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The 6 biggest stories surrounding the Caps as training camp opens

The 6 biggest stories surrounding the Caps as training camp opens

Training camp has officially begun in Washington which means the regular season is not that far behind. As the players take to the ice on Friday, here are the six biggest stories to watch surrounding the Capitals' training camp.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov has met with Gary Bettman and the team is now awaiting word on if there will be any supplementary discipline. As the league recognizes cocaine as a drug of abuse rather than a performance-enhancing drug, there is no automatic suspension. Having said that, the fact that Kuznetsov appeared to mislead the league initially could come into play.

When the video of Kuznetsov in a hotel room next to lines of white powder came out earlier in the summer, Kuznetsov released a statement denying having ever taken drugs. The Capitals and the NHL investigated and were satisfied by Kuznetsov’s explanation. News of the failed drug test obviously refuted Kuznetsov’s previous statement.

General manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday that the team was dealing with “the uncertainty of a suspension.”

A suspension for Kuznetsov would obviously leave a huge hole on the roster with one of the team’s top two centers out of the lineup. How the Caps would replace him considering the salary cap situation is a major question.

Whether or not Kuznetsov is suspended, there is also the question of just what kind of player he will be when he returns? Will he be the 2018-19 Kuznetsov who is inconsistent and did not perform when it mattered most or the 2018 playoffs Kuznetsov who looked like one of the best players in the world? The answer to that question could dictate whether the Caps can compete for the Cup or if they are headed for another early exit.

The Backstrom and Holtby contracts

Both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are on the final year of their contracts. In terms of personality, both players seem well suited to handle the pressure that comes with playing in a contract year. It is important to remember, however, that they are both human. Are we taking for granted that both players will simply perform or will they struggle more than anyone anticipates?

It will be particularly fascinating to see just how the team handles Holtby and the goalies with Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov competing for NHL playing time. Does the team need to see Vanecek and Samsonov in the NHL this year? Will the status quo prevail after a strong season from Copley last year or could Copley end up on waivers?

Injuries

T.J. Oshie is 100-percent healthy after breaking his clavicle in the playoffs. Michal Kempny, however, has not yet fully recovered from a torn hamstring he suffered in March.

Though Kempny does not have as much fanfare around him as John Carlson, he does still play on the team’s top defensive pairing which makes his absence a significant one.

Kempny said Thursday that he was hopeful he could be ready for the start of the season. It certainly does not sound like we will see him at all in the preseason, however.

“I can play game when I'm not 100-percent so when I feel that I'm ready to go, I'm going to play,” Kempny said. “But if it's going to be like during the training camp, I don't know yet.”

Also worth watching is the health of prospect defenseman Alex Alexeyev.

Though he seemed like a longshot to make the NHL roster, Alexeyev was certainly going to be given every opportunity to compete for the No. 6/7 role on the team’s defense. An upper-body injury suffered during the Prospects Showcase, however, means Alexeyev will likely miss the start of training camp.

Alexeyev did not play a full season in any of his three years with Red Deer in the WHL. It will be worth monitoring him to see just how long he is held out.

The new guys

There will be several new faces in this year’s training camp as the roster experienced a bit more turnover this offseason than last.

On defense, Radko Gudas was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Matt Niskanen. He is expected to play on the right side of the third pairing. While most people know him for his reputation and checkered past with the Department of Player Safety, he actually proved himself to be an effective defenseman last season. That is the player MacLellan hopes he is getting, anyway.

On offense, Richard Panik is expected to slot into the third-line role left open by Brett Connolly while Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic will compete for fourth-line minutes. Bringing in so many forwards makes one wonder what the future of Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson in Washington may be. The offseason moves should have been a message to both players that the team will need more from them than what they showed last year if they hope to stay in D.C.

When you acquire players like Gudas, Panik, Hathaway and Leipsic in a single offseason, it is clearly with an eye on improving the team defensively and physically.

Roster battles

The Caps lost some regulars from the lineup, added several new players and the team is over the salary cap. The result is that there are a lot of positions up for grabs at camp, more so than we have seen in recent years.

On offense, the real competition is for who will play on the fourth line. Connolly’s departure leaves a hole on the third, but that job will almost certainly go to Panik. That leaves players like Hathaway, Leipsic, Stephenson, Boyd and Nic Dowd all competing for the fourth line.

On defense, the Caps need a player to fill in on the right side of the second pair to replace Niskanen. Nick Jensen appears the most likely candidate, but MacLellan would not rule out Gudas.

“[Jensen is] going to have a shot at it,” MacLellan said. “I think performance will dictate that. That job is wide open in my mind. Jensen could play it, Gudas could play it, or we could find something other than that, but those will be the two likely candidates to play in it.”

Whoever loses that competition will slide down to the third pair, but who will play with them on the left side?

“[Jonas Siegenthaler] has progressed well,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s going to be a good player in this league and he should come in at a higher level this year than he has last year. I thought he finished up well. [Christian Djoos], we’re looking for a rebound season. I think the injury set him back, so it’s important for him to have a good camp and a good start to the year.”

There also could be a battle brewing between the pipes.

Obviously Holtby will enter the year as the No. 1 and there is no reason to think he will relinquish that tile. Behind him, however, are Copley, Samsonov and Vanecek. Copley is the only one of the three with any NHL experience, but he is also the most expensive with a $1.1 million cap hit. Samsonov has the highest ceiling and is considered to be Holtby’s successor, but he has only one season of North American experience. Vanecek, meanwhile, has more experience in the AHL and played well enough last year to get at least a look from Washington as a possible backup in the future.

Further complicating the matter is that while Samsonov and Vanecek are both waiver exempt, Copley is not.

Getting under the salary cap

The Caps are still over the salary cap and the clock is ticking for the team to get under the ceiling. MacLellan is very cognizant of that, but there is a lot of uncertainty heading into training camp that is handcuffing his ability to address the issue.

“We have the uncertainty of a suspension,” MacLellan said. “We have an injury to Kempny and whatever else happens in training camp, so there’s a lot of things that can possibly happen. 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.”

This begs a lot of fascinating questions. What will the team do if Kuznetsov is suspended as his salary would continue to count against the cap? Are there any prospects who can take advantage of the cap situation and earn a spot with their play and cheap contracts? Are Boyd and Stephenson expendable? Will the Caps look to save money by naming one of its younger netminders as the backup over Copley?

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Alex Ovechkin inches closer to 700 career goals

Alex Ovechkin inches closer to 700 career goals

WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin is flying up the NHL leader board. 

Doesn’t matter if you want to specify this season or his career overall, Ovechkin’s hat trick on Thursday night in a 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils helped in both cases.

Start with the big names. Ovechkin now has 689 career goals. He is inching closer to the magic 700 mark. Only seven NHL players in history have reached it. Before then he will pass Mario Lemieux (690) – fittingly maybe on Super Bowl Sunday Feb. 3 when the Capitals play the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Then Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) are up next. These are incredible names, the greatest to ever play the sport. Ovechkin has etched his name into the record books with them all.

“[Lemieux was] one of my idols when I'm growing up,” Ovechkin said. “I get lucky I have a time to play against him, was on the ice with him a couple times. It's huge….They're legends. To be close to those guys, it's pretty impressive.”

Just looking at this season: Ovechkin is now at 31 goals. He needs 19 more in his 32 remaining games to reach 50 for a record-tying ninth time. For a time this season that appeared to be drifting away from Ovechkin. Now? Seems reasonable. Ovechkin will miss the Jan. 27 game against the Montreal Canadiens to serve a suspension for skipping the All-Star game in St. Louis next week. 

Ovechkin has pulled to within five goals of Boston’s David Pastrnak for the NHL lead (36) and is in third place overall. Toronto’s Auston Matthews is second (34). 

“It seems like every week at least that he’s breaking someone’s record,” Capitals teammate John Carlson said. “And they’re not cupcake records, either. I’ve said this before. I don’t think that as a teammate you realize what’s happening. It kind of becomes maybe a little more normal than if you’re in a different job or on a different team even.”

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Alex Ovechkin gets mad, Carl Hagelin gets a goal and Richard Panik gets comfortable

Alex Ovechkin gets mad, Carl Hagelin gets a goal and Richard Panik gets comfortable

Alex Ovechkin let everyone know what happens when you make him mad on Thursday as he returned from a high stick to score the 25th hat trick of his career in a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the win

You mad, bro?

When Miles Wood hit Ovechkin with the high stick, you knew he was pissed. Before he even got off the ice he was yelling at the Devils' bench. He went to the locker room and returned to the ice in the same period to score twice.

After the game, Ovechkin said he did not think it was intentional, but yeah, he was mad.

"I don't think he meant to do it, and the ref didn't see it, but yeah I was little mad and I just punish them."

The third line has finally found its role

The third line is not going to produce as much offensively as the team hoped, but Todd Reirden has found a role for this line as the shutdown line. It was integral in the team's win over Carolina on Monday as they lined up against the Hurricanes' second line. Reirden again used them primarily against New Jersey's second line on Thursday. Carl Hagelin even scored his second goal of the season with assists from Lars Eller and Richard Panik.

"It feels finally how it was supposed to feel at the beginning," Panik said.

The challenge now will be how Reirden can get the matchups he wants when he is on the road which is tougher to do as road teams have to change lines first.

The power play is still an issue

Ovechkin scored on a two-man advantage, but once again the Caps gave up another shorthanded goal. Blake Coleman scored on a breakaway in the third period to pull New Jersey to within one in what could have been a major turning point in the game. That was the third shorthanded goal the team has allowed in four games and the fifth shorthanded goal allowed in the last 11.

That is a horrifying stat.

"Yeah that's definitely something that needs to be solved," Reirden said. "That's not acceptable, that's not winning hockey, it's not a winning formula. I think obviously they score a big 5-on-3 goal after struggling the last couple games 5-on-3, but in that situation with the lead, you can't give up shorthanded goals. So that has to continue to be worked on as we go on here."

Turning point

Don't make Ovechkin angry. He took a nasty high-stick from Wood and returned in the same period to score twice. That gave Washington the 2-0 lead and set the tone for the entire game.

You can read the full story about Ovechkin's crazy first period here.

Play of the game

The play of the game is Ovechkin's hat trick goal, but not because of Ovechkin. Really, it was the pass by Tom Wilson that was so impressive.

Whenever someone says Wilson is just a goon, this is the clip you should show them.

Stat of the game

These are going to be a bit Ovechkin heavy, but there were a number of milestones the Great 8 hit in this one.

Quote of the game

It's hard to top Ovechkin's quote about punishing the Devils. This one from Nicklas Backstrom, however, is a close second:

I could just tell when he got that high stick in the first there and then he got pissed off and he always plays better when he’s a little pissed off. So, there you go. That was drawn up like that, I think. So, came back, got a little mad, scored two and then I was just waiting for the third. That’s the story of Ovi, I think.

Fan predictions

No goal for Nick Jensen, but you nailed the score.

...and second.

He came pretty close.

The cow was spotted. He is always pretty easy to spot, but even if you have trouble, the crowd usually can steer you in the right direction.

See what I did there?

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