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

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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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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

The Capitals are going to be a bit shorthanded when they take on the Colorado Avalanche on Friday in Denver (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Washington Plus). Friday’s game will be exactly one year to the date since the Caps last played in Colorado, a 6-2 loss just two days after a 6-3 loss in Nashville. Those two games were the low point of the entire 2017-18 season forcing the Caps to rally in their return home.

Here are three things to watch as the Caps hope for a better result this year in Denver:

Injury adjustments

Prior to Friday’s morning skate, the team announced that Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby will all be out due to upper-body injuries. Holtby suffered an injury the morning of Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg while both Kuznetsov and Oshie were injured off of questionable hits from the Jets during the game.

There is at least some good news as defenseman Michal Kempny, who missed Wednesday’s game due to illness, is back in.

With all the injuries and the players coming and going, here’s a look at what the lines looked like at morning skate, per Isabelle Khurshudyan:

Alex Ovechkin – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Travis Boyd – Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Christian Djoos – Madison Bowey

Obviously a very different look offensively than what we have seen to this point.

Injuries are never good, but the silver lining is seeing who steps up when they are presented with an opportunity. Burakovsky is someone who desperately needs to break out and he is playing on a second line with a lot of skill. Boyd moving up to the third line is a player to watch as well.

Ilya Samsonov will be the backup goalie

With Holtby out, Pheonix Copley will make his third consecutive start. But the Caps won’t be using an emergency backup this time as the team has recalled star prospect Samsonov from the Hershey Bears and he was on the ice Friday morning in Denver. In a corresponding move, Jonas Siegenthaler was reassigned to Hershey, but that may be just a paper move and he will most likely stay with the team for the remainder of the road trip.

In eight appearances in Hershey this season, Samsonov has registered a 3.73 GAA and .875 save percentage. Those are not great numbers by any means, but both he and the team have improved drastically since the start of the season.

It is, of course, unlikely that Samsonov will play, but there is at least a chance of Samsonov getting into his first NHL game.

Philipp Grubauer will start for the Avalanche

Ironically enough, Colorado will have two goalies with more Capitals experience than the Caps will on Friday with Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov.

On Friday, it will be Grubauer who gets the nod against his former team and the team in which he helped win a Stanley Cup last season.

“Looking down, yeah it’s going to be weird seeing guys on the other end, but then once the puck drops it’s all about business,” Grubauer told reporters on Friday.

Grubauer has had a rough start with his new team, posting a 3.55 GAA and .893 save percentage, but despite that he also has managed a 3-1-1 record. That's a stark contrast to his start last year in which he posted incredible numbers but struggled to get into the win column early in the season.

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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

In his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd Reirden is well aware that all eyes are on him. Stepping in to coach the defending Stanley Cup champions is a favorable position in many ways, but it does mean Reirden will be under more scrutiny than most coaches in their first year.

For a first-year coach already facing pressure to succeed, it does not help that the season has already thrown a number of curve balls in terms of the roster.

“Coaching the defending champions is a unique challenge in itself,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview, “But I think for the most part that I haven't had much time to spend on that because I've been busy working on different lineups every night.”

With very few departures in the offseason, Washington was able to bring back the vast majority of its Stanley Cup winning team for the 2018-19 season, something that was considered a major strength of the team heading into the new season.

So far, however, we have seen much more roster attrition from the Caps than consistency.

Now 18 games into the season, Reirden has not had his full roster available to him at any point.

Tom Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season due to suspension, Brooks Orpik is currently on long-term injured reserve, Michal Kempny missed the start of the season because of a concussion and missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness, Travis Boyd has played in only five games due to a lower-body injury he suffered in training camp and Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch on Wednesday with an upper-body injury that required the team dress an emergency backup goalie in Winnipeg. Even John Carlson sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Things may get worse before they get better given Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wedensday’s game early with an upper-body injury, T.J. Oshie appeared dazed after getting slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey and Holtby is still considered day-to-day.

The rest of the league, however, does not care about the Caps’ suspensions and injuries. Washington does not get extra points in the standings because they have missed so many players and there are no asterisks next to Reirden’s head coaching record.

In the early part of the season, Reirden’s focus has had to shift from bringing the defending champs back to their championship form to simply surviving the team’s current roster attrition while facing questions as to why the team has been so inconsistent all the while.

Reirden has enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it's allowed us to really focus on what gives us the best chance to win, putting guys in different situations, manipulating lineups against other teams and what they have as the strengths in their lineup and how we can combat that,” he said. “So it's been a challenge from that standpoint in terms of moving our lines around and different components. That's made it a little bit more challenging, but that's the part I really enjoy is making those adjustments in house and figuring out how to set up things for success.”

Reirden has certainly not been shy about changing his line combinations or the defensive pairings early in the season as he searched to find the right fit for each spot, each situation. The return of Wilson certainly seems to have made things more clear on the offensive lines, at least in terms of the top-nine.

But while the early suspension and the team’s early injury woes have led to some early struggles and while this certainly is not the start that Reirden would have hoped for in his first season, he is taking a big picture view of it all and stressing the positives.

There’s not much more that this season could throw at the Caps that Reirden and the team has not already had to adjust to.

“It's probably been part of the reason we've had some inconsistency is because of the different changes we've had with different lines and different D-pairs,” Reirden said. “But in the long run, it'll actually help prepare us for adversity that comes to us down the road.”

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