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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the third line provide enough offense?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the third line provide enough offense?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at the team's offensive depth.

Can a Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik third line provide enough offense?

When you look at the Capitals’ offseason moves, it is clear the focus was to improve the team defensively. Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic all look like decent defensive upgrades, but the team has also lost a lot of offensive production that it has not necessarily accounted for.

Gone are Brett Connolly, a 20-goal scorer, and Andre Burakovsky, a player who was inconsistent and frequently underperformed but who also had top-six skill and potential.

In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes last season, Washington got just five goals from the bottom-six. Two of those goals came from Connolly who is now gone, one was a penalty shot and one was an empty netter. Clearly, depth offense was a weakness for the team last season and now they seemingly have less.

In today’s NHL, the best teams do not rely solely on the top-six for offense, but the top-nine. But with Connolly gone, Washington’s third line projects to be Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Panik. Can that line provide enough offense for depth scoring not to be a weakness?

Hagelin is a very versatile player, but offense is not his strong suit. He managed only five goals and 19 total points last season. He has never scored 20 goals in any season of his career and has reached 30 points only once in the past five seasons. Eller has been a good fit in Washington and tallied 38 and 36 points in each of the past two seasons, the best two seasons of his career. But, like Hagelin, he has never scored 20 goals at any point in his career. Panik scored 20 goals only once in 2016-17 when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he totaled 14 goals and 19 assists.

The third line does not necessarily need one guy to carry the load and score 20+ goals, but it cannot be dragged down by a player scoring in the single digits either. Five goals from Hagelin will not be enough.

The good news is that in recent years many players join the Caps and see an immediate boost in their offensive production. Connolly had 59 points in five NHL seasons prior to coming to Washington and he scored 96 in his three years with the Caps. As noted before, Eller’s two best seasons of his career came in the last two years, both in Washington. Hagelin scored only five goals last season, but three of them plus 11 of his 19 points came in the final 20 games of the season after getting traded to the Caps.

This is not to suggest anyone on the third line will suddenly become a breakout scorer. They have established over their careers that is not who they are, but there is a reason to project that all three could score in the 15+ goal range with 30-40 points.

The Caps could not afford to keep or replace the offensive production they lost in the offseason, but if the team improves defensively as much as MacLellan hopes, they may not have to. We may see a lot more 3-2 games than 5-4 this year, but you don’t need to score as many goals if you are not giving up as many.

Can the third line score as many goals as last season? That seems doubtful. Can it generate enough offense that the team does not become top-heavy and entirely dependent on its top-six? Yes, it can.

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Capitals hire former Olympian Haley Skarupa as hockey ambassador

Capitals hire former Olympian Haley Skarupa as hockey ambassador

Monday morning, the Capitals announced that Rockville, Md. native and Olympic gold medalist Haley Skarupa will spearhead their youth hockey efforts as the team's hockey ambassador.

Skarupa most recently played for the Boston Pride in the NWHL, and is currently part of the PWHPA and #ForTheGame movement, where she recently played against the San Jose Sharks alumni in an exhibition game.

“I’m extremely excited to join the Capitals organization,” Skarupa said in a press release. “I grew up playing hockey in the area, so this opportunity to come back and develop the game around the region is incredibly special. The Capitals have done such an amazing job growing this sport for boys and girls and I’m excited to use my experience and background to continue making a difference in the community and beyond.” 

In her role as hockey ambassador, Skarupa will enhance the Caps' current youth hockey programming, establish women's and girls programming within the organization and will drive growth across the current youth hockey offerings. 

The Caps will celebrate IIHF Girls Hockey Weekend on Saturday, Oct. 5, with two free Washington Capitals Girls Hockey Clinics for girls ages 8-18 at MedStar Capitals IcePlex hosted by Skarupa.

“Her talent on the ice and her dedication to engaging participants in the sport make her a terrific role model for aspiring athletes,"  said Monumental Sports & Entertainment Founder, Chairman, Principal Partner and CEO, Ted Leonsis. "Over the past several years, we have seen a tremendous increase in youth hockey participation across the area and we believe her addition will continue to spur growth among young participants.”

According to USA Hockey, since Alex Ovechkin was drafted, participation by youth players has skyrocketed in the DC Metro Area by 221%, and now includes 22,144 players, coaches and officials. 

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Message received: Boyd, Stephenson know they are in a fight to keep their jobs

Message received: Boyd, Stephenson know they are in a fight to keep their jobs

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Capitals forwards Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson were given a very clear message in the offseason. It came in the form of the team signing free-agents Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

Both Boyd and Stephenson held depth roles last season, but the addition of two fourth-line players made it clear that the team was not satisfied with their play last season. Now in training camp, they find themselves in a position where they have to compete to earn the roles they played last year.

“It's a competition,” head coach Todd Reirden said at media day. “They know it's a competition. They're well-informed. It's a very clear message. No one in situations where there's competition are wondering what's going on.”

But even before camp started, both players understood what those signings meant for them and why they were necessary.

“I wouldn't sit here and say I wasn't disappointed or a little frustrated I guess watching the signings that we had here,” Boyd told NBC Sports Washington, “But at the same time I think all those signings help the team and I think definitely makes the team and this group of guys obviously a super dangerous group.”

Last season was Boyd’s first full year in the NHL. It got off to a rough start as an injury kept him out for several weeks. When he finally did get into the lineup, he struggled to stay in and found himself cycling in and out for the rest of the season. He finished the season with 53 games.

Boyd said that overall he felt he had a good season and showed he could contribute offensively with five goals and 15 assists in those 53 appearances. He did acknowledge though that the constant cycling in and out wore on him mentally which affected his play.

“There would be times where you would go a week, week and a half in between games,” Boyd said. “You don't really realize how tough that is until you're in that situation. Your ability to create offense in those situations is a lot harder because if it's your first game in a week and a half, for me personally, I probably wouldn't have came out (sic) there in the first period and been trying to make maybe some sort of a skill play at a blue line. You end up taking kind of the easy way out because it was your first game in a week and a half and you don't want to turn a puck over and then all of a sudden as soon as you turn that over a coach is like alright. It doesn't look good.”

That sentiment of the mental grind of trying to stay in the lineup was echoed by Stephenson who saw his production decline from 18 points in 2017-18 to 11 last season.

“I wasn't really just kind of going out and playing, playing freely,” he said. “Just felt like every game it was kind of a mind game for myself just with trying to stay in the lineup. Just wasn't playing and that's the biggest thing that you can't let yourself get to that point. Once you start thinking instead of just playing, it's usually not going to end well.”

If a guy like Alex Ovechkin or T.J. Oshie has a bad game, it does not come with that fear of wondering whether it means you will be out of the lineup. They can move on, but it is more difficult for Boyd and Stephenson who knew one bad game or even one bad play could be the difference between playing or getting scratched and not knowing when your next game will come.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that with so many depth players, that is not going to change this season. Even if they both do make the team, with so many depth players they are going to have to justify their spot in the lineup.

The experience of fighting for playing time last season should help both players with knowing how to deal with that mental grind, according to Boyd.

“Going in and out and playing on the fourth line was something I haven't done,” Boyd said. “I couldn't really tell you how long it's been for me there. Just being comfortable in that situation I think will help. For me, just put a little bit more effort and a little bit more focus on the practices, especially when you get into the grind of the season and once you actually get into the midpart of the season where a lot of days you can come here and really not be feeling that fresh. You might be able to sneak through a practice without really working hard or as hard as you could, but someone who's going in and out of the lineup trying to go 100-percent every day and trying to keep not only your body in that game shape, but also trying to get your mind into making quick decisions still and just trying to be ready for whenever you do get that chance again.”

First, however, both Boyd and Stephenson have to make the team which is not guaranteed.

Washington’s salary cap situation means general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have to find a way to shed salary. That means either Boyd or Stephenson, or perhaps even both players could find themselves on the move. Training camp and the preseason offer them the chance to show the team they still deserve to be in Washington.

The suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov could also provide Boyd specifically a chance to impress.

With Kuznetsov out, Lars Eller is expected to move to the second line to replace him. That leaves an opening at third-line center.

This training camp was already important with Boyd fighting for his job. Now here is a chance to earn a third-line role to start the season and perhaps exhibit himself for the first three games until Kuznetsov returns.

“I can't even tell you how big it is,” Boyd said. “A chance to be in a role other than the fourth line if I am in that spot for these first three games, I'd love that. I'd love the chance, I'd love the opportunity. It's just a great opportunity for myself to showcase that I'm back from last year. I put on 10, 11 pounds over the summer so I've got some more weight to me this year, I feel like I'm moving well, I'm skating well I just want to go out there and, if I do get the chance in the first three games, go out there and show what I can do and hopefully show the coaching staff that hopefully I can play.”

As for Stephenson, he is taking a more relaxed approach to camp. If the pressure of staying in the lineup affected his play last season, he is determined to make sure the pressure of a competitive training camp does not drag him down.

“That'll just handcuff yourself and put you in a bad spot because you might be expecting something when it's not happening,” he said, “But for the most part, it's just a competitive camp. Come in, have fun, do what I can do and just do everything I can to stay here. I want to be here.”

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