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Core Values: Alex Ovechkin can fuel Capitals' turnaround

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Alex Ovechkin will remains as the Capitals' driving force. (USATSI)
Alex Ovechkin will remains as the Capitals' driving force. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

For the first time in seven seasons, the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs last year. It was a disastrous season that saw both the general manager and head coach lose their jobs. The road back to being one of the more exciting teams in the league still seems a bit long despite the fact that the Capitals boast some of the better players at their position in the entire NHL.

In a busy offseason, the Capitals threw a combined $67.75 million at defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to shore up what was a pretty porous defense last season, but roster gaps remain. After Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom up front, there is a drop off. Still, having that much fire-power up top is obviously helpful.

Not touching the forward group this offseason while spending buckets of money on the defense may only marginally improve the team from a season ago. The Capitals may yet have a playoff contending team, but without massive improvements from Brooks Laich, a step up from top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, and getting even more from Marcus Johansson, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer, who all had strong seasons last year, it's going to be hard to make a deep run. The club also has to look for a bounceback season from goaltender Braden Holtby.

Of all of the teams not considered league bottom feeders, I thought the Capitals core was the toughest to pin down. There were the obvious additions like Ovechkin, Backstrom and new seven-year Cap Niskanen, but a lot of the players at forward seem interchangeable and most only have only a year or two left on contracts anyway. Even adding Mike Green, who belongs on merit, was a difficult choice because of the real uncertainty in his long-term future with the team with just one year remaining on his contract.

New general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Barry Trotz deserve a chance to sort things out and with that in mind, I kept the Caps' core small at just five players. There are certainly others like Holtby, Karl Alzner, Orpik, second-year pro Tom Wilson, Kuznetsov and even Laich that could be viewed internally as core members. For the purposes of this series, however, it was difficult to project any of them with the group of five we settled on.

Core Values: Washington Capitals

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): RW Alex Ovechkin (28, 7 years), C Nicklas Backstrom (26, 6 years), D Mike Green (28, 1 year), D Matt Niskanen (27, 7 years), D John Carlson (24, 4 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $32,038,462 (46.4% of cap space consumed by five players)

Average age: 26.6

Total point production in 2013-14*: 88 goals, 145 assists, 233 points (37.2% of team's total point production)
* - Does not include Matt Niskanen's 10-36—46 line from the Pittsburgh Penguins last year

About the Core

Alex Ovechkin: Every year there is going to be a debate about Ovechkin and every year it's going to probably be about the same thing: He's not a complete enough player. OK, so he's not great defensively and was a minus-35 last year despite scoring 51 goals. But lest' back that truck up for one second… He scored 51 goals (and seriously, plus-minus is not a real great measure of a player). He's scored 422 times in his career. Ovechkin possesses the most important skill when it comes to winning hockey games and he's one the two best players in the league at executing that skill. He has won the Rocket Richard trophy four times as the league's top goal scorer. His career scoring pace is better than a goal every other game. Yes, Ovechkin has his deficiencies, but the thing he is best at, he's better than anyone else at and goal scoring skills like that are incredibly rare in today's NHL. Since he entered the league in 2005-06, no player is within 110 goals of his 422. The only player close in today's NHL in terms of goals-per-game is Steven Stamkos. The reason Ovechkin is paid $9.5 million per season is because he scores goals. That alone makes him one of the game's elite talents. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Nicklas Backstrom: The Robin to Ovechkin's Batman, Backstrom has grown in notoriety as one of the league's best setup men. Since he entered the league, only three players have had more assists than Backstrom's 367 – Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton and Martin St. Louis. Part of that is thanks to playing with an elite goal scorer, of course, but it's hard to take much away from Backstrom's own skill level. Over 495 games, he has 494 points. He has topped 100 points once and has four seasons of 55 assists or more. The Capitals can get away with a lack of depth up front if Ovechkin and Backstrom carry the load offensively and they have since Backstrom got there. Of course, they can't do it all themselves, but considering both are around for at least the next six years, there's still time to build more effectively around them up front. How he was acquired: 2006 NHL Entry Draft, first round, fourth overall

Mike Green is on the last year of his contract in Washington. (USATSI)
Mike Green is on the last year of his contract in Washington. (USATSI)

Mike Green: With just one year remaining on his contract, it's a big mystery as to what the Capitals will do with Green over this season. Will he receive an extension? It's hard to say considering how much money the Caps spent on the blue line already this year. A two-time Norris Trophy finalist with two 70-plus point seasons in his recent past, Green has been hampered by injuries over a lot of his career. As a result, along with the roster around him, his numbers have fluctuated in recent years. Green has missed large chunks of seasons, but did appear in 70 games last year and had 38 points. Even though the production has waned some, Green has largely been strong in possession with positive Corsi and Fenwick numbers in every season since 2007-08 but one (2012-13). He is very much a difference maker with his offensive skills and ability to both distribute the puck and score. Only four defensemen have scored more goals than Green since he arrived in the NHL nine years ago. Despite the high-profile signings this summer, the Capitals should still be looking to find a way to extend Green and hope for good health and bigger numbers. How he was acquired: 2004 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 29th overall

Matt Niskanen: One of the most coveted unrestricted free agents this season, Niskanen definitely cashed in with a seven-year deal with Washington. The Capitals got Niskanen at a fairly reasonable cap hit, though, with an annual average of $5.75 million. His ability as a puck-mover is certainly going to help the Capitals' blue line control the play a bit more. Niskanen is coming off a career year in which he posted 10 goals and 36 assists for the Pittsburgh Penguins. While his point production spiked in a massive way, Niskanen has been a solid player in possession for the length of his career. He's going to have a big role on the Caps next year and for the foreseeable future, so finding a way to bottle up whatever it was that made last year extra special and bring it to D.C., is going to be important. It is Niskanen's play that could also dictate Green's future with the club. The two-way defenseman should see an uptick in his minutes after averaging 19:42 a game for his career. How he handles more responsibility and Barry Trotz's defensive systems will be interesting to watch in Year 1 of the seven-year deal. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014

John Carlson: Making the choice for this last of the five spots was a bit tougher than I expected, but I decided to side with youth and potential here. At just 24 years old, Carlson is still growing into the NHL player he's going to be for his career. The good news for Capitals fans is that the defenseman he is now is a pretty good one. Carlson averaged more minutes than any Capitals player last year with 24:31 per night. Since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2010-11, Carlson has never missed a game and has compiled 134 points. He matched his career-best last year with 37 points including a career-high of 10 goals. His numbers could even increase next season with a slightly better team around him. After making the Olympic team last year, Carlson is less of a secret. He'll see a lot of Washington's tougher defensive matchups and should still be looked to as an offensive contributor. He has four years left on an extremely affordable deal and the Capitals are probably going to wring out a lot of value from that deal. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 27th overall

Who's next in line

The Capitals have high hopes for Evgeny Kuznetsov. (USATSI)
The Capitals have high hopes for Evgeny Kuznetsov. (USATSI)

I thought long and hard about including goaltender Braden Holtby in the core, but considering the one year left on his contract and coming off a down year, I decided to hold off. That said, if he gets off to a good start this year, you'd have to think the goaltender is going to get an extension for the pending unrestricted free agent.

In goalie years, Holtby is pretty young. He'll turn 25 just before the season and already has a .919 career save percentage in 105 NHL appearances. Now he'll also be working with Mitch Korn, one of the most respected goalie coaches anywhere, and that can only help a goaltender that's off to a pretty solid start to his career.

The Capitals have an interesting mix on this roster and do boast a few youngsters that could turn into quality players for the franchise over the course of their careers. The one with the most promise appears to be Evgeny Kuznetsov who finally arrived in North America late last season, four years after he was drafted in the first round.

Kuznetsov was a star youngster in the KHL and has been a key performer for Russia at events like the World Junior Championship. His skill level is certainly intriguing. In 210 KHL games, Kuznetsov had 146 points, a fairly impressive total for a player of his age, but he did have a down year in 2013-14.

In his first taste of NHL hockey, Kuznetsov had nine points in 17 games. Joining the team as an older rookie should help. He's still eligible for the Calder Trophy and is likely among the preseason favorites at 22 years old. There's a lot of hope riding on him and he could boost the team's scoring depth as early as next season.

There's also a lot of faith in Tom Wilson. After putting the former 16th overall pick in a fourth-line role last year, it might not have been the best for his development. The big man does have some skill to go along with his toughness, but he took on all comers last year as the team's primary fighter. Barry Trotz may want to try to get him away from that so he can start rounding out his offensive game a bit more.

The club also has some promise on defense with Dmitry Orlov, 22, and Connor Carrick, 20, who each saw some significant NHL action last season. New signings on defense could alter their NHL timelines a bit, however.

The Capitals also have a lot to look forward to in recent first-round picks Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana. Burakovsky tore up the OHL as a member of the Erie Otters last year, while Vrana played in the Swedish pro ranks and starred for the Czech Republic at various international events. Both look to be rather exciting offensive talents that could make their way to the NHL roster in the near future.

Overview

The Capitals appear to be better this year than they were last, which may not be saying much, but is at least notable. Having a new coach in Barry Trotz is going to be interesting, but Trotz also has never had a weapon like Ovechkin at his disposal. Improvement in the standings should be expected.

The Caps obviously have strength at the top of their lineup with Ovechkin and Backstrom. They did also have four players post 40-plus point seasons in addition to Ovechkin and Backstrom's matching 79-point campaigns. Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer had 24 and 25 goals last season, respectively. There is some scoring depth, but it's hard to see how the Caps are going to match-up with other top teams in the forward department. No question, they're among the best at the very top, but as last year showed, they need more than that.

The team desperately needs Brooks Laich teturn to the form that made him a 20-goal scorer from 2007-08 to 2009-10. He had just 15 points in 51 games last year. With three years left on his deal, that's a player the Caps are really counting on to turn things around.

Adding Niskanen to the mix should help bolster some scoring depth from the back end. Both Green and Carlson produced for the Caps last year with a combined 75 points.

Brooks Orpik will also help the Capitals' defensive depth next year, but he comes at such a premium price that it could hinder the team's future plans. That contract is going to be immovable and Orpik is already on the wrong side of 30. He makes the Caps better defensively, but it's at seemingly too high a price. No matter how he plays, he'll always be judged against that contract and his style of defense is going to make that hard to reconcile.

Meanwhile, Karl Alzner may get pushed down the depth chart, which underscores that the Capitals are actually going from pretty shallow last year to fairly deep on defense. Alzner would be a really good No. 5 defenseman and could eventually supplant Orpik who appears destined for the team's top four at least next year.

If the Caps get a good year out of Holtby and see some contributions from young guys like Kuznetsov and Wilson, there's a good chance they'll be in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Metropolitan Division next season. What is going to be interesting to watch is where this team goes next.

The amount of money spent this offseason on defense could hinder the team's roster flexibility in the coming years. There are also a lot of players playing on expiring contracts this year, most notably Green and Holtby. The moves the Capitals make over the next two years are going to have a significant impact on the future of the franchise, so extreme care will need to be exercised.

The Caps have a good base, though. Ovechkin, despite the ludicrous debates that often surround him, is still one of the best players in the game. They have an improved, if expensive defense, and there's probably enough depth to get by at least next season. How this club gets turned into a Stanley Cup contender again is going to be a little harder to figure out, but they at least have something to build off of after the disaster that was 2013-14.

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