The Washington Capitals’ 2019-20 season officially begins with the first on-ice day of training camp Friday. A year ago, with the team coming off a franchise-first Stanley Cup, the forward group was unchanged outside of the departure of fourth-line center Jay Beagle. But last season’s bottom-six forward corps underwhelmed, forcing more turnover this summer. We start our training camp position previews up front.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson.
OFFSEASON NHL ADDITIONS
Richard Panik (Arizona Coyotes), Garnet Hathaway (Calgary Flames), Brendan Leipsic (Los Angeles Kings).
OFFSEASON NHL DEPARTURES
Brett Connolly (Florida Panthers), Andre Burakovsky (Colorado Avalanche), Devante Smith-Pelly (Calgary Flames), Dmitrij Jaskin (Dynamo Moscow).
Connor McMichael, Brett Leason, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Kody Clark, Riley Sutter, Shane Gersich, Brian Pinho, Garrett Pilon, Beck Malenstyn.
1. How will the new additions fit into the lineup? Washington’s disappointing playoff exit in the first round exposed the team’s lack of depth, so that’s what General Manager Brian MacLellan targeted in free agency with the signings of bottom-six forwards Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. Panik is expected to fill the third-line right wing role that Brett Connolly occupied the past three seasons. Playing with center Lars Eller correlated with three career years for Connolly, including a 22-goal campaign last season, and the Capitals are hoping Panik will experience the same offensive resurgence. He’s three years removed from his career-best 22-goal, 22-assist season. Panik is also considered a better two-way forward than Connolly, and he and Hathaway should help Washington’s penalty kill, which struggled most of last season.
Leipsic is the biggest question mark of the three — at 25, he’s on his fifth team — but the Capitals have had success with low-risk, inexpensive reclamation projects in recent years (most notably Connolly and forward Devante Smith-Pelly). His seven goals and 23 points in 62 games last season were career highs, and Washington will be looking for him to chip in offense from the fourth line.
2. Are Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd getting pushed out? During the Capitals’ 2018 run to the Stanley Cup, Stephenson played in every game, chipping in two goals and five assists from a fourth line that was a difference-maker. But a disappointing 2018-19 campaign — he scored five goals with six assists in 64 games and finished with a minus-13 rating — has put his place in the lineup and on the roster in jeopardy, a message MacLellan sent when he signed Hathaway and Leipsic. As a restricted free agent, Stephenson re-signed on a one-year, $1.05 million contract, and with the team entering training camp over the salary cap, the Capitals have cheaper depth forward options they can turn to, putting him at risk of getting waived or dealt. In his first full NHL season, Boyd had five goals and 15 assists in 53 games, showing more offensive potential than Stephenson, but with the fourth line getting a makeover, he’ll have stiffer competition than a year ago to win a lineup spot.
3. Which Evgeny Kuznetsov will the Capitals get? After what MacLellan described as a “frustrating” season for Kuznetsov, this year is already off to a poor start — a four-year international hockey ban for a positive cocaine test in May. If Kuznetsov also receives NHL discipline is up to Commissioner Gary Bettman, and the two are set to meet this week, before the start of training camp. It wasn’t the best look that, after Kuznetsov struggled with inconsistent play during the regular season and playoffs, a video that circulated on social media in May showed him sitting next to two lines of a white powdery substance during a team road trip to Las Vegas in December. But internally, the Capitals aren’t willing to directly link Kuznetsov’s down year with substance abuse. In any case, there’s pressure on him to get back to the form he flashed two years ago, when he scored a career-high 27 goals with 56 assists and then was Washington’s top scorer in its Stanley Cup run with 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 games.