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The biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

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The biggest offseason questions facing the Capitals

The Stanley Cup has been won, the parade has been had and the party is finally coming to a close on Wednesday as the players have their exit interviews and final media availability.

The offseason is officially upon us meaning the team now must focus its attention away from celebrating the Cup and start the business of defending it.

As the team enters the offseason, there are some glaring questions the Caps will need to answer. Here are the biggest questions the team faces this summer:

Will Barry Trotz be back?

It's rare that you see head coach be a question mark for a team that just won the Cup, but that is the position the Capitals find themselves in as this was the final year of Trotz's contract.

Trotz has certainly said all the right things since winning the Cup and it certainly sounds like he intends to return, but until pen is put to paper on a new deal, this will remain a question.

For now, there is only one head coach opening in the league, that of the New York Islanders. It seems doubtful Trotz would leave a team in which he just won the Cup for an Islanders team that does not yet know if franchise player John Tavares will be returning. Alternatively, if Trotz left the Caps he could potentially wait until the season begins for the next available job. With a Cup-winning coach available, some teams may be quick to pull the trigger on a coaching change early in the season.

The point is, if Trotz wants to leave, he will have some options.

Can the Caps afford to re-sign John Carlson? Can they afford not to?

The Caps will have to make some tough decisions on several restricted and unrestricted free agents, but the biggest name among them is Carlson.

Carlson just completed a career year with career highs in both the regular season and the playoffs. He also proved himself to be capable of being a top defensive player, something that was widely considered to be the weakness in his game.

With his performance, Carlson's stock has certainly risen across the NHL. Tavares may be the biggest name on the market this summer, but it's not a stretch to believe Carlson will be second on that list and the top defenseman on the market. If he gets to free agency, teams are going to be throwing a lot of years and a lot of money around to acquire his services.

The good news for the Caps is that the salary cap is expected to rise from $75 million to somewhere between $78-82 million and that's before the NHLPA decides whether or not to use its escalator clause to increase the cap a further 5-percent. That could provide the team with enough cap room to make Carlson a significant offer.

But are the Caps willing to give Carlson a contract that will carry a cap hit of $7, 8 or even 9 million per year? How much is too much?

Someone is going to be willing to offer Carlson some crazy money this summer. At what point does he become too expensive to keep or has his season made him so valuable to the franchise that the Caps will have no choice but to sign him at whatever price?

Whatever deal he makes will have a trickle down on the rest of the team's free agent decisions.

What will the team do with Philipp Grubauer?

Grubauer is set to become a free agent, but as a restricted free agent, the Capitals still own his rights. The NHL has shown time and time again that having a dependable backup goaltending can be vital to a team's success. Just where would the Caps be this season without Grubauer there to pick up the slack during Braden Holtby's late-season reset?

But Grubauer has not been shy about his desire to be a No. 1 goalie and, after Holtby's playoff rebound and with prospect Ilya Samsonov set to come to North America next season, it does not look like that chance will come in Washington.

While he was not able to win either of his two starts in the playoffs, Grubauer did show he can carry the load as a No. 1 with a strong regular season in which he posted a 2.35 GAA and .923 save percentage.

At 26 years old, the clock is ticking on his chances to be a No. 1 in the NHL and Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic has already reported both the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders have interest in the German netminder.

Are the Caps ready to part with one of the most dependable backups in the NHL and sell him to the highest bidder or will they look to keep that safety blanket on the roster for another season?

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Date for Capitals home opener, banner raising announced and it's not against the Pittsburgh Penguins

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Date for Capitals home opener, banner raising announced and it's not against the Pittsburgh Penguins

Just before the Caps turn the page on their Stanley Cup championship season and open a new campaign, they will raise a championship banner to the rafters of Capital One Arena in the home opener. We now have a date for that banner raising.

The Capitals' home opener will be on Oct. 3, but if you were hoping Washington would raise the banner against the Pittsburgh Penguins, you're going to be disappointed.

Instead, the Boston Bruins will be the Caps' first opponent at Capital One Arena for the 2018-19 season.

The Capitals opened the 2016-17 season in Pittsburgh when the Penguins raised their Stanley Cup banner from 2016. That was rubbing salt in the wound as not only are the Penguins Washington's biggest rival, they also eliminated the Caps in the second round of the 2016 playoffs en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

The fact that the Caps had to endure that banner raising led to speculation that the NHL schedule makers would perhaps return the favor and bring the Penguins to Washington as the Caps prepare to raise their first championship banner.

Alas, that was not the case. In fact, not only will Washington not host the Penguins in the home opener, but the very next night the Caps will be in Pittsburgh for their home opener.

It is not typical that the NHL forces teams to play their rivals in a home opener during a banner raising ceremony and it should be noted that the Caps were not in Pittsburgh for the Penguins' 2017 home opener after Pittsburgh's second straight Stanley Cup. The 2016-17 season appears to be little more than a coincidence.

Seeing the Caps raise the Stanley Cup banner on Oct. 3 will be no less sweet without the Penguins in attendance. But it would have been nice.

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Who are the Caps' award winners this season?

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Who are the Caps' award winners this season?

There won't be any suspense for the Capitals on Wednesday night during the NHL Awards show (8 p.m., NBCSN). Alex Ovechkin will receive the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer, but no other Caps are up for any other hardware.

Instead, let's give out some of our own.

If the NHL awards were reserved just for the Capitals, here's who would be getting each trophy for the 2017-18 season:

Calder Memorial Trophy (best rookie): Jakub Vrana

The Caps had nine players play for the team this season who qualified as rookies according to the NHL: Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek, Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, Travis Boyd and Liam O'Brien. Each of the first four were certainly worthy of consideration.

Vrana gets the nod with his 13 goals and 27 points. His game did suffer some inconsistencies throughout the season, but each rookie experienced that as well. Djoos and Bowey played major roles for the Caps this season as both were called upon to be regular blue liners, but they were largely protected by how they were utilized by Barry Trotz.

The deciding factor for me was this: Who was a better fit this season, Vrana when he played in the top six or Djoos when he played in the top four? The answer for me was Vrana.

Lady Byng  Memorial Trophy (sportsmanship combined with high standard of play): Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson recorded 18 points and proved to be a valuable member of the bottom six, but what really stood out was how clean his game was.

Here's a look at the players with the fewest PIM for the Caps this season: Jerabek (0 PIM), Gersich (0), Boyd (2), Tyler Graovac (2), Walker (4), Anthony Peluso (4), O'Brien (5), Stephenson (8), Taylor Chorney (8), Aaron Ness (8).

Excluding Stephenson, Chorney played the most with 24 games. Everyone else played in 11 games or fewer. Stephenson played in 67.

Bill Masteron Memorial Trophy (perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey): Devante Smith-Pelly

This award is unique in that every team gets a nominee as voted on by each local chapter of the Pro Hockey Writer's Association (of which I am a member). All 31 candidates are then voted on by the PHWA at large. I will go with the Capitals' nominee from this season, Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly was bought out of his contract last season by the New Jersey Devils and came to the Caps on a two-way contract. He filled a key role for the Caps on the bottom-six all season despite a shaky training camp and played in 75 games with 16 points.

When faced with racial taunts from fans in Chicago, Smith-Pelly reacted with class and grace in the wake of the incident. The way he handled the situation allowed for a negative to turn into a positive as Chicago fans raised and donated $23,000 to Fort Dupont.

Frank J. Selke Trophy (best defensive forward): Jay Beagle

No Caps forward had a lower percentage of offensive zone starts than Beagle. His 58.5-percent faceoff win percentage was among the league's best. He also blocked 44 shots per game over the course of the season, sixth among the team's forwards, but he had less ice time than all but one of the five forwards ahead of him.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (best defenseman): John Carlson

This one's a slam dunk. Before Michal Kempny was brought on, defensive depth was the obvious weakness of the Caps even before an injury forced Matt Niskanen out of the lineup for 14 games. Carlson was called upon to play nearly 30 minutes a night and he proved himself capable of playing strong, hard minutes on both ends of the ice.

Carlson's 68 points led all defensemen in the league. In a contract year, he earned himself a lot of money with how he played this season.

Vezina Trophy (best goalie): Philipp Grubauer

This one was tough, but considering this is a regular season award, the nod has to go to Grubauer.

Yes, Braden Holtby played in 54 games, 19 more than Grubauer, and he earned 34 wins, 19 more than Grubauer managed. But Grubauer's superiority when it comes to the stats is undeniable.

Holtby: 54 GP, 34-16-4, .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA, 0 shutouts
Grubauer: 35 GP, 15-10-3, .923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA, 3 shutouts

From Nov. 1 through the rest of the regular season, no goalie who appeared in at least 20 games had a better GAA than Grubauer and only two netminders recorded a better save percentage.

Grubauer stepped in to stabilize the Caps in net when Holtby was in the midst of the worst slump of his career and he helped Washington win the Metropolitan Division with a strong finish to the season, especially in a brilliant performance in Pittsburgh.

There is no doubt Holtby remains the Caps' No. 1 given what he did in the postseason and revisionist history will have many questioning why Grubauer started for the Caps at the beginning of the postseason. If you followed the team all year, however, there was no question who the stronger netminder was at the end of the regular season.

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP): Alex Ovechkin

Who else?

Carlson comes in at a close second because of what he was tasked to do on defense, but Ovechkin was the MVP for this team.

Not only did he lead the team in points with 87, the Great 8 once again found the fountain of youth scoring 49 goals to lead the NHL after tallying just 33 the season before. His 49 goals accounted for over 19-percent of the Caps' goals this season. Had Ovechkin scored the same number of goals as he did last season, that would have knocked the Caps from 9th in goals all the way down to 15th. That's how important his resurgent offensive performance was to the team.

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