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20 Offseason Caps questions: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up?

20 Offseason Caps questions: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up?

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.     

From purely a talent standpoint, the 2016-17 Capitals’ roster was arguably the deepest ever assembled in Washington. That, however, won’t be the case next season as the cap-strapped Caps are forced to say goodbye to a few productive players this summer and backfill those holes with younger and less experienced replacements. That, in turn, is going to put more pressure on returning core players to step up in order to compensate for that lost production.

Today’s question: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up next season?

Sorenson: It’s hard to believe I’m about to call Tom Wilson a veteran, but after four years in the league, this 23-year-old is now a veteran. The right wing had a bit of a coming out party against his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the playoffs this season as his move to the third line brought out the best in the young winger. Wilson has had two straight seasons with seven goals, but two years ago he finished with 23 points, this past season he had fewer assists and recorded 19 points. I would like to see Wilson step up and grab hold of that third line right wing position next season. He has the ability and talent to score 15-20 goals a season, and his net front presence is desperately needed for the Capitals to score more goals. Playing on a third line with Lars Eller should at least double Wilson’s goal output, if not increase it even more.  He has established himself as one of the toughest forwards to play against physically, now it’s time to use his physical game to step up offensively.

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Regan:  Does a 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky count as a veteran? The Caps may well lose T.J. Oshie and will almost certainly lose Justin Williams to free agency. That is 57 goals worth of production the team must account for next season. Where are those goals going to come from? This team’s younger players are going to be asked to take more responsibility next season and you can put Burakovsky at the top of that list. He is going to have a top-six role and may even see time on the top line, judging by how Barry Trotz used him at the end of the postseason. Washington needs him to be a 20+ goal scorer and a consistent point producer, something he has struggled with throughout his career. It starts with having the right mentality in the offseason. Burakovsky has struggled with early-season slumps in the past as he does not always come into camp in the greatest shape. That needs to change. He needs to be 100-percent committed at all times from the offseason through the postseason. The Caps may need him to be a top-six player next season, but that is a role that a player ultimately has to earn.

El-Bashir: My answer may seem a bit obvious, but it needs to be said anyway: Alex Ovechkin is, without a doubt, the veteran the Caps most need to step up next season. He wasn’t happy with his production this past season (33 goals, including 16 at even strength—his lowest in a non-lockout year) and neither was GM Brian MacLellan, who said bluntly, “I think he had a down year.” The question now is whether Ovechkin’s goal total will continue to decline or whether he’ll find a way stabilize his production and finish the next few seasons as a top-10 goal scorer. He wasn’t far off this past season; one more goal would have pushed No. 8 into the top-10. For that to happen next winter, he’ll have to lay the groundwork this summer. Ovechkin will be 32 in September and he’s logged a lot of hard miles given his rugged style of play and the additional wear-and-tear from international tournaments. He’ll need to adjust his offseason approach accordingly—he knows it and the Caps know it, too. MacLellan mentioned recently that Ovi needs to adapt to the times and add more speed training to his June and July regimen. Ovechkin, himself, said that he needs to work harder this offseason, seemingly acknowledging that he must compensate for getting older. When I spoke to 35-year-old Justin Williams last summer about maintaining quickness and explosiveness, he told me that he’s worked hard to shed a few pounds and it has helped. It’s unclear if Ovechkin, who is listed at 239-pounds, plans to follow suit but it probably wouldn’t hurt as he attempts to keep up with a game that’s getting younger and faster. As they say, Father Time is undefeated. Will the Caps' most expensive player be proactive and begin fighting back? They had better hope so.

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

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“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

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3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons the Caps beat the Sabres

The Caps could not shake Buffalo for two periods, but a dominant finish on Saturday helped them pull away for a 5-1 win. Here's how they finally put away the Sabres.

A quick start

Strong starts go a long way towards helping a team in the middle of a slump. It's a confidence boost for a group in desperate need of one and the Caps got that boost on Saturday from Evgeny Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov used his wheels to zip in behind the defense and score just 50 seconds into the game. Washington led 1-0 at the end of the first, just the second time in 19 games they have held a lead after the opening 20 minutes.

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Andre Burakovsky snapping a second period slump

It looked in the second period like the Caps were caught trying to protect the lead again, but Andre Burakovsky woke the team back up with his incredible highlight end-to-end goal. It really looked like Buffalo was going to tie the game at one, but instead, Burakovsky extended the lead to two. Going end to end the way he did shows a player who is starting to play with some confidence, something Burakovsky has lacked for much of the season.

Ovechkin's two-goal third period

Buffalo would not go away. Sam Reinhart got the Sabres on the board just 14 seconds into the third period and suddenly the Caps found themselves in a one-goal game again. But Ovechkin ended any hopes for the comeback as he struck in the top corner of the net on the power play from the office. He would later add a deflection goal to extend the lead to 5-1, giving a scuffling Washington team the dominant win they so sorely needed.