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

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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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Caps cut an additional nine players, but keep all four goalies in the midst of fierce competition for backup role

Caps cut an additional nine players, but keep all four goalies in the midst of fierce competition for backup role

The Capitals reassigned nine players from its roster to the Hershey Bears on Sunday, sending Kristofers Bindulis, Tobias Geisser, Connor Hobbs, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Brett Leason, Philippe Maillet, Bobby Nardella, Garrett Pilon and Joe Snively to its AHL affiliate.

Training camp for Hershey begins on Monday making Sunday a convenient time to update the roster.

The latest round of cuts contains no major surprises. Jonsson-Fjallby is likely the most NHL ready of the group, but after returning to Sweden he is not quite used to the North American game as he needs to be. After a disappointing showing in the Prospects Showcase and in training camp, he now finds himself headed to Hershey. He has committed to remaining in North America this season regardless of where he plays and given the Caps’ salary cap constraints and depth, he will likely spend most if not all of the 2019-20 season in the AHL.

Leason was a second-round draft pick by Washington in 2019 and scored a goal in Saturday’s preseason contest. As a 20-year-old, however, he is headed to Hershey instead of to a junior team.

The Caps elected to keep both rookie netminders Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov which will leave the Bears a bit shorthanded as camp opens. Both goalies are competing with Pheonix Copley for the backup role behind Braden Holtby this season.

The Caps are expected to make additional cuts prior to their preseason road trip beginning Wednesday in Chicago.

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3 players who stood out in playoff rematch against the Hurricanes: Samsonov gets the full game and the win

3 players who stood out in playoff rematch against the Hurricanes: Samsonov gets the full game and the win

WASHINGTON -- In a reversal of last season’s playoff, the Capitals dominant forecheck suffocated the Carolina Hurricanes for much of the game on Friday in a 3-2 preseason win. The game was the final preseason game in Washington as the Caps’ three remaining contests all will come on the road.

Here are three players who impressed in the home preseason finale.

Ilya Samsonov

Samsonov faced only 15 shots from a clearly outmatched Hurricanes roster, but he looked impressive in the few times he was tested. The save of the night came in the second period when he denied Julien Gauthier on a breakaway.

Gauthier attempted the old Peter Forsberg move and skated to his right while trying to craftily tuck the puck in to the left. Samsonov slid with Gauthier, but stuck out his stick to deny the shot and make the tremendous save.

Samsonov continued to demonstrate his comfort playing the puck with his stick as he also denied a scoring opportunity with a well-timed poke check and was always quick to play the puck when it came behind the goal line.

One area in which he was not comfortable was the glove. There were multiple occasions in which he was able to get a glove on the puck, but was not able to catch it creating dangerous opportunities for Carolina’s offense.

The Hurricanes managed only seven shots on goal through the first two periods, but managed some more pressure in the third. The shutout bid was ended in the third when Brock McGinn followed up his own rebound to score Carolina’s first goal of the game. The second goal came on a fluky bounce off the backboards that Janne Kuokkanen was able to whack behind Samsonov before he could get a glove to it.

While Todd Reirden likely hoped Samsonov would be more tested than he was, he was up to the task with 13 saves.

Brian Pinho

The Caps recorded three goals on the night and Pinho had two of them.  In the first period, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby created a turnover on the forecheck. Feeling the pressure, Fredrik Claesson tried a hopeful clear that was cut off at the blue line by Pinho who skated in and tucked the puck through the 5-hole of goalie Anton Forsberg. He scored again in the third period on the power play when his shot deflected off of Jake Bean and took a favorable bounce up before dropping into the net.

Pinho led the Capitals with five points in three games at the 2019 Prospect Showcase, but at 24 years old, he would be expected to play well. He faced slightly better competition on Saturday and still was able to produce with two goals on the night.

Richard Panik

One of the newest Caps, Panik has looked extremely comfortable in both of his preseason games thus far. He was again strong on the penalty kill where he logged 1:35 of ice time. He also looked strong offensively.

Panik played very heavy below the goal line which suits the Caps’ offensive cycle the team likes to utilize. He also showed good vision as, in the third period, he was able to fight off a check and literally kicked the puck out to a wide-open Tavis Boyd in the slot.

With Panik and Carl Hagelin together, the Caps should have a much more formidable penalty kill this season.

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