Tarik El-Bashir - Capitals Insider

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A bitter end to a career year for Jay Beagle

A bitter end to a career year for Jay Beagle

As much as it hurt Jay Beagle to head home early once again, the Caps’ fourth line center was proud of one thing as he walked out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week: At 31 years old, he had enjoyed his most productive season in 2016-17.

Consider Beagle’s numbers:

  • Most games (in a full NHL season): 81.
  • Most goals: 13 (including an overtime winnner).
  • Most points: 30.
  • Best plus/minus: plus-20.
  • Most face-offs taken and won. 1,106 and 624, respectively.
  • Most blocked shots: 44.

Beagle also led the Caps in face-off win percentage at 56.4, a figure that ranked ninth in the league among players who took at least 1,000 draws.

The reason for the uptick in Beagle’s production was likely twofold: No. 1, he worked harder last offseason on his stick skills and No. 2, he managed to stay relatively healthy during the grueling seven month regular season—something that had previously proved to be a challenge given his all-out style of play. He had averaged just 60 games the previous three seasons.

“I’ve never felt better, actually,” Beagle said recently, asked about speculation that he was dealing with an injury late in the season.

The only game he missed, in fact, was due to illness (vs. Ottawa in January).

“The body felt good,” Beagle said. “I had little bumps and bruises along the way, but the medical staff did an unreal job of keeping everyone pretty healthy. I was healthy all year. I felt my best almost all year. That’s why I had the season that I had. I don’t think I’ve played that many games without being out so I think that contributed [to the stats].”

But as Beagle spoke to the media on breakdown day, he had the same sinking sensation that most of his teammates felt. He felt that he could have done more individually (he had no points in 13 postseason games). He knew that the regular season's best team had let a prime opportunity slip. He also knew that the locker room he returns to in September will feature a retooled cast of characters.

“It’s awful that this group probably won’t be back together again, just with the people who are up,” Beagle said, referring to the team’s five unrestricted free agents and six restricted free agents.

Beagle, who has another year at $1.75 million on his contract, added: “It’s obviously tough, knowing that this group that has been so successful in the regular season and is such a great group to come to the rink with…I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team with such good chemistry and had as much fun as we did together.”

Beagle also noted this year’s loss to the Penguins was harder to stomach because, unlike 2016, he felt that these Caps had a legitimate chance to beat Pittsburgh and win the Cup. 

“This is hard to take,” he said. “This, for me, is way harder than last year. Just the way it went. I just felt that last year Pitt came at us [in 2016] and, at that point in the year, was the best team. They just came at us in waves. [This year] I thought we outplayed them a lot…and [yet] they’re still playing.”

Beagle acknowledged that he’s wondered if the two late goals the Penguins scored in Game 6 gave them life.

“Did they kinda set [themselves] up for Game 7?” he asked.

The end of Game 6, though, wasn't nearly as big of a concern for Beagle as the end as Game 7.

“It’s still a struggle,” he said, asked about going out so meekly in a decisive contest. “I mean, how does that happen? I don’t know.”

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Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

Nate Schmidt ready to make 'next jump' into the Caps' top-4

The playoffs were a major disappointment for the Capitals as a team.

The playoffs, however, were very good for Nate Schmidt as an individual.

The 25-year-old’s postseason journey began the same way the regular season had ended—with him slotted as Washington’s spare defenseman. But that all changed in Game 3 of the opening round when Karl Alzner was unable to suit up due to injury.

Schmidt played so well that he never came back out.

“I thought the playoffs were really good for me personally,” he said recently. “I thought I could have brought a little bit more, especially in the last game. [But] I think that hopefully the management or the staff believes that I can make the next jump and move up to that ever elusive top-4.”

He certainly made a strong argument in the playoffs.

RELATED: Is Alex Ovechkin a good leader?

Schmidt registered assists in each of his first two games vs. Toronto and finished the postseason with a goal and three assists in 11 games. He also led the team with a +6 rating.

That strong playoff performance followed a tough second half of the regular season for Schmidt. He was bumped out of the lineup altogether when Kevin Shattenkirk was acquired at the trade deadline. Schmidt showed well in the final four games of the regular season as a fill-in for John Carlson, who was injured at the time. But as the playoffs began, Schmidt was once again the odd man out.

As hard as that was for Schmidt, he accepted his role, worked hard to stay prepared and waited patiently for another shot.

As it turned out, he didn't have to wait very long. Alzner suffered a broken right hand in the playoff opener and by Game 3 was unable to suit up.

Schmidt got the call and never looked back.

“You have to make an impact,” he said. “When I played with John in the Toronto series, I thought we made an impact. When I played with [Shattenkirk] at the end of the [Pittsburgh] series, I thought we made an impact when we were on the ice. And that’s all I really wanted to do—just go make an impact.”

In the wake of the Caps’ elimination, Schmidt has struggled with a couple of conflicting emotions. He’s pleased that he played well. He’s devastated that the team came up way short of expectations.    

“You never want to hit the rewind button [because] everything happens for a reason,” he said. “But that’s probably the first time where I got off the ice and I didn’t really believe it had happened and that it was all a bad dream, especially those couple of minutes at the end [of Game 7] when we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities to score. You just realized that was the way the game was going to go.”

He added: “It’s definitely on us. That’s the reason it hurts so much more [than 2016]. You see how banged up [the Penguins] were. We had a chance to beat them…”

As another offseason begins a month earlier than anyone in Washington expected, there’s a lot of uncertainty swirling. Schmidt is a restricted free agent and due a healthy raise, as are many of his teammates. He also figures to be a tantalizing option for the Las Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.

Assuming he returns to Washington, though, Schmidt is confident that he solified his worth and proved he's ready for more responsibility in 2017-18.   

“That’s where you want to be,” he said of sliding into the top-4, a move Dmitry Orlov made a year ago. “That’s the next step for me. That’s what I want to do, and I think I put myself in position to be that type of defenseman for our team.”

MORE CAPITALS: Free agency presents Alzner with first taste of unknown

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Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Some players look at free agency as an exciting opportunity. Others view it as a nerve-racking proposition fraught with uncertainty.

Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner definitely considers himself among the latter group.

“At the end of every season, even when I was up for another contract, I always felt really comfortable,” the 28-year-old said recently. “Some people look at free agency and go, ‘Yeah, this is really awesome. I get to go see what I can get.’”

“For other people,” he continued, “it’s unknown, and they don’t like unknown. I’m curious [to see] how it’s all going to happen. But I don’t like the feeling of not having something.”

The Capitals are all Alzner has known as a professional hockey player. He was drafted fifth overall by the team in 2007, came up through Washington's minor league system and has been a rock on the Caps' blue line for the past eight seasons.

Now he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.   

“It’s my first real taste of what the [business side of] the NHL is like,” said Alzner, who, following the expiration of his entry level deal in 2011, re-upped twice, both times as a restricted free agent.

Just like Washington's far-too-early playoff exit, the possibility of switching teams hasn’t really sunk in yet.    

“We consider this home,” he said.

The ‘we’ is himself, his wife Mandy and children Stella and Anson.

“Whenever we say we’re going home or we’re filling out any paperwork, this is home,” he said, referring to Arlington, Va. “We feel so comfortable here. We spent the entire summer here last year. We could spend another summer here. We’ve met a lot of great people and we love it here. This is one of a handful of places around the league where if you spend your whole career here, you could easily stay here. And that, without a doubt, crossed our mind when we bought our house here and had kids. But a lot of it’s not really in my hands. I guess it kind of is in my hands, but they make the decisions upstairs.”

The durable, steady top-4 D-man also made this much clear: he doesn't want the negotiation to be all about money, at least from his end. He earned $2.8 million in each of the last three seasons.

“There’s definitely curiosity, but for me there’s lots of things that are more important than dollars in my life,” he said. “So the most interesting thing will be to see how talks go with the team here first.”

On the ice, this was a challenging year for Alzner, who had offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia and partially torn groin muscle. The recovery turned out to be trickier than expected for a player who, by his own admission, wasn’t a speed demon on skates to begin with. Still, he suited up for all 82 games—again—while matching up against top competition and playing 19:47 per game on average.

In the playoffs, Alzner encountered another injury. He suffered a broken right hand while blocking a shot in Game 1 vs. Toronto. He played hurt in Game 2 but ended up missing the next six contests.

“Just a harmless shot block,” he lamented. “Probably an unnecessary shot block.”

As for the decision makers upstairs—GM Brian MacLellan and Co.—they’ve got to sort through a lot, including Alzner's future, as they contemplate a pathway forward for a team that dominated the regular season but, once again, failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs.

There are five unrestricted free agents on the current roster. There are also six restricted free agents that need new deals. And, of course, there’s a finite amount of space under a salary cap that’s expected to remain relatively flat. 

Then there’s THE question facing Caps management: is it time for massive changes to the core, of which Alzner has been a part since 2010?

“I don’t know how I’ll fit into the makeup here if things get blown up,” he said. “But, you know, we’ll find out. …It’s definitely possible. You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed. But I’m not an architect of a team. I don’t know how you do that exactly. I thought we were winning this year…but we still didn’t. So you have to go back to the drawing board, I think.”

Alzner didn’t know what the future held as he walked out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week following another breakdown day that arrived sooner than anyone had envisioned. But he was certain of this much: another golden opportunity had been allowed to slip.

“It’s definitely the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had because this was the most realistic chance of winning that we’ve had,” he said. “This is a pretty good window that we had here and, unfortunately, it’s not there anymore.”

MORE CAPITALS: How can the Caps balance pressure with joy?