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20 Burning Questions: Which top prospect has the best chance of helping this season?

20 Burning Questions: Which top prospect has the best chance of helping this season?

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 the team’s prospects.

Which top prospect has the best chance of helping the Caps this season?

Years of competing for the Stanley Cup and focusing on the present over the future means that Washington’s pipeline isn’t teeming with top-end talent. There are no candidates lightning up the AHL or their junior leagues who are going to step into a major role right away and take the NHL by storm. But there are some candidates who could potentially step in this season.

Offensively, the cupboard is pretty bare. Connor McMichael became the first forward drafted by the Caps in the first round since Jakub Vrana back in 2014. Players like Shane Gersich and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby probably have an NHL future ahead of them, but general manager Brian MacLellan made it pretty clear he does not think the forward prospects will be ready to step in anytime soon by inking players like Garnet Hathaway, Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik to four-year deals.

“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” MacLellan said on a conference call in July. “There's a bit of a gap in our organization in that area.”

Basically the team is telling you none of these forwards will have an impact right away. The same is not true of the defense as players like Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary were praised for their performance at the team’s development camp.

Alexeyev and Fehervary will both be headed to Hershey this season for their first season in the AHL. In addition, there is also 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen who is still looking for his first taste of NHL hockey and Tyler Lewington who impressed in his two games with the Caps last season.

Of these four, the player who will have the biggest impact will be largely situational. Lewington is an easy call-up because he is cheap and because he has NHL experience from last season. His ceiling is as a No. 7 NHL defenseman so if he gets called up, it is likely his role will be limited.

Should the Caps need an early-season call-up to get into a game, Johansen may be the best bet. He has played two seasons in the AHL and it would be good for the organization to get him some playing time to see what they have in him before he gets passed on the organizational depth chart by Alexeyev and Fehervary, if he has not been already.

If the team needs a long-term player to plug in and play significant minutes, however, then we are looking at the high-end talents of Alexeyev and Fehervary.

The thing to note about the defensive prospects, however, is that they will not have an impact unless something goes wrong. The NHL roster is likely set with John Carlson, Michal Kempny, Nick Jensen, Dmitry Orlov, Radko Gudas, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. Getting back to the original question, while there are players who could step in should the Caps need them, if all goes well the team will not.

The real answer to this question is in the crease.

While hopefully the team will not need to call up any defensive prospects, there is no way to avoid calling up prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov at some point this season.

This very subject was touched on in a previous burning question, but to summarize, with this likely being Braden Holtby’s last season in Washington, the Caps must, must get Samsonov some playing time this season just to see what they have. Will it be enough to definitively declare Samsonov ready to be a full-time NHL starter? Probably not, but something is better than nothing. Letting a Cup and Vezina-winning goalie walk in free agency is already a risk. Doing it for a prospect goalie who has not played a single minute of NHL hockey is a massive gamble.

Also, do not sleep on Vitek Vanecek. Given the team’s salary cap constraints, if Vanecek shows he is ready to step in as an NHL backup, we could see him start the season with Washington because of his low cap hit of just under $717,000.

The Caps still see their championship window as open and MacLellan is going with a veteran-laden roster as a result. There is not much room for prospects to step in and have an impact, but we will definitely see young netminders get some NHL reps this season. There is no way Washington can avoid it for very long. can or should avoid it. 


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How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov means the Capitals will begin their brutal October schedule without one of their top centers for the first three games. There is a silver lining, however, in terms of the salary cap. Generally when a player is suspended, his cap hit continues to count against the team even though he is not playing. According to a team official, however, because the suspension is not a Department of Player Safety issue, his cap hit will not count during this suspension giving Washington a massive $7.8 million worth of cap room to work with for the first few days of the season.

For a team facing some serious cap issues heading into the season, that is a huge break.

Initially, it appeared a Capitals team that was already over the cap would have to find a way to shed enough salary to afford another player to replace Kuznetsov or go the first three games without an extra forward at all. Instead, the extra cap room essentially gives Washington another week to make the tough roster decisions it will ultimately need to make to get under the cap.

“This is something we have to deal with and react accordingly as a team and putting the best players on the ice in the best spots,” head coach Todd Reirden said Saturday. “We’ll start to get a look at some different combinations.”

It is important to note that the Caps will not be banking cap space. This will work in much the same way as long-term injured reserve. Kuznetsov will not count against the cap for the first three games, but Washington will not be recouping the cap space it will not be using in his absence.

Eventually the Caps will have to pick a fourth line and move Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd or Brendan Leipsic to Hershey. Djoos’ $1.25 million salary will force someone on defense to get traded or waived. Now, however, those decisions can be made based on actual regular-season games against NHL competition rather than based on training camp projections and preseason games.

This also could be an opportunity for Washington to get younger players into a game they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

“There’s going to be some opportunity potentially for some different guys,” Reirden said. “They should take advantage of an opportunity here that is going to be in front of them.”

The team has raved about Martin Fehervary since returning to camp, does he get one of the first three games? Does the team bring in a prospect forward to play center with Kuznetsov out? Getting Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek playing time this season is a goal for the team as well. This could give general manager Brian MacLellan an opportunity to get one of them a game without having to place Pheonix Copley on waivers to free up space.

One of the biggest storylines of the Caps’ training camp was the salary cap and how the team intended to get under the ceiling by Oct. 1. The Kuznetsov suspension is not good news for the team, but it does give MacLellan an extra week to make the really tough decisions.

“There’s a lot of things that can possibly happen,” MacLellan said on Thursday during media day. “We’re going to try to play it out until the end. If something makes sense in the meantime, I think we’d pursue it.”


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NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

The NHL will suspend Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov for three games for conduct detrimental to the league, according to a press release from the NHL. He is not expected to appeal. 

Kuznetsov, 27, tested positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May playing for Russia and was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation. 

That normally would not affect his NHL contract. Under the CBA, “drugs of abuse” like cocaine don’t require a suspension. Instead, the league steers players toward treatment. 

Kuznetsov agreed to take advantage of the NHL Players Association’s treatment programs and extra testing. He also arrived in Washington much earlier than normal for European players in August to take part in informal workouts.  

But Kuznetsov misled the NHL and the Capitals during an investigation of a video that surfaced on May 27 showing him in a Las Vegas hotel room with a white powdery substance on a table directly in front of him. Kuznetsov insisted he’d never used cocaine, which wasn’t true giving the timing of the failed drug test at Worlds. 

The failed IIHF drug test proved that false. Kuznetsov’s positive test came from a sample taken on May 26 the day Russia played the Czech Republic for the bronze medal at Worlds in Slovakia. That was the day before the video appeared on social media. 

“We’ve had discussions after, and I think for the most part, he’s been truthful,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said at media day on Thursday. “I think we want to get him in a spot where he’s going to make a different choice next time.”

Kuznetsov’s salary-cap hit is $7.8 million per season, but this year his base salary and bonuses amount to $8.4 million. He is expected to forfeit some salary for the suspension and his hit will still count against Washington for the time he is out. 

On May 31 the NHL released a statement by deputy commissioner Bill Daly saying the league had reviewed the video, interviewed Kuznetsov and cleared him. 

"While we certainly do not condone or endorse some of the decisions he made on the night in question, Mr. Kuznetsov's account of the events that transpired aligns with other information we have been able to gather, and we have found no basis to question his representations with respect to what did -- and what did not -- occur," Daly said. 

 The Capitals also met with Kuznetsov to hear his side of the story and released a statement attributed to him that same day. 

"While I have never taken illegal drugs in my life and career, I would like to publicly apologize to the Capitals, my teammates, our fans and everyone else, for putting myself in a bad situation," Kuznetsov said. "This was a hard lesson for me to learn."

Kuznetsov was provisionally suspended by the IIHF just two weeks later on June 13 after the failed test. That was upheld and made public on Aug. 23. That led to an in-person interview with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week and the subsequent suspension. 

The Capitals expressed both disappointment and support for Kuznetsov. MacLellan was asked if cocaine use affected Kuznetsov’s play during an up-and-down season where he still finished with 72 points. 

“I mean, that’s hard to say. You’d have to ask him that,” MacLellan said. “There’s no indication that those are correlated. It could’ve had an effect, or other stuff could’ve had an effect.”

No teammate said Thursday that Kuznetsov had to address the group about his cocaine use and the consequences. He is banned from international competition until June of 2023, which means Kuznetsov will miss the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing if NHL players are allowed to participate. 

“That’s ultimately up to him. Our job right now is we support him,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “There’s always consequences to actions. But main thing that we want to be there for (him) as teammates is to help him come through stronger, whether it’s off the ice, on the ice, to support him to make himself and make our team stronger.”

Kuznetsov will miss games against the defending champion St. Louis Blues on Oct. 2, the New York Islanders on Oct. 4 and the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 5.

“It’s very unfortunate what happened,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But at the same time for us as friends, I think it’s really important we support him no matter what and we’re going to fight this together as a family here.”