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20 Offseason Caps questions: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up?

20 Offseason Caps questions: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up?

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.     

From purely a talent standpoint, the 2016-17 Capitals’ roster was arguably the deepest ever assembled in Washington. That, however, won’t be the case next season as the cap-strapped Caps are forced to say goodbye to a few productive players this summer and backfill those holes with younger and less experienced replacements. That, in turn, is going to put more pressure on returning core players to step up in order to compensate for that lost production.

Today’s question: Which veteran do the Caps most need to step up next season?

Sorenson: It’s hard to believe I’m about to call Tom Wilson a veteran, but after four years in the league, this 23-year-old is now a veteran. The right wing had a bit of a coming out party against his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the playoffs this season as his move to the third line brought out the best in the young winger. Wilson has had two straight seasons with seven goals, but two years ago he finished with 23 points, this past season he had fewer assists and recorded 19 points. I would like to see Wilson step up and grab hold of that third line right wing position next season. He has the ability and talent to score 15-20 goals a season, and his net front presence is desperately needed for the Capitals to score more goals. Playing on a third line with Lars Eller should at least double Wilson’s goal output, if not increase it even more.  He has established himself as one of the toughest forwards to play against physically, now it’s time to use his physical game to step up offensively.

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Regan:  Does a 22-year-old Andre Burakovsky count as a veteran? The Caps may well lose T.J. Oshie and will almost certainly lose Justin Williams to free agency. That is 57 goals worth of production the team must account for next season. Where are those goals going to come from? This team’s younger players are going to be asked to take more responsibility next season and you can put Burakovsky at the top of that list. He is going to have a top-six role and may even see time on the top line, judging by how Barry Trotz used him at the end of the postseason. Washington needs him to be a 20+ goal scorer and a consistent point producer, something he has struggled with throughout his career. It starts with having the right mentality in the offseason. Burakovsky has struggled with early-season slumps in the past as he does not always come into camp in the greatest shape. That needs to change. He needs to be 100-percent committed at all times from the offseason through the postseason. The Caps may need him to be a top-six player next season, but that is a role that a player ultimately has to earn.

El-Bashir: My answer may seem a bit obvious, but it needs to be said anyway: Alex Ovechkin is, without a doubt, the veteran the Caps most need to step up next season. He wasn’t happy with his production this past season (33 goals, including 16 at even strength—his lowest in a non-lockout year) and neither was GM Brian MacLellan, who said bluntly, “I think he had a down year.” The question now is whether Ovechkin’s goal total will continue to decline or whether he’ll find a way stabilize his production and finish the next few seasons as a top-10 goal scorer. He wasn’t far off this past season; one more goal would have pushed No. 8 into the top-10. For that to happen next winter, he’ll have to lay the groundwork this summer. Ovechkin will be 32 in September and he’s logged a lot of hard miles given his rugged style of play and the additional wear-and-tear from international tournaments. He’ll need to adjust his offseason approach accordingly—he knows it and the Caps know it, too. MacLellan mentioned recently that Ovi needs to adapt to the times and add more speed training to his June and July regimen. Ovechkin, himself, said that he needs to work harder this offseason, seemingly acknowledging that he must compensate for getting older. When I spoke to 35-year-old Justin Williams last summer about maintaining quickness and explosiveness, he told me that he’s worked hard to shed a few pounds and it has helped. It’s unclear if Ovechkin, who is listed at 239-pounds, plans to follow suit but it probably wouldn’t hurt as he attempts to keep up with a game that’s getting younger and faster. As they say, Father Time is undefeated. Will the Caps' most expensive player be proactive and begin fighting back? They had better hope so.

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin dresses as Darth Vader for charity

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

The Capitals took care of their last major order of business this summer by signing restricted free agent Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract extension. 

The deal: Two years, $6.7 million with a salary-cap hit of $3.35 million. That’s not bad for an RFA who posted 24 goals in his age 22/23 season.

Washington now has 13 forwards under contract and six defensemen plus both goalies. According to the invaluable web site, that leaves salary-cap space of $935,706. That's tight. 

The Capitals need to add one more depth defenseman to get to seven. Christian Djoos received a qualifying offer of $715,000, but as an RFA himself elected to go to arbitration. That hearing is July 22. Chandler Stephenson, another RFA, also chose arbitration. The forward has his hearing on Aug. 1. There might be room only for Djoos unless another move is made. 

During his age 22/23 season, Vrana broke through with a career-high in goals (24) and points (47) and established himself as a legitimate top-six forward on an aging team that needs its young talent to produce if it wants to continue as a Stanley Cup contender.

With captain Alex Ovechkin, 33, center Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and right wing T.J. Oshie, 32, in the top six, Washington has kept a good mix with Vrana, 23, Tom Wilson, 25, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 27, all still in their 20s. Vrana, especially, plays at a speed few others on the roster other than Carl Hagelin can match.  

Since the 2010-11 season, a player who began a season 22 or younger scored 24 goals just 95 times. The list of 55 players who accomplished that feat is littered with stars (Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall) or young phenoms (Sebastian Aho, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel) and there are very few one-hit wonders or busts on that list. 

At worst, those players have provided steady production for several seasons. The Capitals are hoping for a lot more from Vrana, who scored his 24 goals and got his 47 points with limited power-play time (93:28) on the second unit. 

That might not change much this year, but it’s intriguing to think what Vrana could do if injuries strike and he’s moved up. He was on the ice for 59 goals at even strength and just 37 against, which was the best differential among all Capitals forwards last season.   

The two-year bridge contract is no real surprise. The Capitals took the same tact in 2017 with Andre Burakovsky, their 2013 first-round draft pick. But Burakovsky, while he scored some huge goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, struggled to maintain consistency in his game and never had a year like Vrana’s 2018-19. He was traded to Colorado last month in part because of the salary-cap crunch and he just drove coaches crazy for the better part of five years.

Vrana is in essence betting on himself. If he is able to make another leap and get to that 30-goal mark, he will still be a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season at age 25, but one with vastly more leverage. He would be arbitration eligible. He was not eligible this summer. He would be in line for a big payday on a long-term deal from Washington - or would have just two years left before unrestricted free agency after the 2022-23 season.

A similar RFA case happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward Kasperi Kapanen this summer. The Leafs gave their young winger a three-year bridge deal worth $9.6 million and a $3.2 million salary-cap hit. They, too, were facing a tough salary-cap crunch. Kapanen was the 22ndoverall pick in 2014. Vrana was 13ththat same year. Kapanen had 20 goals and 24 assists (44 points) this past season. Vrana gets more power-play time, but Kapanen kills penalties (125:22).    

So Vrana in the end received a little more money than the Kapanen deal and can re-set his contract sooner if he breaks out big. Washington believes that he can and will because Vrana’s skill is undeniable. 

Go back and look at some of his best goals from last season. They often came off the rush when opposing defenders simply couldn’t deal with him or when he snuck behind a defender for a rip off and a scoring chance. He is almost always the last regular on the ice after practice. He’s scored a big goal in a Stanley Cup clincher.

The Capitals now have a balanced top nine with a solid mix of veterans and in-their-prime players. Vrana still has to prove he can build on the promise of last season and his pointless playoff series against Carolina in April, while allowing for a possible shoulder injury, shows his game isn’t a finished product quite yet. 

But Vrana is the one young under-25 forward on the roster – likely in the entire organization – who has the raw talent to become a 30-to-40 goal, 60-to-70 point player. That’s the package the Capitals hoped they were taking in the first round five years ago. Now we will see if Vrana can get there. 



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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

Jakub Vrana has made it through his entry-level contract and signed a new deal Tuesday for two-years, $6.7 million.

To celebrate his new bridge deal, we look back at the top 5 moments from Vrana's last three seasons with the squad.

5: Vrana's first goal

Against the Buffalo Sabres on the road, Vrana introduced himself to Capitals fans with a tap-in off an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed to beat Robin Lehner.

It would be the first of 40 goals he's scored in his young Caps career.

4: Pick-pocketing the Flyers

They say the best offense is a good defense, but Vrana didn't have to settle on this goal.

With a nifty poke check at the Caps defensive blue line, Vrana went full blast towards the Philadelphia Flyers defense, beat them, then roofed a shot for his 13th goal of the season.

3: Helping to lift the curse against the Penguins

Vrana scored his first-ever playoff goal against the Penguins during the 2018 Stanley Cup run, but it was his Game 5 dagger that put Caps fans on their feet.

Thanks to a cross-crease feed from Alex Ovechkin, Vrana was able to slot the puck past Matt Murray in the dying minutes for the game-winning goal. The Caps would add two more, going on to win 6-3.

2: Stanley Cup Celebration

It's no secret the boys partied hard after they won the Cup in 2018, and Vrana presented us with one of the greatest moments during the epic celebration. 

This moment with Joe B. will never, ever get old. The party continued at the Stanley Cup parade a couple days later. 

After a solid show along the parade route, Vrana graced us with his stellar dance moves.

1: Game 5 Stanley Cup Final opening goal

Big players come up in big games, and Vrana proved to be one of those players in the Capitals' 2018 Stanley Cup run.

In enemy territory against the Vegas Golden Knights with the Stanley Cup on the line, Vrana powered down the ice and roofed a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the opening goal of Game 5.

Here's to hoping we see many more big moments in the years to come from Jake the Snake.