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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

Jon Bostic // Photos - courtesy of Redskins

Redskins’ Hopes Lie in Newcomers

Last season didn’t exactly go as planned for the Washington Redskins, and the team labored to a 7-9 season. The outcome led to some changes in the off-season including the draft day additions of quarterback Dwayne Haskins out of Ohio State and star end Montez Sweat out of Mississippi State, and both are expected to play prominent roles this fall.

Many around the league were shocked when Haskins fell to Washington at No. 15 and though not fast, he’s enormously sized and can throw – with many comparing him to Ben Roethlisberger. Coach Jay Gruden has yet to commit to a starting quarterback but has said Haskins will be given equal opportunity to winning the job along with Case Keenum and longtime Redskin Colt McCoy, who is coming off a broken leg.

While McCoy has been on the team for four years and knows Gruden’s system, he doesn’t have the arm for making the big throw down field. Many fans would rather see the 31-year-old Keenum – who threw for 3,890 yards and 18 touchdowns for Denver last season – as QB1 until Haskins is truly ready to step in. Playing for the University of Houston, Keenum set NCAA records for total passing yards, touchdowns and completions.

Other additions include signing Landon Collins away from division rivals the New York Giants in a $84 million deal, inking offensive lineman Corey Robinson and bringing in Jon Bostic, the team’s projected starting middle linebacker.

“I think we are a good group of young guys and I can see we’re already growing every day,” Bostic says. “We have a lot of coaches around here who have been around ball for a long time. Getting their knowledge and seeing the guys work hard, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Over a six-year career, Bostic has spent time with the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, recording 313 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He’s coming off one of his better years, starting 14 of 16 games with a career-high 2.5 sacks last season in Pittsburgh. Wearing No. 53, Bostic is enjoying his time in camp and likes what he sees from the squad.

“It’s a work in progress, but that’s what training camp is for,” he says. “We’re all getting used to playing with each other and getting better every day. We’re excited to get going.”

The linebacker core includes returnees Shaun Dion Hamilton and Josh Harvey-Clemons, five-year NFL vet Marquis Flowers, and rookies Cole Holcomb and BJ Blunt.

“We have goals as a unit and want to be one of the top defenses in the league, but we understand it’s not going to just be given to us,” Bostic continues. “We have to work hard during and after practice. We have a lot of potential on paper, but potential isn’t going to lead us to W’s. It’s the work that will lead us to those W’s.”

Disappointing news came out of camp early on when it was announced that the offensive line may be without perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams. In late July, he had yet to report due to a contract dispute, which would leave Ereck Flowers to man left tackle with rookie Wes Martin switching to left guard. The hope is that Williams will arrive soon to shore up what could be a strong point for the team.

Adrian Peterson returned to the all-star form of his early years as a new running back with the team, rushing for 1,042 yards on 251 attempts and registering seven TDs. Derrius Guice, who missed his entire rookie year with an injury, and Chris Thompson, now in his seventh year with Washington, join him in the backfield.

Questions remain about the team’s next wide receiver, with Jamison Crowder off to the Jets and a returning crew that saw no one player score more than two touchdowns all season. Two draftees in Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin and NC State’s Kelvin Harmon will see some action and receiver Josh Doctson will be relied on to do more than make the occasional big grab.

“Just seeing what they are accomplishing on the offensive side of the ball – it’s been fun,” Bostic says. “Coach Gruden is an offensive-minded coach and he always wants to beat the defense. We’re all competitive and out there trying to beat the offense every day. We’re all getting each other going in different ways and that will keep us strong.”

If whoever wins the quarterback job gets into a groove, Peterson has a repeat performance, the youngsters make some noise and the playmakers on the defense do their job, the Redskins could win 10 games and be a big player come playoff time.

“Our goal is to win the division and take care of business,” Bostic says.

Don’t miss the Washington Redskins’ first home game on Thursday, August 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Learn more about their upcoming season at www.redskins.com.

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

Photo: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals

Pitching Expected to Take Nats Far in 2019

You can’t talk about the 2019 outlook for the Washington Nationals without first addressing the elephant on the field – mainly that franchise icon Bryce Harper has departed to Philadelphia thanks to a record-setting, 13-year, $330 million contract. But even without the former MVP at Nats Park, the team is still flush with outstanding talent and has made some of the savviest moves of the offseason.

The team signed Patrick Corbin, the top pitcher on the free agent market, to a six-year, $140 million contract in early December. Coming off a season in which he went 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA, striking out 246 batters in 200 innings pitched, the former Arizona Diamondback immediately made the already formidable rotation arguably the best in baseball.

“I think [the Nationals] have won the most games in regular season baseball in the last five [or] six years,” Corbin says. “And knowing how deep of a team they are, I saw this as a place that I could live for a long time and be part of this rotation. Honestly, I feel like I just stepped right in, and I can’t think of one thing that hasn’t been great. Between all the players, all the things that we’re doing on and off the field together, the coaching staff [and] the training staff, everyone has been awesome. Being a new guy here, it seems like it’s been easy to join and be part of it.”

Staff ace Max Scherzer struck out 300 batters in 220 innings on his way to a league-leading 18 wins and 2.53 ERA. While Stephen Strasburg had some injury concerns last year, he still managed 10 wins and 156 Ks in just 130 innings; he’s looked healthy all spring and should be poised for a top season. The rest of the rotation includes veterans Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson – both recent free agent signees – and 25-year-old Joe Ross, who has been a dependable arm for the Nats since 2015 as insurance against injury.

Sean Doolittle established himself nicely at the closer in 2018, as the lefty recorded 25 saves and an anemic 1.60 ERA. This year, he’s joined in a revamped pen by veteran Trevor Rosenthal, who will serve as his primary setup man, as well as young fireballers Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover and Justin Miller. The new additions reinforce a bullpen that should improve on its overall 4.05 ERA.

Even without Harper, the Nats shouldn’t have any problems scoring runs. A breakout season by rookie Juan Soto last year is just the tip of the iceberg of what MLB experts expect from the left fielder. Expect plenty of tape measure home runs to go along with an impressive eye at the plate.

Soto’s joined in the outfield this year by Adam Eaton in right and top prospect Victor Robles, whose speed rivals anyone in the game, manning center. Michael A. Taylor injured himself near the end of spring and until he’s fully recovered, power hitter Matt Adams will see some time in the outfield as will veteran Howie Kendrick.

“It’s exciting to know that you’re on a team that wants to win and tries to put the best team on the field,” Corbin says.

Anthony Rendon is the true star of this team to many, and even though he’s entering the final year of his contract, it’s a good bet that he’ll be reupping on a long-term deal sometime soon. The third baseman hit .308 last year, with 24 homers and 92 knocks, and was exceptional as always at manning his position. Longtime Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman will try to rebound from another injury-plagued season, and hopefully provide more than the 85 games he played last year. He’s only a year removed from a 36-homer season, though three of the past five seasons, he’s seen action in less than 95 games.

Adams will most likely find some ample time as his backup. Veteran Brian Dozier was signed to play the keystone and forms a new double-play combo with speedster Trea Turner, who led the league with 43 steals in 2018. In fact, speed is going to be a major weapon for the Nats this season.

Between Turner, Robles, Dozier and Eaton, this team can run, and manager Dave Martinez is not afraid to send his guys or call on the hit-and-run. The team brought in two longtime backstops this off-season to handle catching duties, with Yan Gomes coming over in a trade with Cleveland and Kurt Suzuki signing a two-year deal to return to the club after seven years. Both offer solid framing skills and are above average with the bat for the catcher position.

The NL East is expected to be one of the toughest divisions in baseball this year, with the Phillies adding Harper plus four other former all-stars in shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, catcher J.T. Realmuto and closer David Robertson. The Mets are making a splash adding Edwin Diaz, last year’s AL saves leader, in a deal that also netted them offensive-minded second baseman Robinson Canó, not to mention signing catcher Wilson Ramos and infielder Jed Lowrie. And the Braves brought in former MVP Josh Donaldson to man third for the team that won the division in 2018.

The Nationals seem to have put together a team that is a perfect balance of pitching, offense and defense, and should be able to ride the strength of their arms all the way to the postseason.   

“I think we’re as good as any team in baseball from top to bottom,” Corbin says. “Everyone’s goal is to win a World Series. That’s going to be ours. Our job now is to get better each and every day.”

For more information on Corbin and the Nats’ 2019 season, visit www.mlb.com/nationals.

Nationals Park: 1500 South Capitol St. SE, DC; 202-675-6287; www.mlb.com/nationals