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Capitals blue line braces for life without Green

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Capitals blue line braces for life without Green

With players starting to trickle into Kettler Capitals Iceplex from all corners of the world, we’re spending this week looking at the Capitals’ depth chart at each position and what we can expect heading into what promises to be a very interesting 2015-16 season. Today, we’ll analyze the Caps’ defensive depth:

John Carlson

Age: 25

Games: 82

Goals: 12

Assists: 43

Points: 55

Plus-minus: Plus-11

Penalty minutes: 28

Power play goals: 3

Shorthanded goals: 1

Game-winning goals: 3

Average ice time: 23:04

Shorthanded time on ice: 2:57

Power play time on ice: 1:44

Blocked shots: 200

2015-16 cap hit: $3.96 million

Analysis: Without question, Carlson is coming off the best all-around season of his six-year NHL career. He established career highs in goals, assists and points while finishing third in the NHL in blocked shots (200). Credit Carlson for his long hours spent with Caps assistant coach Todd Reirden, who helped him fine-tune the little things in his game, like retrieving pucks off the wall and getting shots through traffic while off-balance.

Projection: Carlson will return to a top pairing with Brooks Orpik and look to improve on a very strong 82-game season, his fifth straight season of playing every game for the Capitals. With Mike Green now in Detroit, look for Carlson to work more closely with Alex Ovechkin on the power play and build on his assist totals. With the players around him, 15 goals and 50 assists are within Carlson’s reach.

Brooks Orpik

Age: 34

Games: 78

Goals: 0

Assists: 19

Points: 19

Plus-minus: Plus-5

Penalty minutes: 66

Average ice time: 21:47

Shorthanded ice time: 2:47

Hits: 306

Blocked shots: 192

2015-16 cap hit: $5.5 million

Analysis: On the ice and off, Orpik gave the Caps everything they expected when they signed him to a five-year, $27.5 million contract last summer. A warrior on the ice and in the weight room, he provided the stay-at-home, hard-hitting blue liner the Caps have lacked for years. Because of his dedication to diet and training, Orpik has shown no deterioration in his game and should be able to handle top-unit minutes for at least another season.

Projection: Still looking for his first goal in a Capitals uniform, Orpik is well overdue to eclipse last season’s total. He reportedly is recovering well from offseason wrist surgery and is on target to begin training camp with no restrictions. The Caps will need another big season from Orpik if they hope to crack the safe on an elusive championship.

RELATED: What will Backstrom's absence mean for Burakovsky?

Matt Niskanen

Age: 28

Games: 82

Goals: 4

Assists: 27

Points: 31

Plus-minus: Plus-7

Penalty minutes: 47

Average ice time: 22:21

Power play ice time: 1:03

Shorthanded ice time: 2:17

Hits: 143

2015-16 cap hit: $5.75 million     

Analysis: Feel free to flip-flop Niskanen and Orpik on the Caps’ defensive depth chart. Both provide different but valuable assets to the Caps’ blue line. While Niskanen’s numbers dropped from his last season in Pittsburgh (career highs of 10 goals, 36 assists, plus-33) to his first season in Washington, he led the Caps in even strength time on ice at 19 minutes and was an excellent first-pass complement to Karl Alzner on the Caps’ second pairing.

Projection: With Mike Green gone, look for Niskanen to see more power-play time and look for those offensive totals to climb closer to the numbers he put up with the Penguins two seasons ago. Eight goals, 35 assists and a plus-15 ratio seems more than attainable for the eight-year NHLer.

Karl Alzner

Age: 26

Games: 82

Goals: 5

Assists: 16

Points: 21

Plus-minus: Plus-14

Penalty minutes: 20

Average ice time: 19:25

Shorthanded ice time: 2:11

Blocked shots: 165

2015-16 cap hit: $2.8 million

Analysis: It’s fair to say Alzner did more with less last season. His average ice time of 19:25 was his lowest in five seasons but he still managed a career high in goals (5), points (21) and plus-minus (plus-14). A steady and reliable veteran who plays his position well, Alzner is capable of using his heavy shot more often and could be a little meaner in front of and behind the net and in the corners.

Projection: Alzner does enough things well that it’s hard to notice him for long stretches of a game. He is still young enough to make the subtle improvements in his game that Carlson made last season.

Dmitry Orlov

Age: 24

Games: 0

2015-16 cap hit: $2 million

Analysis: It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Orlov spent more time practicing last season than Allen Iverson has his entire life. After suffering a broken wrist with Russia in the 2014 World Championships, Orlov sat out all of last season as he tried to regain strength in his hand and wrist. Orlov has been working out at Kettler and appears to be ready to return to the dynamic player he was back in 2011-12, when he recorded three goals, 14 assists and averaged close to 17 minutes a game as a rookie.

Projection: Last summer, Reirden called Orlov the “X-factor” on the Caps’ blue line, but never got to see him in game action. Now in the final year of his contract, Orlov has the ability to draw fans out of their seats with his offensive instincts and open-ice hits. The wrist surgery may have taken some velocity off his shot, but if Orlov can stay healthy, he’s a solid No. 5 defenseman.

Nate Schmidt

Age: 24

Games: 39

Goals: 1

Assists: 3

Points: 4

Plus-minus: Minus-2

Penalty minutes: 10

Average ice time: 13:53

2015-16 cap hit: $812,500

Analysis: If not for a broken shoulder blade sustained in a rehab stint with the Hershey Bears, Schmidt might have played most of the 2014-15 season in Washington. His injury forced the Caps to add some defensive depth (Tim Gleason) at the trade deadline, keeping Schmidt in the minors, where he finished with three goals and six assists in 19 games with the Bears.

Projection: An excellent first-pass defenseman who can stretch opposing defenses, Schmidt needs to prove he can handle the physical grind of a full NHL season. Playing alongside the heavy-hitting Orlov would help, but the duo would need to limit their risk-taking for Barry Trotz to keep them together.

Taylor Chorney

Age: 28

Games: 62 (AHL)

Goals: 4

Assists: 15

Points: 19

Plus-minus: Plus-26

Penalty minutes: 42

Power play goals: 3

2015-16 cap hit: $700,000

Analysis: Chorney’s history with Todd Reirden in Pittsburgh likely had something to do with the Caps signing him to a one-year, one-way deal on July 1. Considered a solid positional player, Chorney is expected to serve as insurance in the event Orlov’s wrist does not respond to game action.

Projection: Chorney’s NHL experience is limited to 68 games over five NHL seasons, so don’t expect big things from him in his first stint with the Capitals. In fact, look for Connor Carrick, 21, and Madison Bowey, 20, to challenge Chorney for a roster spot with the Capitals at some point this season.

MORE CAPS: LW lock: Ovechkin missing only one thing on his resume

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Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Despite all the challenges of the early season, Reirden’s promotion still a ‘dream come true’

Since taking over as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, Todd Reirden has had to deal with Tom Wilson getting suspended, a number of injuries and a team-wide Stanley Cup hangover.

So how would he describe the start to his first season as an NHL coach?

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview.

Reirden’s playing career came to an end in Europe in 2007, but his coaching career really began in 2004 while he was a player with the Houston Aeros of the AHL. Out with an injury, head coach Todd McLellan encouraged Reirden to take more of a coaching role with the team. It didn’t take long for Reirden to realize his real future in the game was as a coach and not as a player.

Reirden climbed the ranks as a coach from college, to the AHL and finally to the NHL. He spent the last eight seasons in the NHL behind the bench as an assistant and associate coach before finally getting the opportunity to become a head coach.

“Something when you start coaching just as I used to think about as a player, was the ultimate was to be able to play at the highest level,” Reirden said. “I was able to do that as a player and now able to see that dream come true as a coach. First things first is it's been amazing from that standpoint.”

The history of the NHL – and all professional sports for that matter – is full of assistant coaches who just could not make the transition from assistant to head coach. There is no doubt Reirden knows what he’s doing when it comes to the development of players and on-ice strategy. The last few years working with the Caps as an assistant and then associate coach have shown us that.

But being a head coach is about more than just what happens on the ice. That’s the part that first-year head coaches seem to struggle with initially.

“How everything works behind the scenes in terms of organizationally, dealing with the salary cap and sending down players, keeping them on board and the constant contact with Hershey,” Reirden said. “You spend a lot of time on those type of things. It's been a little bit of a transition too I would say with two new staff members in terms of how I'm delegating responsibility and empowering them in their particular areas. That's probably been the things that have been the most different for me.

“The hockey part, the coaching part, talking to the players in between periods, the media, that stuff has all gone really smoothly,” Reirden said. “No real transition there. But I'd say more the stuff behind the scenes is the stuff that's been a little bit different than expected.”

Reirden is certainly getting a crash course on roster construction given the recent spate of injuries and recalls. That has unquestionably affected the play of the team and is a major reason why the Caps have looked so inconsistent to start the season. It is not how Reirden would have scripted his first season to start.

But even with everything his first season has thrown at him and a 9-7-3 record, Reirden still feels like he is exactly where he wants to be.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”