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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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Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Capitals center Alex Ovechkin is headed to China the week of Aug. 4 to serve as an international ambassador for the NHL, which is trying to grow its presence in that country. 

The NHL played two pre-season games in China last year between the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames. The year before the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks did the same.  

Ovechkin’s trip to Beijing will include youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings. 

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL and the NHL Players Association are hoping to generate interest in the sport in the world’s largest market. The preseason games played in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have drawn good crowds the past two years. The goal is to develop grassroots hockey programs at all levels, but especially for kids.

One other aspect of the trip: It generates publicity if the NHL decides to allow its players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 when they are hosted by Beijing. That issue needs to be worked out in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over the next year. NHL players had participated in every Olympic Games since Nagano, Japan in 1998 until the league refused to let players go to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.   

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: What adjustments will coach Todd Reirden make in his second season?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we analyze coach Todd Reirden, who was always going to have a difficult job in his first season as Capitals’ head coach given the expectations. 

The question going into 2019-2020: What lessons does Reirden pull from last season, how does a year running his own bench infuse his tactics this time around and what changes, if any, does he make in player management?

There’s nowhere to go but down when you win a Stanley Cup. You can’t do any better. Reirden knew that when he took over for Barry Trotz after Washington won the title in 2018. In many ways, he kept the ship pointed in the right direction as a rookie coach. The Capitals won their fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But the Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was a disappointment. With the Hurricanes going on to sweep Trotz and the New York Islanders in the second round there was an opportunity there for another deep playoff run and Reirden’s team wasted it.

There is plenty of good to build on. Yes, Reirden inherited a strong hand given that almost every player from a championship roster returned. But let’s not pretend everything ran smooth all year. Washington had a seven-game winless streak in January to sit on during the All-Star break. 

If you’re going to withhold credit for a talented roster that in some areas can run on autopilot, you also have to acknowledge that Reirden performed the same magic Trotz did the year before: He halted an ugly losing streak that could have sent the season spinning in a dangerous direction.  

The Capitals returned from the break and a bye week on Feb. 1 at 27-17-6. They were three points behind the Islanders in second place in the Metropolitan Division – though still six points from falling out of a playoff spot. Their position, if not alarming, was precarious. 

But Reirden’s team recovered to go 8-4-1 before the NHL trade deadline and then caught fire with help from some shrewd additions by GM Brian MacLellan. Washington finished 13-5-1 and won the Metro again.

Reirden’s crew shook off another ragged start (8-7-3) and for the second year in a row surged in late November and December. In general he gave his top players, especially Alex Ovechkin, more minutes than in previous years under Trotz. You can’t really say that backfired since Ovechkin had a dominant playoff series against Carolina. So did Nicklas Backstrom. Those plus-30 players didn’t look spent in April even if some of their teammates did. 

Maybe you can ding Reirden on the margins. Wouldn’t his fourth line have been harder to play against with Dmitrij Jaskin in the lineup? Did he bail on Andre Burakovsky too quickly? Did he not bail on Chandler Stephenson soon enough? 

But those weren’t season-changing decisions. Burakovsky wasn’t producing until the trade deadline passed and he relaxed a little, Stephenson’s penalty killing was necessary. Jaskin being glued to the bench was somewhat baffling giving that his underlying possession numbers were always strong, but he also produced zero offensively. 

In the end, assuming his players don’t fall off a cliff this season, Reirden will have a few obvious areas to address. There was a strain of thought around the NHL last spring that the Capitals were too wedded to what worked for them during the regular season and never really adjusted to how the Hurricanes were determined to play. 

That’s an age-old conundrum in the playoffs, of course. Change too much and you’ll be accused of panicking. But it was hard to ignore how badly Washington was outplayed on the road against the Hurricanes. And Carolina had a rookie head coach itself in long-time NHLer Rod Brind’Amour, who famously said during the series that coaching was “overrated.” It came down to a coin toss in overtime of Game 7 and the Capitals lost. Reirden took some heat for it.  

Washington’s coaching staff was an odd mix, but it doesn’t appear there will be any changes there. Reid Cashman, just 35 and an assistant at AHL Hershey the two years before, was in his first season as an NHL coach, too, and – if we’re being honest – had a rough gig dealing with veteran blueliners like John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. There’s not much an inexperienced coach can tell players like that. 

Scott Arniel gave Reirden an assistant with NHL head coaching experience. That proved helpful. Goalie coach Scott Murray’s role didn’t change much given that Mitch Korn had already scaled back his duties in previous years before leaving for New York with Trotz. Murray and Braden Holtby appeared to have a strong working relationship. Blaine Forsythe has been on staff for over a decade and runs the power play, which did slip some to 12thin the NHL.  

Reirden had to learn how to manage those coaches, blending a staff and finding the right way to delegate and trust. It’s a balance most rookie head coaches find tricky. A second year together should theoretically run more smoothly with roles defined and respected. If that doesn’t happen, it will spell trouble. 

At times it seemed like Reirden and MacLellan weren’t always on the same page. Jaskin was a fourth-liner picked up on waivers before the season, but was basically iced after December. Maybe that's not such a big deal. But Reirden didn’t quite seem to know what to do with defenseman Nick Jensen, either, after he was acquired from Detroit in a trade to bolster the blueline. 

Jensen never looked comfortable playing primarily on the left side once Michal Kempny was lost for the season with a torn hamstring. That’s a difficult position for any player on a new team in a pressure situation, but Jensen immediately signed a four-year contract extension after the trade so they’ll have to figure it out. Expect him to get heavy minutes as the replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pairing.   

There is probably much more behind the scenes that we don’t know – from interactions with individual players, who all have healthy egos of their own, to disagreements over strategy and tactics. NHL teams do a pretty good job of hiding those fissures, especially when they’re winning, but a coach has to figure out that balance and intuitively know when to scrap his own plan.  

In the end, much of this is nitpicking. The Capitals won plenty in Reirden’s first year, they made the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years, they took the division again and they blew a series they should have won. That happened under Trotz, too. 

But the goal this year is clear: Keep the championship window open and make a deeper playoff run. No one knows when a Stanley Cup push will happen, but Washington better be in the mix. Do that and Reirden’s reputation will grow from coaching a roster that’s changed a lot since Trotz left last summer. Fall short and doubts will begin creeping in. If there’s any lesson that Reirden learned in his first season as a head coach it was that one. 

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