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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: Why are abusive coaching tactics tolerated?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why are abusive coaching tactics tolerated?

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.

Nathan S. writes: Why have abusive coaches such as Bill Peters, Marc Crawford, and to some extent Mike Babcock been tolerated as it's clear that front office people and players knew about this type of abuse for years?

Because I do not believe players have felt empowered enough to speak out. While some people knew somewhat what these coaches were doing, I do not believe they knew to what extent. Who in their right mind would have hired Peters if they had known he had shouted the N-word in a locker room? They wouldn't have. Even if Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving had known Peters could get after his players, had he known to what extent he never would have done it.

To me, it's a culture thing. I am not saying the culture of hockey is rotten, far from it. What I am saying is hockey players have a mentality of not wanting to speak out about...well, anything. That has to change.

The position of authority these coaches hold over players is a factor as well. A coach does not just get to the NHL and decides he wants to be a hard-ass. He has been doing it at every step of his career meaning in the junior leagues, in college, in the minors. If you're a player in one of those leagues and hope to make it to the NHL someday, it is hard to speak out against your coach who you feel controls your future. Your coach has contacts at the next level, he has friends in the organization, he has a history, he has fans, he has influence. Plus, who are you going to talk to? The general manager? The guy who hired the coach in the first place who, if the coach fails, reflects negatively on him? Players find believe they have a choice of speaking out and risking their careers or staying silent and just dealing with it.

Players have to have some sort of outlet outside of a team to report these things so that it is clear this will not come back to negatively affect them.

Nick Crawford writes: With the upcoming contract negotiations for Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin, is it at all possible that the Caps will be able to sign all three?

Not without significant cuts to the rest of the roster.

Look, never say never. I thought there was no way the team could afford to re-sign T.J. Oshie. I thought there was no money for the team to make any offseason additions this year. If Brian MacLellan wants to sign all three and all three want to come back, then he will find a way to get it done.

My point through all of this is that I don't think Holtby will be re-signed because I don't think it makes sense. You can only protect one goalie in the Seattle draft, Holtby is going to command a gigantic cap hit and keeping him means making a lot of cuts elsewhere on the roster and selling the 22-year-old Ilya Sasmonov because you can't keep both. Does it really make sense to do that for a 30-year-old Holtby?

Can the Caps re-sign all three? If they really want to, sure. Will they? I highly, highly doubt it.

Craig Boden writes: Alex Ovechkin is now 34 years old, he's got to start slowing down soon. Does the big man get to 50 goals again this year and what's the chances of him getting even close to Gretzky's record?

Ovechkin very well could get 50 goals again this season. I have been consistent in my belief that he will fall just short of 50 this year, but it is not because I see him as slowing down. Getting 50 goals is hard to do consistently and I just think he falls short this year. He is currently on pace for about 54 so we will see.

Catching Gretzky's record remains a long shot.

Let's say Ovechkin stays on this pace all season and finishes with 54 goals. That will give him 712 in his career. He would still have to score 185 more goals to pass Gretzky. If he plays five more seasons, he would have to average 37 goals per year to get there. Yes, that sounds low for Ovechkin but at some point he is going to slow down and I don't see a 38, 39-year-old Ovechkin scoring 40 goals.

Ovechkin will probably have to have another big season -- 50 goals or close to it -- after this year to really make a run at it.

Even if he doesn't get there though, the fact that we are even talking about this is remarkable. Gretzky's goal record is one of those records I thought to be untouchable. Ovechkin has made this record impossible to beat to improbable which is a mammoth achievement.

Emily Fon-Kats: What are some pre-game rituals?

Hockey superstitions can be bizarre. Some players guard them very closely while others are more open about it. I wrote about this in January, check out the story here.

Andre Burakovsky was the weirdest. And of course, there's also the Oshie butt taps

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, by the way. There are so many more that we never see or hear about.

Richard Strickland writes: Does Braden Holtby get bored during a slow game?

Bored is not the right word. Going "cold" is a real thing for goalies and Holtby is someone who prefers to be busy. He definitely feels like he does better against more shots. Even if he knows he is not playing that night, he will take more shots in practice.

I would not say bored. Perhaps antsy would be a better way to describe it. It is is just how he is wired.

Jason Woodside writes: I don’t see why a team that scores on a delayed penalty doesn’t still get awarded a power play. Any chance the league ever looks into changing this?

Actually yes. You are not the first person I have heard suggest this. In the league's endless pursuit of more offense, awarding a power play after a goal is scored is a pretty simple change that would not dramatically change the game. I am not sure how much it would actually impact goal-scoring league-wide as it does not happen very often, but this would be a minor change in the grand scheme of things.

I would not at all be surprised if we see a change like this to the rules.

I recently read an article about hockey dentists. How many behind the scenes coaches/staff are present for games vs the amount that would be there for a practice day? Are these roles only there for home games or do they travel?

If you are referring to the ESPN article on hockey dentists, I saw that too. It was a great read.

This is not a subject I am too familiar with, but I will tell you what little I do know about it. First, the Caps list eight team doctors as members of its medical staff. There is a head team physician/orthopedic surgeon, another orthopedic surgeon, two internists, an emergency physician, an emergency medicine physician and internist, an ophthalmologist and a dentist. These "team" doctors are all full-time doctors who just have a relationship with the team. The only medical personnel who are full-time employees of a team are the athletic trainers. In fact, most team doctors around the league don't get paid. They get to say they are the official doctor, dentist surgeon, etc. of whatever team they work with and go to the games, but most are not paid. I do not know the specific relationship between the Caps and their medical personnel so I couldn't tell you if they are paid or not.

Because of that, unless there is a reason they need to be there they are not on hand for practice. They have their own jobs they need to tend to. The same goes for travel. It is not as if every road trip the Caps pack the plane with a dentist, a physician, a surgeon and other personnel. That's not really how it works. If there is a medical emergency on the road, they would rely on whatever medical personnel are at the arena they are visiting.

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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Capitals at Ducks Game 31: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

Capitals at Ducks Game 31: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

These teams faced off just two weeks ago, and things got a little crazy. Fists flew, punches were thrown, and tensions were high. 

The Washington Capitals are eager to seal this road trip with what would be their sixth consecutive victory (and ultimately staying 1.00 on this trip westward). 

Atop the league standings and sitting seventh-to-last respectively, the Capitals and Ducks are at very different points nearly two months in to the 2019-2020 NHL season.

Anaheim is 12-12-4 after beating the LA Kings 4-2 Monday night, the only team they are doing better than in the Pacific Division. The Ducks face a crucial point to spur some upward momentum, but will be met by swift Capitals offense (+26 differential so far this season) as well as Norris contender John Carlson, who scored his 100th and 101st career goals in Los Angeles Wednesday night against the Kings. 

CAPITALS-DUCKS GAME 31: HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Capitals vs. Anaheim Ducks

Where: The Honda Center, Anaheim, CA

When: Friday, December 6, 2019 at 10 PM ET

TV Channel: Capitals-Ducks will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington Plus. (NBC Sports Washington channel finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Ducks game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

CAPITALS-DUCKS TV SCHEDULE:

9:00 PM: Caps Faceoff Live (LIVE)
9:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live (LIVE)
10:00 PM: NHL: Capitals @ Anaheim Ducks (LIVE) [NBC Sports Washington Plus]
12:30 AM: Caps Postgame Live (LIVE) [NBC Sports Washington Plus]

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