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20 offseason Caps questions: What one area must the Caps address for next season?

20 offseason Caps questions: What one area must the Caps address for next season?

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.     

This past season was another confounding one for the Caps. After the calendar flipped to 2017, they were the NHL’s best team and finished the season with the most wins, the most points, the fewest goals allowed and the special teams units ranked among the league’s best. But they struggled to get past the upstart Maple Leafs, then couldn’t get past Sidney Crosby and Co. And now the Caps’ two-year window has closed, forcing GM Brian MacLellan to retool on the fly.

Today's question: If there’s one area the Caps must address in the coming months, what is it?

Sorenson:  It’s pretty tough to find an area that the two-time President’s Trophy winning team needs to clean up. My initial reaction is that the Caps needed more even strength goal scoring. You may recall that the Caps failed to score a goal 4 v 4 the entire regular season, one of only two teams (Carolina) to earn that dubious honor. That is an obvious area that needs to be cleaned up, so we’ll put that aside and take a look at 5 v 5. During the regular season, Washington was ranked third in 5 v 5 goals for, with 178. Pittsburgh was ranked at the top (I know, sorry Caps fans) with 185, and Minnesota was a close second with 183. I realize being in the top three teams in that category is excellent, but unfortunately, to beat a team like Pittsburgh in the playoffs the Capitals need to be better at even strength. Furthermore, the Capitals were 11th in the league in 5 v 5 shots for per 60 minutes. The trend continued in the playoffs, with the Caps scoring only 26 even strength goals. Of all the teams that made it to the second round, only the Blues were worse with 20 goals at even strength. For a team with as much offensive firepower, they need to find a way to shoot and score more at even strength.

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Regan:  Their mentality. Let’s face it, there is a mental issue holding this team back. When Nashville lost Games 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh, there was no doubt among the team or fans that they would come back in the series. Two games later, the series is tied at two games apiece. When the Caps lost Games 1 and 2 to Pittsburgh, the conversation was whether that series would go four games or five. That’s not completely an apples to apples comparison as Washington lost both games at home while Nashville lost on the road, but you get my point. And don’t try to pin that strictly on the media. We respond to what we see, hear and feel from the team. You can feel the confidence from the Predators. It certainly didn’t feel like the Caps thought they were going to win that series down 2-0. This Washington team was one of the best teams on offense and defense heading into the postseason. They won’t be as good next season, but that’s okay, Nashville was the 16th team to make the playoffs and look where they are. The biggest thing the Caps need to fix is not on the ice, it is in their heads. That’s the task facing head coach Barry Trotz next season.

El-Bashir: My biggest concern heading into next season is more closely aligned with Jill’s point about the offense, though it’s a bit more general. As in, where are the goals going to come from in 2017-18? We’ve come to take goals for granted in Washington, which has finished 3rd, 2nd and 7th in goals per game under Barry Trotz. But when I consider the players who could be headed out the door this summer—and weigh the cap constraints that figure to prevent quality players from being added—I see more question marks than answers when I look at the roster. I think most people agree that Alex Ovechkin remains a top forward in this league but that his 50-goal seasons are probably in the rearview. T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams finished second and third in goals last season with 33 and 24, respectively, but they are unrestricted free agents and figure to be in high demand. It’s also worth noting that the Caps’ third-ranked offense (3.18 goals per game) was boosted by career years from Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Brett Connolly, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik. Is it reasonable to expect those who do return to put up similar (or better) numbers, particularly if, as expected, a handful of prospects are sprinkled throughout the lineup? That’s a big ask. To me, next season could hinge Trotz’s ability squeeze enough offense out of a lineup that almost assuredly won’t feature as much proven firepower. So while I can appreciate JJ’s answer about being tougher mentally in the postseason, I think the focus needs to be on getting there first.

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Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

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NBC Sports Washington

Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

CHICAGO—Four fans were ejected from United Center on Saturday night for taunting Devante Smith-Pelly as the Capitals’ winger sat in the penalty box.

The fans, according to a team spokesman, yelled “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Smith-Pelly, who is black. Smith-Pelly was in the box for fighting in the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

The taunts were confirmed by an off-ice official, the spokesman said, and the fans were subsequently removed from the arena.

Smith-Pelly did not speak with reporters after the game but is expected to address the incident at the team’s next media availability. The team is scheduled to practice Sunday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Caps Coach Barry Trotz did not hold back when asked about the fans' comments.

“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Trotz said. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. …It just shows ignorance.”

The Blackhawks responded on Twitter with an apology to Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1 after the opening frame. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise.

Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Toews intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. A bad pass from Orpik was intercepted by Toews that led to a 2-on-0 with Kane. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal.

Kane also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board.

Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.