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Key Caps questions: Will Wilson make more headlines for his goals or his fists?

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USA TODAY Sports

Key Caps questions: Will Wilson make more headlines for his goals or his fists?

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 Tom Wilson make more headlines this season for his offense or physical play?

Tarik: Tom Wilson is coming off his best season to date—and he’s about to get paid.

In 2017-18, the 24-year-old power forward established career highs in goals (14), assists (21), points (35), plus/minus (+10), penalty minutes (187) and ice time per game (15:59), while finding a home on Alex Ovechkin’s line. He also ranked fourth in both hits (250) and penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.78).

In 21 playoff games, Wilson was one of the Caps’ most productive players, racking up five goals and 10 assists.

It was a pretty good year, indeed.

But it wasn’t a perfect one.

Wilson was also assessed a league-leading 41 minor penalties. And then there were the run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. In all, Wilson was suspended three times, including a three-game ban in the playoffs, for hits the league deemed illegal.

That last part, to me, is what makes Wilson such a difficult player to assess at this point in his development.

The arrow is pointing up in so many areas. His offensive game is coming, as evidenced by the sharp uptick in his point production last season. He fills an important and difficult role on the Caps: skating on the right side of a line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He's become a quality PKer. He puts opponents’ heads on a swivel, opening up space for his skilled linemates. He draws a ton of penalties, putting the Caps’ potent power play on the ice. He’s got leadership qualities, too.

But he’s also in George Parros’ crosshairs…and one questionable hit away from a potentially lengthy suspension.

Wilson MUST play with an edge to be effective. It’s his game. It’s in his DNA as a player. But it’s also critical that he develop a better feel for the fine line that separates a clean, hard, intimidating hit from one that’ll get flagged by the DPoS.

It’s his biggest challenge going forward.

I’m optimistic that he’ll make the necessary adjustments. Why? He’s a smart guy. He studies the game. He asks questions. And, if he's being honest with himself, I suspect he knows he’s got to dial it back, even if just a bit.

If he does, he’ll be making headlines for the right reasons next winter because Wilson hasn't hit his ceiling yet.

JJ: Let's consider first who we are talking about. This is not a Donald Brashear, Georges Laraque type of player who can fight and do little else. Wilson is a first-round draft pick and an important player to the Capitals. As Tarik mentions above, he set career highs in just about every offensive statistic last season. But if you want to really gauge his importance to the team, look at what happened when he was suddenly taken out of the lineup.

When Wilson was suspended three games in the playoffs for his hit to Zach Aston-Reese, Barry Trotz struggled to find someone to plug in on the top line. Devante Smith-Pelly was not a good fit while Jakub Vrana's offensive style left the line imbalanced and offense-heavy.

Wilson is not going to be a top point producer in the league, but he showed with 35 points last season that he is not simply an offensive anchor weighing the top line down. He's a good fit with Ovechkin and Kuznetov and we should expect to see him start the season there.

But can Wilson stay out of his own way when it comes to drawing the ire of the Department of Player Safety?

Prior to last season, you could defend Wilson because he had never been suspended and was not considered a repeat offender. Well, you can't use that argument anymore after he was suspended three times last season. The opposing players know who he is, the referees know who he is and everyone is watching.

Here's why I am not concerned. Wilson was suspended in the preseason and said he was not going to change his game. Another preseason incident cost him the first four games of the regular season and Wilson very quickly changed his tune. It looked like it was going to be a rocky season, but he was not suspended again for the entire regular season. It only became an issue again once the playoffs came around and emotions ran high.

Wilson studies the game and the DoPS very closely in order to keep his game just on the right said of legal. His biggest issue seems to be controlling himself when the playoffs roll around. But when it comes to the regular season, a top-line Wilson is poised for another big offensive season. He will drop the gloves a time or two, but I do not anticipate him getting into too much trouble with the league over the course of the season.

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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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