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Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?

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USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?

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: What rookies will have an impact with the Caps next season?

In the team's push for the Stanley Cup the last few years, the Capitals brought in several veterans through free agency and trades to bolster the roster. As a result, there was not much room for the team's prospects. Last season, however, Washington took a very different approach.

Nine rookie players suited up for the Caps for at least one game in the regular season in 2017-18, the most the team has played since the 2013-14 season. Six rookies also played at least one game in the playoffs. Washington dressed zero rookies in the postseason in each of the two years prior. In fact, that is the most rookies Washington has used in a postseason in franchise history. 

To say the Caps won because they used their young prospects more so than before would be a gross oversimplification, but clearly there was value to adding cheap, young, talented players to the lineup.

But by returning virtually the same roster as last season, there will be little room for rookies to make a similar impact in 2018-19.

Here's a projected roster of the Caps' opening night lineup:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson - Nic Dowd/Travis Boyd - Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos - Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby
Pheonix Copley

Barring injury, there's just not much room there for the young players to break in.

Of the players who still qualify as rookies, the ones to watch are Boyd, Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, Liam O'Brien, Riley Barber, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ilya Samsonov.

The most obvious answer to the question is Boyd. Jay Beagle's departure leaves a spot open at fourth line center and Boyd would be my pick for the most likely player to fill that role.

The addition of Nic Dowd means Boyd may be the only rookie forward to make the team on opening night. Barry Trotz usually kept only one extra forward and defenseman on the roster, but we do not know if Todd Reirden will have a similar outlook. If there is another spot open, Walker, Gerish, O'Brien and Barber will be in the running. I am not sure I see Walker becoming an every day NHL player, but I could see him coming on as a 14th guy since the Caps have a little bit of breathing room under the salary cap. The same does not go for Gersich who has a higher NHL ceiling. Even though he jumped right into the NHL last season, it is much more likely he goes to the AHL this year to take a large role in Hershey rather than to play scattered minutes in Washington.

O'Brien and Barber also make this list because the clock is ticking for them. Both are 24 and both have spent several years in the organization. They need a strong training camp to prove they belong in the NHL or they risk being viewed less as prospects and more as lifetime AHLers.

Like the offense, the defense also seems pretty set. Of the team's defensive prospects, Siegenthaler is probably the most NHL ready, but I have a hard time believing he will supplant any of the seven defensemen in training camp.

And that brings us to Samsonov.

Samsonov will make his North America debut this fall playing in Hershey. Brain MacLellan has been adamant that Samsonov will be starting in the AHL in order to adjust to the North American game. Just how quickly he can adjust, however, may determine if he earns a jump to the NHL at some point next season.

Samsonov is widely seen as Washington's future in net. While there is no reason to rush him, it is not hard to envision him supplanting Pheonix Copley as the backup should Copley struggle. But first, he has to play well in Hershey.

While the Caps look set throughout the roster, injuries always leave open the possibility for a player to get called up and play his way into a full-time role. As of now, however, it looks like there is not much room for the team's rookies this season, other than Boyd.

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Capitals prospect report: Alex Alexeyev reportedly taken to hospital after dangerous hit

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@WashCapitals

Capitals prospect report: Alex Alexeyev reportedly taken to hospital after dangerous hit

Scary news out of the WHL as Capitals prospect Alex Alexeyev had to be helped off the ice and was reportedly taken to the hospital after taking a dangerous hit during Tuesday’s game.

Kamloops forward Zane Franklin checked Alexeyev who fell face-first into the boards.

Luckily for Alexeyev, Red Deer and the Caps, it appears he avoided any major injury. He underwent an x-ray and a CAT scan, both of which were negative and the team considers him day-to-day. A team spokesman said he could play in the team’s game Friday, but that has not yet been determined.

Alexeyev was selected in the first round of the 2018 draft by Washington and has had a phenomenal season to this point with seven goals and 24 assists in 29 games for Red Deer. His 31 points ranks second on the team and tied for fourth among defensemen in the WHL.

Other prospect notes:

·        Sergei Shumakov’s time with the Capitals organization is over. The Russian forward was placed on unconditional waivers Friday and his contract was terminated by the team after he refused to practice Thursday and notified the Hershey Bears he intended to leave the team. According to a team official, the entire incident took the team by surprise. Shumakov was getting top-six minutes and power play time, but that evidently was not enough. A hand injury limited him to just 10 games this season, but he scored three goals and four points. Granted, Shumakov did not leave the KHL – where he scored 17 goals and 40 points in 47 games last season – for an AHL career, but from what he showed in training camp, he was not close to being ready for the NHL. There is also a crowded offensive roster ahead of him on Washington’s depth chart so a call up this season was becoming less and less likely. It was a low risk move for the Caps to sign him and this time, it didn’t pan out.

·        It was expected that Shumakov would return to the KHL, but he instead signed with another AHL team, the Springfield Thunderbirds. Springfield is the AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers who, reportedly, were among the teams interested in acquiring Shumakov’s services when he first indicated he was coming to the NHL. In three games with his new team, Shumakov has one point, a goal.

·        Ilya Samsonov earned his first win in nearly a month as he saved 28 shots in Saturday’s 6-3 win over Hartford. It is his fourth win of the season and snapped a personal four-game losing streak.

·        How’s this for a weekend? Riley Barber was recalled by the Caps Friday as insurance with the team on the road and T.J. Oshie not quite ready to come back yet. He was a healthy scratch for Saturday’s game in Columbus, was then reassigned to Hershey and scored a goal against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Sunday. The goal was Barber’s ninth power play goal of the season. He has 19 points in 21 games.

·        Tobias Geisser joins the list of Caps prospects who will be representing their countries at the IIHF World Juniors. Geisser will play for Switzerland. Also participating in world juniors will be Alexeyev (Russia) (hopefully) and Martin Fehervary (Slovakia). Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen will be representing Norway in the Division I tournament playing for a spot in next year’s world juniors championship.

·        Shane Gersich has missed the last two games for the Bears due to an upper body injury. It is believed Gersich suffered the injury after a check to the head from David Kase of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Friday. Gersich would finish that game, but has missed both of Hershey’s games since. Kase was suspended two games for the hit. Here’s a look:

·        There were a lot of firsts this past week. Prospects Garrett Pilon and Maximilian Kammerer both scored their first AHL goals in Sunday’s game. Geisser also registered his first AHL point with an assist on Pilon’s goal. Here’s a look at the goal by Kammerer:

·        Colby Williams registered three assists in Saturday’s win over Hartford. It was the first three-assist night of Williams’ AHL career.

·        The AHL issued a two-game suspension to Beck Malenstyn on Tuesday for an illegal check to the head of Hartford forward Ryan Lindgren. He was out Sunday’s game and will not play Saturday in Providence.

·        Tyler Lewington played in his 200th AHL game Saturday and registered two assists for just the second time in his career. He also scored his second goal of the season on Sunday. Through 201 games in Hershey, he has registered a total of 447 penalty minutes.

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John Tortorella ‘embarrassed’ by Columbus’ one-sided loss to the Capitals

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USA TODAY SPORTS

John Tortorella ‘embarrassed’ by Columbus’ one-sided loss to the Capitals

Before the Capitals dominated the Detroit Red Wings at Capital One Arena on Tuesday, they stopped off in Columbus on Saturday for what was expected to be a great game between the top two teams of the Metropolitan Division.

It wasn’t.

Instead of two heavy-weights trading blows or the Columbus Blue Jackets going after the Capitals in an attempt to exact some measure of revenge for last season’s playoff loss, Washington blew apart Columbus in a one-sided, 4-0 affair.

As you could imagine, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was displeased with the result and sounded off on Monday in typical Tortorella fashion.

"I'm embarrassed as the coach of this team," Tortorella told reporters, according to The Athletic's Aaron Portzline. "I missed something along the way. I'm part of it also. I'm embarrassed that we embarrassed our organization."

The Caps took control of Saturday’s game early with three goals in the first period. The physical battle that had been the trademark of last season’s playoff series never came. Washington pushed and received no pushback from a Columbus team that looked like a shadow of the team that had jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the Caps.

"It was disgusting," Tortorella said. "After our last home game, that debacle, 9-6 [loss to Calgary], to show up on a Saturday night for first-place seeding, against a team that knocked us out of the playoffs, in front of a full house, it's embarrassing."

The Blue Jackets seem to be reeling a bit of late. On Dec. 4, Columbus coughed up a 4-1 lead allowing five goals in the second period to the Calgary Flames in what turned into a 9-6 loss. A narrow overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday was followed by the blowout loss to the Caps and on Tuesday, Columbus allowed two goals in a span of 1:18 late in the third period that turned a 2-1 victory into a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks.

Washington and Columbus have been locked in a standings battle the last few weeks (and years) with both teams vying for supremacy over the Metropolitan Division. Now, the Caps hold a five-point lead for first place in a division that seems to be rapidly declining. At mid-December, we are still waiting to see if another team can emerge to push Washington late in the season in a battle for first place in the division. A contender has yet to emerge and, the longer the season goes, the less likely it seems that someone will.

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