Two years ago, the lack of depth in the Capitals’ organization was painfully evident when players like defensemen Julien Brouillette, Tyson Strachan, Connor Carrick and Alexander Urbom, and forwards Nicolas Deschamps, Peter LeBlanc, Ryan Stoa and Casey Wellman took turns making their Capitals debuts.
That team failed to sustain any kind of momentum during the season and failed to make the playoffs.
Two years later, the Capitals are humming along with the best record in the NHL despite the losses of top-pair defensemen John Carlson and Brooks Orpik and checking-line center Jay Beagle.
A big reason has been the offseason acquisitions of free-agent defensemen Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness and free-agent center Zach Sill, three players who barely caused a ripple in the free-agent pool.
“We’re thriving through adversity,” Capitals coach Barry Trtoz said. “Obviously, the people that are coming in are doing an excellent job. Guys that have been asked to step up have done an excellent job. I’d like to say it’s cultural.
“It really comes from leadership,” Trotz continued. “The leadership doesn’t allow excuses in the room. That, to me, is the biggest thing.
“It’s like, ‘OK, Nesser, you’re playing with Chorns tonight. Let’s go.’ Burt, (Andre Burakovsky) you’re going from the fourth line to playing with Kuzy (Evgeny Kuznetsov). Have at it.”
But there is something more to the Caps having a 22-3-4 record without Orpik and a 6-1-1 record without Carlson heading into Thursday night’s game against the Vancouver Canucks (6:30, CSN).
It is their ability to identify “cusp” players who have enough pro experience to fill the gaps. Chorney, 28, has played in more than 500 games as a pro. Sill, 27, has played in more than 350 professional games, and Ness, 25, has played in more than 300 games as a pro.
“When you’re younger there’s a certain level of anxiety or nervousness about it,” said Sill, who played 63 games last season for the Penguins and Maple Leafs. “But having played up (in the NHL) all last year, that’s just not there anymore. There’s not that nervousness and I think that’s the case with Chorns and Nesser, too.”
In 33 games with the Caps, Chorney has four assists, is a plus-12 and has 13 penalty minutes while averaging 13:11 of ice time. In five games with the Caps, Sill has one goal, is a plus-1 and has no penalty minutes while averaging just under 10 minutes a game. And in five games with the Caps Ness has two assists, is a plus-2 and has no penalty minutes while averaging 12:12 of ice time
“You try to identify guys who are in good places in their careers,” Trotz said. “Chorney is a good example. He’s not 22, he’s 28. He’s paid his dues and he’s capable. Our pro scouts have done a good job of identifying types of needs -- like Zach Sill, Chorney, Ness -- so we can fill certain spots in our organization.”
Injury update: Trotz said Orpik, sidelined since Nov. 10, began skating on his own earlier this week, presumably Monday, but would not put a timetable on when he will practice with the Caps. “No time frame,” Trotz said. “It'll be the same answer until he starts practicing with us.” … Tom Wilson (lower body) practiced on a third line with center Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera. The Caps’ fourth line had Sill between left wing Brooks Laich and right wing Michael Latta, which means Mike Richards and Stan Galiev will be extras.
MORE CAPITALS: Johansson set to return after two-game suspension