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Caps defenseman Christian Djoos, forward Chandler Stephenson filed for salary arbitration. What comes next?

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Caps defenseman Christian Djoos, forward Chandler Stephenson filed for salary arbitration. What comes next?

Capitals defenseman Christian Djoos and forward Chandler Stephenson filed for salary arbitration before the 5 p.m. NHL deadline on Friday. What comes next for the two young depth players? 

Djoos is an interesting case. He had a base salary of $650,000 on a two-year deal that just expired. The Capitals tendered him a qualifying offer of $715,000 last month to keep his rights. He could have simply signed that, but agent Jason Davidson steered him toward arbitration, where a firm deadline could lead toward more money or maybe a multi-year extension.   

Djoos, 24, held a place in the Washington lineup early in the season until a hit to his thigh in a Dec. 11 game against Detroit turned into compartment syndrome, a sometimes dangerous complication where blood becomes trapped in the muscle. 

He missed 24 games, but returned Feb. 9 and finished the season. Djoos appeared in three Stanley Cup playoff games – though he never really looked the same as he tried to come back from that traumatic injury. He played in 16 of the final 27 games and was a healthy scratch 11 times. 

Djoos played in 63 games in 2017-18 and in 22 of 24 postseason games when Washington won the Stanley Cup. He turns 25 on Aug. 6. The thought is Djoos will compete with Jonas Siegenthaler as the primary left defenseman on the third pair given Brooks Orpik’s retirement. Often times the past two seasons he played on the right side. 

Djoos had a goal and nine assists this past season in his 45 games, none in the three playoff games with 7:24 of ice time against Caroline in the first-round series.

Players had until 5 p.m. on Friday to make written request to the NHL that they were filing for arbitration. Djoos qualifies because his entry-level contract expired in 2017. He avoided arbitration that year by signing a two-year, $1.3 million deal with an average annual salary of $650,000. 

The two sides could come to a similar agreement before an arbitration hearing later this month or early August in Toronto in front of a neutral arbitrator. That happened in 40 of 44 cases last summer and all 30 the year before. 

That’s because in part these things can get testy. They aren’t fun for the player or management. Djoos’ is the more likely bet of the two RFAs to get another two-year contract extension given his experience and that he looked like he’d improved his game before the Dec. 11 injury.  

Washington has a settled blueline with John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas, acquired in the Matt Niskanen trade last month, all under contract on the right side. Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, entering his second season after playing 26 NHL games last year, are likely to compete for the final spot on that third pairing’s left side behind Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov. But both should see ice time throughout the season.  

Stephenson, meanwhile, is in a different bind. He struggled to maintain the coaching staff’s trust last season as a member of an up-and-down fourth line. Center Nic Dowd earned a contract extension. But Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Devante Smith-Pelly all struggled to grab and hold a permanent spot on the wings. The Capitals then signed free agents Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic to fill fourth-line roles. 

So it looks like they’ve decided to upgrade that area. They didn’t pay Hathaway $1.5 million to scratch him. He’s a right wing, but the message was sent: The fourth line needs to be better. Leipsic is a left wing who will make $700,000. That's cheaper than Stephenson's qualifying offer of $715,000 and at this point every last dollar matters to the cap-strapped Capitals. 

Stephenson, who turns 25 on Aug. 6, had five goals and six assists last season. His ice time rose modestly from 11:52 to 12:07. He was a key member of the penalty-kill unit, but overall that group was a weakness. Only Tom Wilson and Lars Eller among forwards skated more than Stephenson (113:22) on the PK. Yet when he was on the ice the Capitals gave up just 11 power-play goals and had a short-handed one.

Stephenson somehow didn’t commit a single penalty all season, which is…good? Hard to tell if that’s a super disciplined player or one just not mixing it up enough. He only had eight PIMS the year before, though, so let’s call that a good thing. 

Stephenson played 64 games for Washington, but was a healthy scratch 11 of the final 19 regular-season games to give you an indication of where the coaching staff was with him. But he had 67 games in 2017-18 and made contributions during the Stanley Cup run with two goals and five assists playing in all 24 games. He earned his name on the Cup. His speed is also an asset on an older team that needs all it can get.

But it was frustrating Stephenson didn’t carve a bigger role for himself after showing promise in the playoffs the year before and it’s not a good sign that the Caps both brought in two fourth-line wingers and that the salary-cap likely dictates they can only keep 13 forwards. 

Contract or not, Stephenson will need a solid training camp to make the roster. Washington finding a little more money to keep two extra forwards and reach the maximum of 23 players would help, but doesn’t seem likely for now. 

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Caps coach Todd Reirden calls Evgeny Kuznetsov suspension 'a career-defining time'

Caps coach Todd Reirden calls Evgeny Kuznetsov suspension 'a career-defining time'

Capitals coach Todd Reirden was blunt when the NHL suspended Evgeny Kuznetsov for the first three games of the regular season.

“It’s a career-defining time in his life,” Reirden said.

Circumspect on Thursday before the NHL announced the suspension for what was deemed “inappropriate conduct” – i.e. lying to his club and NHL investigators during an investigation into Kuznetsov’s drug use – Reirden did not hold back Saturday when the news became official.

“Him and my relationship is one that it’s important that I am there for him,” Reirden said. “But I also make sure that I understand that he’s accountable for what’s happened and realizing that how he reacts to this adversity is what’s important to me.”

Thursday was a day his Washington teammates expressed support for Kuznetsov, who failed a drug test on May 26 at the World Championships in Slovakia playing for Russia. The day after a video surfaced on social media that showed Kuznetsov in a hotel room in Las Vegas with a white powdery substance on the table in front of him.

It was all a bit reckless and Kuznetsov expressed remorse on Saturday to his teammates, coaches, management and fans. He will pay the price with a four-year suspension in international play by the International Ice Hockey Federation and missing the first three games of the NHL season. No one is happy about it.

Reirden said he and Kuznetsov have had multiple conversations since the IIHF announced the suspension on Aug. 23. So far, Kuznetsov has taken the advice to heart. He takes part in an NHLPA drug treatment and education program. He showed up much earlier than normal for on-ice workouts in Washington before training camp.

In many ways, he is the same old Kuznetsov. A happy-go-lucky personality, a world-class center, who never takes anything too seriously: From competing for Hart Trophies to winning faceoffs to looking ahead to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Expect him to change all of that at age 27 is unrealistic. He’s an adult.

But the suspension, the drug use, has chastened him some. He embarrassed his family. He has worried his teammates. They know the level Kuznetsov can reach. We all saw it during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs when he was arguably the best player in the world for two months.

Kuznetsov has reached a fork in the road in his career. He has Hall-of-Fame talent. But he can coast to 70 points for the next few years and maybe get a pass. But he’ll never be as good as he should be. It is the dilemma of any brilliant talent. It is the one Kuznetsov faces now: How good do you want to be?

“It’s a difficult thing that he’s going through. But it’s absolutely an amazing opportunity to really change the course of how things will be for him the rest of his life,” Reirden said. “That’s where we’re at right now. Understanding that he’s going to be an example. How he reacts will be how people speak about this a year from now, five years from now and 15 years from now. This is a life-changing event.”

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Projecting the Caps opening night roster after the first day of training camp

Projecting the Caps opening night roster after the first day of training camp

Training camp for the 2019-20 season has officially opened for the Capitals who first took to the ice on Friday.

There has been a lot of talk through the offseason and a lot of people working the “Armchair GM” tool on CapFriendly trying to figure out what the roster will look like. After hearing Todd Reirden and Brian MacLellan speak, plus seeing the team take the ice on Friday, we have at least a rough idea of what the team may be thinking in terms of lines. The news of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s suspension, plus the fact that his cap hit will not count during his suspension, also dramatically changes the roster plans for the start of the season.

There is still an entire preseason to play and a lot of questions that need to be answered, but here is an early projection for the opening night roster for the Caps based on the first few days of training camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik Breandan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Kuznetsov’s suspension frees up a significant chunk of cap space for opening night. That creates a lot of possibilities for some players who otherwise would not have made the team to stick around through the first week of the season. If there is a prospect who impresses throughout the preseason, however, this can change. A solid performance for Connor McMichael, for example, and perhaps it is not farfetched to think he could play a few games before getting sent back to juniors. As a junior player, he could play up to nine NHL games in a season without burning a year of his entry-level contract.

For now, I am going pretty vanilla with my projection and including Boyd and Stephenson

Training camp lines should always be taken with a grain of salt, but this is how the top nine has looked on the wings. At center, Kuznetsov has been skating on the second line with Vrana and Oshie with Eller on the third with Hagelin and Panik. No doubt Eller will move up to the second line in Kuznetsov’s absence.

As for the fourth line, there were two different lines skating with the likely candidates. Leipsic and Boyd were with Brett Leason -- which I would not read into, I don’t think there is any chance Leason is a serious candidate to make the team this year -- while Dowd and Hathaway were with Stephenson.

Both Stephenson and Boyd enter camp with something to prove. Frankly, if the team had faith in them to play a fourth line and penalty kill role, they would not have gone out and signed Leipsic and Hathaway.

"It's a competition,” Reirden said Thursday of Stephenson and Boyd. “They know it's a competition. They're well-informed. It's a very clear message. No one in situations where there's competition are wondering what's going on.”

The Kuznetsov suspension puts Boyd on the third line for now and gives Stephenson a second chance to prove he belongs to stay. I see Boyd primarily being an extra this season and Stephenson most likely headed to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas Christian Djoos

It seems doubtful that Kempny will play in the preseason, but the goal is for him to be ready for the start of the season. He has yet to skate with the team in practice, but he seems far enough along that he looks to be on pace for Oct. 2.

The Caps will eventually need to make a tough decision somewhere to shed salary and I believe that will mean moving Christian Djoos. If a team suffers an injury in training camp and wants to make a deal, I could see that happening. For now, like with many of the forwards, Kuznetsov’s suspension means the Caps have an extra week to make that decision. For now, I will keep him in the lineup, but I would not be surprised if he is playing for a different team by the start of the season.

The team is excited about prospects Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary. Alexeyev, however, is dealing with an upper-body injury and there is no timetable for when he may return to the ice. Fehervary, meanwhile, has received nothing by rave reviews. Like with the forwards, the Kuznetsov suspension could open the door for a player like Fehervary to get a game or two.

Goalies

Braden Holtby Pheonix Copley

I’m not ready to predict this yet, but with Kuznetsov’s salary off the books for the first week of the season do the Caps consider keeping Samsonov and starting him against the New York Islanders in the second game of the season?

The Caps face a back-to-back with the Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes. I assume Holtby gets Carolina since it is the home opener, but what about the Islanders? Washington has to get their young goalies starts this season and Kuznetsov’s suspension gives them the ability to do so without putting Copley on waivers.

But is it too early? It’s worth watching to see how Samsonov and Vanecek play in the preseason to see if either may be ready for a quick start at the start of the season.

“We’re not going to force it,” MacLellan said. “Based on performance, we’ll evaluate it. … I’ll go with Scott Murray and we’ll see how they do in camp. We like all four of our goalies. We have four good goalies, we feel. We have a lot of depth. Vanecek played well – he was an all-star at the AHL level last year, and I’d like to see him get games. I’d like to see Samsonov get games. Copley has continued to improve, so it’s going to be a competitive situation.”

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