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Key Caps questions: Is Chandler Stephenson an NHL wing or center?

Key Caps questions: Is Chandler Stephenson an NHL wing or center?

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

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses 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: Is Chandler Stephenson an NHL wing or center?

To answer this we first have to know what a center is. A center’s main focus in the middle of the ice. He is expected to cover that area at both ends and be almost a third defenseman when the puck moves into the defensive zone. Because they are expected to cover more of the ice, they need to be strong skaters. They also typically are the best setup player on a line as they set up the wingers. Obviously there are exceptions where centers can be strong goal scorers and wingers can be good setup players, but this is typically their function.

So a defensively responsible forward who is a strong skater? Stephenson certainly has that skillset.

But there is a difference between a good skater and a fast skater. Jakub Vrana, for example, is one of the fastest skaters on the team, but there's no denying he is a winger. Stephenson always seems to be better offensively when he’s ahead of the play rather than trailing it. His speed is most effective on the counter.

If you want to know what the Caps are thinking, consider this. There is a spot open at fourth line center and the team signed Travis Boyd, a center, to a one-way contract and signed winger/center Nic Dowd as a free agent. It certainly seems as if the team is looking at options other than Stephenson to fill that spot.

General manager Brian MacLellan essentially confirmed this when he spoke with reporters in July.

“I prefer Chandler on the wing,” he said. “He seems to be more effective there, but I’m not opposed to him playing center, too.”

Stephenson is an option at center if the Caps need it, but it’s clear the team sees him more as a wing.

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A return six months in the making for defenseman Michal Kempny

A return six months in the making for defenseman Michal Kempny

It took six months of toil and effort for Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny to make it back to an NHL game. 

He last played March 20 when a torn hamstring in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning ended his season just a few weeks before the Stanley Cup playoffs began. That was brutal. 

A spring to heal after surgery, a summer to rehab the injury and weeks getting back in hockey shape were the steep price paid. And then it took him all of 15 minutes to score his first goal on Friday in a game against the New York Rangers. Welcome back, Michal. 

“I felt pretty good, actually. My legs felt good,” Kempny said. “Obviously not an easy situation for me. But I got to say just thank you to all of the staff, whole organization, my teammates, my family, my friends who were supporting me all the way through here and help me. It means a lot to me.”

It was an organizational project. Kempny meant so much to Washington during its Stanley Cup run of 2018. The Capitals felt his absence on the top pair with John Carlson during the first-round series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. 

Washington coach Todd Reirden credited team trainers Jason Servis and Mike Booi and strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish with putting Kempny in position to return early in the season.  

“Six months of investment of their time to get him back,” Reirden said. “I thought Michal looked really good.”

The goal came at 15:16 of the first period and gave Washington a 2-1 lead. Kempny jumped onto a loose pucked batted around by teammate Alex Ovechkin, quickly corralled it and beat Henrik Lundqvist for the goal. It was a pretty play and another indication that Capitals' defensemen are taking chances when they see them on the offensive end. 

In his first game back, Kempny had 14:24 of ice time. That’s about the goal the Capitals had in mind for him. He started on the third pair with fellow Czech Radko Gudas, but also played 3:42 with Carlson, who mobbed Kempny after his goal and gave him a celebratory facewash with his glove. They’re happy to have him back. 

“I just grab the puck and there was open net, so a little lucky for me,” Kempny said. “I was just excited.”

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Garnet Hathaway becomes latest Capital to win the Nats batting helmet

Garnet Hathaway becomes latest Capital to win the Nats batting helmet

With the Washinigton Nationals in attendance, Garnet Hathaway battled his way against the New York Rangers to win the Capitals "hard hat" award.

Hathaway sealed the Capitals' 5-2 win over the Rangers with an empty net goal late in the third period. Earlier in the game, Hathaway broke his nose, an injury that proved incapable of stopping him from donning the Nationals batting helmet.

The Capitals honor their game-MVP with the hard hat award, an object that gets passed down after every victory. This year the Caps are supporting their baseball peers by awarding a game-used Nationals batting helmet.

Hathaway was also involved in a fight to stand up for teammate Dmitry Orlov after a late hit. Hathaway's toughness certainly earned him the award, but the Capitals were not without several options for the honor.

T.J. Oshie scored two power play goals for the second time in his career, and Michal Kempny scored a goal in his season debut. Kempny had missed the beginning of the season after suffering a torn left hamstring in April.

The Capitals capped off a three-game homestand with back-to-back wins. The Captials are now 10-0-1 against the Rangers in  their last 11 games after the Caps' 5-2 win.

The Capitals' next game will be in Chicago against the Blackhawks, the first stop of a five-game road trip.

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