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31 in 31

Three questions facing Washington Capitals

Ovechkin's scoring, rookie defensemen among concerns

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the Washington Capitals.

After winning the Presidents' Trophy in each of the past two seasons, the Washington Capitals are entering a transition phase.

Although much of their core remains intact, there are some holes in the lineup because of the departures of forwards Justin Williams (signed with Carolina Hurricanes) and Marcus Johansson (traded to New Jersey Devils), as well as defensemen Karl Alzner (signed with Montreal Canadiens), Kevin Shattenkirk (signed with New York Rangers) and Nate Schmidt (selected by Vegas Golden Knights in NHL Expansion Draft).


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The Capitals have enough talent to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but there are some questions to answer to determine how good they can be.


1. Is Alex Ovechkin still an elite goal-scorer?

After three consecutive 50-goal seasons, Ovechkin dropped to 33 in 2016-17, his lowest output in a full season since he scored 32 in 2010-11. However, his 36 assists were 15 more than he had in 2015-16 and his 69 points were two off from the previous season. Was it a down season and a sign that age is catching up to him, or was Ovechkin (32 on Sept. 17) looking to pass more to help linemate T.J. Oshie score an NHL career-high 33 goals?

Coach Barry Trotz trimmed Ovechkin's ice time from to 20:18 in 2015-16 to 18:21 to try to keep him fresh for the playoffs, but didn't get the desired payoff. Ovechkin had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 13 playoff games while battling knee and hamstring injuries, and was dropped to the third line by the end of the six-game loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round.

Video: 31 in 31: Washington Capitals 2017-18 season preview


2. Will they begin the season with two rookie defensemen?

The Capitals need to fill at least two spots on defense with Alzner, Shattenkirk and Schmidt gone from the seven who played during the playoffs. Rookies Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler and Tyler Lewington will be among those competing for jobs.

General manager Brian MacLellan isn't ruling out having two rookies, although he also hasn't ruled out bringing in another experienced defenseman before training camp, possibly on a professional tryout agreement.

"I'm definitely comfortable with one, maybe not two," MacLellan said of playing his rookie defensemen. "We'll see how it goes."


3. Can Andre Burakovsky take the next step?

Burakovsky showed he has top-line talent after he was promoted to replace Ovechkin on the line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie in the playoffs; he had four points (three goals, one assist) in Games 5 and 6 against Pittsburgh.

Burakovsky had 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists) in 64 games during the regular season. Missing 15 games because of a right-hand injury hurt Burakovsky's development, but the 22-year-old's main problem has been consistency. He endured a 26-game goal drought last season and went 25 games without a goal in 2015-16. With Johansson (24 goals) traded because of NHL salary cap concerns, and Williams (24 goals) leaving as an unrestricted free agent, the Capitals need Burakovsky to avoid another scoring lull this season.

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