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

AP
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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