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Have Caps finally found a second-line center?

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Have Caps finally found a second-line center?

When Evgeny Kuznetsov began his first full season in the NHL, his English was halting and so was his play.

Mixed into his flashes of brilliance were moments of hesitation and indecision. There were lost one-on-one battles and risky forays into outnumbered situations.

But when his season finished, the 23-year-old Russian had established himself as a star-in-waiting.

“He filled a hole at second-line center that we’ve been trying to fill for a number of years,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said.

And now, like many of his free agents, MacLellan will need to determine Kuznetsov’s value.

By signing Kuznetsov to a two-year contract near the end of the 2013-14 season, the Caps allowed Kuznetsov to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season.

Although Kuznetsov carried a cap hit of $900,000 his performance bonuses of $1 million last season and $2.85 million this season will make his next contract negotiations interesting.

“I talk to my agent and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I got this job,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s hockey life. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m ready for any deal. The last three years I only sign a deal for one year or two years. That’s hard for me and my family. I want to stay in one city, one place and feel comfortable.”

Asked last week if he would like to remain in the NHL, Kuznetsov smiled and said, “What do you think? This is the best league in the world. I wondered what it would be like and now I know.”

Kuznetsov began the season as a fourth-line center and played in 80 games as a rookie, finishing with 11 goals, 26 assists and a plus-10 rating. By midseason he was elevated to the second line and second power-play unit and by the playoffs he was logging more than 16 minutes a game [20:55 in the Caps’ Game 7 loss to the Rangers] and finished with five goals and two assists in 14 playoff games. By comparison, Kuznetsov averaged less than 11 minutes of ice time in the first two months of the season.

“I feel comfortable,” he said. “Every practice, every game, I try to learn something, just trying to focus on my job and on my team game. Every guy on our team knows their role on our team and helped us in the season and in the playoffs, too. We didn’t do our job yet and we want to bring that for the next season.

“The coach [Barry Trotz] gives us a plan and we have to listen to him and stay with the plan. We’re a great team but we have to put more urgency in our game. It is a great team in the locker room. Out of the locker room we grow closer and that moment is very important for the team and I feel that and I learn that. I understand in my career that team is very important and right now I know one guy doesn’t win the Cup. Whole team win the Cup.”

After 41 career playoff games in the KHL, in which he recorded 13 goals and eight assists, Kuznetsov said he was not overwhelmed by the pace or physicality of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“If you hungry for practice and to play, you never feel the pain,” he said.

“I know what it is. I feel again that hurt when you lose the game and you go into the summer. I feel that my first time [in the NHL]. After every time I lose, it’s something bigger for me and I’m going to be better. I know one small mistake in a game changes momentum and gets your team down. You have to go into the summer practicing for net season because you never know when you’re going to win the Cup. To win the Cup next season you have to be ready.

“My goal is after every season go home and think about what I did good this year and I didn’t do it yet because it’s tough moment right now.”

Kuznetsov said he will return to his home in Chelyabinsk for at least a couple of weeks – “All my family miss me and want to kiss me and hug me. That moment is very important to me,” he said – before turning his attention to a new contract and another season with the Capitals.

“When I came last year I don’t know the organization and the NHL,” he said. “Right now I know organization. I know this is different lifestyle. I say if you don’t have a problem in your life, with your family and your wife and your parents, you have a chance to focus on the game and practice with your whole 100 [percent] energy. That moment is very important to a hockey player.”

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NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

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NBC Sports

NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

All eyes will be on the Caps as they begin their quest to defend their Stanley Cup title. Literally.

NBC Sports released its national broadcast schedule for the NHL regular season on Monday and coverage will begin with the Capitals' home-opener on Oct. 3 against the Boston Bruins. The nation will be able to witness Washington raising its first Stanley Cup banner to the rafters on NBCSN.

NBC Sports will present a total of 109 games in 2018-19, the most since acquiring NHL rights before 2005-06 and the Caps will be featured prominently.

Washington will appear eight times on NBCSN's Wednesday Night Hockey, the most of any team in the NHL, and four times on NHL on NBC. NBCSN will also broadcast an additional six games.

All games will be streamed live on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app to authenticated users via TV Everywhere.

Here is the Capitals schedule as released by NBC Sports:

Wed. Oct. 3: Boston at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 10: Vegas at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 17: N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Nov. 7: Pittsburgh at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. Dec. 11: Detroit at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. Dec. 19: Pittsburgh at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Fri. Dec. 21: Buffalo at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. Jan. 8: Philadelphia at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Sun. Jan. 20: Washington at Chicago, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. Jan. 23: Washington at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. Feb. 3: Boston at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Sun. March 3: Washington at N.Y. Rangers, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. March 6: Washington at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. March 12: Washington at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. March 19: Washington at New Jersey, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. March 20: Tampa Bay at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. March 24: Philadelphia at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Tues. March 26: Carolina at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*

* These games will be broadcast nationally, but will not be seen on NBCSN locally because they will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington

NBC Sports Washington remains the home of the Capitals for the 2018-19 season and will broadcast a majority of the team's games for the season including pre and postgame coverage. You can also expect extensive coverage on NBCSportsWashington.com throughout the season.

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Key Caps questions: Who will play on the team's third defensive pair?

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Key Caps questions: Who will play on the team's third defensive pair?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses 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: What will be the team's primary third defensive pairing?

Barring any PTOs or breakout performances in training camp, we can reasonably assume Brooks Orpik, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey are going to be the three players battling it out to be on the third pair.

General manager Brian MacLellan went through some salary cap gymnastics to get Orpik back for next season at a much smaller cap hit, Djoos played 22 playoff games in the Caps’ Stanley Cup run and Bowey was signed to a one-way, two-year contract for $1 million per year. Clearly, all three are expected to be on the Caps’ roster next season and play a role, but that role will be limited considering the top-four is pretty much set with Michal Kempny-John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen.

Orpik will be 38 years old at the start of the season. His on and off-ice contributions are much greater than many were willing to acknowledge, but he was never a fast player and at his age, holding him to 60 games or fewer will make him a more effective player.

Djoos and Bowey are 24 and 23 respectively and, while both are ready for bigger roles, both are far from finished products. While they may be part of the future of Washington’s blue line, putting in two young, second-year players as their own pair is a risk.

But even if head coach Todd Reirden is not ready to turn the reins over to his two young defensemen just yet, he still needs to get both players plenty of playing time.

This is why Orpik may get a lot more playing time than many people think. The best thing for both Djoos and Bowey is for them to play. If you have concerns about them playing together, however, and neither is ready to supplant anyone in the top four, then you are going to see them cycle in and out of the lineup fairly frequently to play alongside Orpik.

That’s not to say we will never see a Djoos-Bowey pairing this season. They will probably have their chances and the better they look, the longer that pair will last. If they were ready, it would be a safe assumption that they would get the bulk of games together with Orpik serving more of a reserve role.

But a Djoos-Bowey pairing would be too vulnerable to opposing offenses at least at the start of the season and so we should expect a lot of Orpik.

While Reirden will work his defensive magic to bring Djoos-Bowey along as quickly as possible, I would anticipate Orpik-Djoos will see a majority of games this season as the team’s third defensive pairing.

Other key Caps questions: