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Capitals' depth at center hinges on Backstrom's health

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Capitals' depth at center hinges on Backstrom's health

With players starting to trickle into Kettler Capitals Iceplex from all corners of the world, we’ll spend this week looking at the depth chart at each position and expectations heading into what promises to be a very interesting 2015-16 season. Today, we’ll start with the Caps’ center position:

Nicklas Backstrom

Age: 27

Games 82

Goals: 18

Assists: 60

Points: 78

Plus-minus: Minus-5

Penalty minutes: 40

Power play goals: 3

Power play assists: 30

Average ice time: 20:31

Faceoff winning percentage: 53.6

2015-16 cap hit: $6.7 million

Analysis: It’s amazing to think Backstrom finished third in scoring among NHL centers (behind John Tavares and Sidney Crosby) while battling through a hip injury that first began bothering him in November and required offseason surgery. His recovery from that May 27 surgery is crucial to the Capitals’ success this season.

By all indications, Backstrom is on schedule with his rehab and the Caps are hopeful he will be cleared to play in the club’s season opener on Oct. 10, if not before.

Entering his ninth NHL season, Backstrom said at the conclusion of last season that he would like to improve on every area of his game. Playing alongside Alex left wing Alex Ovechkin and right wings T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams should make Backstrom more productive at even strength, where he managed 15 goals and 30 assists last season.

Backstrom could also cut down on his minor penalties. He ranked tied for fifth on the club with 19 minors, which was down from 27 the year before under Adam Oates. Only Tom Wilson (41), Brooks Orpik (33), Ovechkin (29) and Matt Niskanen (21) had more minor penalties than Backstrom last season.

Like many of the Capitals, Backstrom’s overall success this season will be reserved until after the playoffs, where he struggled last spring. After posting three goals and three assists in the first four games against the Islanders in Round 1, Backstrom was held to no goals and two assists in the next 10 playoff games.

Projection: No matter how invasive, recovering from hip surgery is no easy task and Backstrom’s time off the ice could bring his production down a tick. That said, the Swedish center is in the prime of his career and should be surrounded by enough talent to put up at least 15 goals and 70 points.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Age: 23

Games: 80

Goals: 11

Assists: 26

Points: 37

Plus-minus: Plus-10

Penalty minutes: 24

Power play goals: 4

Power play assists: 9

Average ice time: 13:19

Faceoff winning percentage: 44.6

2015-16 cap hit: $3 million

Analysis: A stickler for details, especially in the defensive zone, Barry Trotz made Kuznetsov earn his way onto the second line last season by starting him off on the fourth line and slowly increasing his ice time. By the end of the season Kuznetsov had grown into one of the Caps’ most dynamic offensive players without giving up much of anything on the defensive side.

The challenge now is for Kuznetsov to build off his strong playoff performance, where his five goals were tied for first on the team with Ovechkin.The difference between Kuznetsov and other NHL sophomores is his experience as a pro. The Russian center is approaching his seventh professional season and it could be a breakout season for him statistically, especially if he is flanked by talented wingers Andre Burakovsky on the left and Justin Williams on the right.

Projection: In giving him a two-year, $6 million contract the Caps clearly expect big things from Kuznetsov this season and with increased responsibilities and ice time it’s not unreasonable to think he can score 20 goals and set up another 40 this season.

Brooks Laich

Age: 32

Games: 66

Goals : 7

Assists: 13

Points: 20

Plus-minus: Minus-2

Penalty minutes: 24

Faceoff winning percentage: 43.9 

Shorthanded ice time: 2:10

2015-16 cap hit: $4.5 million

Analysis: The question here is whether Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle or Marcus Johansson will wind up as the Caps’ third-line center. If Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky are the Caps’ top two left wings, would it be wise to move Johansson back to center and use him on the third line?

Is Jay Beagle, who is coming off a career-high 10 goals, ready to take on third-line duties?

Or is Laich finally at a point where he is capable of being a productive two-way center again, the way he was from 2007-10 when he averaged 23 goals and close to 50 points a season?

You have to go back to 2011-12 to find Laich’s last productive season, when he played in all 82 games and finished with 16 goals and 25 assists for 41 points. The Caps would be happy with that kind of production from Laich at the third-line center spot, especially if he helped set up Johansson on the left and Tom Wilson on the right.

Projection: Laich would need to report to camp in excellent shape and rediscover his scoring touch to earn a spot on the third line. But don’t expect Barry Trotz to show a lot of patience, especially with Beagle and Johansson chomping at the bit for more ice time.

Jay Beagle

Age: 29

Games: 62

Goals: 10

Assists: 10

Points: 20

Plus-minus: Plus-6 

Penalty minutes: 20

Average ice time: 12:48

Average penalty kill time: 1:51

Faceoff winning percentage: 56.5

2015-16 cap hit: $1.75 million

Analysis: Despite missing 20 games due to injury and a few healthy scratches, Beagle netted a career-high 10 goals and 20 points and landed himself a three-year contract extension. 

The Caps see him as a solid fourth-line center who can kill penalties and move to either wing if necessary. Beagle sees himself as a third-line center who can make defensemen think twice about turning and retrieving pucks. Either way, Beagle has earned the respect of his teammates and coaching staff and will see valuable ice time this season.

Projection: A late bloomer, Beagle will re-set his offensive goals and shoot for 15 goals and 15 assists this season. If given third-line duties that may be attainable, but as a fourth-liner the Caps would be happy to take another 10 plus 10 from Beagle this season.

Michael Latta

Age: 24

Games: 53

Goals: 0

Assists: 6

Points: 6

Plus-minus: Plus-4

Penalty minutes: 68

Average ice time: 8:22

2015-16 cap hit: $575.000

Analysis: Like Beagle, Latta wants a bigger bite with the Capitals this season, but with an abundance of experienced forwards he’s likely to fill the role as the club’s 13th forward. Latta is an excellent “energy” player who works hard in practice and is willing to drops the gloves, but he will need to work on his foot speed to become an NHL regular with the Caps.

Projection: If the Caps are healthy down the middle Latta should be used in a role similar to last season. But if Backstrom is not ready to start the season, he could move up to the fourth-line center spot. Wherever he is used Latta will need to show more offensive upside if he hopes to stay on the Capitals’ roster all season. 

MORE CAPITALS: Nathan Walker gearing up for Caps' training camp

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GM Brian MacLellan: Capitals are close to re-signing John Carlson

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GM Brian MacLellan: Capitals are close to re-signing John Carlson

DALLAS—The Caps are “really close” to signing star defenseman John Carlson to a long-term extension, GM Brian MacLellan said Friday night.

“We’re getting closer,” MacLellan said following the first round of the NHL Draft. “Hopefully we can get it done here over the next few days. We’re really close.”

Earlier in the day, the Caps cleared significant space under the salary cap ceiling by trading Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to Colorado for a second round draft pick (47th overall). 

That space will now be used to lock up Carlson, who could become the best defenseman on the open market if he were to reach it.

MacLellan met with Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, here on Thursday night.

MacLellan did not divulge any figures, but it’s expected that Carlson’s new contract could come in at eight years and $8 million per—or perhaps a bit more. 

He earned $4 million last season.

Carlson had a career year in 2017-18 and was critical during the Caps' run to the Stanley Cup. He led all defensemen in the regular season with 68 points (15 goals, 53 assists). The 28-year-old also skated a career-high 24:47 per game.

MacLellan has long said that re-signing Carlson was the Caps’ top priority this offseason. And now it looks like that could happen within days, assuming the talks do not hit any snags.

“We’re going to do our best to sign John,” MacLellan said. “We’ve said it all along. We waited until the end of the year. We’ve had discussions. We’re close and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”

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Capitals go to the WHL again, select defenseman Alex Alexeyev with first-round pick

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Capitals go to the WHL again, select defenseman Alex Alexeyev with first-round pick

The last time the Washington Capitals had a first-round draft pick, they selected a WHL defenseman. They did not go off script on Friday.

With the last pick of the first round, selecting for the first time as defending Stanley Cup champions, the Capitals selected Alexander Alexeyev, a left-shooting, two-way defenseman from St. Petersburg.

Alexeyev, 18, certainly boasts NHL size at 6' 4", 196 pounds. He currently plays for Red Deer in the WHL, a junior league that has become a major pipeline for the Capitals. In his second season with Red Deer, he tallied 37 points in 45 games.

The NHL Central Scouting's rankings list Alexeyev as the 22nd best North American skater of the draft. TSN projects him to be a top-four, two-way defenseman.

Analyst Craig Button described Alexeyev as a "Smart, effective defenceman who moves the puck, plays with a calm and doesn't make things complicated for himself."

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