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The number one reason you should watch Caps-Islanders: The debut of Ilya Samsonov

The number one reason you should watch Caps-Islanders: The debut of Ilya Samsonov

The Capitals take their 1-0-0 record to Long Island on Friday for the home opener of the New York Islanders (0-0-0).

You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live at 6 p.m. and Caps Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. before the game at 7 p.m. Stick with NBC Sports Washington afterward for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

I could talk about how this is Washington’s first game of the season against a divisional opponent or how the Islanders finished just one point shy of the Caps in the standings last season. I could talk about any number of things, but really there is one reason Caps fans should watch this game and it’s a big one.

Samsonov is making his NHL debut

Pheonix Copley was placed on waivers Wednesday signaling that Samsonov will start the season as Braden Holtby’s backup. With the Caps playing a back-to-back on Friday and Saturday, the highly touted goalie prospect will get his first-ever NHL game on Friday against the Islanders.

Samsonov, 22, played well in the preseason and it is important to get him playing time this season with Holtby on the final year of his contract and his future uncertain. Not only did Samsonov play well, but one thing that was evident in the preseason is he seems to have a presence in net. It is not just him keeping the puck out of the net, it is seeing him there and knowing you are going to have to work your butt off to get anything past him. At 6-foot-3, he has good size and incredible athleticism.

Caps fans could be watching the team’s next starter take the crease Friday night.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Semyon Varlamov is expected to start for the Islanders. If he does, that means two of the three goalies the Caps have picked in the first round of the draft in the history of the franchise will be in net facing off against one another.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals - Can the Caps be dethroned?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers - Will splashy signings propel them into playoffs?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Rangers - Will splashy signings propel them into playoffs?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Rangers.

In February 2018, the Rangers did a very un-Rangers-like thing. The team sent a letter to their fans declaring the plan to rebuild the team. Now just over a year later, it did not take long for New York to make a splash in the offseason again.

The Rangers landed the prize of free agency in Artemi Panarin, added free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba, drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall pick in the draft and traded for prospect defenseman Adam Fox. They also managed to avoid a restricted free agent standoff with Pavel Buchnevich.

All these moves combined put the Rangers among the most improved teams in the league. It did not take long, but New York was able to shift its team from a group of veterans not good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup to a team full of youth and potential.

The future certainly looks brighter for this team in the future than it previously had, but despite all the improvements there are still plenty of questions about the present roster.

While New York certainly got younger, star goalie Henrik Lundqvist did not.

Lundqvist had an up-and-down season last year. His first half of last season was good enough to get him to the All-Star Game. He struggled in the latter half of the season and finished with a save percentage of only .907 and a GAA of 3.07. He is not a goalie who seems to do well taking a backseat, but Alexander Georgiev played well enough to earn more playing time. All of this makes it difficult to determine just what the split between the two netminders is going to be heading into this season.

In front of the crease, the additions of Trouba and Fox look like they will give the Rangers two new top-four defenseman to plug in. That should certainly help a team that ranked 23rd in the NHL last season in goals against per game with 3.26 and could potentially take some of the pressure off Lundqvist.

Mika Zibanejad returns as the team’s top center after what was easily his best season in the NHL with career highs in goals, assists and points. He was seen as a second-line center going into last season, but certainly took advantage of the larger role offered by New York. The concerns over whether he can handle a top-line role may not be as prevalent as last year, but I still seem him as a poor man's No. 1 center.

The offense is also likely to lose some of its depth before the start of the season due to salary cap constraints.

The Rangers sit with just $1 million remaining in projected cap space and still have RFAs Brendan Lemieux and Anthony Deangelo left to sign. When looking into what the team's options are for freeing up space, you have to wonder if players like Chris Kreider and Vladislav Namestnikov -- who are both entering the final year of their contracts -- could both be moved before the summer is over.

Panarin is a great addition and undeniably a superstar, but he cannot carry a team by himself. When he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets and became the offensive focal point of the team, he was only able to lead the Blue Jackets to a single playoff series win in his two seasons there. That was a much deeper team than the Rangers appear to be if they should lose Kreider or Namestnikov.

Money decisions will continue to loom over this team even after a decision is made on those players. The cap situation was dire enough that the Rangers bought out the remaining two years of Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract. While he was underperforming, the combined buyouts of Shattenkirk, Dan Girardi and Ryan Spooner will leave New York with $5,394,444 of dead cap space in 2019-20 and nearly $7.5 million of dead cap space in 2020-21. These are not just bad contracts that can be packaged in a trade and sent away, that is dead cap space that the team is stuck with. That is a massive amount for a team that sure looks like it wants to compete for the playoffs sooner rather than later.

You still have to count the Rangers among the most improved teams this offseason, but the hill they had to climb and still must continue to climb may have been much steeper than many anticipated. There is still a lot of work left to do in Manhattan.

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