The Washington Capitals' 2012-13 season ended the same way each of their last six campaigns have finished: Alex Ovechkin and company fell short far too early in the postseason.
But despite the repeated springtime shortcomings, the Caps once again enter training camp with, at least on paper, enough skill, experience and depth to make a deep run come playoff time.
Now, with the season a matter of weeks away, Adam Oates and his staff will have some difficult decisions to make during training camp as they attempt to figure out which players will make the team and where they'll be slotted within the lineup.
Heading into training camp, here's a look at the players with the most to prove prior to the beginning of the regular season.
This isn’t because Martin Erat should be considered as anything but a top-six forward for the Caps, it’s just that he didn’t meet expectations after coming over from Nashville at the deadline.
Always a safe bet for 50-60 points, Erat was brought over in order to give the Caps scoring depth with Brooks Laich ailing, and that’s why George McPhee dealt top prospect and 2012 first-rounder Filip Forsberg to the Predators in exchange for the former Czech Olympian.
Seeing as Forsberg was what the Caps gave up in return, Erat simply has to be more productive than he was after arriving in D.C., as he managed just one goal and four points in his 13 total games with Washington.
And what is slightly more troubling is that the 32-year-old recorded just four goals in 36 games with the Predators prior to the trade, so he’ll have to do more offensively to keep a top-six spot.
No, he won’t live up to the expectations with a strong training camp, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction.
After making his much-anticipated debut during the Caps’ Round 1 series against New York, Wilson enters training camp as possibly the team’s biggest question mark up front.
That’s because—although the 2012 first-rounder has the size, tenacity and talent to be an impact forward at the NHL level—he’s still a bit raw, but an impressive training camp could earn Wilson a spot on the Caps’ opening-night roster.
Working against Wilson is the addition of Mikhail Grabovski, because that signing figures to bump Brooks Laich down into bottom-six duty, which would hypothetically take a spot away from Wilson or another forward who was slated for that sort of role.
But Wilson is arguably the team’s most coveted prospect outside of Evgeny Kuznetsov, so expect Oates, McPhee and company to take a long look at the Plymouth Whalers star.
His offensive numbers more than doubled between his second and third OHL seasons, and after tallying more than a point per game with the Whalers last year, there isn't much more for him to accomplish at the junior level.
After a strong rookie season (2012-13) in which Russian rearguard Dmitry Orlov posted a surprising three goals and 19 points as a 20-year-old, the offensively gifted 2009 second-rounder took a step in the wrong direction, managing to suit up for just five games with the Caps due to injury troubles.
But Orlov should be viewed as a strong candidate to make the Caps roster out of camp, even if the team’s defensive corps has a number of players that could be challenging for roster spots.
During Orlov’s absence last season, Steve Oleksy and Jack Hillen became valuable contributors for Oates’ squad down the stretch, and though neither are going to be confused with a player of Karl Alzner’s caliber anytime soon, both will be given long looks during camp.
That being said, Orlov’s offensive gifts are a good fit with Washington’s style of play, so if he’s healthy and hasn’t lost a step, a good camp will likely earn him a place in the Caps’ top six.
Like Orlov, Tomas Kundratek surprised many during his rookie campaign with the Caps, as the 23-year-old Czech suited up for more than half of the team’s games and registered seven points before returning to Hershey.
Though Hillen, Oleksy and Orlov may be viewed as more likely candidates to make the team out of camp, the mobile 2008 third-rounder has at least an outside shot of doing so, especially given that he’s still developing, while at least two of the aforementioned trio are much further along in their respective careers.
In order to make the team, Kundratek will have to demonstrate the same poise and reliability on the back end that earned him the trust and confidence of the coaching staff for a time in 2013.
Even if he fails to make the squad out of camp, as has been the case more often than not, the Capitals will need a midseason reinforcement from Hershey, and Kundratek has to be considered a prime suspect to receive the call.
As the next solid goaltending prospect in the Capitals' pipeline, Philipp Grubauer has long been considered a solid bet to eventually find his way to D.C., even if it's ultimately in a backup role.
And though he's been stuck behind Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, the German stopper has continued to develop into a promising young goalie and has moved up the professional ranks at an impressive pace.
Since winning the Memorial Cup as Windsor's starting goalie in 2010, Grubauer has moved from the OHL, to the ECHL (where he earned All-Rookie Team honors), to the AHL and, for a brief time, the NHL for a cup of coffee last season.
While the Caps' crease is full for the time being, if Grubauer impresses at training camp, and reaffirms the belief that he's not too far away from being a formidable No. 2, it seems logical that Neuvirth's days in D.C. will be numbered, because this Washington team doesn't need three NHL-caliber goalies.