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5 Questions: Washington Capitals

Defensive depth, success in regular season to be closely watched

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

A NHL season is filled with twists and turns for each of the League's 30 teams. Here are five of the major questions that could define the 2016-17 season for the Washington Capitals:

 
How much does the regular season matter to the Capitals?

They probably wish they could fast forward to April and begin the Stanley Cup Playoffs now. Any success Washington has in the regular season will be viewed with skepticism after they won the Presidents' Trophy and set a Capitals record with 56 regular-season wins but couldn't get past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round. Washington has to find a way to be playing its best when the postseason begins. How much will coach Barry Trotz push his players, and how will they be able to maintain their focus over the 82-game grind when they know it won't matter should they fail in the playoffs again?

 

Do they have enough depth on defense?

This area was exposed when the Capitals lost to the Penguins in the playoffs. Washington's hope is that Dmitry Orlov, 25, is ready to take on a bigger role, which will help Trotz spread out the minutes. The Capitals relied heavily on their top four of Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Brooks Orpik last season, but couldn't do that when Alzner was playing injured and Orpik was suspended during the playoffs. With Orpik turning 36 and his effectiveness beginning to fade, the Capitals will have to entrust Orlov, Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt with more responsibility or find a way to add a top-four defenseman.

Video: WSH@NYI: Schmidt finds twine with deflected slap shot

 

Will they be more of a four-line team?

The NHL often has been a copycat league, so it's no surprise the Penguins' blueprint of spreading their scoring forwards among their top three lines, with help from a reliable fourth line, is a model that will be followed. It proved to be the difference against the Capitals, who thought they matched up well against Pittsburgh's top two lines but lost the series because of what the Penguins got from their third and fourth lines. The Capitals sought to address that issue by trading for center Lars Eller and signing right wing Brett Connolly, but will that be enough?

 

Will Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov be Alex Ovechkin's center?

This is something that could change throughout the season. Kuznetsov played on the top line with Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie at the start of last season, when Backstrom was recovering from offseason hip surgery. Trotz put Kuznetsov there again for the final three playoff games against Pittsburgh in an effort to spark the offense. Trotz could do it this season, depending on the opponent and how the lines are producing. Kuznetsov, 24, led the Capitals with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) last season and Washington is hoping he takes another step. Backstrom's playmaking could bring more out of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky or Justin Williams on the second line.

 

Is Tom Wilson capable of being more than a fourth-line forward?

The Capitals expected Wilson, 22, to be more than an agitator/penalty-killer when they selected him No. 16 in the 2012 NHL Draft, but he has yet to show he is capable of that. If he's healthy (he missed most of the preseason with an upper-body injury), Wilson will get an opportunity to at least start the season at right wing on the third line. In that role, the Capitals will need more from him than the NHL career-high 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) he had last season. If Wilson isn't a fit there, Connolly or rookie Zach Sanford are options to replace him.

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