Ranking the 5 Most Important Players on the Washington Capitals Roster

Ryan DavenportContributor IAugust 27, 2014

Ranking the 5 Most Important Players on the Washington Capitals Roster

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    As is the case with any team in today's NHL that features at least five players making at least $5 million a piece annually, the Washington Capitals are a rather top-heavy team. 

    According to CapGeek.com, Washington's five most expensive players, a group that consists of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, occupy more than 48 percent of the team's available $69 million in cap space. 

    Consequently, the Capitals rely heavily on a handful of players to carry the mail on a nightly basis, and the team's fortunes often hinge on their ability to deliver. 

    With that in mind, here's a look at Washington's five most important players heading into Barry Trotz's first season at the wheel with the Caps.  

5. Braden Holtby

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    For the first time since Olaf Kolzig's reign as Washington's No. 1 stopper came to an end in 2008, it seems like the Caps may have their long-term answer in net. 

    Now entering his third season as the team's primary goaltender, the role is Holtby's to lose, but given that his current contract is up in July, leading the Caps back to the postseason would certainly go a long way in helping him secure a multiyear extension. 

    His goals-against average and save percentage both declined sharply in 2013-14, and while an improved defense corps and the arrival of Trotz should help both figures improve, Holtby's simply got to stop giving up goals in bunches. 

    Last season, Holtby surrendered four or more goals on 15 occasions (out of 48 total starts), and that has to change in order for this team to have success in 2014-15. 

    He's proven that he can elevate his game during the postseason, as indicated by his career .931 save percentage in 21 appearances, but for Holtby to establish himself as a bona fide NHL starter, he's got to display more consistency during the regular season. 

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov

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    Ever since George McPhee let Alexander Semin leave for Carolina in 2012, the Caps have been in dire need of an offensive catalyst to take pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom, particularly when injuries arise. 

    And now that Evgeny Kuznetsov is a Capital, he should be ready to take on that responsibility. 

    As reported by Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post, Trotz already has ideas for how to best use the former World Junior MVP, and it seems clear that Kuznetsov is set to be a big part of his offense: 

    I’m going to play [Kuznetsov] in the middle right through, and if you get some people who are pretty hard-driving guys on his wing he could be a great fit. That’s why I’m hoping a guy like Wilson will be ready to do a lot of the heavy lifting and Kuznetsov can use his high skillset to make things happen.

    Kuznetsov's hands, speed and vision are elite, and once he fully adjusts to the North American game, he could very well become the type of legitimate No. 2 scoring center the Caps have sorely missed. 

    He didn't dominate during his first cup of coffee in the NHL in 2013-14, with nine points in 17 games, but his talent and potential was obvious, and if the former first-rounder can step into a top-six role, Washington will be in business. 

3. John Carlson

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    After a number of years in which the Caps had a relatively thin top six on the back end, the 2014-15 edition is stocked with at least five rearguards capable of playing 20 minutes a night. 

    Of those five, John Carlson is the most important, because he's the most versatile of the bunch. 

    Blessed with a 6'3" frame, good mobility and a cannon of a shot, Carlson has all the tools to contribute at both ends of the ice, and though Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are Washington's shiny new toys, Carlson's the guy Trotz should be building around. 

    Since entering the league during the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Carlson's quietly developed into one of the game's best young defensemen, as evidenced by his inclusion on the American roster for the 2014 Olympics. 

    And now, coming off a season in which Carlson played more than 24 minutes a night, the 24-year-old is ready to assume the role of the undisputed leading man on Washington's blue line. 

    He can quarterback the power play and penalty kill, and alongside Karl Alzner, is one-half of the team's best pairing, so Carlson's performance in 2014-15 will be critical to this team's postseason chances. 

2. Nicklas Backstrom

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    As the team's best playmaker, Nicklas Backstrom improves the play of everyone around him when skating with confidence, and there's a strong case to be made for him to be ranked No. 1 on this list.

    However, due to the fact that the only player ranked ahead of him is both the captain and consensus best player on the team, the Swedish pivot will have to settle for second.

    The league-leader in power-play points and assists in 2013-14, Backstrom is the centerpiece of Washington's lethal attack with the man advantage and was the primary setup man for the majority of Ovechkin's 24 power-play tallies.

    And until Kuznetsov proves himself as a legitimate top-six center man, Backstrom will once again be leaned upon to provide the offense from down the middle, but that shouldn't be an issue for a guy who has finished third among all NHL players in assists in four of his seven seasons.  

    While he'll always be a pass-first player by nature, Backstrom should also be looking to score more, as the 9.2 shooting percentage he posted in 2013-14 is more than two full percentage below his career average, and his 18 goals tied for his lowest output in a full season since his rookie campaign. 

1. Alex Ovechkin

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    There are a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about whether Ovechkin's capable of ever leading the Capitals beyond Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and a lot of the criticism he's received is warranted. 

    At the top of the laundry list of complaints about the Russian star's game is the horrendous minus-35 rating he posted in 2013-14, as well as his general lack of attention to detail in his own zone.

    But while that shortcoming shouldn't be cast aside or completely overlooked, one can't help but marvel at the type of numbers the 28-year-old's put up since the NHL lockout.

    Despite being frequently shadowed and facing double coverage, Ovechkin has potted 83 goals in his last 126 regular-season games, and according to HockeyReference.com, he's ranked either first or second in the league in goals created in each of the last two seasons. 

    He's a three-time Hart Trophy recipient for a reason, because there are far too many nights that he's single-handedly secured a point for the Caps, and particularly under Trotz, one has to assume that he'll be held accountable for his play in the defensive zone. 

    Ovechkin's the most dangerous scorer in the league when at his best, and if Trotz can coax him into playing with more purpose in his own end, a fourth MVP award and a deep postseason run just may be possible.