The 5 Most Promising Signs for Washington Capitals' Future
After the Washington Capitals took Alex Ovechkin No. 1 overall in 2004, George McPhee gradually built a young core that, for a time, appeared capable of bringing D.C. the city's first Stanley Cup.
Of course, that hasn't happened yet, but a team could (and has) done much worse than securing seven consecutive postseason berths, even if a trip to the Conference Finals still eludes Ovechkin and Co.
This season has been a roller-coaster ride for the Caps, as the move to the Metropolitan Division, as well as incredibly inconsistent play, has this team on the edge of the playoff picture in the East.
Nonetheless, this team still has a lot of promise, and no matter how disappointing the Capitals have been in 2013-14, there are certainly a number of reasons to feel optimistic about the future.
The Core Is Still Young
One of the most encouraging attributes of this current squad is its age, as the Caps currently boast the seventh-youngest group in the NHL.
Furthermore, every single one of the Washington's least replaceable cogs are on the right side of 30, so this team isn't in immediate danger of losing its status as a perennial postseason contender.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green (when healthy), John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Braden Holtby, Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson are all at the peak of their powers, and there's enough talent there for this group to be competitive for quite a while.
There's an obvious need for veteran presences on the back end and in net, but even if the Caps don't make the playoffs in 2014, it'd be premature to believe that this core's window has closed.
The Arrival of Kuznetsov
Since being taken in Round 1 in 2010, Evgeny Kuznetsov has long been considered the next great Russian forward in what has become a very productive pipeline for the Capitals.
And, for the past four seasons, Kuznetsov's teased Caps fans while putting up impressive numbers in the KHL and starring on the international stage at the World Juniors, winning tournament MVP honors in 2012.
Now, with Kuznetsov finally skating in the NHL, the 21-year-old has looked every bit like the star offensive dynamo that he was billed to be, and that's good news for a team that still seems to be searching for a replacement for Alexander Semin.
With four assists in four games, including a sparkling three-point outing in a must-win clash against Vancouver, Kuznetsov's only going to get better as he adapts to the North American style of play.
The Defense Has Help on the Way
Despite the emergence of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green as offensive standouts, the Caps have suffered from a lack of defensive depth on a consistent basis, and that's been a key factor in the team's shortcomings in the postseason.
But, with the trio of Carlson, Alzner and Green, the Caps have a serviceable backbone of a top four, and Dmitry Orlov, Connor Carrick and Nate Schmidt should each be able to take the next step in developing into NHL regulars within a year's time.
Sure, Steve Olesky and John Erskins are adequate in their own end and provide physicality, but on a puck-moving team, they aren't mobile enough to truly mesh with Adam Oates' style.
If nothing else, the Capitals are generally a very resilient group when facing multiple-goal deficits, at least during the regular season.
Obviously, much of that stems from the fact that Oates has some of the game's most dynamic offensive threats in his arsenal. Particularly when this team gets hot on the power play, Washington has the ability to erase virtually any lead in a hurry.
Unfortunately, by that same token, the Caps have consistently been prone to losing leads and have let a lot of potential victories slip away, often giving up goals in bunches.
In fact, the Capitals have the fourth-lowest winning percentage in the league when leading at the end of the first, which is indicative of how lackadaisical this squad's defensive play is far too often.
Washington has faced some daunting post-deadline point deficits in the past, but since 2007-08, the team has had a habit of getting hot at the right time and sliding into a prime playoff spot as late as possible.
The remaining schedule is tough, but if history has taught us anything it's that Ovechkin, Backstrom and the rest of the Caps are more than capable of putting together a lengthy winning streak and snagging at least a wild-card berth.
The Ovechkin Factor
Has Alex Ovechkin been consistently dominant this season? No.
But despite his current stretch of just one goal over his last six games, it's no secret that Ovechkin's reclaimed the title of being the most lethal scorer in the game.
Even though opponents are fully aware of the exact spots from which Ovechkin's going to be looking to get his quality chances, there's just been no stopping him this season.
His one-timer and ability to create space for himself, especially with the man advantage, are remarkable given the blanket coverage he often faces.
He and the rest of Washington's power play unit have been electric this season. The 28-year-old's 19 power-play markers rank first in the league, while his 33 parts rank second only to running mate Backstrom's 37.
Perhaps what's most important isn't that the Russian superstar leads the league with 45 goals (nine more than his closest competition in Anaheim's Corey Perry), but rather, it's the timing of his tallies.
Heading into Washington's final 13 games of the season, Ovechkin leads the league in overtime goals with three and sits second in game-winners with eight. In addition, Ovechkin's scored the game's first goal nine times, which ranks second to only Chris Kunitz.
It seems apparent that the Caps will only go as far as their captain can take them, especially until Mikhail Grabovski and Brooks Laich return, because with Joel Ward as the team's second-leading goal scorer, this isn't a team flush with elite snipers.
Ovechkin is the game's best scorer for a reason, and as he's done in years past, he's dangerous enough to carry this team to the postseason on his own.