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McKenzie hopes to take flight with Caps


McKenzie hopes to take flight with Caps

Its probably fair to say that every player attending the Capitals development camp this week has overcome an obstacle or two on their way to getting invited to Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

But getting dropped off in the middle of the Rocky Mountains for an entire week with just one meal in his backpack?

Adam McKenzie, a 22-year-old free agent defenseman from the Air Force Academy, is one of the most unlikely invitees to the Capitals camp, which continues through Saturday.

A year ago, he and eight other cadets were left in the mountains to the west of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs with one simple instruction: Survive.

Halfway through, we split into groups of five and four, he said. I lost 14 pounds, dropped from 180 pounds to 166. It wasnt fun, I can tell you that.

Neither was six weeks of basic training two summers ago, a time McKenzie recalls being just miserable.

This week, thanks to Capitals scout Wil Nichol, McKenzie is spending a third of his three-week summer leave from the Academy trying to convince the Capitals hes good enough to sign to a pro contract.

McKenzie, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound native of Petaluma, Calif., was midway through his sophomore season at Air Force when he was introduced to Nichol following a game at Canisius College in Buffalo.

He came up to me and said hes been watching for a while and wanted to invite me to this camp, McKenzie said.

McKenzie finished the season with two goals and 16 assists in 39 games and despite being the first prospect out of Air Force to attend a Capitals rookie camp, he has not looked out of place.

There are things to improve on but I definitely feel comfortable here, McKenzie said. I dont feel Im playing out of my league at all.

As a northern Californian, McKenzie had to travel more than 50 miles to play in competitive leagues. He started in a Santa Rosa B program, moved up to play at Tri Valley and played Triple A midget hockey for the San Jose Junior Sharks.

After graduating from high school, McKenzie played two years under former NHL defenseman Paul Baxter with the Wenatchee Wild of the North American Hockey League, then enrolled at the Air Force Academy.

Although hes never flown an F-16, McKenzie said the Air Force hockey team travels by cargo plane.

Well sit in jump seats the whole way, he said. Its not the most comfortable, but it gets us there quick.

McKenzie said this is his second trip to the D.C. area. Two years ago he toured Andrews Air Force Base and attended two Nationals games.

At both of them they gave military there long standing ovations, he said. You absolutely get that kind of respect here.

McKenzie plans on returning to play another two seasons for Air Force, but wouldnt mind spending part of his three-week leave next summer at another Capitals development camp in Arlington.

Id absolutely give that up to be here, he said. This has been an amazing experience and something Ive always dreamed about.

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Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

Key Caps questions: Is Evgeny Kuznetsov a superstar?

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: Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?

Tarik: Yes, without a doubt, Evgeny Kuznetsov has made the leap from a very good player to a superstar.

And you know when it happened?

It happened over the course of 56 unforgettable days this past spring.

Kuzy has always possessed the talent to be one of the game’s most impactful players. His 83 regular season points, in fact, marked a career high and put him just inside the NHL’s top-20 in production.

He indeed had a very good regular season. But to me, superstars are the players who are in the national sports conversation. The guys who come to mind immediately when you think about a particular team. Guys who can single-handedly break open a game or a playoffs series. Guys who’ve received a major NHL award or have been recognized with a trip to the All-Star Game. For the Caps, those guys have been Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby for the last several years.

Kuznetsov, 26, became a member of that group in the playoffs.

Ovechkin took home the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it easily could have gone to Kuznetsov. I know because I wrestled with the decision to put Ovi over Kuzy for days prior to casting my vote.

Here’s why I had such a tough time:

  • Kuznetsov led the Stanley Cup-winning team (and the entire postseason) with 32 points…five more than Ovechkin.
  • Kuznetsov scored arguably the most important goal of the run…Game 6…in OT…vs. the archrival and two-time defending champion Penguins. Without that clutch tally, we’re having a different discussion today.
  • In addition to being the most productive Capital during the playoffs, I also felt he was the most consistent from game to game. In fact, Kuznetsov recorded at least a point in all but one of the Caps’ final 13 postseason contests. And that one game? Game 2 vs. Las Vegas, and he left after just a few shifts due to a shoulder injury.

Kuznetsov is no longer the dude who centers Ovi’s line. Kuznetsov is now his own dude. He’s progressed from a star-in-the-making to just a star.

And here’s the best part: when fans outside of Washington get a load of his, um, weirdly unique and outrageously funny personality, his popularity is going to explode.

JJ: Sorry Tarik, but you are wrong. Dead wrong.

Oops, I should clarify. You're not wrong about Kuznetsov being a superstar, you're wrong because it didn't happen last spring. He already was one.

I don't know what people have been watching over the past few years, but in my book, Kuznetsov graduated from very good to superstar a long time ago, it just took the 2018 playoff run for most people to notice.

Perhaps we have a different definition of "superstar." To me, national recognition has no bearing on whether a player is a superstar talent. Heck, Backstrom has been a superstar for years with hardly any recognition at all. Maybe expectations were high for Kuznetsov given how long Washington had to wait to get him out of Russia and how good he was in the KHL and because of that, people withheld praise. But the fact is he has shown throughout his career, and not just last spring, that he is a superstar.

At the age of 22, Kuznetsov had a breakout performance in the 2015 playoffs with five goals and seven points in 14 games. We all remember his series-clinching goal against the Penguins, but that was not his first. He also scored another clutch, series-clinching goal in Game 7 against the New York Islanders in 2015. During this year's playoff run, I asked him a question about the Pittsburgh overtime goal and I called it the biggest of his career. He corrected me and told me he still considered the game-winner against Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders to be his biggest.

In only his second full season in the league, Kuznetsov rattled off 77 points to lead the Caps. He finished tied for ninth in the entire NHL that year ahead of other superstars like Vladimir Tarasenko, Anze Kopitar, Tyler Seguin and two guys named Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Yes, there was the year in which he managed only two points in 12 playoff games, but his repeated success to this point in his career shows that postseason was very much the exception and not the norm.

So to answer the question, yes, Kuznetsov is absolutely a superstar. It just took awhile for people to notice.

Other key questions

How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?

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Alex Ovechkin takes home ESPY for Best Male Athlete

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Alex Ovechkin takes home ESPY for Best Male Athlete

Alexander Ovechkin's offseason continues to be one for the books. 

Just a week removed from celebrating with the Stanley Cup in Moscow, Ovechkin was named Best Male Athlete Wednesday night at the 2018 ESPYs. 

The 32-year-old is the first NHL player to win the award since it was first introduced in 1993. 

"The Great Eight" beat out Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. 

Ovechkin was not in Los Angeles to accept the award.