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YEARBOOK: 2019-20 Washington Capitals

Despite returning much of their Stanley Cup-winning roster last season, the Washington Capitals were sent home early, falling in the first round of the playoffs to Carolina. Now, the band that stayed together is starting to see the inevitable breakup.

Despite returning much of their Stanley Cup-winning roster last season, the Washington Capitals were sent home early, falling in the first round of the playoffs to Carolina. Now, the band that stayed together is starting to see the inevitable breakup. Free agents Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly were not re-signed, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen were traded and Brooks Orpik retired.

But with their core still intact – the entire top-six forward group returns, plus top defenseman John Carlson and No. 1 goalie Braden Holtby – the window remains open for another deep playoff run. Much will depend on how much heavy lifting Alex Ovechkin can handle at 34 and whether Evgeny Kuznetsov can rebound from an inconsistent campaign.

Last season marked an elaborate victory lap in Washington after their elusive first Cup. But after a premature playoff exit and given the pending UFA status of Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom, there will be plenty of urgency in 2019-20.

OFFENSE
Ovechkin earned his eighth goal-scoring title last season – an NHL record – pacing an offense that ranked fifth. Ovechkin had a league-best 51 goals, including 33 at even strength, his most since 2009-10. But if the miles finally catch up to Ovechkin in his 15th season, Washington could rely more on several secondary scorers.

The Capitals tied for the league lead with seven 20-goal snipers, including first-timers Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson. Vrana had 24 goals and 47 points while averaging only 14:02 of ice time. Wilson notched a career-high 22 goals in 63 games. The Caps believe new addition Richard Panik can contribute 15 to 20 goals from the third line.

DEFENSE
Carlson played 25 minutes per game last season. Coming off a career-high 70-point campaign and a fourth-place finish in Norris Trophy voting, he’ll be leaned on heavily after the off-season exits of Niskanen and Orpik. Beyond Carlson, though, there are questions. The defense corps was never the same after unheralded Michal Kempny tore his hamstring in March. How will he fare after a summer spent rehabbing? Can Nick Jensen handle top-four minutes after a shaky post-season? Is there enough depth?

Only seven teams allowed more goals than Washington in the second half of the season, and none of those clubs made the playoffs. The forwards were part of the problem, an issue that GM Brian MacLellan believes he has addressed: he views a veteran third line of Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller and Panik as a solid shutdown trio.

GOALTENDING
Holtby enters the final season of a five-year deal he signed in 2015 with more wins (156) than any other goalie over the life of the contract. He’s also won a Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup in that stretch and tied the franchise record for career shutouts. There’s a good chance he’s priced himself out of D.C. beyond this season. Backup Pheonix Copley returns after a solid debut year.

SPECIAL TEAMS
With Backstrom and Carlson feeding Ovechkin for his patented left-circle one-timer, the power play will remain a well-oiled machine. The entire top unit returns. Washington spent a lot of time on the penalty kill, which ranked 24th. Hagelin’s speed gave the PK a welcome boost once he arrived prior to the trade deadline. The hope is Panik and Garnet Hathaway do the same.

INTANGIBLES
Orpik’s retirement, along with the trade of Niskanen, leaves a leadership void. That’s partly why MacLellan made it a priority to re-sign Hagelin to a four-year deal. The Caps also brought in players who can throw the body. Hathaway and Radko Gudas, along with Ovechkin and Wilson, give the Capitals four of the league’s top 30 busiest bodycheckers.

ROOKIES
Given Holtby’s uncertain future, the Caps need to see Ilya Samsonov against NHL competition. He could debut this year. After spending last season with Hershey, the 2015 first-rounder is expected to have a heavier AHL workload.

X-FACTOR
When he’s on, Kuznetsov ranks among the NHL’s best (32 points in 24 playoff games in 2018). When he’s not, he can be a liability. Kuznetsov acknowledged he wasn’t fully invested last year. His 25 minor penalties led Caps forwards, and he was an abysmal 38.7 percent on faceoffs.

THE BRASS
Coach Todd Reirden will feel more pressure in his second season if the Capitals falter. Looming decisions on franchise stalwarts Backstrom and Holtby could hang over the team. MacLellan could also talk extension with Ovechkin as soon as next July.

– Ben Raby

Stanley Cup Odds: 11/1

Prediction: 1st in Metro

FUTURE WATCH

Eventually, the Caps will need to improve their pipeline, but for now they’ve got a ton of talent in the NHL. Goalie Ilya Samsonov is the gem right now, while the Caps made the most of their four selections in 2019. London center Connor McMichael was the first-rounder and, like a lot of recent Knights, he had to wait for his turn in the spotlight. Look for him to take off this season. He’s got a great scoring knack and can quietly kill the opposition with quickness, smarts and skill.

1. Ilya Samsonov, G
Age 22 Team Hershey (AHL)
Poor first season in North America but has the total package. Exceptional side-to-side movement.
Acquired 22nd overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21

2. Alexander Alexeyev, D
Age 19 Team Red Deer (WHL)
Big-bodied defenseman who adds on offense. Reached double-digit goals for the first time.
Acquired 31st overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21

3. Martin Fehervary, D
Age 19 Team HV71 (Swe.)
Plays hard. Closes space on opposing forwards quickly. Doesn’t add much offensively.
Acquired 46th overall, 2018 NHL ’21-22

4. Connor McMichael, C
Age 18 Team London (OHL)
Great speed and agility. Uses his high-end hockey IQ to get into position in offensive zone.
Acquired 25th overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23

5. Lucas Johansen, D
Age 21 Team Hershey (AHL)
Mobile and good lateral movement. Missed two months of second pro season due to injury.
Acquired 28th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21

6. Jonas Siegenthaler, D
Age 22 TeamHershey (AHL)
Reliable smooth-skating defenseman. Needs to improve his shot. On cusp of breakthrough.
Acquired 57th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20

7. Kody Clark, RW
Age 19 Team Ottawa (OHL)
Son of Wendel didn’t ramp up production in draft-plus-one season. Added physical edge.
Acquired 47th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23

8. Brett Leason, C
Age 20 Team Prince Albert (WHL)
Woke up offensively two years after draft season. Nice hockey IQ and makes use of his big frame.
Acquired 56th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22

9. Shane Gersich, LW
Age 23 Team Hershey (AHL)
Plays with tremendous speed, but his hands struggle to match his pace. Fourth-line upside.
Acquired 134th overall, 2014 NHL ’20-21

10. Connor Hobbs, D
Age 22 Team Hershey (AHL)
Defensive acumen only thing holding back abrasive blueliner with a boomer of a shot.
Acquired 143rd overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21

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