than what he brings in those critical playoff situations.
There will be an infusion of new young talent on the Caps roster with Eric Fehr departing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Green signing with the Detroit Red Wings and the aforementioned departures of Brouwer and Ward. Curtis Glencross and Tim Gleason are also gone. Who will pick up the slack offensively on the back end? Can Evgeny Kuznetsov continue his evolution after a terrific playoff run as the team's second-line center? And how long will it take for Backstrom to return to form after his hip procedure? For the Caps, it's not how many regular-season games their top center plays but what kind of impact he can have in the postseason, so rest assured no one will be rushing Backstrom back.
Let's start with Ovechkin, who, even with yet another new coach last season, still ripped it up, winning his third straight and fifth overall Rocket Richard Trophy with 53 goals. Ovechkin also earned high praise for his buy-in to Trotz's systems and willingness to play at both ends of the ice. No reason to think that will change in Season 2 under Trotz. And then there's goaltender Braden Holtby, who was excellent during the regular season, leading all goalies in ice time and tying for second with 41 wins. He followed that with a sterling playoff performance, turning in a .944 save percentage in 14 postseason games. Holtby was rewarded for his efforts with a five-year contract worth $30.5 million as befitting one of the game's emerging goaltending stars.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
There'll be a handful of Caps looking for international redemption next fall, including Backstrom, who missed the gold-medal game in Sochi in 2014 after a foul-up over allergy medication, and Ovechkin, whose host Russians were bounced in the quarterfinals by Finland in Sochi. Holtby will be in the hunt to make the Canadian squad behind presumed starter Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. Kuznetsov should lock up a spot on the Russian team alongside Ovechkin if he continues his evolution. Oshie was the shootout king of the Sochi Games and a strong season with the Caps could guarantee a spot on Team USA. John Carlson will be a top-six defender for Team USA, although it will be interesting to see if his defense partner, Brooks Orpik, finds his way back onto the roster. Another strong season for that pair might go a long way toward returning Orpik to Team USA. Matt Niskanen (USA), Marcus Johansson (Sweden) and Andre Burakovsky (Team Europe) and Dmitry Orlov (Russia) will have a shot as well.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
The Caps have most of their core locked up long-term, but Johansson, Orlov and Tom Wilson are approaching restricted free agency at the end of the season. Jason Chimera, who has been an excellent fit with the Caps and especially under Trotz, can become an unrestricted free agent, although his age -- he's 36 -- is a factor in what his future will be with the Caps.
The Caps deserved better than losing in the second round against the Rangers, but they should learn from that and be better prepared for the long haul. I like them to win the Metro and advance all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. First in the Metropolitan Division.