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Is Stephenson ready for a shot with Capitals?


Is Stephenson ready for a shot with Capitals?

From now until the start of rookie camp in early September Capitals coach Barry Trotz will be kicking around line combinations in his head, trying to figure out who complements each other best. But when he gets to the top-line center spot, there is a pause.

With Nicklas Backstrom’s offseason hip surgery threatening to delay his start to the regular season, Trotz already has begun some mental musical chairs.

“If we do nothing right now, we can put some people in the middle,” Trotz said. “T.J. (Oshie) has even played center. We can put (Andre) Burakovsky there. (Brooks) Laich could go there.

“We’ve got some options, but at the same time I know we’re not done looking. We don’t have a lot of (cap) room, that’s more of a thing for Mac (general manager Brian MacLellan). I’m probably looking internally more. Can a Chandler Stephenson come up and play in one of the roles? We’ll look internally in our own group first but if something is the right fit, I know Mac will go out and do an excellent job like he has and fill a hole if we have one.”

With the Capitals’ salary cap space of $11 million about to be eaten up by contracts for restricted free agents Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson, the Caps’ options of signing a third-line center to replace unsigned free agent Eric Fehr appear limited.

Which brings us to Stephenson, a hard-working, versatile, 21-year-old center who grinded his way through his first pro season last year with the AHL Hershey Bears.

“You can’t help but be nervous,” Stephenson responded when told of Trotz’s comments at the conclusion of last week’s development camp. “It’s obviously a huge honor that he could see myself in a center spot. That’s unbelievable. I just have to take that in, try to be myself, and run with it.”

After netting a goal on his first shot as a pro, Stephenson went on to record seven goals and seven assists in 54 games for Bears coach Troy Mann, who used him as a fourth-line center between Liam O’Brien and Garrett Mitchell, as well as a penalty killer. Stephenson added one goal and four assists in 10 playoff games.

“Playing last year in Hershey gives me a lot of confidence and experience knowing what that’s like, how big the guys are and the speed,” Stephenson said.


Taken by the Capitals in the third round of the 2012 NHL draft (77th overall) Stephenson put up big numbers in his fourth and final year with the Regina Pats of the Western League, netting a career-high 30 goals and 89 points in 69 games.

He said adapting to a defensive role in his first season as a pro was not as significant as adapting to the hard-hitting style of play.

“You almost have to run with whatever position a coach gives you,” he said. “I had a lot of great veterans around me who helped guide me and show me the way. If I was having an off day or feeling down they were always there to pick me up.”

Stephenson’s development camp was his fourth with the Capitals and it ended with a two broken teeth and cuts to both lips, thanks to an accidental high stick by free-agent invitee Marcus Basara.

“I went wide and I didn’t see the stick and felt my head go back,” Stephenson said. “My front four (teeth) are already fake, so it will be interesting to see what Mom says. He apologized a whole bunch, but I said it’s not a big deal, they’re already fake. At least now I look the part.”

When training camp rolls around Stephenson is hoping to push centers Michael Latta and Zach Sill for ice time and a spot as a fourth-line center, even if it is a short-term stint that allows Backstrom more time to recover.

Trotz said he’s looking forward to the competition.

“I’ll do my ghost lineups so we know how many games each guy will play,” Trotz said. “When we break camp, what numbers do we want to get down to when Hershey starts? I’m trying to formulate some of those, but they’re hypothetical sometimes because there’s always a surprise every year.”

Last year, Liam O’Brien was that surprise. This fall, Stephenson is hoping it’s him.



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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Will Radko Gudas be an upgrade on the ice over Matt Niskanen?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Will Radko Gudas be an upgrade on the ice over Matt Niskanen?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at the addition of defenseman Radko Gudas in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers that sent away Matt Niskanen after five seasons with Washington. Will that move pay dividends? Or lead to some regrets? 

The Capitals had a problem entering the summer. They needed to shed salary to make sure they could take care of their biggest priorities: Adding depth scoring, re-signing at least some of their own free agents and handing forward Jakub Vrana a decent raise. 

For months it was clear defenseman Matt Niskanen was the obvious player to go. He cost $5.75 million per year against the salary cap for the next two seasons. His play was admittedly not up to par for much of last season. 

Niskanen was a reliable second-pair defenseman for much of his time in Washington after signing a seven-year contract in 2014. He and veteran Brooks Orpik arrived from Pittsburgh that year and helped transform a blueline that had lost its way and, eventually, they were key members of the 2018 Stanley Cup championship team. But at 32 and with signs of decline obvious, the Capitals were ready to move on. 

On the surface, a straight flip between Gudas and Niskanen appeared to favor Philadelphia. Niskanen is the one who plays tough minutes against top competition. Gudas for a long time was considered little more than a goon on the ice, a player with an edge who repeatedly crossed the line with controversial hits and brought little to the table offensively. But while signs in 2018-19 showed Niskanen declining, Gudas was playing his way into a larger role with the Flyers. 

They are wildly different players. Niskanen at his best is still a defenseman who can make plays under pressure, skate the puck out of trouble and contribute offensively with 32 points or more his first three years in Washington and never fewer than 25. Gudas had 20 points last season and his career-best is 23.

But the questions isn’t whether you’d rather have had Matt Niskanen of 2014-2018. The question is who would you rather have at the current price for 2019-20? Gudas’ improvement at what he does well and Niskanen’s fade have made that a far more interesting question. 

Niskanen will cost Philadelphia $5.75 million for his age 32/33 and 33/34 seasons. The Flyers better hope he has a rebound season in him. And to be fair, Niskanen did play better the final two months of last season.

But Gudas costs the Capitals just $2.35 million this year because Philadelphia agreed to retain 30 percent of his salary. That savings of $3.4 million was enough to sign back free agent forward Carl Hagelin ($2.75 million) with money left over. That, in turn, allowed Washington to use its limited cap space to add free-agent forward Richard Panik ($2.75 million) and give Vrana his RFA pay bump at $3.35 million. They did have to trade Andre Burakovsky to Colorado instead of letting him sign his qualifying offer ($3.25 million).

But all of that financial flexibility started with Gudas. Is this a better blueline? In part that depends on Nick Jensen. The Capitals at least start the season believing Gudas can continue in the role best suited for him – an above-average third-pair defenseman. There is value in that. Advanced metrics clearly show it’s difficult for teams to get quality scoring chances with Gudas on the ice. Put that in context: He’s usually not on the ice against the opposition’s best. But he shouldn’t be with the Capitals, either. 

Jensen was the player acquired at the trade deadline and immediately given a four-year contract extension. He played the heavy minutes for Detroit last season against better competition and should settle into the second pair on the right side with Washington. If he can’t, that’s its own problem. But if Jensen is the player he was with the Red Wings then it limits Gudas’ exposure and he should thrive as a clear upgrade over the rotating second-year crew that played that position last year (Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey) before Jensen arrived just before the Feb. 25 trade deadline to pick up those minutes.  

The Capitals will still fret about his heavy penalty minutes and his known penchant for getting suspended. But a team that bled high-danger scoring chances even the year it won the Cup needed someone who could help change that. If it comes at an offensive cost, well, few teams are better positioned to withstand a few fewer goals and assists from a defenseman who hardly played on the power play anyway. That’s John Carlson’s gig and he is one of the NHL’s best at it.

It’s an interesting trade. Washington needed the financial flexibility this year and next when goalie Braden Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom are free agents and will need raises. Gudas comes off the books and that will help. Niskanen would not have. 

At 29, Gudas is also almost four years younger. He doesn’t have the distinguished track record Niskanen does, but that’s not the player he’s replacing. Maybe Niskanen rebounds with the Flyers closer to his career norms and Gudas plays to his relatively limited ceiling or costs Washington games with penalties and/or a suspension. But given the Capitals’ roster as constructed, the cost and Niskanen’s age, it was probably a worthy gamble. 


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Caps invite fans to submit original art for new Capit-Ale design

Caps News

Caps invite fans to submit original art for new Capit-Ale design

A freshly brewed beer is making its way to Capital One Arena. 

In partnership with Devils Backbone Brewing Company, the Caps announced on Monday that starting in September, Capit-Ale India Pale Ale will be available for purchase at Capital One Arena. 

Capit-Ale will be available in two can designs. The first design features the Caps mural installation at L'Enfant Plaza, designed by the Washington, D.C., based artists BroCoLoco.

In efforts to spark excitement for the 2019-20 season, fans are invited to submit original art for a chance to be featured on the second can design.

Designs can be submitted from July 22-Oct.18 and will be selected in January 2020 by Devils Backbone Brewing Company and the Caps.

The winner will receive tickets to a Capitals game, a framed version of their art autographed by Caps players and have their art hung up in the Capital One  Arena Devils Backbone bar. 

The new 16 oz. hoppy brew will also be available on draft at select retail locations in the DMV area. 

This is not the first time Devils Backbone Brewing Company has partnered with a D.C. team. In 2018, they partnered with the Redskins to launch the #ATTR Ale at FedEx Field.