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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

Previous questions:

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With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

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USA TODAY Sports

With Burakovsky out, is Chandler Stephenson the next man up?

With Andre Burakovsky out for the remainder of the first round at least, someone will have to replace him in the top six. Originally, it looked like Jakub Vrana was the man for the job. Based on Game 4, however, it now looks like Chandler Stephenson is the "next man up" for the Caps.

While Vrana may have top-six skill and a high ceiling, it was Stephenson who stepped into the second-line role on Thursday playing alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Stephenson finished with two shots on goal in 17:28 of ice time. Vrana, meanwhile, played for only 6:40.

On Friday, Barry Trotz praised Stephenson's hockey IQ for allowing him to adjust to the top-six in a complementary role.

"[Stephenson's] an intelligent player," Trotz said. "He played with [Backstrom] a lot [Thursday]. If you talk with the real top-end guys, he has the ability to think like a top-end guy in terms of play with them. He’s a very intelligent player. He skates extremely well. He’s got some strength to his game. He can complement people. I think his ability to play those different roles and his hockey IQ when you play with those skill guys, he plays more of a give-and-go game than an individual game. When you play with those high skill guys, you’re able to compliment them very well."

Stephenson has spent the majority of the season on the fourth line. He was drafted as a natural center, but has played primarily wing since coming to the NHL. The ability to play both positions gives Stephenson more versatility than most forwards which Trotz credits for helping him see the game so well.

"The great thing about Chandler is he’s played multiple positions over the years. I think it’s allowed him to play a fourth-line role and with high-skill guys. At center-ice, you distribute the puck a little more.  He’s turning into a well-rounded player for us."

On the surface, having Stephenson on the fourth line over Vrana makes little sense. Vrana is highly skilled and has great speed, but he is also prone to giving up turnovers and his production can be inconsistent. Trotz has clearly put a premium on responsible play this postseason which gives Stephenson the edge.

But Game 4 was only one game. If you are going to get top-six minutes, Stephenson will be expected to produce offensively as well. Despite the limited ice time he has gotten, Vrana has shown he can have a major impact on games. In Game 1, he set up the team's only 5-on-5 goal and drew a penalty. In Game 3, he drew two penalties in less than two minutes, giving Washington a two-man advantage.

Stephenson had a fantastic game in Game 4 when he was given the chance to play in the top-six. The next step will be finding a way to have a bigger impact on the game.

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Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Game 5 Capitals vs. Blue Jackets Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

Alex Ovechkin said the Caps would return to Washington with a tied series. The Caps captain is a man of his word as the Caps won both Game 3 and Game 4 to even up the series at two games apiece.

John Tortorella had no answers after seeing his Columbus Blue Jackets fall in Game 4, but he will have to figure things out quickly as the series shifts back to Washington for a pivotal Game 5.

The Caps return home with two straight wins and all the momentum. There's just one problem: No one seemingly can win at home.

What: Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, Round 1, Game 5

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 3:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC.

Live Stream: You can watch Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 on NBC Sports' live stream page.

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

The Capitals take on the Blue Jackets in Game 5 on Saturday, April 21 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Washington. The series is tied 2-2.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME ON?

Capitals-Blue Jackets, Game 5 will be broadcast on NBC. Coverage kicks off on NBC Sports Washington with Capitals FaceOff at 2:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 2:30 p.m. Tune back to NBC Sports Washington after the game for Caps Extra and Caps Overtime at 6:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

2:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
2:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
3:00 p.m. — Capitals vs. Blue Jackets on NBC
5:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
6:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

Capitals-Blue Jackets Game 5 is available to stream live here through the NBC Sports live stream page.

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS GAME?

Here are the Caps' projected lines:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly- Lars Eller - Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana -  Jay Beagle - Alex Chiasson

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos

Braden Holtby with Philipp Grubauer as backup.

Scratches: Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky (upper-body), Shane Gerisch, Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek

CAPITALS-BLUE JACKETS OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.

SEE THE CAPITALS VS. BLUE JACKETS FULL SERIES SCHEDULE HERE

CAPITALS SCHEDULE