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Capitals GM Brian MacLellan facing an offseason full of questions and no real answers

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan facing an offseason full of questions and no real answers

It's the job of a general manager to plan for the future. The team will project their contracts and salary cap years ahead of time. Of course, play on the ice is the most important factor and can change a team's plans, but every good general manager enters the offseason with a plan in place knowing who he wants to re-sign, who will walk, who to draft and who to target in free agency. This year, however, is different. How do you prepare for an offseason when you know...practically nothing? That's the task that lays before every NHL general manager right now, including Capitals GM Brian MacLellan.

Heading into the 2019 draft, the salary cap ceiling had not been set and it was rumored that the actual number would be below the initial projections. MacLellan called it "frustrating" to have uncertainty with the cap heading into a key date in the offseason.

Thanks to the coronavirus, there is much more uncertainty regarding this year's offseason. MacLellan has to prepare for both the playoffs and the offseason not knowing if the players will get back on the ice, an uncertain cap number that seems unlikely to rise next season, no date for the combine, no date for the draft, no date for free agency and no idea whether next season will begin on time or could get pushed back by the current season.

"It is difficult," MacLellan said in a conference call on Monday. "I guess we talk over all the possible scenarios and you try to prepare mentally for anything. What happens to the cap? Does the cap go down because revenues are going to decrease? Do they artificially keep it where it’s at? So, the answer to those questions puts us on pause on your [unrestricted free agent] negotiations. How do we proceed given both those scenarios? Those are just open-ended questions and we discuss them, but we don’t come up with any answers."

And there won't be any answers until the world begins to emerge from this global pandemic and the NHL can get some clarity on when players could potentially return to the ice.

Once the world is ready to return to some semblance of normalcy, however, it is not as if everything can return to business as usual.

One of the major events of the offseason is the draft. Both the scouting combine and draft, set for early and late June respectively, have been postponed. In addition, travel restrictions and health concerns greatly limited what the team's scouts were able to do even before everything was paused.

"The amateur guys, they had some big tournaments at the end that got canceled on them," MacLellan said. "It's a big part of their year. I think they always look forward to the tournaments and finalizing their lists and reports and it kind of got grounded to a halt at the end of this, at the end of the season for us. I talk to [assistant general manager Ross Mahoney] a lot about what we can do to keep guys engaged, the use of video. Can we do a little more phone interviews? We look for ways to stay engaged creatively and to see if we can improve on our process of finding players."

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There are also logistical issues with changing the offseason calendar. The league year officially begins on July 1 and NHL player contracts expire on June 30 for any player on the final year of his deal. Should the season extend deep into the summer -- MacLellan noted the NHL had asked for building availability dates for the month of August -- those contracts would have to be extended.

“I think the League brought up that in the last call that it would be extended through August if that was the case," MacLellan said. "If that’s the route we were going down, the contracts I guess would have to be approved by the [NHLPA] still too, but they would go to the end of August, if that was the date they chose.”

That is a positive, but it will still be hard to prepare for free agency without knowing what the salary cap will be or when it will take place. That makes it difficult to know what the team can spend on its on free agents, let alone on players they can bring in. The Caps are a veteran-laden team with several players signed to long-term contracts when it was presumed the cap would continue rising. Even one year without the cap raising could quickly put Washington in a bind.

And while MacLellan is still trying to wrap his head around that, this is all being done not knowing if this season is over or not. Will there be a playoff for the Caps to further evaluate their players? Should MacLellan prepare for next season as if the Cup window is still open? It's hard to tell if the Caps can continue competing for the Cup without a postseason to evaluate.

And so for general managers across the league, people whose job it is to prepare for the future, they are all left with more questions than answers.

"I don't think we have answers to any of those questions," MacLellan said.

He added, "If we did (play) through August, could we have a couple of months off and then start back up in November? What do they do with that cap number? I think there are so many questions that we haven't even considered that'll pop up given whatever the result is at the end of this. Again, the league has been very open to anybody asking questions of giving recommendations. So all we can do is try and prepare for different scenarios that we see coming and do the best we can do."

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How the 24-team playoff both helps and hurts the Capitals

How the 24-team playoff both helps and hurts the Capitals

The return to play format for the NHL is not set in stone and there are still some details that need to be worked out, but it certainly appears as if there will be a 24-team playoff when the league resumes and the Capitals will get a bye through the first round as one of the top-four teams in the Eastern Conference. At face value, that's a good thing. Out of 24 teams, only eight are guaranteed to make it to the next round and the Caps are one of those eight. But no one is quite sure how teams will look when the season resumes and with that uncertainty comes the possibility that the first-round bye might not actually be a positive.

Let's be clear, a bye through the first round is not a bad thing. The NHL has more parity than any other sports league and no one is guaranteed to win a series regardless of who they play. Really, this is about how ready Washington is going to be for a playoff series after sitting out the first round.

When the NHL put its season on pause, just about everyone had an opinion on how things should look when play resumed. If there was one thing all of the players agreed on, except for Alex Ovechkin, it was that the league should not simply jump into the playoffs. Teams had to be able to play games before that whether it be regular-season games or exhibitions. After so much time away from the ice and away from the team, everyone is going to look rusty when they return to the ice. No one wants to go straight from an abbreviated training camp into a do-or-die playoff series. With the NHL pause stretching into May, however, and with no timetable for a return just, time is a factor the league must consider in terms of being able to finish the current season and still have a full 82-games season in 2020-21. As of the time of writing, it does not appear that teams will be able to play exhibition games upon returning...except for the top seeds.

Based on the format that is currently expected to be agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA, the top four teams from each conference will play a round-robin to determine playoff seeding during the first round. While 16 teams will have to go from no hockey, to an abbreviated training camp right to what will likely be a best of five playoff series, the top seeds like the Caps will get three exhibition games before starting the playoffs.

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Granted, these would not technically be exhibition games because they would matter in terms of seeding, but even if the Caps were to be blown out in all three games, they would still advance to the second round. Not having to step into a best of five series with the season on the line immediately out of the pause is a huge advantage, or at least it is when looking just at the first round. But what will happen in the second?

When teams like Washington get their first chance to step onto the ice in the postseason it won't be against teams coming off exhibition games. Instead, the Caps will be playing a team that battled through three to five playoff games. While Washington will be trying to dial up the intensity to playoff levels, they will be playing against a team that has been playing at that intensity for a series already.

Who would you give the edge to between a team that just played a playoff series and one coming out of a three-game preseason?

What will make the 2020 postseason fascinating is the fact that we have absolutely no idea what to expect. This is completely unchartered territory.  Maybe the bye-in round will see teams suffer a number of injuries as they ramp up the intensity too quickly from training camp to postseason and the top seeds breeze past their weakened opponents. Maybe three round-robin games will be all it takes to get the Capitals back up to game speed and ready for their first playoff series. Or maybe teams coming off of a playoff series will find themselves in better game shape, more in sync and better prepared for a playoff series than a team coming off a bye that was preceded by a pause of several months. If we look back at this postseason and see that an overwhelming majority of the top eight seeds lose in their first matchups against teams that were already playing playoff hockey, would it really be that big of a shock?

If given the choice between having to step directly into a do-or-die best of five series or being in the Caps' position of getting a bye and playing three exhibition games before a playoff series, of course you should pick the bye. No team is guaranteed to win that first-round matchup, especially with all the uncertainty of the current season. But that does not mean that the bye won't end up proving detrimental in the second round as teams struggle to get up to playoff speed.

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T.J. Oshie doesn't believe shootouts should dictate results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

T.J. Oshie doesn't believe shootouts should dictate results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

T.J. Oshie is no stranger to success in shootouts, especially in big games. Namely, his performance in the 2014 Sochi Olympics against Russia earned him that reputation.

If the shootout style was ever brought to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the NHL, there's a chance that Oshie's name would once again be called upon. However, the Capital isn't set on that scenario becoming a reality. 

As of now, playoff matchups head into as many overtimes as needed rather than a shootout. While that can be draining for players, Oshie believes it is a more genuine way to determine results in the postseason. Hockey is a sport that forces a team to come together as a whole, and he feels that shootouts take that away.

“Selfishly I’d love to see it. But I just look back and see some of the games that went to five overtimes and played past midnight," Oshie told NHL on NBC during a re-airing of his performance in the 2014 Olympics. “In the playoffs you need everyone on the ice, everyone doing their job. The shootout just feels a little bit more one-on-one.”

"So I don’t think it has a place in playoffs," he added.

As Oshie noted, he could see the fun and excitement in having shootouts in the playoffs due to his personal success experiences in those moments. Yet, his time in postseason runs, including Washington's 2018 championship has given him a larger perspective on the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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The Capitals' Stanley Cup run was filled with grueling moments, but the success came from the team's effort altogether. Individual performances sparked big moments, but the Capitals were only as good as the sum of all their parts. To take that away in the biggest of moments is something that Oshie sees as wrong for the sport and the players who worked hard to get there.

“It’s just, after winning, I think you realize how much you need everybody playing well and so I think everyone deserves to play in those big moments," Oshie said.

So, while Oshie loves participating in late-game heroics, he'll take his chance at an overtime goal rather than a shootout. He does, however, understand that the continuation of the golden goal format could lead to more games with multiple extra periods. Though he is okay with those happening in place of a shootout, he also knows that he probably just talked himself into a lot more of those situations in the future.

“Watch I’ll go to like a five-overtime game and be dying an need an IV," Oshie joked. "And maybe change my tune.”

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