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PHT’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals try to forget Cup celebrations as NHL camps open

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When Alex Ovechkin embraced Josh Norman in a meeting of two of Washington’s biggest sports stars, the Redskins cornerback had a question for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup-winning captain.

”You still celebrating?” Norman asked.

”We’re done,” Ovechkin said. ”We’re done for right now.”

The Capitals seemed to celebrate as hard as any champion in NHL history. When they get on the ice for the first practices of training camp Friday, they will be just one of 31 teams chasing a title all over again.

”We have to forget already about that and focus,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said. ”We have to move forward. When you taste that win, you want to do it over again. To do that, it’s not easy.”

A year after being written off as title contenders, the Capitals are now a focal point of the NHL as camps open. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the rival Penguins will look to rebound from a second-round postseason exit, the Lightning are stacked even after general manager Steve Yzerman stepped down and the Maple Leafs look like Cup favorites after adding John Tavares.

The Western Conference-champion Golden Knights won’t have Nate Schmidt for any game in the preseason or the first 20 of the regular season after a performance-enhancing drug suspension , while the Blues loaded up on centers in a bid to move past recent playoff disappointments – like the Capitals did a year ago.

Some things to watch from training camps around the league:

ERIK GOES WEST

The NHL was busy Thursday with the Dallas Stars re-signing Tyler Seguin to a $78.8 million, eight-year extension, the Hurricanes naming Justin Williams captain and announcing Victor Rask is out indefinitely after slicing two fingers in a kitchen accident, and the Coyotes giving the ”C” to Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Oh, and the Sharks acquired star defenseman Erik Karlsson in a blockbuster trade with Ottawa.

”It still came as a shock and not something I prepared for or could’ve prepared myself for,” Karlsson said, adding that he hopes to be in San Jose for camp sooner than later after visa issues get worked out.

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said they were ”looking for a difference-maker.” After missing out on Tavares, they got one in Karlsson and shifted the balance of power in the Western Conference.

TRYOUT TIME

At least 20 players will attend camps on professional tryout agreements, with defenseman Brandon Davidson in Chicago and winger Scottie Upshall in Edmonton among those most likely to earn a contract. The Oilers – who have the selling point of playing with Connor McDavid – also invited defenseman Jason Garrison and former Capitals forward Alex Chiasson to camp. Edmonton is the land of opportunity this month after missing the playoffs by 17 points last season. The young Bruins are bringing in veterans Daniel Winnik, Lee Stempniak and Mark Fayne on tryouts. Each one will have to wow the coaching staff to make it.

WHO’S NOT THERE

A handful of restricted free agents remain unsigned around the league, including Maple Leafs forward William Nylander, Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore and Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse. Nylander wasn’t listed on Toronto’s 73-player training camp roster released Wednesday. RFAs lack leverage and time, with the season coming up fast next month. Still, such situations are usually resolved before the opener and Nylander, Nurse, Theodore and the others should all sign before Oct. 3.

NEW COACHES

Washington’s Todd Reirden is one of six new coaches, but he has been on Barry Trotz’s staff the past four seasons and had a hand in winning the Cup. Rod Brind’Amour has plenty of familiarity with the Hurricanes after seven seasons as an assistant but an entirely different challenge as he looks to end a league-worst nine-year playoff drought. New faces in new places include Trotz taking his Cup ring to the Islanders, former Carolina coach Bill Peters in Calgary, Jim Montgomery in Dallas and David Quinn with the Rangers. Peters faces big expectations in trying to get the Flames back to contending status in the West.

ROOKIE WATCH

Buffalo No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin is the player to watch in the preseason to see if the smooth-skating Swedish defenseman can make the NHL look as effortless as previous endeavors. Dahlin will make the Sabres’ roster and could contribute immediately on a blue line that needs it. A handful of other top-10 picks have a chance to play on opening night, including Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk and Detroit’s Filip Zadina.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Current, former teammates shocked by Schmidt suspension

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CHICAGO — Marc-Andre Fleury was surprised and T.J. Oshie said he was shocked to see Nate Schmidt suspended 20 games for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

Current and former teammates expressed degrees of disbelief about the suspension this week after the NHL announced the Vegas Golden Knights defenseman’s punishment on Sunday. Schmidt insisted he didn’t intentionally take a banned substance and couldn’t have gotten any performance benefit from the ”trace amount” that got into his system.

”I really didn’t see how this guy, how this could happen to him,” said Fleury, the goaltender who helped Vegas reach the Stanley Cup Final last season. ”He’s obviously a very straightforward guy. I really believe everything he says. He’s a standup guy, and I don’t see him doing this kind of stuff.”

Schmidt and the Golden Knights released statements disagreeing with the suspension, though neither specified the substance. Schmidt said one of the experts testifying on his behalf at the appeal hearing likened the amount to a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

[How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?]

The appeal, which was heard by a neutral arbitrator, was denied.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he tries not to pay attention to the blowback from suspensions like this.

”I think it’s the nature of any performance-enhancing drug policy,” Daly said. ”I don’t view Nate’s reaction to this or the club’s reaction to this to be far different than other reactions you see from other athletes in other sports. It’s just the nature of the beast. I think it’s an unfortunate incident. Nate’s a good guy, he’s a great player. I wish it didn’t happen as much as he does.”

Oshie, who played with Schmidt for two seasons in Washington, trusts the explanation that it wasn’t intentional.

”I think he’s being very honest that this was out of his hands,” Oshie said. ”Knowing Schmidtty and the type of person he is, I can only think that he got the worst run of bad luck you could ever imagine. That’s the nightmare of trying to be healthy and take supplements is something gets tainted in a warehouse that no one would ever have any idea how it happened.”

Former Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t as much worried about how it happened as how Schmidt responds to adversity.

”We all know he’s nice guy, but at the same time sometimes you have to deal with the bad days in your life,” Kuznetsov said. ”You don’t want to be in that situation, but some players in different situations have their bad days, right? … Twenty games are not too much. I think they have a good team.”

Schmidt led the Golden Knights in ice time last season at 22:14 per game, and someone will have to fill the role of No. 1 defenseman until he can return Nov. 18. That will likely fall on the likes of Collin Miller, Brayden McNabb and still unsigned Shea Theodore to make sure Vegas doesn’t get off to a rough start.

”We’re lucky,” Fleury said Friday. ”We have some depth on D, and I think everybody contributed to success last season, and I think it’s another part of the season that we need somebody else to step up and not fill his shoes but play well and do the things that they can and we’ll be all right.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Three questions facing Washington Capitals

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?

Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin‘s been up to?

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Я очень рад что привёз кубок Стэнли домой, в Москву, где его увидели тысячи людей на Воробьёвых горах, а так же мои близкие друзья, родные и самое главное моя семья! Хочу сказать огромное спасибо нашим незаменимым организаторам @svadberry @anna_gorod @goroddimka , всё было как всегда на высшем уровне, эти два вечера были не забываемы!!! Отдельное спасибо @renat_agzamov за совершенно уникальный торт! You r the best💪🏻И конечно же спасибо всем, кто был рядом в эти дни❤️… @orlov_09 @kuzy092 мужики мы чемпионы!!!! Thanks to all my team @capitals for the greatest time ever!!!✌🏻❤️

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After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback – what with the whole “winning it all” thing – but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.

A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.

Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:

2. Was Braden Holtby‘s tough regular season just an anomaly?

Fatigue was one of the concerns for workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, much like it seemed to be for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps opening up about those challenges will keep the issue from cropping up again?

It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.

Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.

While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.

With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?

The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.

3. Will the veterans lose a step?

Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.

That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).

Alex Ovechkin is 32, and he’s already played in 1,003 regular-season games. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, while both T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen are 31. Even Lars Eller is 29.

Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.

It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season – clearly – but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Building off a breakthrough: Tom Wilson

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Tom Wilson is, essentially, a magnet for controversy. If you wanted to start a fight on Hockey Twitter, you could do worse than to utter his name around Capitals fans and foes.

There might be one thing everyone can agree on, though: last season was easily the best of his NHL career.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Wilson set a new career-high for goals with 14, a mark that matched his combined output in 2015-16 and 2016-17 (he scored seven in each of those seasons). Wilson generated more assists (21) in 2017-18 than he had points (19) the year before.

The polarizing player didn’t just generate the best offensive numbers – by far – of his NHL days. Wilson also cemented himself as a player Barry Trotz trusted on a first line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

After averaging almost 13 minutes per game during his previous two seasons, Wilson logged nearly 16 minutes per night in 2017-18. His role only increased in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the rugged winger averaged 17:45 TOI over 21 postseason contests.

You can debate the merits (and demerits) of Wilson’s deeper stats until you’re blue in the face, but it’s difficult to deny that the 24-year-old checked out on a higher level than he ever had before.

Wilson enjoyed such a breakthrough that he set the stage for a set of debates that (maybe refreshingly?) won’t revolve around his latest thunderous body check: is he worth that big, new contract?

One could generate plenty of discussion regarding whether the 2017-18 edition of Tom Wilson would be worthy of a six-year contract that carries a $5.167M cap hit. Without a doubt, the proponents of such a deal will claim that Wilson brought a lot more to the table than his 14 goals and 35 points.

Either way, expectations will rise as Wilson’s bank account swells.

You know, not that such arguments will bother Wilson, allegedly.

“It doesn’t really matter to me what everybody says,” Wilson said recently, via TSN. “No matter what happens, half the people are going to be happy, half the people aren’t. That’s just the way life is …”

That’s fair enough, but what should the Capitals expect from Wilson next season, and beyond? Is his steep climb in production the tip of the iceberg, or was he scraping the ceiling?

It’s not shocking that Washington didn’t lay out specifics regarding what they expect from Wilson after signing him, but it’s interesting to note some of GM Brian MacLellan’s comments.

“Tom is an invaluable member of our team and we are pleased that he will play a great part in our foreseeable future,” MacLellan said after the contract was announced. “Tom is a unique player in this league. At 24 years of age, he has an impressive amount of experience and we believe that he will only continue to grow and improve as a player. With his ability to play in virtually any game situation, teams need players like Tom in order to succeed in the NHL.”

Is Wilson really a player who moves the needle? The Capitals are paying a big price with that thought in mind, and it all came together thanks to a breakthrough season in 2017-18.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.