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6 observations from the Capitals' first 10 games of 2018-19 NHL season

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6 observations from the Capitals' first 10 games of 2018-19 NHL season

Now 10 games into the season, the Capitals are 5-3-2 and sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division. We don’t know everything about this Caps team just yet, but here are some observations from the first 10 matchups.

1. The Caps are still adjusting to a new head coach

A 5-3-2 record may not be what you envisioned for the defending champs when they returned almost the exact same roster this season. Some may call it a hangover, but I see this more as a product of adjusting to a new coach.

Some people get it in their head that hockey is a simple game. Players get on the ice and “do that hockey,” and head coaches are just there to set lines and pull a goalie. It is way, way more complicated than that.

It is no coincidence that the most dominant aspect of Washington’s game to this point has been the power play. The power play is run by assistant coach Blaine Forsythe who ran it last year as well. It’s also why I’m not overly concerned about the defense allowing 3.60 goals per game just yet. Reid Cashman is in charge of the defensemen now, and with Reirden behind the bench, I trust those two to be able to figure out the defense.

Even when a team is familiar with the new head coach, as the Caps were with Todd Reirden, it still takes time to adjust to that new coach’s system. Washington is still very much in that process as evidenced by the extreme highs and lows of the first 10 games.

2. The offense is relying too much on the power play

Just like I am not concerned with that the Caps’ 25th ranked defense, I’m also not celebrating their 2nd ranked offense. The offense is being propped up by a power play that is producing at an incredible 37.1-percent. While I think it is safe to assume the penalty kill and the defense will improve over time, I think it is also safe to think the power play is not going to continue to produce at that rate, and I’m not sure where that leaves the offense.

Washington has scored only 21 goals at 5-on-5 this season which ranks 14th in the NHL.

Those hot starts for the team's stars? That’s being propped up by the power play as well.

Evgeny Kuznetsov has 15 points, Alex Ovechkin has 14, Nicklas Backstrom has 13 and T.J. Oshie has 10. If you take away the power play points, however, that leaves Kuznetsov with seven, Ovechkin with six, Backstrom with five and Oshie with eight. Both Kuznetsov and Backstrom are still looking for their first goals at five-on-five of the season.

The Caps have been held without a power play goal in three of the first seven games. In those three games, they are 0-2-1. We know the penalty kill across the league is going to improve and penalties are going to decrease as the season goes along until the playoffs when the referees swallow the whistles. Washington needs more five-on-five production than what they are currently getting.

3. Jakub Vrana is the best choice to replace Tom Wilson on the top line

With Tom Wilson suspended, Reirden has tried to replace him with Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakub Vrana  Vrana may have only played there for one game, but he is the obvious choice at this point, and he should stay there for as long as Wilson remains out.

The most important thing Wilson brings to the top line is his ability to win puck battles, which helps generate more offense for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Vrana not only is the most offensively skilled of the players Reirden cycled through the right wing of the top line, but he also did a tremendous job fighting for pucks in his first crack at in Saturday’s game against Calgary.

An Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Vrana line looks like an offensive-heavy line and it was last year. Vrana, however, looks like he has a bit more grit in his game this season. He’s not going to win board battles by playing physically, but he showed he can still win the puck with his speed and a quick stick. He can win those battles and add an extra bit of offense to boot so that top line job should be his.

4. John Carlson is a legitimate superstar

In 10 games, Carlson has five multi-point games, is tied for first among all defenseman with five goals and is tied for first among defensemen in points with Morgan Rielly, who has played one more game than Carlson.

Detractors will say he’s not great at defense and point to the disastrous turnover he had against Edmonton. Yes, there are times when he is prone to making those type of gaffes, but if you’re using that one example to define him, you’re missing everything else he is doing.

Carlson is averaging 26:00 minutes per game, the third most in the league. That’s more than Ryan Suter, Kris Letang, Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, etc. Clearly, Reirden trusts Carlson on both ends of the ice.

5. Pheonix Copley is the backup… for now

After earning his first NHL win on Saturday, I wrote an article on how the backup goalie job, one of the few questions surrounding Washington this season, was settled. Copley has played well in all three of his appearances and has numbers comparable to what Braden Holtby has managed thus far (.882 save percentage to Holtby’s .888, 3.55 GAA to Holtby’s 3.41).

But that may have been premature, as I am not so sure the team is sold yet.

Copley made just two starts in the first 10 games. If he starts 20-percent of the games this season, that will give him 17 starts and Holtby 65. That’s pretty much the bare minimum you would want Copley to start, and that’s at the beginning of the season when you are not too concerned about the standings yet.

When it comes to a backup, the real question you need to ask is if something happened to Holtby in the playoffs, would you trust Copley to start? If the answer to that question is no, then you can’t say the backup role is settled.

Would you trust Copley to start a regular season game? Yes. That much he has established. But would you trust Copley to start a playoff game? I’m not sure we have an answer to that question just yet.

6. Significant roster moves are on the horizon

Travis Boyd is nearing a return from LTIR, and Wilson will return from suspension sometime in November depending on the ruling from the independent arbitrator. That means Reirden and general manager Brian MacLellan are going to have to make some tough decisions fairly soon.

Has Dmitrij Jaskin shown enough for the team to keep him? There is some offensive upside there we haven’t seen yet and he is starting to play much better than when he first came.

Will Nathan Walker be headed back to Hershey? Walker’s speed and effort make him dangerous on the forecheck, but that can also lead to reckless mistakes, which is likely why we have only seen him play three games.

How much will Boyd and Nic Dowd split time? Boyd and Dowd were competing for the role of fourth line center in the preseason. Dowd had that role all to himself for the first 10 games of the season, and, while he played fairly well, he certainly did not do enough to earn a stranglehold on that spot.

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Caps to determine their playoff future in round robin finale against Boston

Caps to determine their playoff future in round robin finale against Boston

The Capitals will determine their playoff future on Sunday in the round robin finale against the Boston Bruins (12 p.m., NBC Sports Washington Plus).

Be sure to catch all the coverage on NBC Sports Washington Plus starting with Caps Pregame Live at 11 a.m. followed by the game at 12 p.m. Stick with NBC Sports Washington Plus after the game for Caps Postgame Live.

Here is everything you need to know for Caps-Bruins.

What's at stake

Sunday's game will determine who finishes third and fourth in the round robin. If the Caps win in any fashion, they will finish third in the round robin standings and play the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. A loss in any fashion and Washington will finish fourth and play the Carolina Hurricanes.

Neither the Caps nor Bruins have managed a win yet in the round robin. Washington has a point after a shootout loss to Tampa Bay while Boston has zero with two regulation losses.

When last we met

This is a team the Caps typically play well against and that was true in the regular season as Washington went 2-1-0 against Boston, but the last game they played was a 7-3 loss on Dec. 23. That game was the start of Washington's downward spiral through the rest of the regular season. From there, the Bruins went on to dominate the league and finish as the Presidents' Trophy winners with the top record. Washington barely went .500 until the season was paused.

RELATED: NHL FORMAT SHOULD NOT STICK

Lineup question marks

Head coach Todd Reirden did not provide any update on defenseman John Carlson on Friday other than to say he practiced. His status for Sunday's game is uncertain. As of Friday, Lars Eller was still in Washington with his family for the birth of his second child so he will not be available on Sunday. Nicklas Backstrom did not practice on Friday. Reirden did not specify why.

"I can't say much about Nick's situation," Reirden said. "We'll see how he is tomorrow and then as we get closer to Sunday."

As if that wasn't enough, Evgeny Kuznetsov did not play again in Thursday's game after Philadelphia's third goal. Reirden benched him after only three shifts in the third.

All of this means that we really have no idea what the lineup is going to look like at all on Sunday.

Holtby in net

What the lineup in front of the net will look like is anyone's guess at this point, but we do at least know who the goalie will be.

"At this point, we're going to go with Braden Holtby," Reirden said. "I think that this best prepares him for Round 1, Game 1 is getting more in-game action after discussion with him and how he's been feeling and continue to have him building his game for the playoffs. Obviously things can change, but that's where we're headed today."

Vitek Vanecek has been the backup, but he has no NHL experience so there was some speculation as to whether the team would try to get Vanecek some time during the round robin. Reirden, however, is focused on preparing for the playoffs in the wake of Thursday's loss which was a definite step back for the team in terms of its performance.

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It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

It's been fun, but the NHL should not stick with the 2020 playoff format

This was going to be the year to experiment. No matter what, the 2020 postseason was going to be different. The coronavirus dictated that. The NHL should be applauded for thinking outside the box and trying different things this year, but when the league looks forward to the next season and beyond, let's not get nuts.

The 2020 postseason format has been great given the time we are living in and the adjustments that had to be made, but no, the NHL should not adopt this postseason format going forward, regardless of how fun it has been.

Let's be clear, the regular NHL's playoff format is bad. This is in no way a defense of the nonsensical divisional format which sets up the same matchups over and over and over again and punishes teams in good divisions. A wild card format so complicated you can't explain it to a casual fan? Having the two best teams in a division play in the second round even if they are the two best teams in the conference? Blech. It's terrible. The 2020 postseason format, however, is not a good alternative.

RELATED: POSSIBLE PLAYOFF OPPONENTS FOR CAPS COMING INTO FOCUS

Look, I get it. The best-of-five series are fun! The best-of-seven series can feel drawn out by comparison. In a best of five, every game feels really important!

When the NHL was presenting its plan for the 2020 postseason, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about why the league elected not to shorten some of the playoff series to best-of-five as well and he said the players advocated not to do that so as not to cheapen the Stanley Cup. It takes 16 wins to win the Cup. Period. Even in a pandemic.

The NBA used to have best-of-five series in the first round and that made sense because a lot of those first-round matchups were garbage. The NBA does not have nearly the same level of parity as the NHL and the top teams almost always advanced with little drama at all. The first round of the NHL playoffs is fantastic and full of upsets. There's no reason to fast-forward through those series and play fewer games because those series are compelling.

OK, so keep the four-round, best-of-seven format. What about a play-in best of five series?

First, you can't have 24 teams out of 31 (soon to be 32) reach the postseason. For a league that wants its fans and players to care about an 82-game season, having 24 teams make the playoffs renders the regular season nearly meaningless. The only reason the NHL extended the postseason out to 24 teams this year is because the league canceled the end of the regular season and those bottom teams did not have a chance to make a final push for the playoffs like we see every year. There's no reason to extend the field in a normal season.

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While there are few who would advocate expanding the playoffs to 24 teams, there is a case to be made for adding one or two more teams per conference and having a play-in. Even that, to me, is a step too far. When the league expands to 32 teams, exactly half of them will make the playoffs. Do we really need more than that? It's easy to get excited about that prospect now in the midst of the postseason when the level of play is at its best and interest is at its peak, but let's think about the real dog days of the season in January and February. Would devaluing the regular season by adding more teams to the playoff make those January and February games when the season starts to drag more fun to watch or less? We all know the answer to that question.

And, by the way, all of the support to change the playoffs is a reaction to the qualifying series. We haven't seen what this postseason will look like when the playoffs actually get started. Will the round-robin teams end up at a disadvantage when they face off against teams that already played in a do-or-die series? Will injuries become even more rampant in the always grueling postseason because of those teams playing an extra round? It certainly seems like the proponents of adopting the 2020 postseason format are all being quick to declare this a success before seeing how everything ultimately plays out.

The best-of-five series are fun, but this year is different. It's OK to let 2020 be its own success and move on. The only thing the NHL needs to do is get rid of the awful divisional format, take the top eight teams from each conference and re-seed after each round. This year is different. Let's not pretend we need all these changes when life returns to normal.

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