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Capitals' depth at center hinges on Backstrom's health

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Capitals' depth at center hinges on Backstrom's health

With players starting to trickle into Kettler Capitals Iceplex from all corners of the world, we’ll spend this week looking at the depth chart at each position and expectations heading into what promises to be a very interesting 2015-16 season. Today, we’ll start with the Caps’ center position:

Nicklas Backstrom

Age: 27

Games 82

Goals: 18

Assists: 60

Points: 78

Plus-minus: Minus-5

Penalty minutes: 40

Power play goals: 3

Power play assists: 30

Average ice time: 20:31

Faceoff winning percentage: 53.6

2015-16 cap hit: $6.7 million

Analysis: It’s amazing to think Backstrom finished third in scoring among NHL centers (behind John Tavares and Sidney Crosby) while battling through a hip injury that first began bothering him in November and required offseason surgery. His recovery from that May 27 surgery is crucial to the Capitals’ success this season.

By all indications, Backstrom is on schedule with his rehab and the Caps are hopeful he will be cleared to play in the club’s season opener on Oct. 10, if not before.

Entering his ninth NHL season, Backstrom said at the conclusion of last season that he would like to improve on every area of his game. Playing alongside Alex left wing Alex Ovechkin and right wings T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams should make Backstrom more productive at even strength, where he managed 15 goals and 30 assists last season.

Backstrom could also cut down on his minor penalties. He ranked tied for fifth on the club with 19 minors, which was down from 27 the year before under Adam Oates. Only Tom Wilson (41), Brooks Orpik (33), Ovechkin (29) and Matt Niskanen (21) had more minor penalties than Backstrom last season.

Like many of the Capitals, Backstrom’s overall success this season will be reserved until after the playoffs, where he struggled last spring. After posting three goals and three assists in the first four games against the Islanders in Round 1, Backstrom was held to no goals and two assists in the next 10 playoff games.

Projection: No matter how invasive, recovering from hip surgery is no easy task and Backstrom’s time off the ice could bring his production down a tick. That said, the Swedish center is in the prime of his career and should be surrounded by enough talent to put up at least 15 goals and 70 points.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Age: 23

Games: 80

Goals: 11

Assists: 26

Points: 37

Plus-minus: Plus-10

Penalty minutes: 24

Power play goals: 4

Power play assists: 9

Average ice time: 13:19

Faceoff winning percentage: 44.6

2015-16 cap hit: $3 million

Analysis: A stickler for details, especially in the defensive zone, Barry Trotz made Kuznetsov earn his way onto the second line last season by starting him off on the fourth line and slowly increasing his ice time. By the end of the season Kuznetsov had grown into one of the Caps’ most dynamic offensive players without giving up much of anything on the defensive side.

The challenge now is for Kuznetsov to build off his strong playoff performance, where his five goals were tied for first on the team with Ovechkin.The difference between Kuznetsov and other NHL sophomores is his experience as a pro. The Russian center is approaching his seventh professional season and it could be a breakout season for him statistically, especially if he is flanked by talented wingers Andre Burakovsky on the left and Justin Williams on the right.

Projection: In giving him a two-year, $6 million contract the Caps clearly expect big things from Kuznetsov this season and with increased responsibilities and ice time it’s not unreasonable to think he can score 20 goals and set up another 40 this season.

Brooks Laich

Age: 32

Games: 66

Goals : 7

Assists: 13

Points: 20

Plus-minus: Minus-2

Penalty minutes: 24

Faceoff winning percentage: 43.9 

Shorthanded ice time: 2:10

2015-16 cap hit: $4.5 million

Analysis: The question here is whether Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle or Marcus Johansson will wind up as the Caps’ third-line center. If Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky are the Caps’ top two left wings, would it be wise to move Johansson back to center and use him on the third line?

Is Jay Beagle, who is coming off a career-high 10 goals, ready to take on third-line duties?

Or is Laich finally at a point where he is capable of being a productive two-way center again, the way he was from 2007-10 when he averaged 23 goals and close to 50 points a season?

You have to go back to 2011-12 to find Laich’s last productive season, when he played in all 82 games and finished with 16 goals and 25 assists for 41 points. The Caps would be happy with that kind of production from Laich at the third-line center spot, especially if he helped set up Johansson on the left and Tom Wilson on the right.

Projection: Laich would need to report to camp in excellent shape and rediscover his scoring touch to earn a spot on the third line. But don’t expect Barry Trotz to show a lot of patience, especially with Beagle and Johansson chomping at the bit for more ice time.

Jay Beagle

Age: 29

Games: 62

Goals: 10

Assists: 10

Points: 20

Plus-minus: Plus-6 

Penalty minutes: 20

Average ice time: 12:48

Average penalty kill time: 1:51

Faceoff winning percentage: 56.5

2015-16 cap hit: $1.75 million

Analysis: Despite missing 20 games due to injury and a few healthy scratches, Beagle netted a career-high 10 goals and 20 points and landed himself a three-year contract extension. 

The Caps see him as a solid fourth-line center who can kill penalties and move to either wing if necessary. Beagle sees himself as a third-line center who can make defensemen think twice about turning and retrieving pucks. Either way, Beagle has earned the respect of his teammates and coaching staff and will see valuable ice time this season.

Projection: A late bloomer, Beagle will re-set his offensive goals and shoot for 15 goals and 15 assists this season. If given third-line duties that may be attainable, but as a fourth-liner the Caps would be happy to take another 10 plus 10 from Beagle this season.

Michael Latta

Age: 24

Games: 53

Goals: 0

Assists: 6

Points: 6

Plus-minus: Plus-4

Penalty minutes: 68

Average ice time: 8:22

2015-16 cap hit: $575.000

Analysis: Like Beagle, Latta wants a bigger bite with the Capitals this season, but with an abundance of experienced forwards he’s likely to fill the role as the club’s 13th forward. Latta is an excellent “energy” player who works hard in practice and is willing to drops the gloves, but he will need to work on his foot speed to become an NHL regular with the Caps.

Projection: If the Caps are healthy down the middle Latta should be used in a role similar to last season. But if Backstrom is not ready to start the season, he could move up to the fourth-line center spot. Wherever he is used Latta will need to show more offensive upside if he hopes to stay on the Capitals’ roster all season. 

MORE CAPITALS: Nathan Walker gearing up for Caps' training camp

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How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

How former Capital Sergei Gonchar helped the Penguins win Game 1

Hockey is a game of organized chaos.

Sure, pucks can take some unexpected bounces, but a lot of what you see on the ice doesn’t happen by accident.

Trailing 2-0 early in the third period of Game 1, Patric Hornqvist got the Pittsburgh Penguins on the board with a deflection that scuttled past Braden Holtby.

You may dismiss the play at first glance as a lucky deflection off a wide shot, but it actually was much more coordinated than that.

The play starts with defenseman Justin Schultz holding the puck at the blue line. He buys time, sees Hornqvist and fires a wrister at the net. The shot is not going on net, but the net isn’t the target.

You can see the play here:

Schultz is specifically aiming to put the puck in a position for Hornqvist to deflect it on goal.

“Justin does a great job just changing his angle, having some patience and just delivering pucks down to the net that gives our forwards an opportunity to get a stick on it,” head coach Mike Sullivan said after the game.

According to the coach, it is a play the Penguins practice daily and one that is reminiscent of former Capital Sergei Gonchar who routinely made smart plays from the blue line to set up his teammates.

Gonchar was one of the top offensive defensemen in the league over a playing career that spanned from 1994 to 2015. He recorded 811 points in his NHL career, 416 of which came during his 10 seasons with Washington.

Now, however, he serves as an assistant coach for the Penguins helping the defensemen practice plays just like the one Schultz made to set up Hornqvist.

“Sergei is so good at helping those guys with the subtleties of the game and just those little skill sets along the offensive blue line,” Sullivan said. "I don't know that there was anybody better in his generation than Sergei was and he does a great job at relaying some of those subtitles to our guys and those guys, they work at it daily.”

Deflections are obviously very difficult for a goalie to handle. It is nearly impossible to react to the puck’s mid-air change of direction. A goalie has to be positioned perfectly to make the save. It also gives shooters at the blue line more targets. Rather than shooting just at the 42x78 inches of the net, players can shoot on net or in the shooting lane of any of their teammates anywhere on the ice. Essentially, the entire offensive zone becomes a potential target.

There’s a reason the Penguins have been as good as they are for as long as they have. They are not getting lucky bounces, they are creating their own deflections thanks in part to the expertise of the former Cap.

MORE CAPITALS vs. PENGUINS NEWS:

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3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

3 reasons why the Caps lost to the Penguins in Game 1

If you had to boil down the playoff history of the Washinton Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins into one game, Game 1 certainly seemed to fit the bill.

The Capitals had their chances, they got good performances from star players and all of it came to naught as they were once again foiled by the Penguins in a 3-2 loss.

Here's Washington let this game slip away.

3 Reasons Why the Capitals lost Game 1 to the Penguins:

1. Missed chances

The Caps were buzzing in the first period.

Already up 1-0, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin had an opportunity to add a second goal early on a 2-on-1. Orlov faked the shot then passed to Ovechkin who had a wide open net to shoot at…but he missed. Ovechkin doesn’t miss too many of those shots. Despite how good the Caps looked in the first period, they got only six pucks through to goalie Matt Murray and took only a 1-0 lead into the dressing room. In the second period, Devante Smith-Pelly was denied an empty net rebound by Murray (more on that later). We all knew the push was coming. We’ve seen this all play out before.

Simply put, Washington did not convert on its opportunities when they had control of the game. A two-goal cushion was not enough to take the wind out of Pittsburgh's sails nor was it enough to survive the three-goal flurry that was to come.

2. A five-minute snowball in the third period

When the push finally came, it came fast.

In a stretch that lasted for less than five minutes, Pittsburgh scored three times to turn a 2-0 Caps lead into a 3-2 deficit. Patrick Hornqvist deflected in a shot from Justin Schultz at 2:59, Sidney Crosby netted a pass from Jake Guentzel at 5:20 and Guentzel got a deflection goal of his own at 7:48. That is a span of 4:49. Pittsburgh’s momentum snowballed into three quick goals which carried them to the win.

Braden Holtby was brilliant for 55:11, but those 4:49 were enough to doom the Caps.

3. Matt Murray

As good as Holtby was, Murray was better. Despite allowing a goal just 17 seconds in, he recovered very well in what was a 32-save performance. You can put some of this game on Washington’s inability to convert on its chances, but you also have to give credit to the Penguins’ netminder as well who came up with some big-time saves to keep his team in it. The biggest was in the second period when he extended the arm and blocked what looked like an easy goal for Smith-Pelly with the glove of his blocker.

As hard as it was to beat Murray when the Caps were ahead, he was unbeatable when his team finally gave him a lead to work with.

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