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20 Offseason Caps questions: Which bottom-six forwards should the Caps protect from Vegas?

20 Offseason Caps questions: Which bottom-six forwards should the Caps protect from Vegas?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.     

Each NHL team has a couple of options to consider when deciding which players to protect in this month’s expansion draft: seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie; or eight skaters (forwards and defensemen) and one goalie. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan recently confirmed that he intends to use the 7-3-1 formula and that he’s already determined 10 of the 11 players who’ll be included on his list. Teams must submit their protected list to the league by 5 p.m. ET on June 17, and it’s expected to be made public the following day. We know the team will protect its stars like Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom, but what about the depth forwards?

Today's question: Of the Caps’ bottom-six forwards, which two should MacLellan protect?

Sorenson: I have a love-hate relationship with the expansion draft. I love the intrigue, but I hate the hypothetical questions! Since I’m being forced to choose two forwards to protect from the bottom six, I’m going with the two centers: Lars Eller and Jay Beagle. I’ve covered this team for too many years when they were searching for [name that line] center over and over again. For the first time in as long as I can remember, this team’s strength is down the middle, with four exceptionally talented centers who know and accept their roles wholeheartedly. In order to contend with Pittsburgh, the Caps need to keep that strength in the middle on all four lines, and Eller and Beagle are key in that regard.  They are both among the best faceoff men in the league and contribute to their respective lines success by making their wingers better. Losing any strength up the middle would be detrimental to the Capitals, as I’m not sure they have a young center in Hershey ready to step in and be effective right away.

RELATED: Several prospects could crack Caps' lineup next season

Regan: First, I do not consider Andre Burakovsky a bottom-six forward. I know he spent most of the season on the third line, but he is a player with top-six potential and one who almost certainly will be protected. That narrows the choice to Daniel Winnik, Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, Tom Wilson and Jay Beagle. Let’s work backward. Winnik is a UFA and the team is unlikely to re-sign him so he’s out. Beagle is an important player to the Caps, but he will turn 32 in October and is only signed for one more season. You would hate to risk losing him, but if you can only protect seven forwards I don’t see enough value to merit protecting. That leaves Connolly, Eller and Wilson. Center depth has long been an issue for Washington and I would not risk losing a third-line center, especially one as talented as Eller. Over the course of last season, I never considered Wilson being a player who merited protection…until the playoffs. He had such a huge impact on that Toronto series and showed there is still some breakout potential there. He will never live up to being the 16th overall pick, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful and productive player. Connolly could be an intriguing target for Vegas given the fact that he’s 25 years old and an RFA, but I am more comfortable exposing him over Wilson or Eller.

El-Bashir: I'd protect Eller and Wilson and leave exposed Beagle and Connolly. Here’s why: Eller, 28, is durable, in his athletic prime and put up numbers similar to those he produced in his six previous NHL seasons. In short, he pretty much delivered the stability at third line center that MacLellan had hoped to get. Wilson, meantime, took his game to another level in the playoffs, scoring three goals vs. Toronto. Do the Caps advance without No. 43’s heroics in Games 1 and 4 of the opening round? I’m not so certain. He did not register a point against the Penguins, but man, that Maple Leafs’ series was an eye-opener for me. It makes you wonder how much more untapped potential is there, particularly when you consider Wilson is only 23. Listed at 6 foot 4, 217-pounds, Wilson also brings an element of size, snarl and physicality that would surely be missed and not easily replaced by anyone currently in the organization. Taking all that into account, I simply couldn’t risk losing Wilson. Leaving Beagle exposed wouldn't be an easy decision given his prowess on draws and the penalty kill. But if I’m forced to choose between a 31-year-old faceoff/penalty kill specialist and a 23-year-old former first round pick that just helped turned a playoff series around, I’m going with the latter.

MORE CAPITALS: Caps' ECHL affiliate falls in Kelly Cup Final

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Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?


Key Caps questions: Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

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 the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?

Tarik: The term ‘Stanley Cup Hangover’ exists because, well, it’s a real thing. And the Caps, like all teams that battle into early June, are vulnerable to suffering from it next season.

Why? Think about it. No. 1, the core group just completed the longest season—106 games—of their lives (and, somewhere, the party is still going). No. 2, the top guys aren't exactly a bunch of spring chickens. No. 3, human nature.

A little more on that last one. Alex Ovechkin and Co. have spent the entirety of their professional hockey careers chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup. And now they have it. At long last. Hoisting the Cup was as much a moment to cherish as it was a gigantic relief for a team that had been labeled perennial underachievers. Shifting gears from that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment back to hunger and determination is difficult.

Something else that worries me a bit? They don’t have experience dealing with a truncated offseason. Rest and recovery matter. And they aren’t going to get much of either this summer.

All that said, they don’t have to stumble through the 2018-19 season. If you're looking at things from the optimist's point of view, the Cup run did something for Ovechkin and his teammates that none of the previous failures could: It showed them EXACTLY what it takes to play deep into the spring.

Eleven out of 12 forwards from the championship squad are expected back. Five of six defensemen and the goalie are returning, as well. Sure, they’ve got a new head coach, but he’s been here for four years already, giving him a huge advantage over a bench boss who’s starting from scratch. So there’s continuity and chemistry already built in.

I look at it like this: The core guys who’ve been around a while—Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Holtby, etc.—have a rare opportunity before them. After coming up short for so many years, they’ve been gifted an extraordinary chance to make up for lost time over the next 12-24 months. In fact, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Eller, Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov, Kempny and Holtby have two more years together, as a core, before the next round of tough decisions will need to be made.

But it’s going to be up to them. Are they going to be satisfied with one Cup? Or will they get greedy? I’m betting on the latter.

Regan: The Capitals could enter next season hungry, motivated, in the right mindset, completely prepared in every way to avoid a Cup hangover and it may still happen. Why? Because the Capitals (and Vegas for that matter) will enter next season with less time to rest, recover and prepare after a grueling playoff run than any other team in the NHL.

First things first, no, I do not think the Caps will struggle because they are are partying too hard this summer and won't be ready for the start of the season.

It took a long time Washington to finally reach the top of the mountain. It won't be lost on Alex Ovechkin, or any of the veterans, that the year he came into training camp early and in really good shape, that was the year he was able to lead his team to the promised land. Considering all the struggles, all the early playoff exits, all the years it took to finally win, I expect the veterans will look at how they prepared last season and take that lesson to heart going into camp. Those players will enter the fall in as good a shape as the time they have this offseason will allow them to be.

But this team is not just composed of veterans of the Ovechkin era who suffered through all of those postseason struggles.

What about the youngsters? Will Jakub Vrana have the same motivation as Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom to show up to camp ready next season? What about Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey? If any of the team's young players aren't exactly in "game shape" by the fall, they won't be the first and they certainly won't be the last to struggle with early career playoff success.

There's also a new head coach to consider. In a lot of ways, I think coming into the season with a new coach in Todd Reirden will help. I don't expect too much adjustment under a coach the team knows very well, but I do expect more motivation at the start of the regular season than you usually see from a team coming off a championship.

There are a lot of reasons why the Caps could actually avoid a Cup hangover, but the fact is that time puts them at a disadvantage. Even if they overcome all the other factors, there's nothing they can do to suddenly give themselves more time to recover and to train. For that reason alone, I do expect a few early-season struggles from the defending champs.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?

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Capitals' T.J. Oshie had so much fun golfing, drinking through shirt again at celebrity golf tournament

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Capitals' T.J. Oshie had so much fun golfing, drinking through shirt again at celebrity golf tournament

Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo may have won the American Century Championships celebrity golf tournament this weekend, but T.J. Oshie definitely had the most fun.

Using the Modified Stableford scoring format for the tournament — which included several pro and retired athletes, such as Steph Curry, Aaron Rodgers, Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer, Charles Barkley and Joe Pavelski — Oshie finished with 11 points, tying for 48th with NFL Hall of Famer Tim Brown and Golf Channel host Lisa Cornwell. 

But the Capitals' winger's score didn't really matter because Oshie was out on the Lake Tahoe golf course in Nevada just having fun with his family and continuing the epic celebration as a new Stanley Cup champion. Obviously, that meant playing and chugging a beer through his t-shirt as 'We Are The Champions' played.

His brother, Taylor, was his caddy, and at one point, Oshie borrowed his brother's beer helmet while putting. He sunk it, and it was amazing.

Yeah, Oshie had a great weekend. Here's a look at some other moments from his weekend on Lake Tahoe.