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20 offseason Caps questions: Who'll be on the Caps' opening night roster?

20 offseason Caps questions: Who'll be on the Caps' opening night roster?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.

In 85 days, the puck will drop on the Capitals' 2017-18 season. And while the lineup on Oct. 5 will have a familiar feel to it, there will be some significant changes. Gone are Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk. Who'll serve as the replacements? That's a good question. Below, Jill, J.J. and Tarik make their opening night lineup predictions using players who are currently under contract. 

Sorenson: Wow. Well when I lay it all out on the screen in front of me, those lines sure look weird! It becomes so apparent how much the Caps actually lost. The Marcus Johansson trade leaves a big hole in that top six, and on my second line, I will be looking for Brett Connolly to really step up. I chose Connolly in that second right wing spot over Wilson, because at this point, I’m looking for more speed with Ovechkin on the other side. I would change that in a second if Ovechkin comes to training camp 15-20 pounds lighter (and thus faster) and put Wilson on the other side of Kuznetsov as the net-front presence and protector on that line. Troy Mann has called on Jakub Vrana to up his mental game, and I’m confident he will do that. But the most exciting addition from a forward perspective is to see Nathan Walker make his historic NHL debut! I predict that opening night he will become the first Australian to play in an NHL regular season game. As for the defense, Taylor Chorney is a no brainer to start the year- a steadying presence that will allow John Carlson to add on the offensive side. And I really look forward to Madison Bowey’s NHL debut.

Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie
Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Connolly
Vrana -Eller-Wilson
Walker-Beagle-Smith-Pelley

Orlov-Niskanen
Chorney-Carlson
Orpik-Bowey 

Holtby

El-Bashir: Not only have the names changed, so has the makeup and structure of the Caps' capped-out roster. Basically, there's going to be a bunch of vets who count $5 million or more against the cap (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Niskanen, Orpik, Orlov and Holtby) and, well, everyone else. It's not ideal, but it's what you end up with after going "all in" for a few years. Now, on to my lineup. The key for the forwards, in my opinion, is going to be Vrana. If he can lock down a spot in the top-six, things kinda fall into line. If he doesn't, that'll cause some problems as Coach Barry Trotz will need to move up someone who is probably better served playing in the bottom-six. As you can see, I've got Walker and Stephenson securing roles (think waivers), but I also don't think DSP (266 NHL games) will go to the pressbox quietly. On the backend, I suspect Ness' experience (39 NHL games) could give him an edge over the kids, at least to start. Ditto for Chorney, who has appeared in 73 games for the Capitals the past two seasons. Djoos sticks (again, waivers) and sees his role grow as he gains experience. Overall, I think there's going to be a decent amount of tinkering along the blue line. At various points, whether it's due to injury or someone struggling, I'd also expect to see Bowey, Lewington and potentially Johansen and Siegenthaler, too, in Washington's lineup. Is that a Presidents' Trophy winning lineup? Probably not. But it should be good enough to get the Caps into the tournament. 

Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie
Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana
Connolly-Eller-Wilson
Walker-Beagle-Stephenson

Orlov-Niskanen
Ness-Carlson
Orpik-Chorney

Holtby
Grubauer

Extras: Djoos (D), Smith-Pelly (RW) 

Regan: To do this, I went back and reread the transcript from Brian MacLellan’s conference call with the media following the Marcus Johansson trade. MacLellan always says a lot if you read between the lines. He praised the Burakovsky-Backstrom-Oshie line, said Vrana has “a legitimate ability to play in the top-six level” and basically spelled out that Connolly-Eller-Wilson would be the third line. He also talked about the need to have good penalty killers like Walker and Stephenson. Ultimately Barry Trotz and not MacLellan will pick the lines, but Trotz is entering the last year of his contract and has not gotten an extension yet so perhaps MacLellan’s words will carry more weight. Since Djoos would have to clear through waivers, I see him spending most if not all of the NHL season with the Caps. Let’s also remember that the opening night lineup is often a reward for good work in training camp and the preseason. If I had to guess, I would say Chorney plays more games this season than Djoos, but I could see the young prospect getting the early reward with a spot on opening night.

Andre Burakovsky –Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Jakub Vrana
Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Nathan Walker – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby
Philipp Grubauer

Healthy scratches: Chandler Stephenson, Taylor Chorney

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20 offseason Caps questions: What can we expect from Ovechkin going forward?

20 offseason Caps questions: What can we expect from Ovechkin going forward?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.

Alex Ovechkin's 33 goals last season represented a 17-goal decline from the previous campaign and a 20-goal drop from the year before that. An optimist might point out that the Caps' captain has some experience in rebounding from a downturn; he saw a precipitous dip in his goal production between from 2010-2012, then walked off with four straight Rocket Richard trophies. A pressimist, on the other hand, probably would point to the fact that he's not getting any younger and he's logged some hard miles since that last bounce back.

Which brings us to today's question: What can the Caps expect from Ovechkin going forward?

Sorenson: Over the past three years I have seen an Alex Ovechkin who has become increasingly more hungry to win a Stanley Cup and solidify his legacy as one of the best hockey players of all time. This past season was an extreme disappointment, and that’s an understatement. I believe Ovechkin will come back this season with a new sense of focus.  

He has been asked to slim down, to become a leaner, less bulky winger. He will work this summer to do so, and return with an objective of scoring more goals, doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Mike Knuble recently told me if Ovechkin wants to score from the dirty areas, he will have to completely buy into that aspect of the game. I believe Ovechkin will do so, as he sees the window to win a championship get smaller and smaller. He will be desperate, and will help lead by example to see that Washington brings home a Stanley Cup.  

He has repeatedly said how he has talked too much already, it’s time to make it happen. As he reaches his 32nd birthday, the time is now, and I expect a hungry and focused captain to return to DC in September.

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El-Bashir: To me, Ovechkin himself will play the biggest role in determining how much of a force he'll be next season. Of course, time on ice, shot rate, linemates, etc. will be big factors, too. But I'm focusing on the area where I suspect it all begins: how the Caps' captain approaches his training this summer.

The game has evolved; it's gotten younger and faster. Ovechkin can't change the former, but he can control the latter by adapting how he works. GM Brian MacLellan summed up Ovechkin's challenge in a few blunt sentences in late May. "He’s going to have to train in a different way, a more speed way than a power way," Mac said before pointing out that Ovi also needs to find a way to be more effective at even strength. Ovechkin's 16 even strength goals were the fewest he's scored in a non-lockout season.

"You have to be able to forecheck," MacLellan added. "There’s a lot of backside pressure. He’s going to have to evolve into that type of player to play top minutes... Five-on-five goals is going to be the key for him, how much he can create 5-on-5."

Ovechkin, in my opinion, could also benefit from trimming down a bit from 239-pounds the team listed him at last season. It's not a new idea; 30-somethings have always attempted to shed pounds as they age to compensate for the loss of natural explosiveness. My take: If Ovi takes to heart the need to change his offseason approach, busts his butt the next couple of months, slims down a bit and gains a half step, I think 40 goals remains well within his reach for at least the next couple of years. 

Regan: Alex Ovechkin will turn 32 before the start of next season. Let’s face it, the days of 50-goal seasons are behind him. But let’s also not overreact to what that means. Along with T.J. Oshie, he was still tied for the team lead in goals with 33 and part of that had to do with his reduced playing time. I do not expect his production to simply fall off a cliff and I still see him scoring somewhere in the 30-35 goal range.

Age is a factor as well as playing style—he simply can’t bull rush a defense the way he used to—but for the first time in his career, I believe his role will also be a factor. This team is not as deep as it has been and the Caps will need to spread their talent through the lineup to compensate. Both wingers from the second line, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, are gone and I believe we could see Ovechkin in more of a second-line role next season.

Barry Trotz will continue to monitor his playing time and his time on ice average will remain much closer to the 18:21 he had last season than the over 20 minutes he is used to getting. He will retain his spot as the team’s leading scorer, but it is going to be as a 35-goal scorer rather than a 50-goal scorer.

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20 offseason Caps questions: Should the Caps look to the trade market for upgrades?

20 offseason Caps questions: Should the Caps look to the trade market for upgrades?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.

The Caps have 17 players under contract for next season and are currently about $4.1 million under the $75 million salary cap ceiling, according to CapFriendly.com. Although that's enough room to flesh out the roster, it virtually assures an influx of rookies and other low-cost players in 2017-18, particularly on the blue line. Which brings us to today's question: With cap space tight and the first wave of free agency already over, should the Caps look to the trade market to find upgrades? 

Sorenson: At this point, I don’t want the Caps to go to the trade market to find a defenseman. I realize everyone will think I’m crazy for this thought because they have been left short on the blue line with Nate Schmidt being selected by Las Vegas, but I want to see some young blueliners get a chance before they look to fill what they think is a need right now. Teams don’t develop and grow without throwing young players into the fire. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Caps be forced to do that. John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Schmidt didn’t develop into the players they are because they were seasoned when they played their first NHL games. They worked their way into the lineup. Brooks Orpik was signed for his leadership and now he will be captain of the blueline along with Matt Niskanen. Taylor Chorney is perfectly capable of playing while the Caps find out which defensemen can make it in the NHL. I think it will be necessary for Caps fans to watch young players make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. The Capitals didn’t succeed in bringing a championship home in their two-year window and now it’s time to build and develop young talent. If they need to add a veteran during the season or at the deadline, do it then. But I want to see the Caps give their young guys a shot. And who knows what will happen, there’s another team in the  Metro who just won a Cup doing just that.

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El-Bashir: In a word, no. Completing a trade that would benefit this year's roster would likely involve moving another big piece, and I'm not sure filling one hole while potentially creating another is what this team needs right now. When I look at the roster as currently constructed, I see a forward lineup that's strong down the middle (Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle) with a couple of high-end wings (Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie) as well as a couple of youngsters that could blossom with more responsibility (Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson). The blue line is where my main concern lies. Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson? No problem. But I suspect integrating a rookie (or perhaps two, depending on how things shake out) could put a lot of strain on a lineup that allowed the fewest goals per game (2.16) last season. In fact, it probably means the Caps will need both Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer to be as good, if not a tiny bit better, than they were last season to compensate for that increase in inexperience. I'm with Jill on this one. It's time to find out what Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Nathan Walker and the other prospects who've been stuck in Hershey the past couple of years can do.

Regan: There are a few problems with the team looking to the trade market. First, everyone knows the Caps’ current cap situation and no one is going to do them any favors. That means they lose a bit of their leverage. Second, the Caps no longer are negotiating with the same depth they enjoyed last season. Washington doesn’t have forwards, defensemen, prospects or draft picks really to spare. If you dip into one of those assets, you are making the team weaker which defeats the purpose of the trade. The only real expendable piece the Caps have is Philipp Grubauer and the problem there, as we have seen, is that there is no market for goalies at this point. If there is a trade to be made in which the Caps can exchange Grubauer to upgrade the blue line then, by all means, pull the trigger. And for those of you pointing to the Pittsburgh Penguins as a reason why the Caps should keep both netminders for next season, that was true last year, but the Caps' are not in the same position of strength as they have been. They simply do not have enough depth on defense to scoff at the notion of trading Grubauer...if there was a market for him. Their best bet would be to wait for a team to suffer a goalie injury or somebody to underachieve. Once the phone calls start coming in, the Caps can name their price.

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