Feb 27, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) plays the puck against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Canadiens won 6-5 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Recent Additions Could Make Washington Capitals Instant Contenders

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The Washington Capitals have made quite a splash this offseason. Names like Brooks Orpik, Justin Peters and Matt Niskanen (pictured above) among others headline the new class, while one draft pick could make an impact as soon as the 2014-15′ season. Put it all together and it’s possible a team that’s been trending down for years quickly emerges as a legitimate playoff, and potential Stanley Cup, contender.

Why?

Look at it this way. The Capitals already employ one of the league’s top three scorers and perennial power play threat in Russian winger Alex Ovechkin. Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer both provide value, whether it be on the power play or defending against other teams. Nicklas Backstrom’s 61 assists centering last season’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner were almost double that of anyone else rocking the red and white last season.

In net, the Capitals have two youngsters (Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer) who combined to start 59 games, putting up a respectable 29-20-9-4 record. Realizing young players take time to fully develop, however, they then went out and snagged former Carolina Hurricanes backup Justin Peters. A great move, as Grubauer only has 14 starts for his career thus far, and could benefit from some more work with the teams American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Hershey Bears.

March 16, 2013; Tampa FL, USA; Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters (35) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at Tampa Times Forum. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

March 16, 2013; Tampa FL, USA; Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters (35) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the third period at Tampa Times Forum. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defense was what separated the Capitals from last season’s playoff contenders though. Top blueliner Mike Green had an absolutely horrid minus-16 rating while appearing in 70 games, while other seemingly reliable defenders, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, played every game with a combined minus-10 rating. Of course, defense didn’t seem to be the preferred method up in our nation’s capital during 2013-14′, evidenced by the captains historically bad, team-leading minus-35 rating.

Noticing that, new general manager Brian MacLellan and assistant Ross Mahoney, along with coach Barry Trotz, went to work deciding how to go about retooling a promising team needing some upgrades. They began things by selecting a netminder and five wingers/forwards, one of whom spent last year with the Capitals AHL affiliate in Hershey, thus making him eligible to join the big league club at some point this upcoming season.

Entering the July 1 start of free agency, it became clear defense was the Capitals biggest remaining need. They quickly met that goal, signing both Orpik and Niskanen to very expensive multi-year deals. Considered top players at their position, Niskanen’s plus-33 rating led all NHL blueliners this past season. Meanwhile, Orpik brings experience, physicality and leadership to the back-end. An alternate captain for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 2008, his 221 hits topped all Penguin defensemen last year. That’s an element of the game Washington’s been lacking in recent years, something they hope Orpik’s addition improves.

Will these additions make the Capitals instant contenders? Though nothing’s a certainty this early on, it’s easy to see an already promising team making tons of impact moves vying for the Metropolitan Division title and a playoff berth next spring.

 

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