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Forgot to watch the Caps since the Stanley Cup? Here's what you missed

Forgot to watch the Caps since the Stanley Cup? Here's what you missed

So there you were, a casual Caps fan caught up in the moment, wandering the streets of Washington one beautiful June day last summer celebrating the Stanley Cup victory. 

There was a Nationals game that afternoon where the Cup kept getting hoisted to roars from the crowd and later you wandered the waterfront in Georgetown. There may have been some fountain swimming? It got a little hazy there for a while, actually. Oh and then there was the tattoo parlor. That was probably a mistake, but the pizza was great. Did you cheer the boys from the sidewalk as they went into Café Milano for a team dinner? It all runs together really. 

Well, let’s just say 10 months later you’ve finally climbed out of the fountain and shaken off your own Stanley Cup hangover. If that happened, you should call your boss. You’ve probably been fired. Or, more likely, you kind of have a busy life and just forgot to stay on the Capitals bandwagon, but are ready for another heart-stopping spring of playoff hockey. That’s okay. An 82-game season is a grind. We get it. We’ve got you. Here’s what you missed.

There’s a new coach

Yeah, so…Barry Trotz is gone. Actually he coaches the Islanders now and the Capitals could play them in the second round if they both advance, which would be an all-time story line. Crazy. He did get a huge ovation in an emotional return to Capital One Arena in January. Assistant coach Todd Reirden took over. He ran the defense and has been here since 2014 so there hasn’t been radical change there. Things have gone about as expected with a few new assistant coaches, but otherwise the same personnel. That’s because….

The roster is almost exactly the same

You know the faces. Ovechkin. Backstrom. Kuznetsov. Carlson. Oshie. Holtby. These guys need no introduction. Brooks Orpik was traded like five minutes after the championship parade, but came right back after his contract was bought out by Colorado. Carlson signed a monster eight-year contract. Michal Kempny, his defensive partner, came back, too, in free agency. The Capitals did say goodbye to long-time fan favorite and flip phone owner Jay Beagle, who had to take the money offered by the Vancouver Canucks. He also had an emotional return to Capital One Arena in January as the crowd roared for him. Backup goalie Philipp Grubauer won your heart by playing well during the regular season and holding up the D.C. flag at the parade. Well…he was promptly traded, too. But it’s okay because he deserved a chance to start and is playing well for Colorado.  

Tom Wilson was suspended

Yeah, no, not the Pittsburgh thing. The Caps are still mad about that one. Wilson was suspended for a preseason hit on St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. Second year in a row that’s happened. The NHL threw the book at him this time – 20 games that were reduced to 16 by an independent arbitrator. The good news since: Wilson has been on his best behavior. No run-ins with the league. And he had a great year on the ice with a career best in goals (22) and assists (18) and points (40) all in just 63 games. He took the leap the team hoped when it signed him to a six-year, $31 million contract extension last summer. Also the Caps should probably not schedule the Blues again next preseason.

Ovechkin scored 50! Again

Okay smart guy. This IS basically every year. But Ovechkin had 51 goals at age 33 to win his eighth Rocket Richard Trophy, which is ridiculous. He won’t win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. But he’ll likely garner some votes and could even be a finalist. Again he is 33. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy have ever had nine 50-goal seasons. Ovechkin will make a run at tying them next year and he’s now just 42 goals away from joining the 700 club. With 89 points, Ovechkin had his most productive offensive season since 2010. At 33. Did we mention that? 

John Carlson made his first All-Star team

Kind of dumb this hadn’t happened yet, but Carlson isn’t really one to sell himself and the voting can turn into a popularity contest. Carlson was joined in San Jose by Braden Holtby – but NOT Ovechkin, who chose to skip this time given all the hockey he’s played over the past year. That led to a one-game suspension by the NHL. Carlson took that opportunity to fly all the way to San Jose and win the hardest shot competition with a slapper that beat Ovechkin’s hardest attempt the year before when he won that event. Nice. Also, Carlson lived up to his big new contract with his best season yet. The Capitals asked a lot of him on the power play and penalty kill early in the year. He played big minutes against top competition and still had a 70-point season to set a career high. He’s a Norris Trophy candidate.    

The Caps lost seven in a row

Mid-season swoons happen, but this one got a little concerning given how tight the Metropolitan Division was most of the season. Washington went 0-5-2 in late January and had to sit on that winless streak through the All-Star break and a bye week. Not fun. The Capitals turned things around, though. They went 15-5-1 coming out of the break to regain their footing.

Milestones

Nicklas Backstrom’s turn this time. He recorded his 600thcareer assist and passed Peter Bondra for second on the franchise all-time list in points (873). Orpik also gets a nod for playing in his 1,000th game. 

Trades and new faces

While the roster was intact at the start of the season, the Capitals needed to make some moves. You might want to sit down. Carl Hagelin plays for them now. Yes, yes he helped end their season like five times in a row and played for the hated Penguins and Rangers. He’s also really fast, can play on any line and kills penalties. You’ll learn to love him. They also acquired Nick Jensen in a trade with Detroit. That meant goodbye to young defenseman Madison Bowey. Also – we know you love Devante Smith-Pelly after his playoff heroics last season. Seven goals, including the tying tally in the clinching game of the Cup Final. But he was sent to Hershey in February to make salary-cap room for some of these changes and it’s unclear if he will ever return.

Kempny lost for the season

Michal Kempny’s acquisition was maybe the biggest reason Washington solidified its blueline before last year’s title run. He paired beautifully with Carlson. Unfortunately, in a game against Tampa Bay on March 20, he fell to the ice after an altercation and tore his hamstring. He is done for the season. That hurts. It also makes the Jensen trade huge. He can help alleviate that loss.  

Caps win the Metro. Again

At some point this streak will end, but the Capitals won the Metropolitan Division for the fourth consecutive year and clinched home-ice advantage through at least the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It is only the second time in franchise history Washington won four division titles in a row. The banners are hanging in the arena. Just look up in the rafters next time you go.

The Hurricanes await

Somehow, despite being in the same division for 21 years, the Capitals have never played the Carolina Hurricanes in the postseason. That changes tonight with Game 1 of a first-round series at Capital One Arena. The road to “back-to-back” - as T.J. Oshie would say - begins here. Maybe in two months you’ll be right back swimming in that fountain.  

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas F. writes: Now that we traded away Matt Niskanen will Nick Jensen be paired with Dmitry Orlov? I personally would like to see how Jonas Siegenthaler would do beside him. My ideal defensive pairings: John Carlson/Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler/Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen (or Radko Gudas)/ Christian Djoos. Would that make sense?

What you have to consider is the shooting side of each player. Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are left-shot defensemen while John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are all right-shot defensemen. I don’t see the team putting two leftys together in the top four. Right-shot defensemen are harder to find and the Caps have three of them. That is a luxury not every team gets and I do not see Washington going into the season with a plan to willingly giving up that advantage.

Brian MacLellan telegraphed his feelings on Jensen when he traded for him and re-signed him for four years before he ever put on a Caps jersey. They see him as a top-four and that is where they are going to use him.

Granted, if Jensen struggles then pretty much all options are on the table so perhaps we could see this possibility later in the season.

I also get your point on Siegenthaler. I liked him a lot last season. I was surprised it took four games to get him into the playoffs and I was not surprised to see him move up to the top pairing after that. For now, however, putting him on the third pair with Gudas makes the most sense to me not just because of his inexperience but because of the guys ahead of him.

Paul O. writes: With the glut of young defensemen in the prospect pool, along with good ones moving fast in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, has the team soured on Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen ever making the jump to the big club?

I am not sure “soured” would be the right word for it as I think this has more to do with how impressed the team has been with Alexeyev and Fehervary than any negative feelings towards Hobbs and Williams.

Hobbs was a fifth-round draft pick who has shown that he may have had more potential than initially thought and could reach the NHL, but he was always going to be a third-pairing type of player so it is no surprise to see highly touted prospects like Alexeyev and Fehervary push for the NHL before Hobbs makes it there. His defense has improved tremendously, but the offensive skill that made him a standout in the WHL has not translated to the AHL as of yet. Johansen was hampered greatly by an upper-body injury last season and looks very jumpy with the puck on his stick which is not good news for a player in whom puck-moving was supposed to be a major part of his game.

The bigger concern of the two would be Johansen as he is a first-round pick. That means the team saw him as being a significant NHL contributor and I do not think they would have anticipated him getting passed on the depth chart before reaching the NHL. Hobbs, however, was always going to be a long-shot as a fifth-rounder.

To me, the greater takeaway is not that the team has soured on anyone, but that they are so high on both Alexeyev and Fehervary. Hopefully the other two will continue to develop and eventually catch up, but the silver-lining is you have at least two defensemen the team seems pretty confident can compete for an NHL spot in the near future.

Luka K. writes: Hershey has eight defensemen who all deserve and need to play (Erik Burgdoerfer, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Colby Williams, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, Tyler Lewington and probably Bobby Nardella)? Who is deemed surplus, an ECHL ticket or possible trade for forward prospect?

In addition to the nine you mentioned, Hershey also has Tommy Hughes and Kristofers Bindulis. That gives the Bears 11 defensemen which should make for a crowded blue line even for the AHL where teams carry more players. Of those nine, Burgdoerfer and Hughes are the only two not under contract with the Caps and are playing on AHL contracts with Hershey.

I would assume Bindulis is headed to the ECHL. He played in only four games for the Bears last season and 12 the season before with 34 games in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. He certainly looks like the odd-man out. Hughes played last season in Europe, but was with Hershey in 2017-18 and spent the majority of that season in the ECHL. I could easily see him head there this year as well, though I expect Hershey wanted him and Burgdoerfer as veterans to help the younger guys.

Speaking of the younger guys, if they are struggling with the transition and are not getting much playing time, they may get a tour in South Carolina, but the Caps will want to see their top prospects in action and I imagine most of those players will stick around in Hershey.

The only one I could potentially see eventually being on the trade block is Johansen. As a first-round pick, he still could have some trade value. When you start getting passed on the team’s depth chart, it does not take long before your trade value surpasses your on-ice value.

Brian D. writes: Can you please explain the Connor McMichael signing? He’s not going to crack the Caps roster this year and he’s too young to play in the AHL so it’s almost guaranteed he’s going back to juniors this year. So why pay a salary to a player (and burn years off his entry level contract) to play in juniors the next two years? Why not wait till he’s ready to play professional hockey to start paying him and using his entry level contract years?

Barring a miraculous performance in training camp, no, Connor McMichael is not going to make the NHL roster this year. You are also correct in that he is still with his junior team so, by rule, he cannot play in the AHL. He can either play in the NHL or the OHL this season, there are no other options. The good news, however, is that McMichael is not going to burn a year off his contract.

Because most players require more development before they reach the NHL, entry-level contracts slide so as not to punish a team for its patience. So long as McMichael does not play 10 NHL games next season, he will not burn the first year of his contract and will not earn a salary. The only money he will be paid is his signing bonus. There are rules as to when an unsigned draft pick becomes a free agent and when some players get close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they elect to wait it out and head into free agency. Signing these players to NHL contracts early in their careers when they are excited about getting drafted is much easier than waiting until they start to think the grass may be greener on the other side.

So why not just immediately sign every draft pick to a contract and let them continuously slide until you need them thus avoiding losing them to free agency? Because teams are limited to only 50 contracts and teams could quickly run out of room to sign or trade for more players they may desperately need. The Caps ran into this issue last season. With 50 players already under contract, the team could not sign highly touted prospect Chase Priskie who has declared he will wait until Aug. 15 when he will become a free agent. If the team could have signed Priskie at the end of his college season last year and brought him right away to the AHL or NHL it could potentially have enticed him to sign. Instead the Caps now stand to lose him for nothing.

So I hear you, Brian, but there is no reason to fear. Now the Caps have McMichael signed and do not have to worry about him holding out for free agency several years from now, but they also are not losing any contract years.

Phillip M. writes: With the Seattle Expansion Draft approaching and the Caps having signed most of their key players through the next 2 years I have a question. NHL teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie, or any 8 skaters plus 1 goalie. I understand first and second year NHL players, and unsigned draft choices are exempt. So I assume that means signed non-NHL playing draft choices can be selected. Are Alex Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Ilya Samsonov available to be selected by Seattle? Who do you expect the team will most likely protect?

What qualifies as first and second-year players to the NHL is players who have finished at least two seasons of professional North American play. I explained above how a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract. With the expansion draft two years away, that means any prospects who remain with their junior teams at least through this season will not qualify not have to worry about the expansion draft including McMichael.

Ilya Samsonov already burned the first year of his contract last season and with Alexeyev and Leason expected to play in Hershey this season, all three will likely qualify for the expansion draft..

It is really hard to project between now and 2021, but if you insist:

Seven forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Leason

Three defensemen: John Carlson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev

Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Don’t hold me to this, a lot can happen in two years.

John F. writes: Will an enterprising team owner (with deep pockets) ever consider building an outdoor arena designed specifically for hockey? Sticking an outdoor game in a baseball or football stadium seems like a bad way to watch a hockey game.

I can’t see this ever happening. Maintaining a playable ice surface is incredibly hard to do inside in an arena. When you put it outside, you are greatly complicating things. The league does a great job with its outdoor games, but this is just for one game. Building an entire stadium for the limited number of Winter Classics and Stadium Series games it would host would not be feasible. If you are suggesting a team could have all its home games outdoors, this would be a nightmare in terms of maintaining the ice surface for the full season especially when the weather gets warm. Heaven forbid you try to have a playoff game there.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Capitals center Lars Eller is busy working on his shot this summer

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Capitals center Lars Eller is busy working on his shot this summer

With the Washington Capitals season ending in April and training camp beginning in September, players are on their own to get their summer work in.

Center Lars Eller took to Instagram on Wednesday to show his followers that he's been working on his shot in the offseason.

The 6-foot-2 Dane scored 13 goals for the Caps last season, adding one more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With three months to go before the first puck drops in the 2019-2020 season, Eller will hope his extra work this summer will translate to the ice in the fall.

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