- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2017

Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky returned to the District last week, on Sept. 5. Teammate Lars Eller got back two days prior.

The Capitals’ training camp doesn’t start until Friday, but practically everyone on the roster is already back and practicing at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington — Burakovsky and Eller were among the later arrivals.

Even star Alex Ovechkin has been at the practice facility since late August.

“Everyone is almost coming back the same time of year, but I think everyone is hungry to get back to start playing hockey again,” said Burakovsky, who signed a two-year, $6 million contract extension this offseason. “We had a long break here and just to get back here and see each other’s faces, being on the ice together means a lot.”

On Friday, practice ended with a scrum of players jokingly piling up on the boards following a scrimmage. There were laughs and the atmosphere was far removed from the Capitals’ disappointing playoff exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins in May.

Eller said having his teammates back in Washington will help build chemistry — something that can only help a team that has undergone major changes over the summer.

While the team’s core remains mostly the same, gone are second line forwards Marcus Johansson, who was traded to the New Jersey Devils, and Justin Williams, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes in free agency. Washington also lost defensemen Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft.

“It’s good to see a bunch of the familiar faces again and I think everybody looks energized,” said Eller, who also said he spent the summer focusing on improving his shooting.

Last season, Eller’s first with the Capitals, got off to a bumpier start. After he was traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Capitals in June 2016, Eller showed up to training camp and found the World Cup of Hockey disrupted the team’s normal schedule.

“I pretty much only saw half my teammates, and then half my teammates came during training camp,” Eller said. “It was quite different last year. This year will be, we’ll have a better team preparation.”

This year, the Capitals need to sort out as quickly as possible which of their younger players will be ready for roles on the NHL level. Prospects like Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker, Liam O’Brien and Travis Boyd will all vie for the two open spots on the Capitals’ fourth line next to center Jay Beagle.

On the defensive side, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness and Lucas Johansen have opportunities to be paired with veterans John Carlson and Brooks Orpik.

The Capitals are also trying out former Calgary Flames defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka and right winger Alex Chiasson. Chiasson had 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) last year for the Flames and is another candidate for the fourth line.

The potential ceiling for this year’s Capitals is harder to predict than previous years. Will there be a drop-off with so many new spots?

“I think we have enough of the group of the core guys left to still be a playoff team and we all have our eyes on the Cup,” Eller said. “The first goal has to be to get into the playoffs. I think we still have a team for that, that can compete with the best on any given day.”

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