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Possible defensive options for Capitals through PTOs

Possible defensive options for Capitals through PTOs

Assuming the Capitals go with seven defensemen next season, they have some holes to fill.

As of now, they have only five defensemen under contract from last season: Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney. That leaves two spots open for prospects, including a top-four role alongside Carlson.

The Caps have plenty of candidates in the system who will compete for those spots including Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Tyler Lewington, Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler and Connor Hobbs, among others.

But what if they aren’t ready?

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The team is banking on the hope that not one, but two players with little to no NHL experience will be able to step up and take an NHL spot. While teams groom their prospects to eventually step into the NHL roster, sometimes those players just don’t pan out or at least need more time to develop. Washington is not looking at this season as a complete rebuild. Re-signing T.J. Oshie and keeping the core intact is evidence of that. This is a team that still has its sights set on the playoffs. The Caps cannot afford, therefore, to have two spots on their blue line influx through the entire campaign.

One option, if there is some concern over the defensive depth, is to offer a veteran a professional tryout (PTO). PTOs are a way for teams to bring in players with no long-term commitment. You bring a player in for camp and, if he doesn’t work out, you simply release him.

If the Caps want more competition on defense or are worried about relying too much on unproven prospects, they could bring in a veteran on a PTO. There are a few options for Washington if they choose to go that route:

Roman Polak (31 years old), R
2016-17 season: 75 games, 4 goals, 7 assists with the Toronto Maple Leafs

Fedor Tyutin (34 years old), L
2016-17 season: 69 games, 1 goal, 12 assists with the Colorado Avalanche

Cody Franson (30 years old), R
2016-17 season: 68 games, 3 goals, 16 assists with the Buffalo Sabres

Mark Stuart (33 years old), L
2016-17 season: 42 games, 2 goals, 2 assists with the Winnipeg Jets

If your reaction to these options is to turn your nose in disgust, well, guess what? You’re not going to find a Brent Burns or a Shea Weber available in early September. There’s a reason why these players are still looking for contracts.

There are a few younger options such as Jyrki Jokipakka (26) and Cody Goloubef (27), but the Caps have plenty of untested youth. That’s what their prospects are. If Washington goes the PTO route, it will almost certainly be for a steady veteran.

Both Polak and Franson are physical, shutdown players with good size, but Polak may soon be off the market.

Tyutin spent last season with the dreadful Colorado Avalanche on a one-year $2 million deal. The fact that he could not earn a second look from a team that bad for a price that low is a bad sign for what he may have left to offer. But, that’s why you give him a PTO.

Stuart is an intriguing option because of his leadership. He has never been a remarkable defenseman, but he did spend time as an alternate captain for the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets ultimately chose to buy him out of the last year of his contract which carried a cap hit of about $2.6 million.

But the biggest problem regarding any PTO defenseman the team brings in is figuring out just where that player would fit in the lineup. The Caps need someone to play alongside Carlson on the second pair and Orpik on the third. An Orpik-Polak pair, for example, is one that would struggle to transition out of its own zone. It’s not an ideal pairing. You could potentially bump one of those players up to the second pair with Carlson where they would be a better fit in terms on contrasting styles, but then the Caps are relying on a PTO defenseman to earn a top-four role. Not ideal.

But what do the Caps have to lose? A PTO offers a no-risk insurance policy in case the prospects just aren’t ready to step up. Considering how many questions there are surrounding the team’s defense this year, it won’t be surprising to see Washington go the PTO route just as a precaution.

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If this year is going to be different, the Caps cannot go down 0-2 in the series again

If this year is going to be different, the Caps cannot go down 0-2 in the series again

In last year’s playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals won two out of the last three games and three out of the last five…and still lost the series. That’s because they lost both Game 1 and Game 2 to fall into a 0-2 hole, much like they did against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round this season.

The Caps know if this year is going to be different, they cannot afford to fall into a similar hole again.

“It's always harder to dig yourself out of a hole,” head coach Barry Trotz said after Thursday’s morning skate. “You're room for error is a lot less and it wears on you.”

“If we've learned anything from last year, you lose two it's tough to climb out of that,” Jay Beagle said. “Then this year first round, lose two, it's tough to climb out. It makes the series really hard. You always feel like you're chasing and no room for error.”

It did not cost them against Columbus as Washington was able to rattle off four straight wins to advance to the second round. Overcoming a two-game hole against the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, however, is a taller task.

For only the second time in franchise history, the Capitals were able to overcome a 0-2 series deficit when they did it against the Blue Jackets. That means it doesn’t happen very often.

Chances are you won’t be able to overcome a deficit like that against Sidney Crosby and Co.

And that’s what makes Game 1 so important.

Washington is at home, opening a series against their arch rival, the Penguins will be without both Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin and the game will be played with the memory of how a 0-2 hole cost the Caps the series last year.

To call it a must-win would perhaps be an overstatement. It is a best of seven after all. But it’s still not that far off.

“We've got to just make sure we're looking at game one, we're not looking ahead,” Beagle said. “We've got to go after them in this first game and really try and take it to them in our rink.”

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Capitals vs. Pengiuns Preview: Three keys to how this year could be different for the Caps

Capitals vs. Pengiuns Preview: Three keys to how this year could be different for the Caps

The Washington Capitals enter the 2018 NHL Playoffs Eastern Conference Second Round in a similar position. A Metro division championship in hand and a seven-game series with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But while this year appears the same, the Caps are hoping for a different outcome. Will they finally be able to beat their arch rival and reach the conference final?

Here are three keys that will determine if this year will be different for the Caps.

Capitals vs. Penguins Preview:

Key to Victory No. 1: Discipline:

In the Capitals' two victories over the Penguins this season, Washington did not give up a power play goal. No team had a better power play unit during the regular season than the Penguins and we already saw how much foolish penalties hurt the Caps in the first round. Washington took 24 penalties in six games against the Blue Jackets and that is far too many.

They cannot win that way against the Penguins.

The problem is that in the second round with a heated rival, tempers can flare a bit. Just look at the last time these two teams played when Malkin was shooting Oshie's stick off the ice and tried to fight Kuznetsov for speaking Russian to him. Still, the Caps are going to have to keep their emotions in check.

Key to Victory No. 2:  Getting the goaltending advantage: 

The scoring depth of Pittsburgh is unmatched. The fact that a team can have Crosby, Malkin and Kessel all on the same team in the salary cap era is mind-boggling. Oh, and by the way, Jake Guentzel scores every time he touches the puck in the playoffs. Washington cannot win this series if they do not get better goaltending than Pittsburgh.

The good news is that Murray was not lights out in the first round. Yes, he had two shutouts, but there were also three games in which he let in at least four goals. A .911 save percentage is not where the Penguins really need him to be. The bad news is that while Holtby is statistically one of the best playoff netminders in NHL history, he struggles against Pittsburgh. In last year's series, Holtby managed only a .887 save percentage and 2.57 GAA.

One thing to keep in mind, on April 1 Grubauer started a critical game in Pittsburgh and was phenomenal. Could Trotz possibly think of going back to Grubauer if Holtby struggles against the Penguins?

Keys to Victory No. 3: The Mind Games

 Let's face it, there is a mental aspect to the Capitals' postseason struggles. When it comes to beating Pittsburgh or getting past the second round, this has become a mental hurdle. They have to come into this series with confidence they can win and maintain that confidence throughout, regardless of whether they get down in a game or in the series, regardless of whether there is a bad penalty call, regardless of whether Murray stands on his head again, regardless of any of the struggles they may face, they have to stay mentally confident.

When the Caps went down 0-2 against Columbus, Ovechkin said that the series would return to Washington tied at 2. The way he said it, it wasn't a guarantee or some massive proclamation, it was a statement of fact. Both he and the rest of the team believed they were going to come back and win the series. They need that level of confidence against Pittsburgh as well.

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