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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

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The Capitals got better with their free agent moves, just not in the way you expected

One of the biggest needs for the Capitals heading into the offseason was forward depth, specifically the fourth line. By whatever metric you want to use, it just was not good enough in 2018-19.

One of the obvious problems was the lack of offense. In seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington scored 20 goals. Five of those goals came from the bottom-six and one of those was an empty netter. That’s not good enough.

The Capitals were busy on Monday with a number of signings and look like they will have a new fourth line with the addition of free agent forwards Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic.

The most important question a team should ask itself in the offseason is if it got better and, at first glance, you may not see how Washington improved with these signings. Brett Connolly, who scored 22 goals last season, and Andre Burakovsky are both gone. Richard Panik, who was also signed Monday, will play on the third line. He scored 22 goals once in his career, back in 2016-17 with the Chicago Blackhawks when he was playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Hathaway and Leipsic’s career-highs in goals are 11 and seven respectively.

So did the Caps actually get better or did they have to just settle for what they could afford given the team’s salary cap constraints?

Offensively it seems unlikely that Washington’s new additions will match the production of the players the team has lost, but Brian MacLellan was looking to improve the team in other ways this offseason.

When evaluating the team, the offensive struggles of the fourth line were obvious. Less obvious were the team’s defensive struggles. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to more goals in the back of the net as well. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

Yes, Matt Niskanen had a down year and that’s why he and his $5.75 million cap hit is now in Philadelphia. But the forward lines play a role in team defense too and it is pretty clear MacLellan was searching for players with a proven track record of shot suppression to address that weakness.

MacLellan tipped his hand as to how he hoped to improve the team earlier in the offseason when he elected to extend Carl Hagelin. The team did not have enough cap room to re-sign both Connolly and Hagelin and MacLellan chose to extend the speedy penalty killer with limited offensive production in Hagelin over Connolly who scored 22 goals and 46 points last season. It should come as no surprise then that Hathaway is a strong penalty killer who averaged 1:42 of shorthanded ice time per night last season with the Calgary Flames.

So while the Caps may be losing offensive production this offseason, they have gained a new-look bottom six that looks much more defensively formidable. They also added key pieces to the penalty kill and return Hagelin who, when he was acquired at the trade deadline, instantly became Washington’s best penalty killer.

A cynic will say the direction the team took this offseason is a product of their cap space. It is often easier to focus on defense than offense because defense is harder to quantify. A 20-goal scorer is almost always more expensive than a shutdown forward.

There is no doubt that money played a factor in the team’s moves this offseason, but the direction MacLellan took looks like it was borne of necessity, not penny-pinching. Team defense was as glaring a weakness as depth offensive production was last season and you have to keep in mind that the offensive superstars are getting older. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are all 31 or older. That is half of the top-six. These three are not going to continue to produce at such a high level forever. When a team built around its offense starts to lose that offensive production, things can collapse pretty quickly. The team had to improve defensively or it would have to rely solely on an aging offensive core plus Braden Holtby in net to carry them. Now, on paper at least, Washington looks like a stronger team defensively heading into 2019-20.

So yes, Caps look like they have gotten better, just not the way you probably anticipated.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Who is the most underrated Caps player of all-time?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Who is the most underrated Caps player of all-time?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Justin Cade writes: Who do you think is the most underrated/underappreciated player in Caps history?

So I have a  few candidates for this, but when I first read this question one name instantly came to mind. It is a current player so I went back and scoured through a list of all the players in franchise history to make sure this was not just a product of recency bias. In the end, I am having a hard time finding a better option. The most underrated player in the Caps' history is Braden Holtby.

There, I said it.

Holtby is the best goalie in franchise history and was one of the key pieces in a Stanley Cup run and every time he lets in a questionable goal, I get inundated with people telling me that he is terrible, has always been terrible and he should be traded immediately.

Now, let's be clear. I am not talking about the people who think the team should move on from Holtby this season when his contract expires -- heck, I'm in that camp. I am talking about the people who are unceasingly critical and disparaging not only of Holtby's recent play, but of the entire career of, let me repeat myself, the best goalie in franchise history.

Holtby became the undisputed No. 1 goalie in 2013-14. Since that time, no goalie in the NHL has played more games than Holtby and no goalie has more wins. Holtby has a whopping 20 more victories than Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask who is second in that stretch despite playing only 13 more games, so don't tell me his win total is just a product of the number of games he has played. Before the Cup win, he was criticized as being a poor playoff performer which is ridiculous. Holtby has the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. Of all time!

But JJ, what about Olie Kolzig?

Kolzig was great. I loved him when I was growing up. Holtby has a better career GAA and save percentage, both players have a Vezina Trophy to their name and, oh yeah, Holtby has a freakin' Cup. And yet, Kolzig is revered by the fanbase while I am left constantly having to defend Holtby.

Do I think he is past his prime? Sure, but the way in which people downplay how important a player Holtby has been to this franchise is staggering. To think he has not been a key factor in the team's success including the Cup run is just plain wrong.

Maybe this is a product of the fact that probable replacement, Ilya Samsonov, is younger, cheaper and already on the roster. Maybe 10 years from now, people will feel differently about Holtby, but for now it is stunning to me how many people undercut what he has accomplished.

There are two other names I wanted to bring up. First, Mike Ridley. Ridley has the fifth-most goals in franchise history with 218, but for some reason he has seemingly faded into history in the minds of Caps fans. If I told you to list the greatest players in franchise history, how far down the list would you have to go before you thought of Ridley? A guy who scored 218 goals and 329 assists in 588 games for Washington probably deserves more recognition.

The other name is another recent player: Alex Semin. I am not saying he is underappreciated, he did not take full advantage of his skills during his NHL career. That is not debatable. I guess this is just more of a quibble I have with the word "bust."

Sasha Pokulok was the Caps' first-round draft pick in 2005. He never played a single game in the NHL. That's a bust. Semin played 650 NHL games with 239 goals and 517 total points. That's not a bust.

Was he disappointing considering his talent level? Sure, but he still produced a heck of a lot of points while wearing a Caps sweater.

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John Schecter writes: Could you discuss and explain some of the various "systems" that teams use in hockey?

There are a lot of people who could explain this better than me, but I can give you the basics. A hockey system is basically the tactics of how a team plays. Hockey is a very fluid game and, as a result, it can look as if the players are largely winging it. You try to keep the puck out of the net and when you get it, you head down the ice as quickly as possible, pass to a teammate and shoot. Done. In reality, just about every aspect of what the players do on the ice is meticulously planned, coached and practiced.

How aggressive is the forecheck? Who's responsible for the forecheck? How do you defend the neutral zone? Do you try to trap? How do you defend the blue line? How does the defense defend in any given situation? How do you break the puck out of the defensive zone? How do you transition on offense? How aggressive are the forwards on the breakout looking for odd-man rushes? How do you break the puck in? How much does the team dump and chase? How does the team set up offensively? What type of shot is the offense looking for?

I think it is a little easier to grasp the different systems in football where it can be largely and easily defined such as a spread offense, wishbone, a 4-3 defense, etc. Hockey is more nuanced because the game is free-flowing and everyone has different responsibilities depending on where the puck is, who is on the ice and the situations. To really understand a hockey system in the NHL requires an insane level of knowledge and understanding of the game that is beyond most of us, including me. I can give you the basics, but believe me, it gets very complicated very quickly.

Austen Bundy writes: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are obviously going to have their numbers retired together but I've always wondered why Scott Stevens, Peter Bondra and Olie Kolzig never had theirs retired. Any historical or practical insight you can provide on this, JJ?

This is something that I have argued about for years. First off, my guess with Stevens is that it is because he spent the majority of his career and had the most success in New Jersey. He had eight good seasons with Washington and what the team ultimately had to show for it was the five first-round draft picks the team received to compensate them for the offer sheet Stevens signed with St. Louis. I don't know why the Caps have not retired Bondra or Kolzig's numbers but if it were up to me, I wouldn't. I know that gets a lot of people riled up, but I have an extremely high standard for retired numbers.

There are only three numbers that should be retired by the franchise: 5, 8 and 19. That's it. That's the list.

Being a good player for a team is not a good enough reason to get your number retired. Believe me, it pains me to say this. I grew up watching Bondra and Kolzig play, I loved both of them. Bondra was my favorite player. But that's not good enough for no one else to ever wear No. 12 again.

Rod Langway, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom not only played hockey at an elite level for the team, but their impact on the franchise went well beyond good play. You have to have a greater impact on the franchise than just being good at hockey. To me, that's what it should take and those are the only three who meet that standard.

Jules A. writes: How would you rank each version of the Caps’ jerseys from start of the franchise to now?

  1. Original red
  2. Blue Stadium Series
  3. Current white
  4. Current red
  5. Black
  6. White eagle
  7. Original white
  8. Maroon Winter Classic
  9. Blue eagle

The hatred of the old red jerseys stems largely from the team's abysmal record while wearing them this season, but if you step back and actually look at them, you will recognize the undeniable beauty. That and the blue Stadium Series jerseys are far and away the two best jerseys this team has worn. It's a shame we only got to see the Stadium Series jersey twice.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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How to watch Capitals vs. Golden Knights in 2018 Stanley Cup Final

How to watch Capitals vs. Golden Knights in 2018 Stanley Cup Final

Everyone remembers where they were on June 7, 2018, when Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals hoisted the Stanley Cup for the very first time. Crowds packed F Street outside Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., others celebrated with friends and family across D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Wherever you were celebrating, you'll never forget that winning moment.

Now, you get to relive that moment all over again. On Sunday, NBC Sports Washington will be airing Games 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights, culminating with the Stanley Cup Championship Parade. Here's how to tune in.

When: Sunday, April 12, 9:00 a.m.

Where:

  • NBC Sports Washington (channel finder
  • Any of our 24/7 authenticated streaming platforms


Broadcast Schedule:

9:00 a.m.: NHL Classics: 2018 Stanley Cup Final -- Washington at Las Vegas [Game 1]

11:30 a.m.: NHL Classics: 2018 Stanley Cup Final -- Washington at Las Vegas [Game 2] 

2:00 p.m.: NHL Classics: 2018 Stanley Cup Final -- Las Vegas at Washington [Game 3]

4:30 p.m.: NHL Classics: 2018 Stanley Cup Final -- Las Vegas at Washington [Game 4]

7:00 p.m.: NHL Classics: 2018 Stanley Cup Final -- Washington at Las Vegas [Game 5]

9:30 p.m.: Capitals Championship Parade

What happened in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Capitals vs. Golden Knights?

Game 1:

Las Vegas pulled out all of the theatrics for the opening ceremony of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. This game was a back and forth, high scoring matchup, but the Knights came out on top, taking Game 1 with a 6-4 win. The Knights got on the board first with a slapshot from Colin Miller, who took advantage of the power play. Brett Connolly got the Caps on the board minutes later off of a deflection from a Michal Kempny slapshot to tie it up at 1. Just over a minute later, Nicklas Backstrom caught the pass in front from T.J. Oshie to make it 2-1 Caps. But Vegas answered immediately, William Karlsson tying it up at 2 heading into the second period.

In the second, Riley Smith broke the tie, finally netting one to make it 3-2 after multiple rebounds. After some heroics from Braden Holtby, John Carlson tied it up at 3 with a spectacular backhand shot. Just over a minute into the third period, Tom Wilson gets the deflection in front to break the tie, putting the Caps up 4-3. But Ryan Reaves and the Knights immediately got it back, tying the game up again at 4. Following, Holtby stood on his head for the Caps, but Tomas Nosek got one in to take the 5-4 lead and sealed the deal for the Knights with the empty-netter to win 6-4. Little did they know, the Caps would take the next four games, and the Cup.

Game 2:

In Game 2, Vegas got on the board first again, James Neal going top shelf over Braden Holtby to put the Knights up 1-0. After some goaltending heroics from both Marc-Andre Fleury and Holtby, the Caps finally got on the board with just over two minutes to go in the first period, Lars Eller netting one during a four-on-four to tie it at 1 heading into the second. After a cross-check on John Carlson sent Vegas to the box, the Caps capitalized on the power play and Ovi put the Caps up 2-1, his first-ever Stanley Cup Final goal. Soon after, Brooks Orpik extended the Caps lead to 3-1, but the Knights took advantage of a power play with just over two minutes to go in the second, Shea Theodore making it 3-2. In the third, Holtby's heroics were seen around the world with "the save," recently named the best of the decade by NHL on NBC. Holtby made an incredible stick save on Alex Tuch late in the third period to secure the Capitals' first-ever Stanley Cup Final win.

Game 3:

The Caps headed back to D.C. with the series tied. In the first period, Chandler Stephenson got on the board first, but Devante Smith-Pelly was called for goalie interference and it was a no-goal. The rest of the first was dominated by superb goaltending on both teams. Finally, with just over a minute into the second period, Alex Ovechkin gets the Caps on the board after a crazy rebound battle in front of Fleury. After many rings off the post, Evgeny Kuznetsov got goal No. 2 for the Caps to put them up 2-0. In the third, Vegas finally got one in after a blunder by Holtby behind the net led to a wide-open shot for the Knights. But DSP delivered for the Caps, with just over 6 minutes to play in the third, delivering the winning 3-1 goal. 

Game 4:

In the first period, Vegas had a golden opportunity to take the lead with a wide-open net on a power play, but hit the post. Following, Lars Eller got tripped up and the Caps headed to their own power play, where T.J. Oshie delivered to put the Caps up 1-0. To end the first, Tom Wilson got goal No. 2 with 3 minutes to play and just when the period was winding down with 20 seconds left, DSP made it 3-0. In the second, more Holtby heroics as the Knights headed to the power play with just over 4 minutes to play, but John Carlson made it 4-0 for the Caps with an Ovi-office style slapshot to net the shorthanded goal. In the third, Vegas finally got one in the net, James Neal making it 4-1. Riley Smith soon followed to make it 4-2. But the Caps responded with 2 more goals, Michal Kempny making it 5-2 on a 4-on-4 and Brett Connolly following with goal No. 6 on a 5-on-3. The Caps beat the Knights 6-2, one win away from their first-ever Stanley Cup.

Game 5:

Nerves were high for the decisive Game 5 in Vegas, but the first period remained scoreless after some superb goaltending and a lot of crossbar ringing. In the second, Jakub Vrana scored the first goal of the game with his outstanding speed, putting the Caps up 1-0. But soon after, former Cap Nate Schmidt tied it up for Vegas, 1-1. But just as Vegas was announcing the goal, Ovi made it 2-1 on an opportune power play. Vegas responded to make it 2-2, even after a coach's challenge on what could've been called goalie interference. And with just under 30 seconds to play in the second, the Knights capitalized on the power play to make it 3-2 heading into the final period. In the third, DSP finally tied it up with 10-minutes to go on his famous falling shot, making it 3-3. Minutes later, Lars Eller scores the winning goal off a Brett Connolly shot that went just under Fleury's pads, Eller there to tap it in. Holtby's heroics were on full display the final few minutes and the Capitals won their first-ever Stanley Cup.

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