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Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

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Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

It’s been a while since defenseman Aaron Ness felt he had a legitimate shot at earning an NHL roster spot.

“It’s exciting,” said Ness, who’ll be in the lineup Monday night as the Capitals open their seven-game preseason slate in New Jersey. “Anytime there’s a couple of spots open, it always amps it up a bit.”

Ness signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2015 knowing Washington had a roster stocked with veteran D-men and that he’d likely spend the majority of his time with their minor league affiliate in Hershey. And that’s exactly how it’s played out. Two seasons ago, he saw 62 games in Hershey and eight in Washington. Last season, he played 51 games for the Bears and two for the Caps.

This year, however, things are much different.

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The Caps have five defensemen on one-way NHL contracts, which leaves two spots up for grabs if you include the spare.

As such, the competition over the next couple of weeks figures to be fierce, with Ness duking it out with prospects Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Jonas Siegenthaler and journeyman Jyrki Jokipakka, who is on a professional tryout.

“You obviously have to prove yourself; that’s what camp is for,” Ness said. “For me, it’s showing what I can do and showing what I bring to the table.”

Ness’ experience gives him a slight edge over the youngsters; he’s played 39 NHL games since 2012, including 20-game call-up with the Islanders in 2013-14. But it’s his mobility and top-notch skating ability that could end up putting him on the Caps’ opening night roster.

“He’s been really solid down in Hershey and when he’s come up he’s played really well for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The game has gone to skating, so no question, he is a guy that we have some trust in.”

Ness, who is listed at 5-10, 184-pounds, added: “That’s my game there--skating is huge for me. I’m not the biggest guy in the world.”

Asked to describe his game, he said, “I try to make a good first pass out of the D-zone, defend well and then jump up and create as much offense as possible.”  

At 27, this also represents Ness' best opportunity of earning an NHL job—and hanging onto it—since he was selected by the Islanders in the second round of the 2008 draft.

“This is the first time where there’s actually been spots available when I’ve been to a camp,” Ness said. “It’s for sure one of the best opportunities I’ve had so far. It’s an exciting time.”

Trotz says he sees a player who needed some additional seasoning in the minors but now appears “ready” to challenge for a full-time role in the majors.

“Different players take different opportunities at different times,” Trotz said. “He’s ready. If he continues to play well, he’ll definitely be in the mix.”

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

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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.

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