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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Is this the year age finally catches up to the Caps?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Is this the year age finally catches up to the Caps?

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 four 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 a team with most of its top players either in their 30s already or turning 30 at some point before the NHL All-Star break in January. Could age finally catch up to Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals this season?  

Age is the bane of all hockey players.

One day they are putting on an NHL jersey for the first time at the draft and seemingly the next some reporter is calling them a veteran and soon after that words like “grizzled” are tossed around. 

Experience is a good thing. But once a player hits 30, all eyes are watching for signs of decline. Fans. Media. Coaches. Executives. Even teammates. The Capitals are relying on plenty of stars in their 30s as they head into the 2019-20 season and that can be a concern. 

Before the season even starts, Alex Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17. He’s defied the aging curve for so long as one of the game’s great goal scorers, you can’t help but wonder when the 50-goal seasons become a thing of the past, when one of the league’s most durable players finally starts to show the wear and tear of years of physical hockey. 

Ovechkin’s running mate, Nicklas Backstrom, turns 32 on Nov. 23. He is still an elite center, but he’s had more physical problems than Ovechkin over the years, including concussions and hip issues. Backstrom has long made up for a lack of high-end speed with an ability to see the ice at a level most players can’t. But at some point physical diminishment will come and that vision won’t matter quite so much. 

T.J. Oshie has a history of concussions, too. He’s a hard player, relentless on the puck and unafraid to use his creativity to make opposing defenders look silly. But he turns 33 on Dec. 23 and has missed 35 games the past three seasons. Just in year three of an eight-year contract, the Capitals hope Oshie has a few more 50-point seasons left in him.

Meanwhile, top blueliner John Carlson turns 30 on Jan. 10. He got tons of love in the Norris Trophy voting the past two seasons. But he’s played heavy minutes and enters his 10thseason as a minutes-eating workhorse. Carlson’s been in the NHL since he was 19. Does he have a few more elite seasons or was last year his peak? These are the uncomfortable questions that must be asked. This is just year two of an eight-year contract for Carlson. The Capitals absolutely can’t afford to see his game slip. 

Goalie Braden Holtby enters a contract year at age 30 on Sept. 16, the day before Ovechkin hits 34. He has won a Stanley Cup and been a reliable presence in goal for Washington most of the past seven seasons since taking hold of the No. 1 job. But the past two regular seasons have been a struggle for Holtby. He wasn’t the Stanley Cup playoff starter in 2018 and his numbers were well below average last season (.911 save percentage) compared to the rest of the NHL. 

Maybe that is in large part to a declining defense in front of him. And he was brilliant in the playoffs in 2018. But Holtby needs a strong year to ease any concerns that his game is slipping and that he deserves the long-term contract that Oshie and Carlson received already. Again, after 30 the scrutiny grows. 

Add in center Lars Eller, who turned 30 in May, and forward Carl Hagelin, who turns 31 later this month, and you have an older third line. Hagelin’s game, in particular, is built on speed. He missed time with a knee injury last year. What happens if he loses a step? The Capitals just gave Hagelin a four-year contract.

None of this would be such a concern if this list of older players didn’t include Washington’s best winger (Ovechkin), defenseman (Carlson), goalie (Holtby) and two of its top three centers (Backstrom, Eller). A decline in play from any of them - or an ever-more-likely injury - could quickly turn this group from a Stanley Cup contender to a team just trying to make the playoffs or worse. 

It’s hard to bet against any one of these individual players continuing to shine. They have done it so long, after all. But in aggregate the odds are at least one or two of them will show signs of decline as soon as this season. 

The advantage Washington has is there is a built-in group of mid-20s players who can help take the load off Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Holtby and Oshie. Tom Wilson is in his prime at age 25 and a staple on the top line. He won’t be 26 until March 29. Evgeny Kuznetsov needs to be better this season, but he’s just 14 months removed from a brilliant playoffs and is still just 27. Jakub Vrana had a breakout season (24 goals) in 2018-19 and at age 23 could score 30 goals. Those players will ease any aging concerns if they perform as expected. 

The rest of the blueline remains in its 20s – if just barely. Michal Kempny, Radko Gudas and Nick Jensen all turn 29 before the season and Dmitry Orlov turned 28 last month. Only Jonas Siegenthaler (22) and Christian Djoos (25) are in their early or mid-20s. 

Fourth-line center Nic Dowd is also 29 and third-line right wing Richard Panik turns 29 on Feb. 7. Age is creeping all across this roster. 

The Capitals have invested heavily in the draft the past two years, but many of those players will be at AHL Hershey most of this season or still in juniors. An injection of youth could be on the way soon, especially on the blueline with prospects Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary and Lucas Johansen, but probably not this season. 

The forward group could be even further away with 2019 first-round draft pick Connor McMichael likely playing two more years of junior hockey in the OHL. Second-round pick Brett Leason should play at Hershey, but he is a late-bloomer with work to do to even establish himself at that level. Kody Clark was a second-round pick in 2018 and Riley Sutter was taken in the third round that summer. Both should also be at Hershey this year, but are a long way from becoming NHL regulars.

The Capitals hope to squeeze a few more elite years out of their stars before reinforcements arrive. Age gets every player in the end, but a team that won a title last season is eager to get back to that level. It’s hard to bet against them, but preparing for some regression would be prudent. 


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How to watch classic Capitals games this week on NBC Sports Washington

How to watch classic Capitals games this week on NBC Sports Washington

If you just can't get enough iconic Caps games during quarantine, then NBC Sports Washington is the place for you.

All week long beginning Monday, April 6, NBC Sports Washington will be airing classic Capitals games, including multiple comebacks and culminating with the five games against Vegas in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The games leading into the postseason re-air will include multiple memorable finishes from the 2019-20 season.

Of course, if you make it that far, you certainly won't want to miss the re-airing of the Capitals championship parade that follows.

Here's a rundown of all the games airing this week on NBC Sports Washington:

Washington Capitals at Vancouver Canucks

Date: Monday, April 6
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: October 25, 2019

Backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov had a rough day in net, allowing five unanswered goals in quick succession from the end of the first period into the second. But Evgeny Kuznetsov broke the Caps' drought in the final second of the second period, sparking the team to a remarkable four-goal comeback.

The Caps would eventually win in a shootout, kicking off a six-game winning streak.

Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals

Date: Wednesday, April 8
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: November 9, 2019

The game that capped off the Caps' aforementioned six-game winning streak - and extended their point streak to 11 - was an easier win. The Caps pulled ahead early and never looked back, keyed by Backstrom's two-goal day.

Of course, games against the Golden Knights will always have a special place in fans' hearts after the summer of 2018.

San Jose Sharks at Washington Capitals

Date: Thursday, April 9
Time: 8 p.m.
Original Game: January 5, 2020

This was as wild a finish as the Caps have had in a long time. Down 3-2, they pulled Braden Holtby late in the third period, and the Sharks took advantage with an empty-netter. Then, miraculously, the Capitals scored twice in the final 47 seconds of the game to force overtime, where they won the game.

The Caps would have considered themselves lucky just to come away with a point here, and instead, they got two in one of the most memorable finishes in franchise history.

How to watch the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals vs. Las Vegas Golden Knights

All-day Sunday, April 12

Game 1
9 a.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: May 28, 2018

The first team in the nation's capital to make even a semifinal run in 20 years, the hype surrounding the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final was immeasurable. The Golden Knights hosted Game 1 with a breathtaking opening ceremony, and the two teams jumped on each other early with a 2-2 first period. 

Washington took the lead 4-3 early in the third period, but Braden Holtby struggled during the frame and the Caps fell 6-4 to fall behind in the series, as they had throughout the postseason run.

Game 2
11:30 a.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: May 30, 2018

The Caps fell behind early in the game, but bounced back to steal a close Game 2. Alex Ovechkin scored his first goal of the series, Braden Holtby was superb - including an all-time legendary save - and the Capitals headed home tied 1-1 in the series.

Game 3
2 p.m.
Location: Washington
Original Game: June 2, 2018

The first home championship game Washington hosted in years, Game 3 was as hot a ticket as you'll ever find.

Holtby was terrific once again, allowing his only goal in the third period. Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded a goal and an assist, and to nobody's surprise, it was Ovechkin who scored the Caps' first home goal of the series.

Game 4
4:30 p.m.
Location: Washington
Original Game: June 4, 2018

Game 4 was the Caps' biggest explosion. They scored six goals in the game, including three on the power play. Six different players netted goals for the Capitals in a well-rounded effort, boosted by Backstrom's three assists.

After their easiest win of the series, the Caps were riding high up 3-1 heading back to Las Vegas.

Game 5
7 p.m.
Location: Las Vegas
Original Game: June 7, 2018

The one that needs no introduction, right? After a scoreless first period, the teams exploded for five combined goals in the second period, including a power play goal from Ovi.

Trailing 3-2 entering the third period, the Caps needed someone else to step up, and they got it. Devante Smith-Pelly tied the game midway through the frame, and Lars Eller gave them the Cup-clinching goal a few minutes later.

Holtby held on the rest of the way, and the Capitals became your 2018 Stanley Cup Champions.

Championship Parade

Time: 9:30 p.m.
Original Date: June 12, 2018

What more needs to be said? The Capitals kicked off the great summer of celebration in style, parading through Washington, D.C. and sharing the glory of their title runs during an unforgettable afternoon with thousands of fans.

If you somehow missed this live, you don't want to miss re-living it now.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.


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Lars Eller may be the Tiger, but Caps coach Todd Reirden is not about to lump him in with the people from 'Tiger King'

Lars Eller may be the Tiger, but Caps coach Todd Reirden is not about to lump him in with the people from 'Tiger King'

Like everyone during this time of social distancing because of the coronavirus, Todd Reirden is getting some extra time to catch up on some TV. Also like everyone, one of the shows he has watched during the NHL's pause in the season is the Netflix docuseries "Tiger King."

"I did take myself through the 'Tiger King,'" Reirden said on a conference call Monday. "That I did watch. I watched that one on my own. I did not have my wife and son in on that one. I wanted to be prepared for discussion points with the players if they had seen it. So I did watch that. I'll just leave it at that, but I did watch it."

So Reirden has watched it, but just for reference. Right.

"It's just one of those things that you want to be prepared for as a coach because you know they all have watched it and I saw the amount of people that have watched it," Reirden said. "I have not gotten into in-depth discussions but when I do get together with the players one day when things become normal again for us."

While Reirden was diplomatic about what he thought about the people featured in the series, he also made it clear he was not about to compare any of the Capitals players to Joe Exotic or any of the other...colorful characters. That includes Lars Eller.

Eller's nickname, of course, is 'Tiger' after he chose the tiger for his spirit animal in a talk with Tony Robbins. When Reirden was asked Monday if Eller was the team's "Tiger King," Reirden was pretty quick to shut that down.

"Lars Eller, I mean he is our Tiger for sure on our team," Reirden said. "I hate to couple him into the same kind of personality that's going on with the 'Tiger King, 'but certainly he has the name for it. So that's an interesting thought that I need to spend some more time on before I commit to it."


Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.