Predicting Washington Capitals' Most Improved Players for 2014-15 Season
Despite missing the postseason in 2013-14, the Washington Capitals have remained competitive for the better part of the last decade, and a lot of that has been due to the team's ability to consistently churn out impact players from within.
Yes, there have been the early first-rounders and surefire standouts like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner, but it's the less heralded prospects who blossom into lineup players who make a roster deep enough to compete for the Stanley Cup.
It's true with the Kings, Blackhawks, Bruins and virtually every elite team in the league, and for the Caps to get back into the playoff picture in 2014-15, they'll need big contributions from every corner of the roster.
With Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in the fold on the back end, the Capitals' top six seems to be somewhat set in stone with Mike Green, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Alzner likely all seeing regular minutes.
But up front, there are jobs to be won, particularly within the top nine, and for a number of young players, this will be an important opportunity to grow.
Here's a look at which Capitals will improve most in 2014-15, a season which should be very interesting with Barry Trotz behind the bench for his first year in Washington.
Orlov emerged as a consistent top-six option for defensive coach Calle Johansson in 2013-14, as the 23-year-old suited up in 54 games on a blue line that was plagued by injuries.
Though he posted just three goals and 11 points, there's no questioning Orlov's offensive potential, as he's got the speed, shot and confidence with the puck to anchor a rush.
As stated before, the Caps suddenly have a veteran-laden defense, and with Green, Orpik, Niskanen, Alzner and Carlson in the mix, Orlov's guaranteed to be playing with a quality NHL defenseman, which certainly won't hurt his development.
He's got to reduce the number of risks he takes, particularly in the neutral zone, because under Trotz, mental lapses won't be tolerated to the degree that they were during Adam Oates' tenure.
Assuming Ovechkin continues to play the point on at least one unit, Orlov will have a tough time leapfrogging Green, Niskanen and Carlson to earn time on the power play.
Nonetheless, Orlov should best the career-high 19 points he put up in 2011-12, and 30 isn't out of the question.
As The Washington Post's Katie Carrera discussed, Trotz recently talked about "how he envisions a healthy Tom Wilson as, one day, becoming a top-six forward."
That's high praise for a guy who recorded just three goals and 10 points during his rookie season, but Wilson's size (6'4", 210 lbs), style of play and raw talent indicate that he very well may become a quality power forward in the not-so-distant future.
He physically overpowered seasoned veterans on a regular basis as a 19-year-old, and though he wasn't able to capitalize on many of his scoring opportunities, the fact that he finished third among all NHL rookies with 197 hits shows how involved in the play he was during limited minutes.
Washington's got depth on the wings, but Wilson's physicality, speed and competitiveness will make him a favorite of this new coaching staff in a hurry.
For Evgeny Kuznetsov to emerge as Washington's No. 2 center, it may not be a matter of improving as a player as much as it is growing accustomed to the more tight-checking nature of the NHL.
The former first-rounder's skills with the puck are off the charts, and though his nine points in 17 games in 2013-14 were pretty ordinary for his standards, he made a number of breathtaking plays during his first professional stint in North America.
While Oates eased him in slowly and often on the wing, partially due to the fact that the Caps were in the midst of an ultimately unsuccessful postseason push, Carrera also reported that Trotz plans to try him out down the middle behind Backstrom.
Kuznetsov's undoubtedly got the potential to put up 60 to 70 points in the NHL, and assuming he gets regular time on the power play, 50 points seems attainable for his first full season in Washington.
In addition to Wilson and Kuznetsov, there may be another young forward set to make an unexpectedly quick impact in Washington this season.
That's because, as NBC Sports' Jason Brough reported, with information culled from NHL.com's Dan Rosen, Trotz has his eye on 2013 first-rounder Andre Burakovsky after watching him at the Caps' development camp this summer.
While it's surprising that Burakovsky may be ready for big minutes at the NHL level, the skilled Austrian-born forward dominated the OHL during his first season of North American hockey with 41 goals and 87 points in just 57 games.
But more than his impressive OHL debut performance and seven-point outing at the 2014 World Juniors, Burakovsky's dominant effort at the recent development camp may be what vaults him into top-nine contention in September.
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