Don’t look now, but hockey season has arrived. The Washington Capitals kick off their preseason Monday by hosting the Chicago Blackhawks, the first of three home games this week. Here are the five most important questions the Capitals and their players face in the 2019-20 season — some which should be answered pretty soon, others that will be on fans’ minds throughout the year.
1. How does salary cap pickle end?
The first question is the most urgent one. The Capitals took on too much salary over the summer when they signed three free agent wingers, went to arbitration with Christian Djoos and avoided arbitration with Chandler Stephenson by giving him $1.05 million. The salary-tracking website CapFriendly says Washington stands at almost $82.9 million, over the limit of $81.5 million.
The Capitals don’t have to get under the cap until Oct. 1, but a new development actually gave them more time. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s salary won’t count against Washington’s cap while he is suspended for three games to start the season.
Still, the Capitals eventually must make a move to shed the necessary amount of salary. They could see how the training camp battles for the sixth and seventh defensemen go to inform their decision. A trade prior to Opening Day is among the options, but the front office has several directions it can go.
2. What is the future in net?
Braden Holtby forever will be known as the goaltender that made “The Save” and helped deliver the Capitals a Stanley Cup. He ranks among the top 10 or 12 goalies in the NHL. But he’s entering the final year of his contract, and with an expansion draft on the horizon, the Capitals have to consider what’s best for their future.
Pheonix Copley is a serviceable backup, but behind him, Washington also has two highly-touted prospects in its system: Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. The Capitals are expected to give Samsonov, 22, a few NHL games sometime this year to see how close he is to being ready to take over the No. 1 job.
General manager Brian MacLellan said he would like to see Samsonov play some games at the big-league level this season, but added the team wouldn’t “force it.”
“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden added.
3. What will remade bottom six do?
The third and fourth lines will look nothing like they did 12 months ago. Lars Eller will remain a very solid third center, but gone are Brett Connolly (free agent departure), Andre Burakovsky (traded) and Devante Smith-Pelly (not signed back). In are Richard Panik, Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway.
Reirden described Panik, a few years removed from a season with 22 goals and 22 assists, as a “very complete two-way player.” Will he, Carl Hagelin and Eller combine to make the third line a dangerous scoring threat, or will Washington rely on its top six forwards to deliver the goals?
Leipsic, a likely fourth-liner with some skill, spoke about bringing some tenacity to the ice. Capitals teammates like Tom Wilson seemed excited for what Leipsic and the other free agent signings will do to make the bottom six more physical.
“It’s nice to have some guys that are willing to play that style,” Wilson said. “It’s always nice going out there knowing your teammates have your back. Those are guys that have done it in the past and that earned respect from their teammates pretty quick.”
4. Will Jensen fit in second pair?
One of the Capitals‘ most important players this year is Jensen, who was acquired at the trade deadline in February and given a four-year extension. When the Capitals traded Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas in the offseason, it created a gap on the second pair next to Dmitry Orlov.
That opening within the top-four defensemen figures to be Jensen’s to lose. How will he perform early on?
“It’s not necessarily in my mind where I am on the roster, but it’s more so how hard I’m working,” Jensen said. “I’m always shooting to be the best player that I can be, the best player on the ice. Wherever that puts me, I think that mindset’s a little more important than ‘I just want to be in this third, fourth spot.’ I think with that mindset, I’ll end up where I deserve to be.”
If Jensen doesn’t fit there, Gudas wouldn’t be a bad Plan B. The 27-year-old has experience playing in a top-four role with Philadelphia.
5. How many more will Ovechkin score?
There have not been any question marks around Alex Ovechkin’s game for at least a few years. He seemed to slip off in 2016-17 with a 33-goal season, but rebounded and drove the Capitals to a Stanley Cup with his prolific scoring.
If there’s anything to wonder about, it’s how much longer Ovechkin will continue scoring at a 50-goals-a-year clip. He stands 237 goals away from breaking Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record, a mark teammate and friend Nicklas Backstrom thinks he can reach.
“I think he might catch him. It’s possible,” Backstrom said. “The way he’s shooting the puck and the way he scores, that’s incredible. We just have to feed him.”
In the meantime, a typical scoring year from Ovechkin still ought to see him reach his 700th career goal. He can pass the likes of Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier on the all-time list this year.
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