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31 in 31

Three questions facing Washington Capitals

Contract situations with Backstrom, Holtby, play of Kuznetsov in spotlight

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


[Capitals 31 IN 31: Season preview | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]


1. Will this be Nicklas Backstrom's and Braden Holtby's final season with Washington?

Each player is in the last season of his contract and can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. General manager Brian MacLellan said he plans to have preliminary talks with each about a new contract in early September, but it's unclear where that will lead.

The Capitals don't have an internal replacement for Backstrom, who turns 32 on Nov. 23 and remains one of the top two-way centers in the NHL. He had 74 points (22 goals, 52 assists) last season, second on the Capitals behind Alex Ovechkin (89 points; 51 goals, 38 assists).

The situation is more complicated for Holtby, who turns 30 on Sept. 16. With 22-year-old Ilya Samsonov, who the Capitals selected with the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, waiting in the wings as Washington's potential goalie of the future, difficult decisions lie ahead about how long, and how much, to commit to Holtby.

Video: 31 in 31: Washington Capitals 2019-20 season preview


2. Which Evgeny Kuznetsov will they get?

The Capitals need the 27-year-old to be the dynamic center who led the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games in 2018, helping Washington win its first Stanley Cup championship. Though Kuznetsov's numbers last season were OK -- 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 76 games and six points (one goal, five assists) in seven playoff games -- he was inconsistent and had stretches when he appeared unfocused.

On Aug. 23, Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation for testing positive for cocaine when he was representing Russia at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in May. Kuznetsov hasn't been suspended by the NHL, but he must meet with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman prior to the start of training camp Sept. 13 and has voluntarily entered the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program (SABH), run by the NHL and NHL Players' Association.

"There's no reason he can't be one of the top players in the League," MacLellan said. "He's good. He just needs to focus his energy that way. He's a key part of our team when we have him and [Backstrom] going together."


3. Will they make a trade to get under the NHL salary cap?

After retooling the bottom half of their lineup and re-signing some of their free agents, the Capitals are over the NHL salary cap and will have to clear some space before opening night rosters are set Oct. 1. Though MacLellan didn't rule out something as drastic as beginning the season with a 21-player roster -- NHL rosters typically consist of 23 players -- he said depending on how training camp goes, they'll likely trade a player.

"I think we'll probably have to move someone," MacLellan said. "Injuries and all the stuff that happens in training camp and exhibition season probably dictates it a little bit, but we're going to be patient. We're not in a rush. We'll wait and let it play itself out."

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