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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role in place of Philipp Grubauer?

Tarik: One of the more unappreciated aspects of the 2017-18 season was the outstanding job Philipp Grubauer did in the regular season.

Grubauer, at times, was asked to shoulder the load as starter Braden Holtby went through a “reset.” And the longtime backup maximized that opportunity, establishing career highs in appearances (35), starts (28) and wins (15). In fact, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season, Grubi was, statistically speaking, the best goalie in the NHL, posting a .935 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.

Of course, things didn’t go nearly as well in the playoffs; he was lifted in Game 2 of the first round after giving up eight goals on 49 shots. He didn’t play again for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but the Caps wouldn’t have won a third straight Metro Division title without him.

So, yeah, backup goalie can be a critical role.

Which brings us to today’s question: Can Pheonix Copley step in for Grubauer, who is now Colorado’s starter?

Let me start off by saying the Caps really like Copley. So much so, they acquired him twice. (The team signed him as an undrafted free agent, dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, then reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.)

At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Copley’s got ideal size. The 26-year-old native of North Pole, Alaska is lanky, athletic and coachable. He’s also due to earn the league minimum of $650,000, which provides some salary cap flexibility.

Can Copley handle the responsibility? Well, that’s certainly the expectation. But until he actually does the job, it’s a legitimate question/concern, particularly when you consider how important Grubauer proved to be a year ago.

Copley’s only got two NHL appearances on his resume and his numbers in Hershey last season (15-17-4 / .896 percentage / 2.91 goals against average) aren’t very reassuring. I’m told, however, that he played much better from February through the end of the regular season, and that he’s finally 100-percent healthy. Remember, he suffered a serious groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs and missed the first nine games of last season.

If Copley can pick up where he left off with the Bears last season, I think he’ll be fine. He also gained some much needed experience as one of the black aces during the Cup run, facing shots every day in practice from Alex Ovechkin and Co. If Copley fumbles the opportunity, though, the Caps will be forced to go to their backup plan...accelerating the development of 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov, who'll be just 130 miles up the road.

JJ: When trying to evaluate how Copley will be in the NHL, I believe you have to throw out last season. In 41 games with the Hershey Bears, Copley managed only a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage. Not good. If you look at those numbers alone, it's fair to wonder why the Caps are OK with Copley taking over the backup role.

The season prior, however, after being reacquired by the Capitals as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, Copley was brilliant in Hershey with a 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage and he kept those numbers remarkably consistent in the playoffs (2.13, .933). His season was brought to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious groin injury and it was clear from the start of the 2017-18 season that he just had not fully recovered.

I am not concerned that the Capitals will get last year's Copley. Nor am I concerned about another Holtby "reset." That was the worst slump of his career, but coming off a Stanley Cup run, I am expecting a confident Holtby in net and it seems doubtful he would suffer another slump quite as drastically bad as last season.

What I am concerned about, however, is just how much of a load Copley will ultimately be able to handle.

An ideal scenario would be to limit Holtby to about 60 to 65 games. Is Copley capable of providing the Caps with 20+ quality games? It's not enough to just go out and play, he has to play well. A team cannot always take an L just because the backup is in net.

Considering Copley has only two games of NHL experience in his entire career, there is no real way to answer this question and that's why backup goaltending is a potential weakness for Washington next season.

Why go with such a big question mark after returning almost the entire team for a second potential Cup run? Two reasons. First, the team does absolutely have faith in Copley. As noted above by Tarik, that was evident when he was reacquired from St. Louis. Second, because he is a cheap, temporary placeholder for Samsonov who could be penciled in as the backup as early as 2019-20 depending on how his first season in North America goes.

Best case scenario, Copley plays 20-25 games, earns a winning record and Samsonov takes over as backup next season after a strong showing in Hershey.

And the worst case scenario? The Caps are shopping for a backup goalie at the trade deadline.

Other key Caps questions

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Andre Burakovsky inks new deal with Colorado Avalanche

Andre Burakovsky inks new deal with Colorado Avalanche

Andre Burakovsky is officially no longer a Washington Capital.

After he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in June for second and third-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, Burakovsky inked a new deal with the squad for one year and $3.25 million.

Burakovsky posted 25 points last season in 76 games and had been the subject of trade rumors for the better part of two seasons. The Capitals offered him a qualifying offer but would have had to match his previous cap hit of $3 million per year.

The Capitals, after signing Garnet Hathaway, Richard Panik and Brendan Leipsic, have a touch over $4 million left to sign restricted free agents Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson, and Burakovsky's departure gave them the cap space to sign those deals.

Colorado meanwhile has $19.9 million in remaining cap space and need to sign a host of restricted free agents to new deals, including Mikko Rantanen, J.T. Compher and Vlaidslav Kamenev.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the third line provide enough offense?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the third line provide enough offense?

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 look at the team's offensive depth.

Can a Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik third line provide enough offense?

When you look at the Capitals’ offseason moves, it is clear the focus was to improve the team defensively. Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic all look like decent defensive upgrades, but the team has also lost a lot of offensive production that it has not necessarily accounted for.

Gone are Brett Connolly, a 20-goal scorer, and Andre Burakovsky, a player who was inconsistent and frequently underperformed but who also had top-six skill and potential.

In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes last season, Washington got just five goals from the bottom-six. Two of those goals came from Connolly who is now gone, one was a penalty shot and one was an empty netter. Clearly, depth offense was a weakness for the team last season and now they seemingly have less.

In today’s NHL, the best teams do not rely solely on the top-six for offense, but the top-nine. But with Connolly gone, Washington’s third line projects to be Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Panik. Can that line provide enough offense for depth scoring not to be a weakness?

Hagelin is a very versatile player, but offense is not his strong suit. He managed only five goals and 19 total points last season. He has never scored 20 goals in any season of his career and has reached 30 points only once in the past five seasons. Eller has been a good fit in Washington and tallied 38 and 36 points in each of the past two seasons, the best two seasons of his career. But, like Hagelin, he has never scored 20 goals at any point in his career. Panik scored 20 goals only once in 2016-17 when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he totaled 14 goals and 19 assists.

The third line does not necessarily need one guy to carry the load and score 20+ goals, but it cannot be dragged down by a player scoring in the single digits either. Five goals from Hagelin will not be enough.

The good news is that in recent years many players join the Caps and see an immediate boost in their offensive production. Connolly had 59 points in five NHL seasons prior to coming to Washington and he scored 96 in his three years with the Caps. As noted before, Eller’s two best seasons of his career came in the last two years, both in Washington. Hagelin scored only five goals last season, but three of them plus 11 of his 19 points came in the final 20 games of the season after getting traded to the Caps.

This is not to suggest anyone on the third line will suddenly become a breakout scorer. They have established over their careers that is not who they are, but there is a reason to project that all three could score in the 15+ goal range with 30-40 points.

The Caps could not afford to keep or replace the offensive production they lost in the offseason, but if the team improves defensively as much as MacLellan hopes, they may not have to. We may see a lot more 3-2 games than 5-4 this year, but you don’t need to score as many goals if you are not giving up as many.

Can the third line score as many goals as last season? That seems doubtful. Can it generate enough offense that the team does not become top-heavy and entirely dependent on its top-six? Yes, it can.

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