Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Gudas and Vrana Look to Help Lead Caps Back to the Cup

Last year’s Washington Capitals squad had a tough act to follow. The season prior, the team secured its first Stanley Cup championship under the tutelage of coach Barry Trotz. A glorious summer-long party ensued as the city embraced the festive atmosphere that came with ending a long-enduring drought.

Trotz’s contract was up though, and when an extension couldn’t be reached, Todd Reirden was promoted to take his place. As the team started slowly last year, several pundits blamed the effects of a Cup hangover, a phenomenon that sometimes plagues a team that had played grueling matches deep into the summer. It wasn’t a terrible start, but when the expectations are sky-high, people notice.

Reirden eventually righted the ship and guided the Capitals to a first-place finish in the competitive Metro division, but the team fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in the first round. What do Reirden and his staff have in store for an encore? With a full season under his belt as head coach and a competitive squad returning, it’s expected Reirden will guide the Caps to another first-place finish – but this time, go deep in the playoffs.

All the ingredients are there for the Capitals to have a big year. While there were some changes in the offseason, particularly on defense and among the bottom six forwards, the core team returns. One returning player who figures to play a prominent role this season is forward Jakub Vrana, who racked up an impressive 47 points (24 goals, 23 assists) and played in all 82 games in his second full season with the club. Vrana, who is expected to exceed those figures and play a bigger role this season, credits the coaching staff with accelerating his development.

“The coaches were very helpful, and we worked on a lot of things,” Vrana says. “I’ve been getting chances and more ice time. You need to earn that and give it back to your team and coaches.”

Vrana, a native of the Czech Republic and a former Caps first-round draft choice, says the team is motivated to get back to Cup finals after experiencing the championship in 2018. Since they were bounced in the first round this past season, the players had more time during the offseason to rest up and train.

“The longer summer will help us be better prepared to get back to the Stanley Cup this year,” he continues. “Obviously with winning the Cup, we know how special it is – especially with the city waiting so long. And last year was kind of disappointing, [but] it gets us motivated to get out there and win again.”

Among the new additions this year is defenseman Radko Gudas, who came to DC from Philadelphia over the summer, with Washington sending Matt Niskanen to the Flyers in return. The team will miss Niskanen, a top-pair defenseman who played five years in the District and chewed up a lot of ice time while putting up meaningful points. But the Capitals save $3.4 million in cap space with the trade, as Niskanen makes a higher salary than Gudas. It also gives the team some needed snarl, as the physical Gudas can be a menacing presence on the backline.

Among the league’s hit leaders, Gudas brings a wild card element to the Capitals. Though ejected and suspended multiple times by the league for what has been deemed questionable hits, a player of his notoriety can benefit the Capitals as it provides them a fiercer edge that will keep opposing teams on their toes. The defenseman, whose affability during interviews belies his intense nature on the ice, looks to continue his spirited play in DC.

“It’s definitely my game,” he says. “I’m a physical guy out there. I’m trying to be a physical defenseman who always protects his teammates and makes sure nobody is touching our goalie.”

The trade was a bit of an anomaly as it involved division rivals, but Gudas says he quickly moved past the initial surprise of the news and settled in.

“I want to focus on myself and be ready for the season. This group wants to go deep in the playoffs, and I want to have that as my number one goal going into the season. It’s a new chapter for me, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

Gudas, who is also from the Czech Republic, says he is familiar with Vrana and fellow countryman Michal Kempny, a key defenseman who is expected to miss some time due to a torn hamstring. Gudas previously played on the Tampa Bay Lightning with Richard Panik, a forward whom the Capitals signed as a free agent. Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were all brought in over the summer to add speed and grit to the third and fourth lines.

The Capitals lost another vital defenseman when Brooks Orpik announced his retirement after 15 years in the NHL, including five in Washington. Orpik played 81 games during the Caps’ Stanley Cup season and was a respected player in the locker room. It’s expected that players like Gudas, Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler will step up to play key minutes and support top defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov.

The top forward lines are once again buoyed by superstar captain Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie, with veterans Tom Wilson, Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin rounding out the group. Number one goalie Braden Holtby will once again be counted on as a workhorse between the pipes. With not a lot of change and new, proven faces filling key positions, the Capitals are once again expected to be among the NHL’s best.

“We had some big losses during the summer,” Vrana says. “We lost some guys we have some history and some memories with. It wasn’t really easy to say goodbye, but sometimes that’s part of the business. You just have to look forward. We have a great upcoming year in front of us with this group now and we’re very excited for the season.”

Don’t miss five home games this month, starting on October 5. For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.

Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; 202-628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals

Number 94 Daron Payne// Photo: courtesy of NFL Washington Redskins

Redskins Rookie No More: Daron Payne Back for Season Two

Lest any Washington Redskins fans think defensive tackle Daron Payne was born with superhuman strength, here’s his real secret: hard work, and a lot of it. It’s a testament to the 22-year-old’s tenacity and humility to hear him talk about the beginning of his football career.

“I wasn’t strong at all going into high school,” Payne says. “But when I got in the weight room and stayed in the weight room, it just took off from there. Once I started training and lifting every day, I think it just started translating onto the field.”

The 6-foot-3, 320-pound nose tackle grew up in Birmingham, Alabama where he attended Shades Valley High School. Payne was rated as a five-star recruit and committed to play for the Crimson Tide at the University of Alabama under legendary head coach Nick Saban.

Payne made his mark at Alabama too. This is no small feat considering the team has ruled college football for the last 10 years, winning five national titles since 2009, two of them with Payne. In his junior year, he was voted defensive MVP of both the Sugar Bowl and the National Championship Game. After the season ended, he announced that he would enter the 2018 NFL Draft, where the Redskins drafted him in the first round.

Payne says the biggest change in coming to DC is “being away from everybody that I know,” but he happened to land on the team
with the most former University of Alabama players in the NFL. The Redskins have six former Bama players on their current roster including Payne, and another two on injured reserve and the practice squad. He says having other Bama players on the team helped with the transition from college to pro.

“I could just ask them about how things are and the whole process. They guided me through my first year in the NFL, so it made the whole thing easier.”

Payne says he still keeps in touch with other former Crimson Tide players across the NFL too, not just Redskins players.

“All of us keep in touch and hang out when we get the chance.”

The defensive tackle’s sense of community extends beyond football to volunteer efforts. During the offseason, Payne had a chance to make a trip to Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia to bring attention to the Army base’s new dental clinic and meet some fans. He also hosted a back-to-school giveaway in Birmingham, giving out backpacks and other school supplies to kids in need.

“I really didn’t get a chance to [give back during] my rookie year because I was just trying to dedicate all that time to training,” he says. “I definitely just wanted, with the off-time that I had, to do a little something that I could to give back.”

Now that the 2019-2020 season is in full swing, Payne is sure to be busy training and playing hard for the Redskins at every upcoming game.
At a recent press conference, head coach Jay Gruden spoke glowingly of Payne’s talent and determination, ruminating on what gains he has made after his rookie season.

“I have high expectations for Payne,” Gruden says. “I think he has high expectations for himself, as does everybody else in this locker room. He’s a guy that works extremely hard. He’s stronger, he’s quicker and I think he’s got a chance to be one of the dominant linemen in pro football if he keeps on this track. It’s very exciting to watch him play. He’s excellent against the run, he’s powerful, he can rush the passer – and we like him.”

High praise for Payne, who works hard to take every opportunity as it comes.

“I just try to go game by game,” he says. “[I’m] just trying to have my best game every game.”

Check out the Redskins’ October home games on Sunday, October 6 at 1 p.m. against the New England Patriots and Sunday, October 20 at 1 p.m. against the San Francisco 49ers. Find out more at www.redskins.com.

FedExField: 1600 Fedex Way, Landover, MD; 301-276-6000; www.redskins.com

D.C. United vs. Seattle Sounders

On Sunday, September 22, D.C. United hosted the Seattle Sounders at home at Audi Field, winning 2-0. Photos: Mark Raker Photography

Turtle Recall at Nationals Park

The Budweiser music series at Nationals Park concluded on Friday, September 27 with live music from Turtle Recall in the Budweiser Terrace as the Nationals warmed up to play the Indians. Photos: Mark Raker Photography

Courtesy of the Washington Redskins

Washington Redskins Score Major Fan Experience Upgrades for the 2019-2020 Season

Watching DC’s football team play their division rival in a picturesque suite setting at FedExField really put how sweet the stadium is in perspective. There’s an endless amount of mouth-watering food to choose from, local brews that hit close to home such as Port City Optimal Wit and Devils Backbone’s #ATTR the brewing company’s exclusive golden ale made just for the Redskins and seriously good views no matter where you’re seated. Whether you go to Redskins games all the time or you’re looking forward to your first game-day experience at FedExField, get ready to be blown away by the impressive 2019-2020 season offerings that the Washington Redskins home stadium has to offer.

The custom upgrades to FedExField are largely based on fan feedback, from heightened tailgate experiences to exclusive access to once hidden parts of the stadium. How does the home of the Redskins cater to DC’s fan base all the way in Landover, MD? To improve, at the end of each season, the Redskins organization holds a series of focus groups to hear about attendee experiences, which point them in the right direction for what exactly fans want. On Tap got an exclusive deep-dive tour of FedExField from Chris Bloyer, senior vice president of operations and guest experience for the Washington Redskins, who proudly went in-depth on exciting offerings for fans in the new season.

OT: Let’s talk about Redskins Gold, the new season ticket member club. What exclusive access does this offer fans during their game-day experience?
Chris Bloyer: Redskins Gold, our new comprehensive membership program, was designed to give our fans unprecedented experiences, amenities and benefits all year long. As a member, you will receive exclusive access from the minute you enter FedExField to the time you leave the game, including member-only entrances and concession lines, upgraded parking, preferred concession and shop pricing, as well as priority access to events, tickets and rewards throughout the year.

OT: What about the burgundy and gold themed Safeway RedZone Tailgating Lot. Is that new? How do you think it’s elevated the tailgating experience for fans so far?
CB: The RedZone Tailgating Lot is not new, but Safeway became the presenting sponsor in November 2018 as part of their exclusive grocery store partnership with the Redskins. The cool thing about the lot is that it opens one hour before all of the other lots and features a private entrance and exit, extra-large parking spaces for tailgating, live music, games, alumni and cheerleader appearances and more. It’s become a very popular amenity for fans who want to make a day of it and start celebrating at FedExField early.

OT: When listening to fans requests, how do you decide what experiences and additions to include every season?
CB: We try to address as many requests as we can, while also making sure it’s an investment that will impact a large percentage of fans. For some requests, we are able to action quickly. For example, there was a lot of interest from fans to attend training camp in Richmond this year as a group without driving, so we set up a free bus trip for Gold Members. We received great feedback from fans about that experience and it certainly added to the excitement as we entered the season. Other requests can take a bit longer to implement and we are continuously matching against some of our longer-term priorities.

OT: What are the Redskins providing for their fans’ game-day experiences that separates them from other stadiums in the NFL?
CB: Our incredible fan base will always be at the heart of what makes a Washington Redskins game special. This year in particular, we have given the fans new communal spaces to celebrate their favorite team together at the field, a wider variety of food and beverage options to commemorate the occasion, a greater selection of fan gear to show their team pride and a broader range of ticket options to ensure the experience is available to a range of people. It’s a combination of all these things that makes the experience special.

OT: What 2019-2020 addition to the game-day experience are you most excited about and proud of?
CB: The addition of more communal spaces. From the expansion and improvements to the Bud Light Party Pavilion, the Merrill Touchdown Club or the Ciroc Lounge in the West Loge, fans are really enjoying the opportunity to meet friends, listen to live entertainment and experience great moments they can share long after the end of the game.

OT: What prompted the idea to renovate the East Pavilion? 
CB: The idea for this renovation ultimately came from last year’s successful West Pavilion renovation. With the east side, we made it four times larger with live entertainment during pregame and halftime, featuring the Washington area’s largest open-air, live sporting venue/stadium bar so that fans can enjoy the action on the field while immersed in a social environment. We hope it’s a place for fans to interact with one another and experience a camaraderie around their shared love of football and the Redskins. The space has been popular with fans so far this season and we expect that to continue. 

OT: It’s incredible that FedExField has all these new food offerings such as Guy Fieri’s Chicken Guy. What are some other new in-stadium places that you think fans will be truly excited about?
CB: We are very excited to offer a variety of new food vendors this year. Guy Fieri’s Chicken Guy has certainly been a fan favorite and fans love the exclusive access, as this is only the second location in the U.S. and the first outside of Florida. The 49ers will become the second stadium to offer this fantastic and delicious food concept. Another big hit has been Paisano’s Pizza on the main concourse. Additionally, we’ve added Territory Foods, P.F. Changs, Firehouse Subs and have expanded our healthy food options.  We’ve also continued the expansion of our craft brew options and for a second season; the Redskins’ own #ATTR Ale from Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company. It’s the first beer in team history brewed just for the Redskins and our fans really enjoy it.

OT: What’s your favorite aspect of managing the operations and coordinating guest experience for the Redskins? 
CB: The opportunity to help our fans enjoy their time with us. From the ushers to the police to the concessions stands, our staff is largely comprised of Redskins fans who, like me, have some of their fondest memories while attending Redskins games. It’s our responsibility and privilege to do everything we can to ensure our fans get the great experience they deserve.    

Enjoy all the new upgrades at the next Redskins home game on Sunday, October 6 at 1 p.m. against the New England Patriots. Tickets start at $110. Read more about FedExField and the Washington Redskins at www.redskins.com.

FedExField: 1600 Fedex Way, Landover, MD; www.redskins.com

D.C. United Cornhole Tournament at Audi Field

D.C. United fans celebrated the start of fall with a cornhole tournament at Audi Field before the game against the Seattle Sounders. Fans pregames with a little friendly competition in a double elimination tournament, then enjoyed Sunday’s game with DC Fray drink specials. Photos: Mark Raker Photography

Driven to Clarity at Nationals Park

Every Friday night home game at Nationals Park is best spent on the Budweiser Terrace. As the Washington Nationals warmed up to play the Atlanta Braves on September 30, fans enjoyed funk, pop-rock hits from Driven to Clarity. Photos: Kimchi Photography

DC Fray Glow Yoga at Audi Field

DC Fray hosted their glow yoga event at Audi Field on Tuesday, September 10. DC yogis lit up the night in glow sticks and paint, enjoying amazing views on the pitch of D.C. United’s home field. Photos: Kimchi Photography

John Thompson III, Sashi Brown, Tommy Sheppard, Ted Leonsis, Daniel Medina of Monumental Basketball // Photo Ned Dishman NBAE via Getty Images

Wizards’ Front Office Flips Page With New GM Tommy Sheppard

As the Washington Wizards embark on a new season, all eyes are on newly minted general manager Tommy Sheppard, who assumed his role this summer, and how he’ll guide the team in a period of rebuilding. Yes, that delightful word every sports fan – especially those in DC – loves to hear. Sheppard took time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about the upcoming season and how he may be the leader the Wizards have been waiting for.

On Tap: How are you feeling about the upcoming season?
Tommy Sheppard: We are really excited. Everything we did from April on has built up to this moment in time as we get ready for training camp. We’ve had some pretty amazing turnaround in a short amount of time in terms of how many new players and new staff [have been added to the roster]. I think the best days are certainly ahead.

OT: You worked with former GM Ernie Grunfeld for many years. What did you learn philosophically from him that you will take with you into your new role?
TS: No matter what, you need the very best talent. Talent is the biggest, most important commodity in the NBA. I think there are so many ways to acquire talent. I put a high premium on character. Data-driven ways of scouting and the way we evaluate plays now is a little different. We worked together a long time and I have the most respect for [Grunfeld], but we are different people with different approaches. My challenge now is to execute a vision we are looking at collectively and not just, “Hey, this is how I want everything to look.” It is critical to everyone working with us that they feel like they have a piece of this, and that’s part of the new NBA as well.

OT: Does the team anticipate John Wall playing this season at any time?
TS: We’ve made a huge investment in John. This isn’t about this season. It’s about the rest of his career. Our performance staff has so much fire power and wisdom that they can truly test when someone is 100 percent, and John’s resume speaks for itself. He’s played through so many injuries in his career. But we have to be more thoughtful with load management and stress on players. We’re not going to rush anyone back, and certainly not John. You can’t fix your mind on a date. So, when he’s 100 percent healthy – not a month or a day [sooner].

OT: How do you envision using the G League as a place to develop players?
TS: We used it last year and were tremendously successful. We promoted our head coach of the G League [Jarell Christian], who is now an assistant with the Wizards. Thomas Bryant spent time there, and Troy Brown played there and got valuable game exposure and finished the [season] as a starter. The last roster spots will always change, and we are going to rotate a lot of players through to see what they can do. We don’t want to take away from the core of the Wizards. That’s the biggest piece: developing players under contract.

OT: Is your main focus this season on a playoff run or are you more focused on player development?
TS: This year, because we have brand new coaches and new players, it’s about getting everyone on a foundation and setting a routine. Playoffs to me is the big picture. You want to build something sustainable. We have to have wisdom to be patient and prudent with the money we spend so we’ll have more money in off years. This summer would have been easy to sign [Tomas] Satoransky, [Jabari] Parker and [Trevor] Ariza, but that’s propping up a team that didn’t make the playoffs. Those are good players and we will miss them, but logic told me they are signing one- or two-year deals – kind of like moving from one dilapidated house to another. Sooner or later, you have to bring it down to bring it back up, and I think we’ve done that.

OT: When you do have free time, what do you like to do around DC?
TS: I’m a museum junkie. I love the African American History [and Culture] Museum and the Air and Space Museum. I’m a big fan of SpaceX and what [Elon] Musk is doing, so I try to go back and figure out that history that led to this and what they are trying to create. I’ve got a big family and we live near Annapolis and have horses, so we love to be outdoors. And as far as restaurants go, Chloe down at the Navy Yard is one of my favorites.

 The Wizards’ preseason starts on Monday, October 7 at 7 p.m. with a home game against the New York Knicks. Learn more about the season at www.nba.com/wizards and follow the team on Twitter

Terry McLaurin // Photo: courtesy of the Washington Redskins

Wide Receiver Terry McLaurin Brings Determination and Precision To Washington Redskins’ 2019 Season

After finishing last season with a 7-9 record and missing the playoffs, the Washington Redskins entered their 2019 training camp in Richmond with plenty of personnel questions.

Fortunately, Coach Jay Gruden found at least one easy answer in rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin. The tough and speedy pass catcher immediately turned heads in Richmond with his precision route-running, sure hands and tireless work ethic. And while the franchise had a half-dozen receivers on its roster at the outset of camp, McLaurin was the odds-on favorite to win a starting wideout spot.

McLaurin’s rapid ascent up the Redskins’ depth chart should come as no surprise, even though he wasn’t selected until the third round of the 2019 draft. The 23-year-old was an outstanding player for the Ohio State Buckeyes, ranking among the storied program’s top 15 receivers in four categories. He was also a role model off the field, graduating in three-and-a-half years with a degree in communications. McLaurin told On Tap that he brings a workmanlike approach to his game.

“I feel like you have to have that [approach] if you’re going to play at this level and be successful,” he said. “You have to enjoy the grind and the process. You can’t be afraid to get criticized and go out there and work on your weaknesses. I try to work on the things I do not do as well harder than the things I do well. I just want to prove that I can be a force in the league.”

Gruden said it’s already apparent that his promising rookie can do just that. In addition to his explosiveness as wide receiver, the Redskins like McLaurin because of his prowess on special teams. Gruden said he loves how the rookie races downfield and pins kick returners deep in their own territory.

“[He’s been] amazing, really,” Gruden told reporters after a practice in mid-August. “I didn’t know he was this good. He is a powerful, explosive player. He can really, really run. He’s detailed in his work. He’s smart. He has been one of our better players in camp.”

A few days later, Gruden was back at the podium heaping more praise on his rookie receiver.

“Terry is doing an excellent job. He can do everything: he can block, he can run the vertical routes, he can run the short, intermediate routes. He made an unbelievable double-move today. I’ve just been very impressed with the total package of Terry – not just his speed but his toughness, his attention to detail, his ability to finish play, his ability to block [and] line up correctly. He’s just been outstanding in all phases.”

The admiration seems mutual. McLaurin said Gruden’s upbeat enthusiasm is infectious.

“Coach Gruden is very competitive,” he said. “He wants to win every drill and he’s an offensive-minded coach, so he gets really animated when the offense isn’t making the plays we should. He holds everybody to a high standard, and I feel like when you have that kind of energy as a head coach, it just permeates through the rest of the team. He sets a great example.”

The Redskins hadn’t announced which quarterback prospect – Case Keenum, Colt McCoy or rookie Dwayne Haskins (Keenum was named starting quarterback at the end of August) – would be throwing the ball to McLaurin this season at the time of this interview. But the wide receiver said he wasn’t concerned about who the starter would be.

“I just try to create a chemistry with any of three [quarterback prospects] in there. One thing they do like is how I define my routes.”

Crisp, well-defined routes are a hallmark of McLaurin’s game, and it’s something he continued working on throughout training camp. What does that mean, exactly?

“It’s using your body language when you run a route,” he explained. “If you’re going to run a route, you want to define the angles. You want to be consistent in the way you run your route and define your angle full speed. If you’re taking the route skinny, take it skinny and if you’re going to flatten it off, you need to do it as fast as possible and keep that angle and don’t deviate from that.”

McLaurin’s pleased to have a familiar face on the field in Haskins, who played college ball with the wide receiver at Ohio State.

“We’re learning a new system, but the chemistry is still there. A post route is still a post route. I’m trying to tell him what the receivers are looking for and he’s telling us what the quarterbacks need, so it’s been very beneficial.”

While intensely focused on the difficult job of nailing down a starting slot on a competitive NFL roster, McLaurin said he sometimes does allow himself a moment to reflect on his hard-won NFL career.

“You set out a goal and have dream when you’re 7 years old. I took school very seriously. But this has always been my dream and my goal, and I was willing to put in the work to make it happen.”

Now his dream is to help make the Redskins winners again.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that Redskins fans are very loyal and they’re hungry for a winning team. Hopefully, I’ve been drafted to come in and help wherever I can. It’s cool to be a part of an NFL organization with such great history.”

Catch the Washington Redskins’ first home game of the regular season on Sunday, September 15 at 1 p.m. against the Dallas Cowboys. Learn more about their 2019 season at www.redskins.com.

FedExField: 1600 Fedex Way, Landover, MD; 301-276-6000; www.redskins.com