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The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

The biggest 'what ifs' for the 2019-20 Capitals' season: What if Vrana had a top power play role all season?

We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals for the 2019-20 season.

Today’s what if: What if Jakub Vrana had a top power-play role all season?

Jakub Vrana may be having the best season that no one is talking about. When you are teammates with one of the best goal scorers of all-time and a bonafide superstar, other players tend to get overshadowed. Just ask Nicklas Backstrom.

Vrana scored 24 even-strength goals in the 2019-20 season, tied for 11th in the NHL. It’s only four behind David Pastrnak, three behind Leon Draisaitl, one behind Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, tied with Jack Eichel and more goals than players like Mika Zibanejad (23), Nathan MacKinnon (23), Connor McDavid (23) and Brad Marchand. So why isn’t Vrana viewed as the same caliber offensive player as those others? The answer is the power play.

While Vrana ranks 11th in even-strength goals, he ranks tied for 35th overall with 25 goals. That’s right, he has one single power-play goal this season. The 10 players ahead of him in the even-strength goals list averaged just over 10 power-play goals for the season. An extra 10 goals would have tied Vrana with McDavid for 10th in the NHL.

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Vrana did not start the season on the top player play unit. He was actually only moved there late in the season as Washington’s power play struggled. Relegated to the forgotten and rarely used second unit, Vrana only recently started to see more opportunity on the power play resulting in just one goal which came on Jan. 11.

But what if Vrana had been on the top power-play unit all season? Would he have racked up enough goals to garner national attention?

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Probably not as much as you may think.

First, let’s remember that the power play has been terrible this season. It ranks 17th in the NHL overall, but is actually 24th since Dec. 23. Second, there is not a natural spot where Vrana fits on the top power play. He is a sniper, his best asset is shooting and he is not going to replace the player tasked with taking the one-timer from the far faceoff dot, Alex Ovechkin. Vrana was playing the goal line in place of Evgeny Kuznetsov. Based on how Washington's power play has worked the last few years, this spot is primarily for setting up the slot or bouncing it back to the half-wall. Vrana is a better set-up player than many give him credit, but this role really does not put him in the best position to use his shot. More time on the power play should increase his goal total just as a result of him being on the ice more, but based on how the power play has played and how he is used, it probably would not have boosted his totals into being one of the top 10-15 scorers in the NHL this season.

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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.

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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.

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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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