It’s one thing to win. It’s a different thing to win and go young at the same time.
That’s exactly what the Capitals have done this season, restocking the cupboard without the likes of Jose Theodore, Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo and Brendan Morrison thanks to the contributions of more than a half-dozen rookies who have played the most minutes of any first-year group in the NHL.
So the Caps plugged in Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Marcus Johansson and others and are heading to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
“Who leads the division and starts four rookies?” owner Ted Leonsis said. “And if you can win, what better way for them to learn and get with the system and get confidence and be able to contribute in the playoffs.”
That’s the idea, and it’s something coach Bruce Boudreau has embraced - toss the young guys into action and watch them improve on the fly. Naturally some of it has come because of myriad injuries, so youth is more of a necessity for the Caps than a luxury.
“If they don’t improve, then we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in. So they have improved,” Boudreau said. “All these guys are put in positions where we really need them to do well. They’ve responded really favorably.”
While Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and some veterans have maintained leading roles, the Caps’ kids have been far from bit players. Johansson plays on special teams and has manned the middle on the first line, Carlson pairs with Karl Alzner to defend top lines, and even Jay Beagle has played a big role killing penalties. And that’s not even to mention the contributions in net from Neuvirth and Holtby, who have combined for 33 of Washington’s 43 victories.
“We really, really like having that chance, that opportunity, and you need it because there’s a lot of players that sometimes go unnoticed maybe in the minor leagues and they have the skills to play but the situation isn’t always there,” Alzner said. “We were lucky that for us the situation is here now and we’ve been given every opportunity in the world to do it and take advantage.”
One rookie in particular who has taken advantage of his chance and shown another level to his game lately is Johansson, who at times has been asked to make up for injuries to Backstrom and veteran Jason Arnott.
The 20-year-old Swede said he has improved his game thanks to experience in all game situations that has engendered some confidence.
“Bruce has given me a lot of confidence, too. It gets better and better all the time and I appreciate all the ice time that I can get,” Johansson said. “You learn all the time from all situations. When you play those situations, you get used to it and that’s a big part of being a good hockey player, is you can play in as many situations as possible.”
Boudreau sees a difference teamwide - one that has the Caps’ rookies playing more consistent hockey going into Friday night’s game at the Ottawa Senators. For many of these young players, almost a full season’s worth has added up to mostly good things - as the Caps have kept winning to take aim at the arduous task of earning the No. 1 seed.
“All the young guys that, once they get a little bit of experience in this league, [they] understand it and don’t have the highs and lows that they would as when they first come in here,” Boudreau said. “They’re understandably better right now than they were.”