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Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.

Laviolette to coach Team USA at world hockey championships

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Peter Laviolette is returning to the bench after being selected as the coach of the United States men’s national team competing at the world hockey championships in May.

The move was announced by USA Hockey on Wednesday, and comes seven weeks after Laviolette was fired by the Nashville Predators.

Laviolette ranks 16th in NHL wins with 637 covering four teams over 18 seasons, including the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. He also coached the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers.

From Massachusetts, the 55-year-old Laviolette also has extensive experience representing the U.S. as a coach and player on the international stage.

The tournament being held in Switzerland will mark the fourth time Laviolette has coached the U.S. at the world championships, and first since 2014, when the Americans lost to Czech Republic in the quarterfinals in Belarus. He was also U.S. coach in 2004, when the team won a bronze medal, and ’05.

Laviolette also coached the national team to an eighth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics.

As a player, Laviolette was a two-time Olympian in representing the U.S. in 1988 and 1994, when he served as team captain.

”Peter is a terrific coach and someone who has had success wherever he’s been,” said USA Hockey’s John Vanbiesbrouck. ”We’re thrilled to have him back as head coach of our men’s national team.”

Team USA’s roster will begin being stocked once the NHL’s regular season concludes during the first weekend in April. The Americans have been limited to winning just six bronze medals since a silver-medal finish in 1950.

The world championships are scheduled to run from May 8 to 24.

Canadiens’ Mete out for season with broken foot

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MONTREAL (AP) — Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot.

Mete suffered the injury during the game in Detroit on Feb. 18.

The 21-year-old Mete had four goals and 11 assists in 51 games this season. He has four goals and 27 assists in 171 games with Montreal.

Mete was a fourth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2016.

NHL on NBCSN: Rebuilding Kings attempt to play spoiler against Pens

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings.  Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins and Kings are heading in very different directions right now. Pittsburgh is chasing a Stanley Cup and Los Angeles is chasing the top pick in the NHL Draft.

Heading into tonight’s game, the Penguins are four points behind the Washington Capitals for first in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has two games in hand.

On Monday, general manager Jim Rutherford made a couple of moves to improve his roster. He acquired Patrick Marleau from San Jose, and Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary from Buffalo. They also made a splash earlier in the month when they acquired Jason Zucker from Minnesota. So the team looks pretty different than it did at the beginning of February.

Sidney Crosby is the beneficiary of these trades. He’s now skating on a line with Sheary, who he played with during his first stint with the Pens, and Zucker.

Speaking of Crosby, he’s been unbelievable since returning to the lineup from a core muscle injury. The Pens captain has eight goals and 16 assists in the 16 games he’s played post-injury.

“He’s just such an impactful player,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “We are a very different hockey team when he’s in our lineup. He’s been terrific. I think he’s getting better every game. I think his game is gaining more traction, and I think he loves playing this time of year.”

This will be the second game of a four-game road trip. The Pens got their trip starting with a disappointing loss in Washington on Sunday.

“It’s disappointing we didn’t get the result, but I thought we played a much better hockey game,” added Sullivan on Sunday. “It was a competitive game. They’re a good team. We’re a good team.”

As for the Kings, they didn’t really have much to play for between now and the end of the season. They’ll be reduced to playing spoiler between now and the end of the season.

GM Rob Blake managed to swing four trades over the the last few weeks. Here’s the moves they’ve made:

Traded Away: Jack Campbell (Toronto), Kyle Clifford (Toronto) Tyler Toffoli (Vancouver), Alec Martinez (Vegas) and Derek Forbort (Calgary).

Acquired: Trevor Moore (Toronto), 2020 third-round pick (Toronto), 2021 conditional third-round pick (Toronto), Tim Schaller (Vancouver), Tyler Madden (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vancouver), 2022 conditional fourth-round pick (Vancouver), 2020 second-round pick (Vegas), 2021 second-round pick (Vegas), and 2021 conditional fourth-round pick (Flames).

As you can see from the players and picks they acquired, they’re all about the long-term rebuild.

“We’re at that phase now where the next layer has to step up and contribute,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “The players that have come up from Ontario have shown to this point that they’re ready to go and they understand the structure, that they’re competitive like we thought they’d be, and they’re excited to be here. They give us a little spark, a little jolt of enthusiasm, which we need at this time of year. For as much as they help us out, we’re excited as well. It’s a good mix right now. Something our team dearly needs.”

Nikolay Prokhorkin, Blake Lizotte, Austin Wagner, Mike Amadio, Sean Walker and Matt Roy have all gotten an opportunity to play some more over the course of the season thanks to this rebuild. Cal Petersen has also made four starts since Campbell was shipped to the Maple Leafs.

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL Trade Deadline winners, losers; David Ayres’ wild night

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Liam McHugh, Scott Hartnell and Mike Johnson react to one of the busiest NHL trade deadlines ever and reveal which teams they now feel dramatically different about. Will Ilya Kovalchuk fit well in Washington? Were the Lightning smart to go all in? Which teams should have done more? The crew also takes a look back at David Ayres’ thrilling night and discusses the future of the EBUG. Plus, Mike Tirico sits down with Al Michaels to reflect on the “Miracle on Ice.”

0:00-1:25 Intros
1:25-6:00 Initial deadline reactions
6:00-16:00 Deadline winners/losers
16:00-24:15 David Ayres’ surreal night
24:15-48:40 Mike Tirico, Al Michaels reflect on “Miracle on Ice”
48:40-end Liam, Mike, Scott tell their Lake Placid stories

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports