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Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

Key Caps questions: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing long-term?

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: Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?

Tarik: When a player has a career year and it coincides with the final year of his contract, the reaction from some fans and media is often a sarcastic, ‘Well, of course he did.’

And I’m sure there are some folks who wonder about Carlson’s breakout season and whether there was a connection between the uptick in his production and the potential of an enormous payday.

Indeed, the 28-year-old established highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68) and ice time (24:47). He was outstanding in the postseason, too, amassing five goals and 15 assists while playing solidly in his own end to help lead the Caps to their first championship.

The financial reward came a couple of weeks later when he signed an eight-year, $64 million contract to remain in Washington.

Which brings us to today’s question.

It’s obviously impossible to say for sure what’s going to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he had another big season. Why? A few reasons:

  • As good as he was, last year wasn’t a total outlier, either. Carlson racked up 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists) in 2014-15, which was tied for fifth best among blue liners that year.
  • He was at his best last season skating with trade deadline addition Michal Kempny. Kempny, of course, also re-upped, agreeing to a four-year extension. So, in theory, Carlson should be able to pick up where he left off.
  • Carlson has credited Todd Reirden with helping him take his game to new heights. Well, Reirden is now the guy in charge of the whole operation. How could that not help?
  • A major reason Carlson puts up so many points is his role on the power play. And that unit, which really hit its stride in the postseason (29.3-percent), returns all five skaters.
  • Carlson has also been pretty durable, which is critical to being productive. In fact, last season he skated in all of the Caps’ games for the sixth time in eight full-time seasons.

So, yeah, it’s all setting up nicely for Carlson to have a strong 2018-19.

To me, the only unknown is whether he’ll have the same hunger and determination now that he’s got long-term security and that previously elusive championship ring.

Again, that’s impossible to predict. But I can tell you this: Over the course of two decades in this business, I’ve covered lots of players who inked life-changing contracts. With a few of them, I had immediate concerns.

I have no such reservations about Carlson's ability to play up to his new deal, particularly in the first several seasons of it.

JJ: There's nothing wrong with a player being motivated by a new deal, but I am always wary when players have career years on the last year of their contract.

The issue is whether or not a player can continue to play at the level they showed when a new contract is no longer a motivating factor. After signing a new deal for eight years and $64 million, Carlson won't have to think about money or contracts for a long time.

When it comes to motivation, a lot of the questions surrounding the Capitals this year will depend on how they react to winning the Cup. Of course everyone wants to repeat, but psychologically will they come into camp more motivated than ever to defend their title or will they be satisfied with finally winning it all?

For Carlson, there are several reasons to be hopeful. Tarik went over a number of those reasons above, but the two biggest for me are Michal Kempny and Todd Reirden.

This season, Carlson will have Kempny as his partner to start, rather than a cycle of practically every left-handed defenseman on the ice depending on the situation. Second, what Mitch Korn is to goalies, Reirden is to defensemen. With him as the head coach, I believe the ceiling for Carlson will only continue to climb.

Let's also go beyond the numbers. Matt Niskanen suffered an injury early last season that forced Carlson into a primary role on both ends of the ice. He was playing nearly 30 minutes a night and, with two rookies on the blue line who Barry Trotz did everything he could to shelter, those were very hard minutes. Yet, Carlson excelled. The offensive upside was always there, but the way he played defensively was a revelation.

While Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen will remain a solid pair for the Caps, I believe Carlson will be the guy heading into the season which will mean more minutes and more responsibility.

Plus, despite what he meant to the team's defense and despite leading all defensemen in points with 68, Carlson was not selected to participate in the All-Star Game, he was not one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy and he was not among the four defensemen named to the end of season All-Star team. His incredible season earned him no recognition at all other than his new contract. A $64 million contract is a heck of a consolation prize, but his season deserved more recognition than that.

You don't often see a player of his caliber enter a season with a chip on his shoulder, but Carlson should have a fairly sizable one.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

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Capitals vs. Predators: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

Capitals vs. Predators: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

After sitting out the Capitals' 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens due to a suspension for skipping the All-Star Game, Alex Ovechkin returns to game action on Wednesday for Washington's home contest against the Predators.

Nashville has dropped three of its last four while the Capitals are riding a four-game winning streak.

Here's everything you need to know before puck drop.

CAPITALS vs. PREDATORS: HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Capitals vs. Nashville Predators

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: Wednesday, January 29, 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Capitals-Predators game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Predators game on NBC Sports Washington live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

CAPITALS-PREDATORS TV SCHEDULE:

6:30 PM: Caps Faceoff Live

7:00 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:30 PM: Capitals vs. Predators

10:00 PM: Caps Postgame Live

10:30 PM: Caps Overtime Live

CAPITALS-PREDATORS INJURY REPORT:

Capitals: None

Canadiens: Ryan Ellis (upper body/OUT), Colton Sissons (upper body/OUT)

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What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

With Alex Ovechkin’s one-game suspension over, the NHL now once again faces the seemingly impossible task of trying to find a way to stop the Great 8. Even at 34 years old, Ovechkin remains one of the top goal scorers in the NHL with 34 on the season. He is currently on pace for 56 goals which is almost unfathomable for a player of his age.

Many players in the NHL catch fire before defenses begin to figure them out or until Father Time catches up to them. Coaches and defenses figure out ways to keep star players in check. But not Ovechkin.

“You feel like you're covering him, but he always finds a way,” Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. “He needs just a tiny bit of room to score goals and that's why he has so many goals.”

Not only is Ovechkin the leading active scorer in the NHL by a wide margin -- he leads second place Patrick Marleau by 133 goals -- but he is such a prolific scorer that he could potentially make a run at the untouchable goal record held by Wayne Gretzky.

It is not as if Ovechkin is catching anyone by surprise at this point. Teams know what they are in for when they play the Caps and still they cannot find a way to slow down this grey-haired, 34-year-old veteran player.

It is not hard to figure out the biggest reason for Ovechkin's success: his shot. Once Ovechkin gets his shot off, it is hard for a goalie to get in front of it.

“He's not afraid to put anything on net,” Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. “He's got a really good release and if you give him space, he'll take it and he'll make you pay for it.”

“It kind of curves, changing direction every time so it's pretty hard to stop for a goalie,” Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. “Like knuckleball, right? So it's very hard to stop.”

Knowing that his shot is so lethal, the focus of a defense must be to prevent him from getting his shot away in the first place. Doing that, however, is easier said than done.

“It's always a challenge playing against him,” Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He's got that mean streak to his game. When he's coming at full speed it's going to hurt. He gets physical, he gets into the game more. He's always going to get scoring changes, that's how good they are as a team and that's how good he is.”

“He just can score from anywhere inside the blue line so you've got to get up on him,” Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano said. “ It's been pretty impressive to watch him over the years. You sort of think teams would come up with a gameplan to stop him, but you can't.”

That’s a feeling Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy can relate to.

“[The power play] is where I think you have the biggest challenge with that group of five guys and how to frustrate him, maybe to taking that shot away,” Cassidy said. “Five-on-five, we'll play him like anybody else, try to get a body on him as much as possible.”

It is essentially accepted around the league that if you give Ovechkin an opportunity with the puck, he is going to be able to find a way to get his shot off and get on the scoresheet. He does not need much room to shoot and when he does, it's lethal.

There is only so much you can do when a power forward of Ovechkin's size comes barreling down on you. If you play him too tight, he can create space with his physicality. Play him too loose and he will fire shots from anywhere.

That leaves a defense with only a few strategies.

“Try to keep the puck out of his hand is one thing, stay out of the box is another thing,” Hedman said. “He's got that quick release, he's got that one-timer down to a T obviously. … It's just trying to eliminate them to a few a game. You look at a game sheet and he's got 14 shot attempts and two goals. A good player's going to find the net if they get that many chances, so try to eliminate the shot attempts and try to keep the puck out of his hands.”

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