Jason Brough

Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, from Russia, celebrates his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015, in Washington. The Capitals won 5-3. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

To get over the hump, the Caps need their youngsters to step up

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

It’s been said before, but we’ll say it again — it was not Alex Ovechkin‘s fault that the Washington Capitals failed, once again, to get past the second round of the playoffs.

The Caps’ superstar captain finished the postseason with 12 points (5G, 7A) in 12 games. That included two assists in Game 6 against the eventual champs from Pittsburgh, a 4-3 overtime defeat that ended arguably the most promising season in Washington’s franchise history.

So it wasn’t on him, even if that’s the guy everyone wanted to talk to, and talk about, afterwards.

“Every year, lots of expectations. Lots of great players. There’s something we’re missing,” a dejected Ovechkin told reporters when it was all over for another year. “This group of guys can do better. Can go farther than the second round.”

While the Caps will come back with largely the same group next season, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth. To be sure, if there was one thing they could’ve used in the playoffs, it was a lot more production from their youngsters.

At the top of the list was Evgeny Kuznetsov, the 24-year-old who led the team in scoring during the regular season but finished with just one goal and one assist in the playoffs. Remember, it was his emergence as a top-six center that was a major factor in the resurgence of the Caps. Likewise, his lack of production in the postseason was a major factor in their early exit.

“I expected him to — I think he expected — to have a little more production,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a young player that’s growing. The way he emerged through the regular season, you expect that. Probably, there’s a lot that he learned through that series that will probably, going forward, make him a really elite player and we won’t ever be talking about this … him not having production in the playoffs.”

Andre Burakovsky, 21, was another young Cap who didn’t produce when it mattered. He had 38 points during the regular season, but just one assist in the playoffs. Tom Wilson, 22, wasn’t much of a factor either. The Caps want a lot more from him going forward. 

Another key player next season will be center Lars Eller. He’s not exactly young, at 27 years old, but he is new, coming over in an offseason trade with Montreal. He figures to slot in on the third line, below Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov, ahead of Jay Beagle. Washington did not re-sign Mike Richards.

“He’s got good size, he skates well, he’s got good skill level, he plays a good two-way game,” GM Brian MacLellan said of Eller. “We’ve been looking to fill that spot for a little while now.”

The Caps were fascinating to watch last season, and they figure to be fascinating again next year. After that, though, the future becomes somewhat murky, with the likes of T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Karl Alzner set to become unrestricted free agents.

Also, Ovechkin will be 31 next summer, while Backstrom will be nearly 30. With age comes decline, even for the greats.

As such, MacLellan has said the Caps are in a two-year window. And they’ve already used up one year.

“We’re going for it next year,” he said, “and then after that we’re evaluating where we’re at.”

Related: Brett Connolly is under pressure

Under Pressure: Brett Connolly

COLUMBUS, OH - FEBRUARY 16:  Brett Connolly #14 of the Boston Bruins lines up for a face-off during the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on February 16, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Boston defeated Columbus 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

There are two types of pressure in pro sports — the pressure to win (see: Alex Ovechkin), and the pressure to actually remain in pro sports.

Brett Connolly falls in the latter category. The former junior phenom, drafted sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010, is now on to his third NHL team. He signed a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Capitals on July 1, after the Bruins chose not to extend him a qualifying offer.

“He’s got good size, he skates well, he’s got good hands, he shoots the puck well,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said, per CSN Washington. “He just hasn’t seemed to put it together yet consistently. Talking to him, I think in hindsight he probably started in the league as too young a guy so his game hasn’t fully come around or matured and I think he’s got a good awareness of where he’s at and so do we. We’re going to try and fulfill his potential and he’s trying to do the same thing.”

Connolly, 24, had nine goals and 16 assists in 71 games for the B’s last season. At five-on-five, he spent a large chunk of time with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (a couple of pretty good players) as his linemates. Though things started out well, they did not finish the same way, and so Boston moved on.

It remains to be seen where Connolly will fit with the Caps.

“We told him, you’ve got to come in and you’ve got to earn it,” said MacLellan. “You’ve got to show the coaches. You’ve got to gain some respect and we’ll see where you fit in. He could play third line, fourth line, it’s up to him.”

Looking to make the leap: Madison Bowey

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 28:  Madison Bowey #22 of the Washington Capitals skates against the Washington Capitals at the Barclays Center on September 28, 2015 in Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Capitals defeated the Islanders 3-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

After yet another postseason disappointment, the Caps will try again with largely the same roster in 2016-17.

Which is to say, this isn’t a team with a bunch of openings for ambitious prospects.

But Madison Bowey could be an exception. The 21-year-old defenseman turned pro in 2015-16, and all things considered, his year went pretty well. He finished with four goals and 25 assists in 70 games for AHL Hershey, despite receiving “very, very limited power play time,” according to Bears coach Troy Mann.

The goal last season was to become a more responsible defender.

“For me, my defensive play has definitely developed,” Bowey told the Washington Post in May, “and I know just positioning-wise and feeling strong in my own end is definitely a huge key in my game right now, so I’m just trying to keep on building on that.”

It remains to be seen if Bowey can crack the Caps’ roster out of training camp. There are already seven defensemen under contract, and all of them require waivers to be sent down.

Even if he starts back in the AHL, it’s certainly possible that Bowey could make his NHL debut sometime next season, should there be an injury. And you can bet the likes of Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney and Dmitry Orlov know that he’s there, just waiting for his chance.

“For me, it’s just making sure that I’m getting better every time I step on the ice and every day and have a good summer,” said Bowey, “and you never know what could happen next year.”

Looking to make the leap: Ivan Provorov

Ivan Provorov

This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

He wasn’t the first defenseman drafted in 2015 — that was Noah Hanifin, who went fifth overall to Carolina — but at least one prominent draft expert felt that Ivan Provorov was the “best defenseman” available.

“And I think there’s a clear separation,” added TSN’s Director of Scouting, Craig Button. “To me, he’s an elite, number-one defenseman. Offensively. Defensively. He’s got the precision of a Swiss watch.”

The Flyers got Provorov with the seventh pick, adding yet another talented defensive prospect to their growing stable. The targeting of d-men through the draft was intentional. It followed the club’s struggles to replace Chris Pronger, who last played an NHL game in 2011. The Flyers were also unsuccessful in their attempt to pry Shea Weber out of Nashville.

“We believe that you build from the back end out, and Ivan is going to be a big part of our defense moving forward,” GM Ron Hextall said after drafting Provorov. “We’re really excited to have him. Really good all around player, great hockey sense.”

Not surprisingly, Provorov did not make the Flyers as an 18-year-old. He was returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings, where he led all WHL d-men with 73 points and was named the league’s best blue-liner.

This season, he wants to make the NHL, and he thinks he’s ready.

But he’ll have plenty of competition at training camp. The Flyers already have six d-men signed to one-way deals, plus there’s Shayne Gostisbehere, who’s not going anywhere. In addition to those seven, there are the other young hopefuls like Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Hagg.

“They have to come in and be better than someone else that’s here,” Hextall said of the youngsters that will be hoping to crack the lineup. “If that happens, we proved last year that we’ll make room in our roster for a young player that proves to us that he’s ready to play at this level and make our team better.”

Related: For the Flyers’ defense, the future is nearly here

For the Flyers’ defense, the future is nearly here

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 18:  Shayne Gostisbehere #53 of the Philadelphia Flyers takes a shot in the second period against the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.The Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 6-1.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

The thing about drafting and developing defenseman is that it takes time and patience.

Oh, sure, there are some guys like Aaron Ekblad and Drew Doughty who can step into the NHL right away. But the large majority of them don’t.

Take Duncan Keith. Drafted in 2002, it took him three years until he joined the Blackhawks, and he still had some developing to do once he got there.

P.K. Subban was drafted in 2007. He stayed in junior for two additional years and then spent one season in the AHL before joining the Habs.

Shea Weber, speaking of Subban, took a similar path after being drafted in 2003. Two addition years of junior, then a few games in the AHL before graduating full-time to the Predators.

So it takes time and patience.

And let’s face it, that hasn’t always been the calling card of the Philadelphia Flyers. Under late owner Ed Snider and former general manager Paul Holmgren, Philly was arguably the most impatient team in the league. It was an admirable trait in many ways; the Flyers just really, really wanted to win the Stanley Cup again, and they were willing to flex their financial muscle to accomplish that goal. But at times their impatience cost them, and they learned the hard way that there are no quick fixes in the salary-cap age.

Suffice to say, it’s been a different attitude under GM Ron Hextall. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since he took over from Holmgren in May of 2014, but the fans are excited and optimistic all the same.

With all the young defensemen in the system, how could they not be pumped? Shayne Gostisbehere — a Holmgren-era pick, it should be noted — just finished second in the Calder Trophy voting after his stellar rookie season, and he was only the start. 

Gostisbehere was drafted in 2012. The next year came Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg. In 2014, Hextall added Travis Sanheim to the mix, then in 2015 got perhaps the jewel of the Flyers’ prospect pool when he selected Ivan Provorov seventh overall.

Over four years, it was quite the haul of defensemen.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of them will thrive in the NHL. Chances are, one or two won’t. But the great thing for the Flyers is that not all of them need to pan out. It would be nice if they all did, but there’s wiggle room for a bust or two.

That’s what patience has bought the club. And in 2016-17, the Flyers will continue to be patient.

“[Defense] is a harder position to play [than forward],” Hextall told reporters recently. “We’ve got enough players on our roster to play for the Flyers this year. So we’re not sitting here going Player X, Player Y has to play in the NHL. We’re not going to force one of these kids now. If one of these kids, or two or three comes in and they’re better than the guys we have, that’s competition.”

Now, granted, patience does have it limits. The Flyers have brought their young defensemen along responsibly; they haven’t given in to the temptation to trade them for older, “win now” pieces; and Hextall has remained committed to the long-term plan.

Just don’t mistake this for a team with zero urgency to win now, because there’s actually plenty. Claude Giroux is 28 years old, right in the prime of his career. Wayne Simmonds is 27 and Jakub Voracek is 26. Throw in Sean Couturier, 23, and Brayden Schenn, 24, and the Flyers have assembled a pretty impressive collection of forwards, all under 30 years of age.

The urgency comes from the desire to compete for a Stanley Cup while that forward group is still young and impressive.

And whether that happens will depend a lot on the youngsters on the back end, and how quickly they can start making a real impact.

Related: Flyers sign T.J. Brennan to multi-year deal