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Capitals season preview: Veterans must step up

Backstrom, Holtby in last season of contract; Carlson to fill leadership void on defense

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, NHL.com is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Washington Capitals.

Coach: Todd Reirden (second season)

Last season: 48-26-8; first place Metropolitan Division, lost to Carolina Hurricanes in Eastern Conference First Round

 

5 KEYS

 

1. Playing with urgency

With center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby each eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, the Capitals need to recognize this might be their last chance to win another championship with this group. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, Washington appeared to run out of gas physically and mentally against Carolina in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and their repeat bid ended with a 4-3 loss in double overtime in Game 7.

Video: Looking at the contracts of Backstrom and Holtby

 

2. Kuznetsov response

Evgeny Kuznetsov is suspended for the first three games of the regular season for inappropriate conduct after testing positive for cocaine while representing Russia at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in May. The center has vowed to redeem himself when he returns, and Washington needs him to follow through.

Kuznetsov can drive the Capitals offense with his speed and playmaking, and his ability to carry the puck is the key to their zone entries and setup on the power play. But after leading the playoffs with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 24 games in 2018, he was inconsistent last season, with 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) in 76 regular-season games and six points (one goal, five assists) in seven playoff games.

 

3. Another big season from Ovechkin

Even after 14 NHL seasons, Alex Ovechkin's goal output remains almost a given. The 34-year-old left wing has led the NHL in goals in six of the past seven seasons, including in 2018-19 when he scored 51, the eighth time he has scored at least 50 in the NHL.

Washington will need its captain to continue scoring close to that rate this season with lingering questions about its depth. After the top line of Ovechkin (four goals), Backstrom (five) and Tom Wilson (three) scored 12 of their 20 playoff goals, the Capitals retooled their bottom two lines in the offseason.

Through free agency, Washington added Richard Panik, who had 33 points (14 goals. 19 assists) in 75 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season; Garnet Hathaway, who had 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) in 76 games with the Calgary Flames; and Brendan Leipsic, who had 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 62 games with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Ovechkin

 

4. Kempny's health

Reirden said Saturday it appears likely defenseman Michal Kempny will miss the season opener at the St. Louis Blues on Oct. 2 because he's not fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn right hamstring. The 29-year-old, who was injured March 20 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, wore a non-contact jersey throughout training camp.

Having Kempny return to his preinjury form -- he set NHL career highs with six goals, 19 assists and 25 points in 71 games last season -- would be a boost for the Capitals. The stability he provided playing on a pair with John Carlson was an important part of Washington's 2018 Cup run and was missed during the playoffs last season.

 

5. Replacing Niskanen and Orpik

When the Capitals signed defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik each as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014, it helped transform their defense and locker room, and they played a pivotal role in helping them win the Cup.

Now with the two veterans gone -- Niskanen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas on June 14, and Orpik retired -- Carlson and Dmitry Orlov will take over as the leaders of the defensemen. How they handle that will be as important as filling Niskanen's and Orpik's on-ice roles.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

 

Making the cut

After assigning rookie Vitek Vanecek to Hershey of the American Hockey League, the competition for backup goalie job is down to incumbent Pheonix Copley and rookie Ilya Samsonov. With the Capitals needing to clear space to get under the NHL salary cap, the decision might come down to money. 

Copley, who was 16-7-4 with a 2.90 goals-against average, .905 save percentage and one shutout last season, has an average annual value of $1.1 million on his contract. Samsonov, the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, has an AAV of $925,000 on his contract.

Even if Samsonov doesn't get the job to start the season, he'll likely get a good look in the NHL this season so the Capitals can decide if he's capable of taking over the No. 1 job from Holtby next season.

 

Most intriguing addition

Panik had NHL career highs in goals (22), assists (22) and points (44) in 82 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016-17, so he has the potential for that kind of production. The Capitals also expect him to help their penalty kill after he was one of the regular forwards to do so for Arizona, which tied for first in the NHL on the penalty kill last season (85 percent).

Video: STL@WSH: Panik pots equalizer with power-play goal

 

Biggest potential surprise

Defenseman Martin Fehervary, a second-round pick (No. 46) in the 2018 NHL Draft, got a long look in training camp, and the Capitals believe he is close to ready for the NHL. Fehervary, who will turn 20 on Oct. 6, will be a candidate to be called up if Washington has an injury to its defensemen.

 

Ready to break through

Samsonov needed some time to adjust with Hershey after playing three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, but the 22-year-old elevated his play once he got comfortable. From Jan. 12 on, Samsonov was 15-3-2 with a 1.78 GAA, a .930 save percentage and three shutouts.

 

Fantasy sleeper

Jakub Vrana (average draft position: 170.8) quietly finished second among Capitals skaters with 23 even-strength goals behind Ovechkin (33) last season and could score at least 30 this season possibly on a line with center Backstrom. -- Rob Reese

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Alex Ovechkin -- Nicklas Backstrom -- Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana -- Evgeny Kuznetsov -- T.J. Oshie

Carl Hagelin -- Lars Eller -- Richard Panik

Brendan Leipsic -- Nic Dowd -- Garnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny -- John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov -- Nick Jensen

Christian Djoos -- Radko Gudas

Braden Holtby

Pheonix Copley

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