Caps to show off new stars at Fan Fest

WASHINGTON  — “We were closer than we ever realized to being in the Stanley Cup Finals.”

That’s a tough concession to make for a coach, but perhaps less so for a coach like Barry Trotz, who has the game’s most dynamic scorer, a top flight goalie, and just watched his GM address his team’s biggest weakness with a pair of moves.

Any disappointment that may have lingered in the minds of Caps fans after the team’s tough Game 7 Eastern Conference Semifinals loss didn’t have long to fester into full-blown, offseason angst.

The organization was aggressive within its salary-cap-restricted means this offseason, finding two new right wings that appear, at least on the surface, to directly address some of the existing roster’s biggest needs. And they did all of that right before Caps Fan Fest this Saturday, at which the prize acquisition of the offseason, T.J. Oshie, will be introduced for the first time.

Even casual hockey observers will likely recognize Oshie’s name from his Olympic shootout heroics in Sochi. Under the Olympic format, once the first three shooters have gone, if a shootout continues, any player may be selected any number of times to continue shooting. So it was with Oshie against the host Russians in the two countries’ preliminary round meeting, in which the American buried four of his six chances to lead the U.S. to victory.

Heading into last season, a group of NHL writers on voted Oshie the top shootout specialist in the entire league. And he may not even have made Team USA if not for his array of moves. But Caps head coach Barry Trotz is interested in what he might bring in other situations as well.

“His five-on-five numbers are better,” Trotz says of Oshie in comparison to Troy Brouwer, whom he was traded for and replaces on the roster. “He’s a purer athlete, and he’s got a chance to play with a high-end, play-making center like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.”

Improving five-on-five success could be key for the Caps, who were the league’s best on the power play last year but struggled to find the net while at even strength. Come the postseason, where whistles are more readily swallowed and penalty minutes harder to come by, that difference should only be amplified.

There is hope that the second recently acquired right-winger will have a similar impact. Justin Williams spent the past seven years of his career with the L.A. Kings, where he won Stanley Cups in two of the last four seasons. Two years ago, he was one of the team’s most important players in the playoff run, scoring nine goals and contributing 16 assists to post an astonishing +13 in 26 games. The 15-year veteran will turn 34 in October, but his veteran leadership will be leaned on.

“Williams could be a real difference maker,” said Trotz.

For the coach, coming back for a second year affords both him and his players a fellowship with one another that doesn’t have to be built from scratch again.

“You’re more familiar with the organization, the players, more aware of what you have,” he said. “Last year was a culture shock for a lot of the players, but we grew together, became a close team.”

Quickly re-signing their top young players was a priority the front office addressed as well, inking Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky to two-year deals. That keeps the majority of the core intact for the 2015-16 season, with the only real changes coming at the spots they addressed. Trotz and company are hoping that the combination of experience and proven veterans means they can repeat last year’s successes, while overcoming the final hurdle.

“The fear of Game 7s, that’s in the past,” he said. “That’s gone, in my opinion.”

It will be months before we know if he’s right. But that confidence, and Oshie’s smiling face, will set the tone beginning Saturday.

Caps Fan Fest takes place this Saturday at Kettler Ice Complex with a scrimmage beginning at 10:30 a.m. followed by the annual equipment sale and an autograph session with players and coaches.

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