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Pheonix Copley prepares to justify the Caps’ faith in him as backup goalie

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Pheonix Copley prepares to justify the Caps’ faith in him as backup goalie

There is a lot of buzz over prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov and his first season in North America, but there’s another netminder in the system who is expected to get more NHL playing time in 2018-19 and that is Pheonix Copley.

Copley, 26, will enter training camp as the frontrunner to replace Philipp Grubauer as Braden Holtby’s backup in the NHL.

“I'm really excited,” Copley told NBC Sports Washington after an informal skate at MedStar Iceplex. “Obviously, that's the opportunity you want.”

Copley’s numbers in Hershey were not great last season (.896 save percentage, 2.91 GAA) as he had still not recovered from the groin injury that had ended his prior season. Before the injury, however, Copley has managed an impressive AHL career.

Copley told NBC Sports Washington that he feels good physically for the start of this season, which is good news for the Caps considering he has big skates to fill.

Grubauer established himself as a starting caliber goalie with his strong play as Holtby’s backup. In 2017-18, the German netminder managed a .923 save percentage and 2.35 GAA. He proved critical to the team’s success as Holtby struggled in the back half of the season due in large part to fatigue. Having a goalie as good as Grubauer to back him up allowed the team some flexibility in net.

After playing in 24 postseason games and with a shorter offseason to recover, the pressure is on for Copley to show he can be as dependable a backup as Grubauer was.

“Grubi's a great goalie and a great guy and I spent a lot of time with him,” Copley said. “But anytime you go into a season and in training camp, there's a spot you want. As a goalie, it's naturally a pressure position so it's really no different than any other year, just a different league.”

The transition from AHL to NHL can be a difficult one not just because of the quality of play, but because of the workload.

In Hershey, Copley could expect to play in around 40 games. In the NHL, he will get closer to 20.

“My first-year pro, I kind of went through that in the American League. It's the same kind of situations as you face elsewhere in pro hockey, it's just a different league this time. I'm sure the pressure and the speed, everything amps up, but really it's no different, the challenges. It's just, you've got to be that much more mentally strong and that much more ready to face your challenges.”

Adjusting to fewer games is the challenge Washington wants to avoid with Samsonov and is ultimately why the backup job is Copley’s for the taking.

In his first season in North America, the most important thing for Samsonov is to get as much playing time as possible. That will help both his transition to the North American game and his development as a goalie. Playing in 40 to 50 games in the AHL will ultimately be much better for him than riding the bench behind Holtby and getting only 15-20 games of experience, even if it is at the NHL level.

But Copley is not just a placeholder, he will have to perform.

The Capitals are the defending Stanley Cup champions and they have their sights set on a repeat. Grubauer was critical in helping Washington win the Metropolitan Division and getting Holtby rest for the playoffs. The Caps will need a similar contribution from Copley if they hope to repeat.

The backup job looks like Copley’s to win heading into training camp, but it is also his to lose.

“There's good goalies here,” Copley said, “So I'm just going to come and work hard every day and do my best and every time I get a chance, try and give the team a chance to win every time I'm out there.”

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5 things to know about the newest Capital Radko Gudas

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NBC Sports Washington

5 things to know about the newest Capital Radko Gudas

Most fans know little about Radko Gudas other than the fact that he has a reputation for being a dirty player. Here are some facts to help you get to know the newest Capital a little better.

1. Gudas has been suspended four times in his career

First the bad news. Gudas has a lengthy suspension history and is one hit away from getting a significant suspension from the Department of Player Safety. Here’s a look at all four of his suspensions:

Dec. 2, 2015: Check to the head of Mike Zibanejad, suspended two games

Oct. 10, 2016: Late check to the head of Austin Czarnik, suspended six games

Nov. 19, 2017: Slash to the head of Mathieu Perreault, suspended 10 games

Feb. 20, 2019: High-stick to the head of Nikita Kucherov, suspended two games

These plays are why Gudas has the reputation that he does.

Fans will want to compare Gudas with Tom Wilson, but really there is no comparison here. If you watch these plays from Gudas they certainly seem much more intentional than anything Wilson does.

The good news is that Gudas is working on playing a cleaner game.

“I worked on it in the summer and I thought I adjusted the game enough to still be able to play physical, just not be a liability out there for me team,” Gudas told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “It's always something hard to adjust, but we still have to do it. It's our job. If you don't hurt the team that you're playing for while doing it, that's where you can find (the line) as a player.”

This is not just lip service as Gudas’ penalty numbers have gone in each of the past three seasons, going from 116 in 2015-16 to 93, to 83 to 63 in 2018-19.

2. Gudas has had two fights against the Caps

Gudas has not been shy about dropping the gloves in his career and has done so twice against Washington.

The first instance came back on Nov. 11, 2014 while he was playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. A scrum broke out after Eric Fehr barreled into goalie Ben Bishop and Gudas and Wilson became engaged leading to both players dropping the gloves.

The second fight came this past season. In a game between the Caps and Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 8, Gudas laid a big hit on Nic Dowd and Devante Smith-Pelly immediately came to his teammate’s defense. The fight was more of a tussle than anything else as neither player could get their hands free.

3. Gudas was voted as Philadelphia’s best defenseman in 2018-19

Now on to the good news. The Caps have actually gotten a good defenseman.

When it was announced that the Caps had traded Matt Niskanen for Gudas, the initial reaction was that Washington’s defense had gotten worse, but that was a necessary price to pay considering the team needed to clear cap space. That may not be the case.

Gudas had a very good 2018-19 season for the Flyers, so much so that he was given a team award as the most outstanding defenseman as voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters.

Did it help that pretty much everyone on Philadelphia’s blue line had a bad year? Yes, there is no denying that. Gudas is not the caliber player that he should be an NHL team’s best defenseman. But he is a lot better than most people give him credit for.

Make no mistake, this was not a simple salary dump by Washington. Brian MacLellan very shrewdly freed up some cap space by bringing in a defenseman who can play at a level that is just as good if not better than Niskanen can at this point.

4. Gudas has experience playing with Michal Kempny and Jakub Vrana

Gudas is from the Czech Republic and has some experience with some of his new Czech teammates. He and Kempny played on the U18 and 20 Czech teams together. Gudas and Vrana were teammates over the summer in the World Championships which Kempny could not participate in because he was injured.

“I played with a lot of the guys throughout the years that I play in the league, but with Michal, I used to play on the national team (with him),” Gudas said. “We're the same age. We played some important games together in youth. And with Jakub, I know him from the world national team a little bit now and I think we hit it off pretty well. Looking forward to work with them, too.”

5. Gudas is family with former Cap Michal Neuvirth

Neuvirth and girlfriend Karolina Gudasova had a baby girl in September 2017. As you can guess from Karolina’s last name, she is the sister of Radko thus making him the uncle to their girl, Emilka. Now Gudas is officially Neuvirth’s brother-in-law after Neuvirth and Karolina were married which led to hilariously random pictures like this.

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Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik

Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s matchup:

Region: Capitals free agents

Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik 

 

2018-19 stats 

Brett Connolly (27 years old): 81 games played with the Capitals, 22 goals, 24 assists, 46 points, 13:20 TOI

Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, 13:50 TOI

 

Brooks Orpik (38 years old): 53 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, 15:40 TOI

Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 1 goal, 1 assist, 18:12 TOI

 

Hockey-Graph contract projections

Brett Connolly: 3 years, $3,536,091 cap hit

Brooks Orpik: 1 year, $1,150,064 cap hit

 

The case for Brett Connolly 

The Capitals have already re-signed one of their third-line free agents with Carl Hagelin’s new deal. Is there room left for Connolly? There is an argument to be made here. Connolly has made himself comfortable in Washington. He tied his career highs in goals twice (15) and then broke through with a career-best 22. And he is one of the league’s most productive players given his limited ice time. 

There are just too many big names in front of Connolly to get him much power-play time. Those 22 goals wouldn’t be easy to replace and GM Brian MacLellan said scoring depth is a concern this offseason. If he is again willing to sacrifice role for a bump in pay and some security then maybe Connolly returns to a place he re-ignited his career. The talent is certainly there as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft and Connolly is headed into his age-27 season so a three or four-year deal takes care of his prime years. 

It might be out of Washington’s hands anyway. Even if the Capitals want to keep him, other teams could use money AND ice time to entice Connolly. But can they strike gold again with another cheap third-line winger as they did with Connolly? That’s not easy to replicate. They could simply sign Connolly and take care of it, but the salary cap is tight.    

The case for Brooks Orpik

A leader, a winner, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Hard to measure what Brooks Orpik has done for the Capitals in his five years with the team. Did the Capitals overpay an aging defenseman when they signed Orpik before the 2014-15 season? Maybe. But it worked out for everyone even after last summer’s buyout and subsequent return. Orpik contributed again last season – though a knee injury limited him and bothered him most of the season. He even scored a game-winning overtime goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Some of this will depend on what Orpik wants to do. He said it would be later in the summer before he makes a firm decision on whether to play at age 39. 

But while the Capitals have solidified their blueline with the trade for Radko Gudas and have two young players – Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos – available to play the left side, it’s always nice to have a veteran there. Orpik might not want to play a limited No. 6/7 role even if Washington wants him back. And maybe the Capitals want to give those young players ice time. But Orpik won’t cost much more than they do. Do you bring him back? 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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