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Capitals open training camp with a new goalie and the same expectations

Five things to watch as training camp begins

Washington opens training camp on Thursday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Capitals open training camp Thursday with a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender between the pipes and a slew of returning veterans in tow. Washington will look to lean on this experienced core and its new netminder to break its disappointing streak of four straight opening-round postseason exits.

The Capitals’ championship aspirations will run in parallel with Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of the NHL’s all-time goals record. Ovechkin sits in third place with 780, 50 of which came in a surprisingly strong 2021-22 campaign. Needing only 22 goals to surpass Gordie Howe for second place, Ovechkin will look to employ his combination of strength and skill and inch closer toward Wayne Gretzky’s hallowed record of 894.

Washington will open its six-game preseason slate Sunday afternoon at Capital One Arena against the rebuilding Buffalo Sabres. The Capitals’ season opener, at home against the Boston Bruins, is Oct. 12.

Here are five things to watch as training camp unfolds:

How does Darcy Kuemper look in Washington?

Darcy Kuemper, a salary cap casualty of the Colorado Avalanche’s success last season, arrives as Washington seeks to shore up its most frustrating and inconsistent position the past two years. Fresh off signing a five-year, $26.25 million deal in free agency, Kuemper will look to solidify himself as a top-tier NHL goaltender and try to shake the perception that he merely benefited from a role on a juggernaut Avalanche squad.

Kuemper’s backup in net will be Charlie Lindgren, who was signed this offseason as a free agent after spending last year on a two-way contract with the St. Louis Blues.

What is the status of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson?

Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, two mainstays of Washington’s lineup, will start the year on long-term injured reserve. Backstrom is recovering from offseason hip surgery, and there is no timetable for his return. There is still a chance Backstrom does not play at all this season, but he appears determined to give it another go instead of opting for early retirement.

Capitals name Scott Allen to coaching staff, replacing Scott Arniel

Wilson continues to recover from ACL surgery on his left knee in May. He was injured in last year’s postseason series against the Florida Panthers. Wilson’s recovery timeline is on track, with the team forecasting a potential regular season debut as early as late November.

Will Carl Hagelin be cleared to play?

Carl Hagelin’s eye injury in early March led to two surgeries and left his NHL future uncertain. His progress has been promising, but it is unclear whether he will suit up for Washington this season.

The 34-year-old winger spent the summer participating in informal skates and has been wearing a full-contact jersey during group sessions. Hagelin, still listed as injured on the official training camp roster, remains under the care of Washington’s medical staff and has had appointments and consultations with outside doctors.

How will Dylan Strome and Connor Brown mix in with the forward group?

With Wilson and Backstrom out, Dylan Strome and Connor Brown will have prominent roles as the only two newcomers up front.

Strome, a 25-year-old center, was a solid addition by Washington on the first day of free agency, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal. He is expected to be the team’s second-line center, but the Capitals probably will try him at center and left wing throughout the preseason.

Brown, 28, is a right winger and could fit anywhere in the lineup, most notably on the top line alongside Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Washington has multiple options for its top-line right winger, with Brown, T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary the most likely candidates. Brown is also a penalty-killing specialist and will see extended time on that unit.

Where does Connor McMichael fit (again)?

So much of the talk surrounding Washington’s lineup last season revolved around the play of Connor McMichael. In his rookie season, the former first-round pick contrasted moments of potential with underwhelming stretches. McMichael, 21, played in 68 games, a healthy load for a versatile player still finding his way.

McMichael filled in as injuries struck Washington at a staggering pace and showed the coaching staff he can be a natural fit at center when some of the veteran players start to lose their edge.

This year, however, there is no clear-cut spot for McMichael in the Capitals’ lineup. Washington has four other centers at its disposal: Kuznetsov, Strome, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd. If Strome gets moved to the wing, McMichael could shift to center. If Eller doesn’t meet expectations in training camp, he could fall out of favor and be replaced by the youngster. With Backstrom out for a prolonged period of time, Washington has plenty of options to bolster its lineup down the middle, but choosing the right combination could take some trial and error.