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What we learned from the Capitals' preseason

What we learned from the Capitals' preseason

The preseason is (mercifully) over. After a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, the next time the Capitals take the ice it will be for the regular season opener on Thursday in Ottawa.

With only two wins in seven preseason contests, there are some nervous Caps fans in Washington. But all preseason results should be taken with a grain of salt, especially the records. The Colorado Avalanche won six of their preseason games last year and finished the regular season as, by far, the worst team in the NHL.

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That doesn't mean that everything that happens in the preseason is irrelevant, however. Here are some things that we did learn from the Caps' preseason:

The defense is in trouble

The Caps scored only 12 goals in seven preseason games, but it’s too early to worry about the offense. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are going to show up when the games start to matter. The same cannot be said for the defense, howeer.

Heading into the preseason, the Caps defense looked approximately like this:

Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
??? - John Carlson
Brooks Orpik - ???
Taylor Chorney

The hope was that enough players would distinguish themselves in the preseason to fill out the roster. The competition has been whittled down to Aaron Ness, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, but really none of those players have “wowed.” Bowey has played fairly well, but Ness and Djoos have both struggled. Both players would have to pass through waivers if the Caps choose to send them to the AHL and whether the team would risk losing either player remains to be seen, but the fact that it is even a matter of discussion is not a good sign.

After trying several different players alongside Carlson, Orpik was moved into the top four for the final preseason game which is an indication of just how dissatisfied Barry Trotz has been with what he’s seen.

Heading into the preseason the Caps were in need of a top-four defenseman and the third pairing looked like a major quesetion mark. Now that the prseason is over, the Caps look like they are in need of a top-four defenseman and the third pairing looks like a major quesetion mark.

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will be split

Lines change frequently in the preseason, but one thing that has been consistent is that Ovechkin and Backstrom have not been playing on the same line. Even with the offense was struggling, Trotz did not move these two back together. That doesn’t mean they will never play on the same line this season, but at least to start you will see Backstrom centering a line without the Great 8 on the wing.

Tom Wilson needs to dial it back

Wilson was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for a hit he delivered to Samuel Blais on Sunday in his second game after returning from a two-game suspension. Wilson was suspended for a hit he delivered to St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas in an earlier preseason contest. Following the league’s decision, Wilson stated that he would not change his game.

Well, he needs to.

While the initial suspension was for only two preseason games, it was still significant in that he will now be considered a repeat offender by the league.
The Capitals need Wilson to produce more offensively this season and that’s hard to do if he is in the penalty box or serving a suspension. If it wants to remain a physical player, fine, but he has to be more careful. He is not going to get the benefit of the doubt from referees or the Department of Player Safety.

Whether Wilson gets another call from the Department of Player Safety for Sunday's hit remains to be seen, but the fact that he could not even get out of the preseason without a suspension and an ejection should be a signal to him that he needs to reel it in.

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Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

Brooks Orpik's knee injury helped decision on retirement

One big reason Brooks Orpik decided to hang up his skates, as he announced on Tuesday, was the severity of a knee injury, which impaired him for most of the 2018-19 season.

"I knew a long time ago, to be honest with you," Orpik told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "From the time I had surgery on it was pretty evident that I wasn't gonna play another year after this."

After playing 10 games in October to start the season, Orpik was was placed on long-term injured reserve, then underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November. 

He returned to the lineup Dec. 31 and played a total of 53 games during the regular season last year.

But despite the medical staff's best efforts, Orpik remained in pain for the duration of the season.

"I'd use the elevator at [Capital One Arena] to go up and down cause I couldn't go up and down stairs," Orpik said. "When I couldn't do that it was time to stop playing hockey I figured.

"I could just get it to a point where I could play for two and a half hours and then pay for it afterward and then try to do it all over again."

Orpik's dealt with a multitude of injuries during his career in Washington. During the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, Orpik lost part of his pinkie finger after a brutal slash courtesy of Erik Haula. He also dealt with an infection in his leg during the Caps 2017 playoff run, which he acquired after blocking a shot.

During his tenure with the Penguins, Orpik suffered a broken finger in 2011 and was carted off the ice in 2013 after being pulled down and punched by then Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton.

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Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s quarterfinal matchup:

Region: Capitals free agents

Brett Connolly vs. Devante Smith-Pelly
 
2018-19 stats

Brett Connolly (27 years old): 81 games played with the Capitals, 22 goals, 24 assists, 46 points, 13:20 TOI
 
Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, 13:50 TOI

Devante Smith-Pelly (27 years old): 54 games played with the Capitals, 4 goals, 4 assists, 8 points, 10:51 TOI

Playoffs: 3 games played with the Caps, no goals, no assists, no points, 9:47 TOI

 
Hockey-Graph contract projections

Brett Connolly: 3 years, $3,536,091 cap hit
 
Devante Smith-Pelly: 2 years, $1,149,369

The case for Brett Connolly

The Capitals have already re-signed one of their third-line free agents with Carl Hagelin’s new deal. Is there room left for Connolly? Connolly has made himself comfortable in Washington. He tied his career highs in goals twice (15) and then broke through with a career-best 22. And he is one of the league’s most productive players given his limited ice time. 
 
There are just too many big names in front of Connolly to get him much power-play time. Those 22 goals wouldn’t be easy to replace and GM Brian MacLellan said scoring depth is a concern this offseason. If he is again willing to sacrifice role for a bump in pay and some security then maybe Connolly returns to a place he re-ignited his career. The talent is certainly there as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft and Connolly is headed into his age-27 season so a three or four-year deal takes care of his prime years. 
 
But the argument ultimately rests on the salary cap, which at $81.5 million is problematic. It might be out of Washington’s hands anyway. Even if the Capitals want to keep him, other teams could use money AND ice time to entice Connolly. But can they strike gold again with another cheap third-line winger as they did with Connolly? That’s not easy to replicate. They could simply sign Connolly and take care of it, but the salary cap is tight.

The case for Smith-Pelly

There is no question that Smith-Pelly can be inconsistent, but he always seems to bring it in the playoffs. Before his seven-goal performance in the 2018 Cup run, Smith-Pelly was brilliant with the Anaheim Ducks scoring five goals in 12 games back in 2014.

With Carl Hagelin re-signed and players like Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and other depth pieces still on the horizon, affordability is pretty much the biggest asset for any free agent available to Washington and it won’t get much more affordable than Smith-Pelly.

Hockey-Graphs can be spot on with some of its projections and outright wrong for others and this case is definitely the latter. Smith-Pelly’s contract for the 2018-19 season was a one-year deal with a cap hit of $1 million. After scoring just eight points and getting demoted to the AHL, there is no way he walks into next season with a two-year deal and a raise. The cap hit is going to be low for Smith-Pelly and that makes him a very attractive choice for the Caps – if both sides can put last year’s awkwardness behind them. 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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