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2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Washington Capitals

2018-19 Metropolitan Division preview: Washington Capitals

The Capitals have won the Metropolitan Division three straight years. Can they defend their title? Here’s a preview of each team in the division for the 2018-19 season.

Today's team: Washington Capitals

2017-18 Results: 49-26-7, 105 points, first in the division. Won the Stanley Cup (!!!).

Notable acquisitions: F Nic Dowd

Notable departures: F Jay Beagle, F Alex Chiasson, D Jakub Jerabek, G Philipp Grubauer, head coach Barry Trotz

Offseason recap: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That was the approach Washington took to the offseason after winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. There were a number of free agents in need of new contracts, however, so general manager Brian MacLellan had to get creative to keep the roster together and fit everyone under the salary cap.

Looking for a starting role, Grubauer was shipped to Colorado along with Brooks Orpik and Orpik's massive cap hit. The Avalanche subsequently bought Orpik out and the Caps re-signed him for a much more modest $1 million cap hit. No one wanted to see Beagle go, but it soon became clear why they had to when he signed a four-year, $12 million contract with the Vancouver Canucks. There was no way the Caps could match that.

The extra bit of cap space allowed Washington to re-sign John Carlson, Michal Kempny, Devante Smith-Pelly and Tom Wilson.

While the roster will look largely the same for the Caps, the coaching will look very different. Trotz stepped down in the wake of the team's championship and associate coach Todd Reirden was promoted in his place. This is the first head coaching job Reirden has had in the NHL and it comes on a team trying to repeat as Cup champs. No pressure.

Biggest strength: Center

Even after losing Beagle, the Caps still boast Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller down the middle. Center is the most important skater on the ice, so the fact that the Caps are that deep at such an important position is a big factor in their success.

Biggest weakness: Backup goaltending

With Grubauer gone, Pheonix Copley is poised to be the backup in Washington. The NHL career of the 26 year-old-netminder consists of just two games. He won't even get the benefit of working with the goalie wizard Mitch Korn as he is following Trotz to Long Island. The issue is compounded by the fact there are now suitable replacements for Copley on the roster. Yes, the highly-touted Ilya Samsonov will be in Hershey, but he is transitioning from the European game to North America. He needs to play and not be stuck on the bench behind Holtby.

After a lengthy postseason run and a short offseason, you have to worry about fatigue for Holtby. The plan can't be to play him in 65-70 games this season or you could see him suffer a slump similar to what he went through last season. That slump did not tear down the Caps' season because they had Grubauer. Could Washington turn to Copley with the same confidence if Holtby suffers another midseason swoon?

2018-19 season outlook: With essentially the same roster returning for a team that won the Stanley Cup, it would be foolish to not consider the Caps a contender again. Then again, Washington will not exactly be picking up from where they left off.

There is always a chance of a champion falling to the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Not only that, but Washington will enter the season with a new head coach. There may be a level of familiarity between Reirden and the players considering Reirden has been in Washington the last four years as part of Trotz's staff, but we ultimately do not know what type of coach he will be or how the team will respond to him. Considering that, it would not be a huge surprise if the Caps get off to a less than ideal start.

Still, the ceiling is high for the Caps.

Defensively, this team comes in with a solidified top-four which they did not have to start the season a year ago, Holtby re-established himself as one of the elite netminders in the league with how he performed in the postseason and few teams can match the center depth Washington boasts.

And, oh yeah, they still have Alex Ovechkin and he's still incredible.

2018-19 season prediction: The Capitals will finish in the top three of the division. They look like they are clearly the best team in the Metro and are in good shape to potentially advance again to the Conference Final. I am not sure anyone is going to beat whoever comes out of the Atlantic this year, but hey, that's what everyone said about Caps-Lightning last year.

Other Metropolitan Division previews:

Carolina Hurricanes
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins

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Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Capitals center Alex Ovechkin is headed to China the week of Aug. 4 to serve as an international ambassador for the NHL, which is trying to grow its presence in that country. 

The NHL played two pre-season games in China last year between the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames. The year before the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks did the same.  

Ovechkin’s trip to Beijing will include youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings. 

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL and the NHL Players Association are hoping to generate interest in the sport in the world’s largest market. The preseason games played in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have drawn good crowds the past two years. The goal is to develop grassroots hockey programs at all levels, but especially for kids.

One other aspect of the trip: It generates publicity if the NHL decides to allow its players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 when they are hosted by Beijing. That issue needs to be worked out in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over the next year. NHL players had participated in every Olympic Games since Nagano, Japan in 1998 until the league refused to let players go to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.   


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20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second 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 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 analyze coach Todd Reirden, who was always going to have a difficult job in his first season as Capitals’ head coach given the expectations. 

The question going into 2019-2020: What lessons does Reirden pull from last season, how does a year running his own bench infuse his tactics this time around and what changes, if any, does he make in player management?

There’s nowhere to go but down when you win a Stanley Cup. You can’t do any better. Reirden knew that when he took over for Barry Trotz after Washington won the title in 2018. In many ways, he kept the ship pointed in the right direction as a rookie coach. The Capitals won their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But the Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was a disappointment. With the Hurricanes going on to sweep Trotz and the New York Islanders in the second round there was an opportunity there for another deep playoff run and Reirden’s team wasted it.

There is plenty of good to build on. Yes, Reirden inherited a strong hand given that almost every player from a championship roster returned. But let’s not pretend everything ran smooth all year. Washington had a seven-game winless streak in January to sit on during the All-Star break. 

If you’re going to withhold credit for a talented roster that in some areas can run on autopilot, you also have to acknowledge that Reirden performed the same magic Trotz did the year before: He halted an ugly losing streak that could have sent the season spinning in a dangerous direction.  

The Capitals returned from the break and a bye week on Feb. 1 at 27-17-6. They were three points behind the Islanders in second place in the Metropolitan Division – though still six points from falling out of a playoff spot. Their position, if not alarming, was precarious. 

But Reirden’s team recovered to go 8-4-1 before the NHL trade deadline and then caught fire with help from some shrewd additions by GM Brian MacLellan. Washington finished 13-5-1 and won the Metro again.

Reirden’s crew shook off another ragged start (8-7-3) and for the second year in a row surged in late November and December. In general he gave his top players, especially Alex Ovechkin, more minutes than in previous years under Trotz. You can’t really say that backfired since Ovechkin had a dominant playoff series against Carolina. So did Nicklas Backstrom. Those plus-30 players didn’t look spent in April even if some of their teammates did. 

Maybe you can ding Reirden on the margins. Wouldn’t his fourth line have been harder to play against with Dmitrij Jaskin in the lineup? Did he bail on Andre Burakovsky too quickly? Did he not bail on Chandler Stephenson soon enough? 

But those weren’t season-changing decisions. Burakovsky wasn’t producing until the trade deadline passed and he relaxed a little, Stephenson’s penalty killing was necessary. Jaskin being glued to the bench was somewhat baffling giving that his underlying possession numbers were always strong, but he also produced zero offensively. 

In the end, assuming his players don’t fall off a cliff this season, Reirden will have a few obvious areas to address. There was a strain of thought around the NHL last spring that the Capitals were too wedded to what worked for them during the regular season and never really adjusted to how the Hurricanes were determined to play. 

That’s an age-old conundrum in the playoffs, of course. Change too much and you’ll be accused of panicking. But it was hard to ignore how badly Washington was outplayed on the road against the Hurricanes. And Carolina had a rookie head coach itself in long-time NHLer Rod Brind’Amour, who famously said during the series that coaching was “overrated.” It came down to a coin toss in overtime of Game 7 and the Capitals lost. Reirden took some heat for it.  

Washington’s coaching staff was an odd mix, but it doesn’t appear there will be any changes there. Reid Cashman, just 35 and an assistant at AHL Hershey the two years before, was in his first season as an NHL coach, too, and – if we’re being honest – had a rough gig dealing with veteran blueliners like John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. There’s not much an inexperienced coach can tell players like that. 

Scott Arniel gave Reirden an assistant with NHL head coaching experience. That proved helpful. Goalie coach Scott Murray’s role didn’t change much given that Mitch Korn had already scaled back his duties in previous years before leaving for New York with Trotz. Murray and Braden Holtby appeared to have a strong working relationship. Blaine Forsythe has been on staff for over a decade and runs the power play, which did slip some to 12thin the NHL.  

Reirden had to learn how to manage those coaches, blending a staff and finding the right way to delegate and trust. It’s a balance most rookie head coaches find tricky. A second year together should theoretically run more smoothly with roles defined and respected. If that doesn’t happen, it will spell trouble. 

At times it seemed like Reirden and MacLellan weren’t always on the same page. Jaskin was a fourth-liner picked up on waivers before the season, but was basically iced after December. Maybe that's not such a big deal. But Reirden didn’t quite seem to know what to do with defenseman Nick Jensen, either, after he was acquired from Detroit in a trade to bolster the blueline. 

Jensen never looked comfortable playing primarily on the left side once Michal Kempny was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. That’s a difficult position for any player on a new team in a pressure situation, but Jensen immediately signed a four-year contract extension after the trade so they’ll have to figure it out. Expect him to get heavy minutes as the replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pairing.   

There is probably much more behind the scenes that we don’t know – from interactions with individual players, who all have healthy egos of their own, to disagreements over strategy and tactics. NHL teams do a pretty good job of hiding those fissures, especially when they’re winning, but a coach has to figure out that balance and intuitively know when to scrap his own plan.  

In the end, much of this is nitpicking. The Capitals won plenty in Reirden’s first year, they made the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years, they took the division again and they blew a series they should have won. That happened under Trotz, too. 

But the goal this year is clear: Keep the championship window open and make a deeper playoff run. No one knows when a Stanley Cup push will happen, but Washington better be in the mix. Do that and Reirden’s reputation will grow from coaching a roster that’s changed a lot since Trotz left last summer. Fall short and doubts will begin creeping in. If there’s any lesson that Reirden learned in his first season as a head coach it was that one.