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Brett Connolly's goal? Score at least 20 of them for the Caps this season

Brett Connolly's goal? Score at least 20 of them for the Caps this season

When Brett Connolly joined the Capitals last year, he arrived on a one-year deal and without a guaranteed spot in the lineup.

When this year’s training camp gets underway, however, he’ll find himself in a much more settled situation: he’s now got the security of a two-year extension and a legitimate shot at earning a bigger role as the Caps look to replace a couple of top-six forwards.  

“It’s the first time I’ve been able to come to training camp and be comfortable,” said Connolly, whose previous three contracts were all one-year deals. “Now I can just go out and play.”

He added: “There’s going to be some openings in the lineup. It’s an exciting time for a lot of guys on this team.”

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Connolly spoke to CSN on Friday morning following another well-attended informal practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. In fact, 11 of the 12 forwards and six of the seven defensemen expected to make the opening night roster took part in the hour-long session. Both goalies were here, as well.

Connolly said he’s eager to build on a 2016-17 campaign that was interesting to say the least. The 25-year-old winger started out as a healthy scratch, then ended up a spectator as the Caps bowed out to the Penguins in the second round. In between, however, he netted a career-high 15 goals in 66 games while seeing an average of just 10:41—the least amount of ice time among the Caps’ full-time forwards.  

“I had a good year last year,” he said. “I feel really good about my game. I just need to take that into this year, take advantage of this great opportunity that I’m going to be given and run with it. It’s another opportunity for me to gain some traction in this league and help this team win.”

Connolly’s personal goal for the upcoming season? Score at least 20 times.

“For me, being an offensive guy, 20 goals is kind of the benchmark,” he said. “I know last year my ice time was limited [but] we had a really good team and a lot of [depth] in the lineup. I had to be a little patient there and just do my part, do my role. Last year was all about winning [the Cup] and obviously everybody knows we didn’t get that done. But this year will be a little different. Twenty goals is definitely doable for me.”

Training camp starts next Friday with the grueling conditioning test that tripped up Connolly a year ago. This summer he tweaked his training to avoid a repeat of that—and to help him evolve with a game that seemingly gets faster every year.

“I did a little more conditioning, a little more speed,” Connolly said of his summer routine. “The game is changing so much. …I’m in good shape right now and I’m ready to go.”

And he’ll need to be. Indeed, with Justin Williams in Carolina and Marcus Johansson in New Jersey, there will be no shortage of forwards jockeying for jobs and/or promotions.

“Everybody knows that this training camp is going to be different than years past,” Connolly said. “In years past, the team was [already] picked. There were so many good players and good veteran guys who had their spots secured, it was hard for some guys in this organization who were just waiting for their chance. I’ve been there. The last couple of years were not easy for those guys. But this year there’s a handful of guys that are coming in and they’re chomping at the bit and ready to go.”

“Guys are going to be battling and competing for spots,” he continued. “Guys are going to be pushing the guys that were here last year.”

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Caps make 17 cuts Sunday, pare roster to 36

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Caps make 17 cuts Sunday, pare roster to 36

The Capitals have made another significant round of cuts, reassigning 16 players to AHL Hershey and releasing another.

Among the players headed to the Bears are: forwards John Albert, Mathias Bau, Chris Bourque, Dustin Gazley, Hampus Gustafsson, Tim McGauley, Garrett Mitchell, Mason Mitchell and Wayne Simpson; defensemen Kristofers Bindulis, Connor Hobbs, Tommy Hughes, Lucas Johansen, Hubert Labrie; and goalies Adam Carlson and Vitek Vanecek.

The club also released forward Stephen Collins.

The highest profile cuts were Johansen, the team's first round pick in 2016, and Hobbs. The Caps have high hopes for the young blue liners, but it’s obvious both will benefit from some seasoning in the minor leagues as they make the leap from junior to the pro ranks.

Hershey’s training opens on Monday.

After taking Sunday off, the Caps will return to practice on Monday with a roster of 36 players—and three preseason games left to sort out the position battles.  

Forwards Riley Barber, Travis Boyd, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Graovac, Liam O’Brien, Anthony Peluso, Zach Sill, Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Nathan Walker are left battling for the three available jobs up front.

Meanwhile, defensemen Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Jyrki Jokipakka, Tyler Lewington, Aaron Ness, Jonas Siegenthaler and Colby Williams are competing for the two open spots on the backend.

Although some players, such as Chiasson and Walker, have already begun to separate themselves from the others, you can expect the competition to intensify over the next week. The Caps host the Devils on Wednesday, then play at the Hurricanes on Friday and at the Blues on Sunday.

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

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Did Barry Trotz show us what his fourth line will be to start the season?

Barry Trotz likes to play his cards close to the vest. With roster battles and lineup holes surrounding the team, there are plenty of questions for the Caps that need answering this preseason. If you look at how Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes ended, however, he may have given us at least one answer.

At the start of the game, Jay Beagle centered a line with Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simpson on his wings. By the end of the game, Nathan Walker was playing on the left with Beagle at center and Smith-Pelly on the right.

"Walker was giving us some energy, he was giving us some speed and I just made that flip," Trotz told reporters after the game. "I just thought Walks was starting to make things happen. His speed was noticeable, his will on the puck if you will was really good. I thought that'd be a good fit. I just moved him over there and I thought he had an effect on the game."

Could that have been a preview of the team's fourth line?

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Walker turned in another tremendous performance showing great energy, speed and grit. Despite being 5-foot-8, he still remains a feisty player who could be found at the center of every scrum. He exchanged hits and jabs with the 6-foot-3 Klas Dahlbeck multiple times throughout the game and even drew a penalty on the Carolina defenseman as he drove the net after managing to slip away from a hit along the boards.

"He's one of those hard guys to play against because ... they're on you all the time," Trotz said. "When you can affect the opposition and take them out of their game because the way you play, then you're pretty effective."

That brings us back to the lines. The Caps have not one, but two openings on the fourth line to play alongside Beagle. The fact that Trotz put Walker and Smith-Pelly on that line, two players fighting for a spot in the lineup, could be a preview of what the fourth line may ultimately look like to start the season.

That would be just fine with Beagle.

"It's fun to play with a guy who brings that much energy," Beagle said of Walker. "He's always had that energy and he's always been a little guy who grinds it out and isn't afraid to get in there and get in the corners and wins a lot of battles. He's awesome to play with. He's a lot of fun."

At this point, given how he has played in his two preseason games, it is hard to see how Walker does not make the roster. His energy and style are a perfect fit for what the Caps need on their fourth line. He would be an excellent compliment to Beagle and that has not escaped Trotz's notice.

"I think they might enjoy playing together, but they're effective together," Trotz said. "They get on the puck, they work you over and they tire you out. I'll tell you that."

With other players such as Alex Chiasson, Riley Barber and Anthony Peluso still vying to make the team, it is still too early to tell if this is definitively what the fourth line will look like, but the trio certainly made their case.

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