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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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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

With the St. Louis Blues’ victory on Tuesday, the Stanley Cup Final has officially been set. The Blues will face the Boston Bruins as both teams will battle to supplant the Capitals as the Stanley Cup champions.

St. Louis finished off the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday with a 5-1 Game 6 win and will now look to win its first ever Stanley Cup. One has to wonder whether that game was the last time we will see the 39-year-old Sharks forward Joe Thornton on the ice. For the Blues, this is the first time they have reached the final since 1970, snapping a 49-year drought. They made the final in each of their first three seasons as the NHL grouped all of its expansion franchises into a single division.

St. Louis is now the first team in league history to go from last place in the league in January to the Stanley Cup Final.

This season will be a rematch of the 1970 final in which the Blues were swept by the Bruins. That series gave us the iconic moment of Boston great Bobby Orr soaring through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal in overtime of Game 4.

The Bruins have been waiting since Thursday to learn who their opponent would be after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to win the East. Boston will be going for its seventh Cup and first since 2011. Goalie Tuukka Rask was brilliant in that series with a .956 save percentage and a 1.25 GAA. The long layoff, however, could potentially cool off Rask and the red-hot Bruins.

The New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets both swept their first-round opponents and both lost in the second round. The Hurricanes swept the Islanders in the second round and were then swept by Boston. The Bruins will have to shake off the rust as quickly as possible as the final begins.

Boston will have home ice in the final and will host Games 1 and 2 before the series shifts back to St. Louis.

Here is the final schedule:

  • Game 1 in Boston, Mon. May 27
  • Game 2 in Boston, Wed. May 29
  • Game 3 in St. Louis, Sat. June 1
  • Game 4 in St. Louis, Mon. June 3
  • Game 5 (if necessary) in Boston, Thurs. June 6
  • Game 6 (if necessary) in St. Louis, Sun. June 9
  • Game 7 (if necessary) in Boston, Wed. June 12



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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

Russia finished group play undefeated on Tuesday night after a 7-4 win against Sweden. Ovechkin scored his second goal of the tournament in the victory. Despite just three points from Ovechkin through seven games, the Russians have out-scored their opponents 36-7 overall. 

They advanced to the quarterfinals on Thursday where they will play the United States. Given its play so far, Russia is favored to win gold but nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they win and the gold-medal game is set for Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest before preparing for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.”