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Can Kuznetsov adequately replace Backstrom?

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Can Kuznetsov adequately replace Backstrom?

With Nicklas Backstrom uncertain over whether he’ll be ready for the Capitals’ Oct. 10 season opener following offseason hip surgery, 23-year-old Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov will be thrust into the spotlight as the Caps’ top-line center.

And while the second-line center is hesitant to talk about his ability to handle the added pressure, his teammates are willing to speak for him – and for the need for Backstrom to take his time with his rehab.

“I know guys that have had (hip surgery) and come back feeling great,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But I’m sure like any injury things can be delayed and it could be stiff and it might take a while. But (Backstrom) is young enough (27) where he should be fine and when he’s ready to play he’ll be good. He’s that kind of player.”

As for Kuznetsov, who finished his first full NHL season with 11 goals, 26 assists and a plus-10 rating, Niskanen said he’s excited to see what he’ll do with the opportunity of playing with top-line talent like Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie.   

“He proved it,” Niskanen said. “He got better and better as the year went on and played his best in the last 20 games and in the playoffs. That’s a good sign. I don’t think anyone is questioning who’s going to be in that spot after the last couple months (of last season).

“Now the challenge for him is to still keep getting better. Can he keep going? He may flat line for a month or something, but he looks good. He’s smiling every day and I’m not worried about him at all. He’s going to have a really good year again.”

Taken by the Caps with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 NHL draft, Kuznetsov made Caps fans wait until the final month of the 2013-14 season to get a glimpse of his talent. He finished that season with five goals and two assists in 17 games under Adam Oates.

When Barry Trotz replaced Oates the following season, Kuznetsov won the job of second-line center and grew stronger as the season wore on, finishing tied with Ovechkin with a team-high five playoff goals.

“I think it’s going to be his best year because last year helped him a lot to be more NHL-ready,” said Caps’ right wing prospect Stan Galiev, who played on a line with Kuznetsov on Russian national teams. “He’s a game-changer, for sure.

“He knows the system and he’ll be more ready. He’s going to have more goals, more points. And he’s a leader. He’s something special and we’re lucky to have a guy like him on our team.”

Kuznetsov declined to talk much about the improvements he’d like to make in his game – “We have coaches to talk about that,” he said – but he admits he can be better than he was last season.

“I know my bad side and what I have to do better,” he said. “I want to be better. Every hockey player wants to be better every day. I’m young and I want to win something, right?”

Kuznetsov spent most of last season on a second line with left wing Marcus Johansson and right wing Troy Brouwer. Ideally, the Caps would like to see him centering a second line with Marcus Johansson or Andre Burakovsky on his left and Justin Williams on his right. But Kuznetsov says he’s willing to play with anyone the coaching staff deems compatible.

“It’s hard to say right now but my mentality is I’m ready to play any position,” he said. “Every guy is important to our team.”

And that includes, Backstrom, Kuznetsov said.

“I hope Nicky gets ready for the first game,” he said. “You always want to see your best center to play first game because if you see the last five games, (teams) battle for wild card, one point. You don’t want to lose those points in the first few games. You need those points. Sometime one point and you’re out.”

MORE CAPITALS: Backstrom won't rush his return

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NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

NHL Power Rankings: Not every night is a big-time game for the Capitals

There was a lot of excitement to start the season for the Caps. First, there was the home-opener and the banner raising against the Boston Bruins. Then there was a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the rival Penguins. After that, it was a Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Vegas Golden Knights.

And all of that was followed up with a trip to Newark.

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

With all due respect to New Jersey, given the slate the Caps faced to start the season, it was no real surprise to see the team struggle to get up for Thursday’s game against the Devils, a game in which the Caps were blown out 6-0. Of all the games Washington faced to start the season, the trip to New Jersey was definitely the least exciting.

But not every game is going to be a big rivalry matchup or a playoff rematch. With every team gunning for the Caps, they better make sure they can get themselves ready for the grind of an 82-game season that won’t always feature a big-time matchup.

A trip to Newark may not be flashy or exciting, but it still counts as two points.

The Caps dropped the game in New Jersey and lost a tight contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Where do they stand now after two straight losses?

FIND OUT HERE IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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Tom Wilson deals with the physical and mental challenges of a lengthy suspension

Tom Wilson deals with the physical and mental challenges of a lengthy suspension

As the players began to trickle onto the ice at MedStar Iceplex Sunday for practice, Tom Wilson was already hard at work. He was working 1-on-1 with skills coach Dwayne Blais. It’s just part of the process for Wilson as he tries to stay sharp both physically and mentally through his 20-game suspension.

“[Wilson] and I have talked about different ways to get himself game ready and I talked to a skills coach about coming in a couple days early to work with him individually 1-on-1,” Reirden said.

“I think we’re just focusing on using this time to improve my game,” Wilson said Sunday, speaking to reporters for the first time since his suspension was announced. “You know, as bad as it sounds, it’s almost a little bit of an extension off of the summer. It was a really quick summer. It’s a time period for me to be able to work on my game and work on some things. I feel like the last couple days I’ve learned a lot from [Blais]. I feel good, and we’re going to continue to work on that so we’re even better when I come back.”

Just when Wilson will be able to come back is still up in the air.

Wilson was suspended 20 games for a preseason hit to St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist. If it stands, that suspension will keep him out of the lineup until Nov. 21 when the team hosts the Chicago Blackhawks. Wilson, however, has appealed his suspension and will have a hearing with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Thursday.

“It’s definitely an experience that you hope you never have to go through,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of learning. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by lawyers and stuff like that.”

A 20-game suspension is certainly severe, but the league decided to throw the book at him because this was his fourth suspension in 105 games.

In addition to the clear indictment from the league, Wilson has faced a lot of criticism from around the hockey community. But among all the challenges he faces as he deals with the suspension, dealing with the criticism he is getting about the type of player he is certainly is not one of them.

Wilson cares about his team, his teammates and his coaches, but he certainly does not care what others think about him or the type of player he is.

“People can really say whatever they want,” he said. “If I don’t know them or I don’t really care about them their opinion doesn’t have too much weight on how I feel on any given day. There is a lot that goes into this stuff. There is a lot that goes into every hit, every situation and a lot of people just jump right to that conclusion and attack you. That’s part of the business that we’re in. You just have to keep moving forward and be yourself and stay positive and kind of drown out that bad noise.”

In addition to Thursday’s appeal, Wilson will also have the option of appealing to a neutral arbitrator.

Even if the suspension is reduced, Wilson will still likely be out of the lineup for some time. For a player who was on the verge of starting his season on the top line with a big new contract after a career-year, the mental challenge of being stuck on the shelf has been tough to deal with.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “There hasn’t been a minute or a day that goes by when you’re not kind of thinking about the situation and all that, but I’m fortunate enough where I get to come to the rink with a bunch of great guys, a great coaching staff, a great organization that’s been supporting me and been there for me. Friends and family and a lot of the people who reach out that have your back and support you and say really nice things, those are the people that balance all of the other stuff. I’m appreciative for that.”

Wilson does not travel, but he is allowed to practice with the team. Though he still remains suspended he is also focused on staying in shape so when he is allowed back on the ice, he will be ready to go.

“You have to be ready,” he said. “I’m training like I am today expecting that maybe I’ll be in there tomorrow. I just have to have that mindset. Obviously, that’s not realistic but that’s something that I’m trying to focus on and improve when I can with skill coaches and stuff like that but keep my conditioning and work ethic up and keep my focus up in making the right plays in practice and battling hard out there. Being a part of the group and staying in the same sort of routine. You have to make sure you do whatever you can so when that adjustment period when I come back is short-lived and I’m right back into it.”

 “His work ethic, every time he’s able to practice with us, it helps improve the whole level of our practice so I’m always excited when he’s out there,” Reirden said.

As hard as Wilson is working to be ready for his return, that won’t mean much if he can’t stay on the ice. Regardless of what happens with his pending appeal, the fact is, the next suspension Wilson faces will be even more severe than the 20-games he now faces. That makes it imperative that when he is able to return, he does everything he can to stay in the lineup and avoid that next suspension.

Though he could not speak directly on his hit due to his pending appeal, he did acknowledge he needs to change his game to avoid any further discipline from the league.

“The hitting aspect of the game is definitely changing a little bit, and I’ve got to be smart out there, and I’ve got to play within the rules,” Wilson said. “And at the end of the day, no one wants to be in the situation that I’m in right now. I’ve got to change something because obviously it’s not good to be out and not helping your team.”

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