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The only question in net for the Caps is not who the backup will be, but how much he will play

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The only question in net for the Caps is not who the backup will be, but how much he will play

As excited as fans may be about prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov’s first season in North America, it was Pheonix Copley who entered the preseason as the No. 2 goalie behind Braden Holtby.

After a strong performance in the Capitals’ first preseason game on Sunday in which he turned aside 21 of the 22 shots he faced, Copley is doing his best to cement himself as the Capitals’ backup for the upcoming season.

“He knows the challenge that's in front of him and I thought he was real solid [in Sunday’s game],” head coach Todd Reirden said to reporters Monday.

“A number of big saves early on. We were a little bit slow to get going in the game, so we needed him. We needed him in the beginning of the game. He was there for us and I thought he really sent the message in game one that he's prepared for that opportunity." 

Copley, 26, has only two games of NHL experience in his career. He does not generate the same buzz as a player like Samsonov who is believed to be the team’s starter in net. Add in a rough season for Copley in Hershey in 2017-18 and it has led many to believe there is an open competition for the backup goalie this season.

The reality is, however, that this has always been Copley’s job to lose.

As he tries to make the transition from the KHL to the North American game, getting Samsonov as much playing time as possible in the AHL will be better for his development than sitting him on the bench behind Holtby.

While Copley prepares for the NHL, Holtby will have to adjust as well to having a backup not quite as established as Philipp Grubauer to rely on. The relationship between Holtby and Copley, however, is already a strong one and Holtby is excited for the opportunity this preseason brings for his new backup.

“It’s his first chance to get a few good starts in, and my job's just to be there to support him, make sure we can work through things together,” Holtby told reporters on the first day of camp. “I can learn things from him, he can learn things from me and vice-versa.”

Regardless of how Copley plays in the preseason, however, there is risk involved with pinning such an inexperienced goalie as the team’s backup. Until he gets a few starts at the NHL level playing against NHL competition, we ultimately do not know how good he will be. Until that question is answered, we also do not know how much he will play.

Grubauer played in 35 games last season as Holtby struggled. Regardless of how good the Caps may feel about Copley as the backup, it seems safe to assume the team is not expecting Copley to see quite that much action this season. If they believed he would need to, the team likely would have considered other options.

Holtby, for his part, said he is ready to take on a larger load again as the starter.

“Hopefully I play a few more games or something like that would be nice,” he said, “But whatever it is, we're just trying to make sure that our goalie department is as good as we can be from top to bottom."

Holtby seemed to benefit from the extra rest as he elevated his game in the postseason, but he disputes that. Instead, he said it was the heavy workload of the postseason that helped him settle in.

“I'm not a guy that likes time off,” he said. “Through the playoffs was the best I've felt because I was playing every day. That's just the way I like to do it. I find it easier when I'm playing. I find it really difficult when I'm not. That's just the way I work."

With no Grubauer backing him up and Samsonov still developing, Holtby is likely to get his wish of more games.

But while Copley was a major question mark for the Caps heading into the season, Sunday’s game could go a long way towards assuaging those fears and justifying the confidence the team has put in him to be their No. 2 this season.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's next?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What's next?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

@jmachacek15 on Instagram writes: How do you think that the Capitals are going to do statistically this season?

I see a lot of potential pitfalls for this team, more so than in recent years. The NHL is unpredictable and there are always good teams that struggle more than anyone thinks they will. Having said that, this Caps' roster from top to bottom is still the best roster in the Metropolitan Division. Many of the players came to camp early and in great shape. They are flying under the radar in much the same way they were in 2017-18 and the uncertainty over the future with Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby on the final year of their contracts adds some desperation to the team's overall motivation.

I predict the Caps win their fifth-straight division title and finish in the 101-105 point range.

Bo H. writes: I have doubts about this team being a contender 5 to 10 years from now, just the way the cycle goes. So how short of a leash is Todd Rierden on if this team fails to perform?

Five to 10 years? The decline will begin long before then. I think the hope is that they will be back on the upswing by that point, not starting their decline.

Here’s the deal with Reirden. The Caps have faith in him. The team has so much faith in him, in fact, that they were not willing to meet the contract demands of their Stanley Cup-winning coach who then chose to resign as a result. Whatever you may think of what happened last season, the fact is that Reirden was put in an impossible scenario as a first-year head coach in which nothing he could do would be better than his predecessor.

I have to believe Reirden is pretty secure in his position barring a complete disaster.

The only scenario I could realistically see MacLellan considering a coaching change would be if the team struggled horribly in the early season. The Stanley Cup window is going to be firmly closed sooner rather than later. For this season, however, the team still believes they have a chance and if things are not going well early, I think MacLellan is going to try to salvage the season rather than sit on his hands and watch the window close for good. Even then, however, I do not see Reirden being the first move considered. I really don’t think he is in any trouble. This season will give a better idea of just who Reirden is as a coach and then we can re-evaluate his future.

@drew_kolb65 -- What's new with Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holby's contracts?

MacLellan met with Holtby’s agent shortly before training camp started. He had not yet met with Backstrom’s but was hoping to do so shortly. The big takeaway was that MacLellan said, “We’re going to communicate with both players. Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

That sounds nice, but both players are going to command enough money that there is no way the team can afford both without making some significant trades to move salary. At that point, you have to question whether it even makes sense to do that for two 30+-year-old veterans on an aging team.

So when MacLellan says he’s going to let things play out, I take him at his word. Things will play out and if circumstances dictate he should re-sign both, he will find a way to get it done. Until Holtby plays so well as to leave the team with no choice but to re-sign him, however, I don’t see it happening.

@mustafaclithc on Instagram writes: What's next for Braden Holtby?

If the Caps can only keep one of Backstrom or Holtby, I would assume it would be Backstrom considering the team has a goalie In Ilya Samsonov who is working up the ranks and who was originally drafted to one day take over as the starter. That will leave Holtby as a free agent.

Depending on what happens this season, Holtby should be able to command a pretty hefty contract as a free agent. From there it depends on what he wants to do. There are always teams in need of a starter. I look at a team like Calgary who has a very good roster, but for whom goaltending is a major issue. One of their goalies, Cam Talbot, is also on the final year of his deal. The other, David Rittich, is signed for only $2.75 million. A team like that may be willing to take on a big-money, long-term deal for a goalie.

Benjamin C. writes: With how well Connor McMichael or Aliaksei Protas has played over two preseason games, do you think they can play the first 3 games while Evgeny Kuznetsov is out?

We will find out on Thursday. The first round of cuts will take place Thursday and typically junior players are the first guys sent packing. Junior training camps are starting and it makes sense to send those players back since most of them don't have a realistic shot of making the NHL roster. If one of McMichael or Protas is still here after the first round of cuts, it means they are being seriously considered for those first three games.

Daniel C. on Instagram writes: Will Alex Ovechkin score 45 goals?

Ovechkin came to camp early and noticeably lean and slim. He is doing everything he can to keep performing at his current level so I do not see his production falling off a cliff the way it does with some players. Having said that, he can’t keep scoring 50 goals forever.

That’s why I like the 45-goal range. That’s about where I see him this season. I just can’t bring myself to believe he can score 50 goals again at this age, but 45 is certainly within reach.

@c.goodwin32 on Instagram writes: How much longer for Ovi?

@nathanhmalone2019 on Instagram writes: How long do you think Ovi will play and will he pass Wayne Gretzky’s goal record?

Ovechkin has had a lot of cryptic quotes in the offseason about what he may do when his contract expires which has made some fans nervous. Let me put your minds at ease.

Ovechkin does not want to play for any NHL team other than Washington. He also does not want to play unless he can continue to play at a high level. He is not going to be a Jerome Iginla and bounce around from team to team playing on the third and fourth lines for various teams until his career peters out. Part of why Ovechkin is not talking about what may happen after the next two seasons is because he is realistic about his age and that eventually, he will not be a top scorer anymore.

The other reason he has been so guarded he revealed on a recent interview on the 31 Thoughts Podcast.

In that interview, Ovechkin is asked about his future after his current contract and he says that he didn’t know if he could talk about a new deal with Washington after talking to Sergey. Some of you may have taken this as a tongue-in-cheek reference to his toddler son, Sergei, but actually he was referring to a Caps’ PR representative who also happens to be named Sergey.

Basically, he wants to be back, but he doesn’t know if he is allowed to talk about an extension yet since players are not eligible to re-sign until they reach the final year of their current contracts. The reason why he keeps being vague about his future is that he is not sure what he can and can’t say.

The possibility of the KHL is always there as you know Ovechkin would be welcomed home with open arms, but the fact of the matter is that he can go back to Russia after his play begins to slip in the NHL and still be one of the top players in the KHL. As long as he is playing at the top of his game in Washington, however, that is the only place I believe he wants to be.

As for whether he can pass Gretzky’s goal record, it is going to take another season, maybe two seasons of 45-50 goals. Knowing he does not want to play unless he is a top player, the clock is ticking even faster than we thought. I think he has a legitimate shot at beating the record, but I don’t see it happening because, even if it is within striking distance and he can still score 20 goals per season when he is 37, 38, I don’t think he has interest in doing that.

@ericperezk on Instagram writes: How many points do you think Tom Wilson will get this season? I was thinking 50-60?

Wilson had 40 points last season in 63 games. He was unbelievable when he returned from suspension so the question is whether he can find that spark again this season. He is still going to get top-line minutes, however, and, with Radko Gudas on the team, I think he is going to get the chance to focus more on his play and less on the extra-curriculars.

If I am a betting man and the over-under was set at 50 points, I would take the over. I see him getting between 50 and 60 points.

Nathan S. writes: Sounds like Evgeny Kuznetsov has down very well conditioning-wise at camp. Any sign of him (or other centers for that matter) putting in extra work on faceoffs or defense? Is improve at the dot a priority for the Caps?

@m88irish on Instagram writes: How well do you think the retooled bottom-six forwards will work together?

I see the third line becoming very difficult to score against, but I do have concerns over whether a Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik line will be able to get the type of offensive production the team hopes. I have heard from many all summer who believe Panik will suddenly become the 20-goal scorer he was in Chicago. People, Eller is a great player, but he’s no Jonathan Toews.

I like the look of that trio and, at the very least, they certainly are not going to be a liability.

I like Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. I am assuming Brendan Leipsic gets first crack at the fourth line, but I wonder if Travis Boyd is going to get more games than many would anticipate because of his offensive upside.

Overall, I like the additions. I like the look of both lines and I think they are going to be defensively formidable. At the very least, I do not believe either line will be considered a liability. The offense is going to take a step back, but if the team as a whole becomes better on defense, it won’t hurt them.

Christopher S. writes: In general I agree with your take on retired numbers, but I’d go one step further. I think there are only two numbers that should be retired: Rod Langway and Alex Ovechkin – yes, I’m going as far as saying I don’t think Backstrom should have his number retired. I think there should be a different category for these truly revered Caps.

When I originally began thinking of retired numbers, I felt the same way. Backstrom is a Hall of Fame player, but I was not sure his impact on the organization rose to the level of having his number retired. I have changed my stance on this because of one simple question: How can you tell?

Backstrom would have been one of the greatest players in Caps’ history and a Hall of Famer without Ovechkin. I don’t know what his impact would have been without Ovechkin, but what I do know is what he and Ovechkin accomplished together and I do not think you should undercut what Backstrom has done and what he has meant to the team because he is the more soft-spoken of the two which often makes his contributions go unnoticed.

Look at everything Ovechkin has done in his career and for the city of Washington in terms of success on the ice and growing the game. I am not sure how you separate his impact from Backstrom’s or if you really can. Their careers are intertwined in such a way that it is nearly impossible to separate or recognize one's impact without the other.

Don’t get me wrong, they are both great players and would have been wherever they ended up. I am not saying they needed each other to be great. Ovechkin will go down as one of the greatest players of all time and be celebrated for being one of the greatest goal-scorers across the league. But as for the organization, to truly celebrate this era of Caps’ hockey -- Rock the Red and the Stanley Cup -- I think it warrants retiring both numbers.

Joseph P. writes: With 2020 drawing near, if you had to select a Capitals All-Decade team for the 2010s, selecting two lines-worth of players (6 forwards, 4 defensemen and a goalie), who would make the cut? Who would just miss out?

These are always tricky. An all-decade team can mean a lot of different things to different people. Plus when you add in the decade, you get some good players who get cut out because the time was just off. Here’s my list based on who I believe had the biggest impact on the team over the decade:

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson

John Carlson - Matt Niskanen Karl Alzner - Mike Green

Braden Holtby

Goalie is pretty easy here. On defense, the first two guys are both righties. Deal with it. I’m not setting up a lineup and those are the two best defensemen to play for this team over the decade without question.

Hindsight colors our perception of Alzner and Green, but when you think of them when they were in Washington, they were absolutely tremendous.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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3 Caps who impressed against the Blues in preview of the season opener

3 Caps who impressed against the Blues in preview of the season opener

Nicklas Backstrom scored with less than seven seconds remaining to give the Capitals the 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday in a preseason preview of the regular-season opener. Radko Gudas and Richard Panik also scored.

Here are three players who impressed for the Caps.

1. Richard Panik

Panik got plenty of practice on the penalty kill with 4:16 of shorthanded ice time shorthanded. In that time he gave a glimpse of why he was so coveted by the Caps as a free agent.

In the first period, Panik pounced on a loose puck at the top of the faceoff circle in the defensive zone. Seeing he had room to work with, he did not just clear it down the ice and instead elected to skate up with it. He fought off the backcheck from Tyler Bozak through the neutral zone, drew an additional two Blues players to him, then drew a holding call from Bozak because he would not give up the puck.

Panik's 4:16 of penalty kill time was more than top penalty killer Carl Hagelin's 2:26, though the fact that Hagelin took two minors on the night probably had something to do with it.

Late in the game, Panik was also added to the power play as a sixth attacker with the goalie pulled. He would score the game-tying goal with just 1:09 left in regulation.

2. The goalies

Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov both played about a half of the game. It is really hard to evaluate a goalie on just 30 minutes of work, so I will give a shoutout to both as both played very well.

Vanecek got the start. He looked a little awkward at first, but settled in as the game went along for a solid performance. He stopped 13 of the 14 shots he faced with the only goal he allowed a weird deflection off of Brett Leason’s skate.

Samsonov took over about halfway through the second period and within minutes found himself defending the net on a 5-on-3 penalty kill. The penalty killers helped out their young netminder allowing only one shot on goal, but it was a good one. Colton Parayko one-timed a slap shot, but Samsonov was there to stop with no rebound. Soon after the penalty was over, Vladimir Tarasenko was all alone in front of the net, but was denied by Samsonov’s who stretched the blocker to deny the high shot.

Sanford scores on the PP. Samsonov wasn't tight against the post. Showed him too much daylight and Sanford made him pay.

Samsonov finished with 11 saves on 12 shots.

3. Connor McMichael

Boy, somebody got a confidence boost from Monday’s game. 

McMichael was given a second preseason game as a reward for his solid performance on Monday and he definitely showed off the confidence that comes along with being a first-round draft pick.

In the first period, McMichael found himself all alone with the puck on a mini-breakaway on Jordan Binnington. Just a reminder, this is the Binnington who was the starting goalie for the Stanley Cup champions.

So what did McMichael do? He skated to the front and tried the stick between the legs shot. It may not have worked, but you have to respect the confidence this kid had just to try, though no doubt the coaches probably had a few words for him in the locker room about it.

There was one area in which McMichael struggled, however, and that was on the faceoff where he lost all five draws he took on the night.

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