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Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

Breaking down the Caps' new fourth line roster battle

When Capitals training camp opens in September, there will not be much intrigue when it comes to the top-nine on offense. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik, and Jakub Vrana—assuming he is re-signed—will make up the team’s top three lines.

But with two new additions to the roster through free agency, it appears Todd Reirden is going to have to make a decision as to who plays on the fourth line.

The fourth line was an area in which the team needed to improve and general manager Brian MacLellan was aggressive in addressing that need giving the team at least five players battling for three spots in the lineup. Here’s a breakdown of the only real roster battle offensively for the Caps heading into next season.

Locked in

Nic Dowd

Last year the departure of Jay Beagle made fourth-line center one of the few spots up for grabs in training camp. That is not the case this year. Dowd won the job and seems pretty entrenched in this role moving forward as he was given a three-year extension. The offensive upside is limited as his eight goals last season were a career-high, but his 22 points matched Beagle’s production from the year prior so it is not as if the offensive output of the fourth line has taken a step back with Dowd.

Dowd was also a regular on the penalty kill and he was the only center on the team to have a faceoff win percentage of over 50 at 51.9-percent.

Pencil him in

Garnet Hathaway

When you break down the Caps’ moves this offseason, it is pretty clear the goal for MacLellan was to improve the team defensively. Hathaway’s career-high in goals is 11, which isn’t bad for a fourth-liner, but the real asset he brings is his defensive acumen. He averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per game last season with the Calgary Flames.

But the real reason Hathaway appears to essentially be a lock to play a significant role on the fourth line next season is his contract. You do not sign a fourth-line player for four years at $1.5 million per year if you think he is going to spend most of the season as a healthy scratch. That’s a significant contract for a player with his role so it is clear the team envisions him being a regular in the lineup.

The guys who need to impress in training camp

Brendan Leipsic

Hathaway’s contract is a dead giveaway as to what the team envisions his role is going forward. Leipsic was also a free agent signing, but his deal is only for one year and $700,000. MacLellan seems to love going for those low-risk contracts and this is the latest example.

Washington will be Leipsic’s fifth NHL team in his three-year NHL career. In 126 career games, he has 13 goals and 48 total points. His best season offensively came last year as he set career-highs in goals (seven) and points (23) with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

The thing about Leipsic to keep in mind is that this was a move MacLellan did not have to make. After the team signed Panik and Hathaway, many assumed the team was done. At that point, the team appeared to have a full offensive roster with 12 forwards under contract plus Chandler Stephenson qualified as a restricted free agent. Yet, MacLellan decided to sign Leipsic anyway which all but ensures that someone is going to be moved before the start of the season. The team is just too close against the cap to carry two extra forwards and someone will have to be sent to Hershey or traded.

This is not a move you make unless you are not satisfied with what your fourth line options are. Leipsic will have to earn his spot in training camp, but I would give him the inside track over Stephenson and Travis Boyd at this point.

Travis Boyd

Boyd’s 2018-19 season had its ups and downs. His first full season in the NHL got off to a rocky start as an injury kept him out of the lineup for all of October, thus ending any chance he had of beating out Dowd at fourth-line center. It may have been moot anyway as Boyd appears to be more of an NHL wing than a center, but that versatility can be an asset.

Boyd’s offensive numbers were reasonably good with five goals and 15 assists in 53 games. MacLellan’s moves this offseason, however, show that he wants the fourth line to improve defensively and that was a real struggle for Boyd. His 5-on-5 high-danger chances for percentage in 2018-19 was the lowest on the team at 39.52-percent and was among the worst in the NHL. When you watch him play, it does not appear that he has adjusted to a bottom-six role very well as he continues to use ineffective offensive moves that, while they may have been successful in college and the AHL, he just does not have the skill to pull them off at the NHL level. It is frustrating for a team when the fourth line turns the puck over because Boyd tries a spin move in front of the net that is easily stopped by the defense and pushed up and out of the zone.

Boyd needs to stop playing like a top-six AHL forward and start playing like a bottom-six NHL forward because that is what his skill dictates his NHL future will be.

On the outside looking in

Chandler Stephenson

Stephenson has great speed and can be an effective penalty killer, but it is hard not to see the additions of Hathaway and Leipsic as an indictment of his play. In 2017-18, he scored six goals and 12 assists with a plus-13. In 2018-19, he managed just five goals and six assists and was a minus-13 despite getting comparable ice time from the season before. His stats were not the result of a reduced role, just reduced effectiveness.

It is not just the free agent moves that show you he may be in trouble. Look back to last season when the team acquired Hagelin. One of Hagelin’s best assets is how effective a penalty killer he is. That is supposed to be an asset of Stephenson’s as well. Prior to the team trading for Hagelin, Stephenson averaged 1:54 of shorthanded ice time per game. After? Just 0:58. His shorthanded ice time dropped by almost a full minute which suggests the coaches may not have been all that thrilled with his play on the PK last season.

Prospects

If MacLellan felt he had prospects ready to fill out the roster, he would have done that instead of turning to free agency. It would have been a cheaper alternative both in terms of salary and term. But MacLellan instead went for veteran players and bluntly explained that decision afterward.

“We don't have young forwards ready to step in and play third line,” he said on a conference call on the opening day of free agency. That tells you pretty much all you need to know about where the team sees its forward prospect depth.

If there are any prospects who can make a push for a spot on the fourth line next season, there are two to keep in mind. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is a player with a similar skillset to Hagelin. He has NHL speed and can be a solid penalty killer and bottom-six player.

The second is Shane Gersich, a fast player who came straight to the Caps after signing out of college in 2018, but who spent the last season in the AHL with Hershey.

Jonsson-Fjallby left early in the season to return to his native Sweden last year and has only 16 games of North American experience. It is hard to imagine he will be ready to make the jump to North American’s highest level out of training camp. Having watched Gersicih play in the playoffs, he looks like a player still very much in need of another year in the AHL to adjust to playing in the pros.

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Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin will be selling custom "We Will Skate Again" t-shirts, face masks and neck gaiters with all proceeds going toward foundations in the DMV community, the Capitals announced in a press release Thursday.

The products, which can be purchased at the Ovechkin's online store, feature his signature logo. The shirts also have the phrase "We Will Skate Again" written across the front. Here's a look at some of the designs from the press release:

Money raised from t-shirt sales will be donated to the Tucker Road Ducks and The Tucker Road Parent Hockey Organization. The youth hockey team from Prince George’s County, Md., tragically lost their ice rink in 2017 due to a fire. The organization is working to rebuild it, while also striving to make hockey available for kids of any economic background. 

RELATED: OSHIE LAUNCHES AUCTION TO BENEFIT COVID-19 CRITICAL NEEDS FUND

Proceeds from the masks and neck gaiters will go to the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation's “Feeding the Frontlines” fund, which was created as a way to help those in the community who are dealing with the negative impact of COVID-19.

Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals are gearing up for the beginning of training camp on July 13 as the NHL gets closer to a return.

Stay connected to the Capitals with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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