Capitals

Caps Mailbag: Are the Caps as good as they think they are?

Capitals
Alex Ovechkin

It's time to hear from you, the fans, and answer what's on your mind in the Capitals Mailbag.

If you have a question for the mailbag, send it in to capitalsmailbag@gmail.com

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Brian M. writes: You have written “the Caps are good” and are a team “with Stanley Cup aspirations.”  I vehemently disagree, this team won’t make the playoffs, so I’d welcome your reasoning.  Everyone misses predictions, certainly, I have many times.  You clearly misjudged the Bruins and Penguins and you’re clearly over-hyping the Washington Capitals.

I think you are taking a preseason prediction I made and taking it as gospel. I did predict Washington would be among the final four teams in the playoffs, but I was pretty clear after 10 games that the team was not playing well enough despite being 6-1-3, I wasn't buying it when Peter Laviolette said the team was playing better in their four straight losses and I am very much concerned by their inconsistent play.

I speak often of the team's Stanley Cup aspirations because that is the prism through which this season will be viewed. It is Stanley Cup or bust for them this year because they are old, there's a flat salary cap and an expansion draft. You just don't know what this team is going to look like beyond this year so I have taken a largely black or white analysis of this team this year. I have probably been a little harsh of Vitek Vanecek, for example. He continues to exceed my expectations and he is a great story, but the fact is he has not played well enough to show me he can be the starter on a Stanley Cup championship team and that's the standard in which everything has to be held to this year.

 

So, let's reset. What do I think of the Caps now? Overall, I don't like how they have played. They are widely inconsistent not just from game to game, but from period to period. Alex Ovechkin is, by his standards, cold. John Carlson has been just OK as has T.J. Oshie before his recent hot streak. Other key players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jakub Vrana and Dmitry Orlov have not been good enough. Their starting goalie can't get on the ice and their backup isn't good enough to take them to a championship. They have also dealt with numerous injuries and four players on the COVID list.

And yet, even with all of those issues, they currently sit second in the East Division in points, third in points percentage. They are still in a playoff position. So no, I am not going to say they are not a playoff team. My preseason prediction was that they would finish third in the East and I think that is about on par with how they have played, but I also think there is another gear there they haven't found yet for all those reasons listed above.

If the Caps can struggle this much and deal with this many issues and are still able to keep their head above water in the best division in hockey, why would I declare now, 19 games into the season that there is no way they can even make the playoffs? That's wildly premature.

Steven S. Writes: How committed are the Caps and the coaching staff to a 200 foot game from all personnel? I’m happy to see the offensive push from the blueliners, but, to me, this team is championship caliber when all forwards are dedicated to defense as well. There was no more important play in breaking the losing streak than captain Ovechkin back-checking versus the Pens and ultimately setting up the Oshie to Vrana goal.

I certainly agree that Ovechkin’s backcheck was critical. I even wrote about it.

 

This is the ultimate question for this team defensively, isn’t it? The Capitals were at their best defensively in the wins over Pittsburgh and Buffalo when they committed to a five-man defensive game.

But as we have seen over the years, some players are more committed to this than others. This cannot be a once in a while type of thing. For this team to be successful, they have to play that way consistently. The biggest issue to me right now is the odd-man breaks and quick transitions they give up. It's not just about five men playing the defensive zone, it's about making sure you don't put the team in position where you can't get five guys back to even play team defense because you're giving up 2-on-1s or 3-on-2. They need to be more careful with the puck in the offensive zone to help them in the defensive zone.

The coaches are definitely committed to team defense. The players just have to show that same commitment.

Justin C. writes: Conor Sheary has been the kind of finisher on the third line that the Caps have lacked from a bottom-six forward since the departure of Brett Connolly. Do you see a scenario where Sheary can stay in town through 2023 to keep him with Lars Eller and Richard Panik, both UFAs that year? What do you think it would take to keep Sheary in town and happy? 

On another note, what is it about former Penguins playing so well in Washington? I have long been a fan of Carl Hagelin, and Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary are easily my favorite two new signings so far.

The future of Sheary will depend on a few factors. First, who Seattle takes in the expansion draft as that will have cap ramifications. Second, how much do free agents Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, Jonas Siegnethaler and Ilya Samsonov cost to re-sign? Unless the team loses one to the expansion draft, I would expect GM Brian MacLellan would want to re-sign all of them. Third, will the reckoning at left defense come in the offseason? With Michal Kempny, Brenden Dillon, Dmitry Orlov, Siegenthaler, Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev, someone is going to have to go eventually. That may free up some extra cap space for re-signing a player like Sheary.

I always have trouble predicting what it will take to keep a player. From my perspective, I see in Sheary a player who has struggled to find consistency in his career when he’s not playing with Sidney Crosby and a player who was a late-signing in the offseason. You would think that would make him want to re-sign with Washington and for cheap. But we don’t know how he likes the city or the team, we don’t know what his family life is like. He’s also 28 and may be thinking this is his last shot to cash-in if he continues to play well so he may look for bigger and better offers in the offseason. I felt the same about Brett Connolly. A sixth overall draft pick whose career was resurrected in Washington, why wouldn’t he want to stay? But he left for a bigger deal the Caps could afford and you can’t blame him for that.

 

As for former Penguins, I think MacLellan puts an emphasis on building a winning culture in Washington which puts former Penguins on the radar. That’s why they also have players like Zdeno Chara and two former Blackhawks in Richard Panik and Trevor van Riemsdyk. I am surprised so many former Penguins seem to find success in Washington considering they play a faster style while Washington is more physical, but they are both extremely skilled and deep teams so perhaps it is about getting players who understand that good players sometimes have to take reduced roles on deep rosters.

Charles B. writes: I’m noticing the Caps have very little player movement when on the power play. I think if players move as well as more puck movement it’s much harder to defend. I think we could produce more and  better shots. Your thoughts please?

You are not the only one who thinks movement is critical for a power play. Many coaches and analysts agree and some have been critical of the Caps for this approach in the past. But I see the merits of what Washington has done with its set up.

The Caps’ power play is more about position than movement. Ovechkin is lethal from the office. Everyone knows it and if he is set up and is on target with his shot, no one can really stop it. Limiting movement on the power play ensures Ovechkin remains in the spot where he is the most dangerous. It is run from the half wall with Nicklas Backstrom as the quarterback and it gives the puck carrier at least two passing options. Backstrom can pass to the goal line or to the point and, since those are on the perimeter, those options are almost always available unless a penalty kill gets super aggressive. Sure, he can shoot it himself or try to fool everyone with a pass to Ovechkin, but he should at least have the goal line and the point available. From the goal line, you can either pass back to Backstrom or pass to the slot for the quick shot. From the point, you can pass back to Backstrom or feed Ovechkin for the one-timer. This system allows the puck carrier plenty of passing options and keeps players in a position where they are the most lethal.

 

I 100-percent agree that there absolutely needs to be more puck movement. Puck movement allows a power play to maximize its numbers advantage. The penalty kill just cannot cover everything a fast puck movement is the best way to stretch out a PK and open up shooting lanes. But do I think the Caps need tons of movement on their power play? No. It’s really just a matter of preference.

Douglas F. writes: Hi, I was wondering with the realization that Vanecek is definitely capable of being a No. 2 goalie behind Samsonov, what does this mean for the Seattle expansion draft? You protect Samsonov and hope Seattle doesn't take Vanecek? Or you protect Samsonov and hopefully make a deal with Seattle to not pick him.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I wrote about in January. A lot of this remains TBD. First we have to see IlyaSamsonov back and determine what the ceiling is there. I still believe it is significantly higher than Vanecek’s, but we need to see that. The bigger problem, however, is that the Caps can’t afford to lose either.

The expansion draft rules only allow a team to protect one goalie so someone is going to be exposed. Even if Samsonov does not emerge as a bonafide starter this year or Vanecek’s ceiling remains as a No. 2, they are both cheap which is very important given how close the team is to the cap.

Vanecek’s cap hit is $716,667 for another year then he becomes a restricted free agent. Samsonov is on the final year of his contract, but will be an RFA with no arbitration rights so I don’t think his next deal is going to break the bank.

 

The Caps have to re-sign Alex Oechkin, Jakub Vrana, Jonas Siegenthaler and, if he keeps playing like this, Sheary as well. If you lose either goalie you have to replace him and good luck finding a quality goalie with a cap hit of under $1 million. Losing one of those goalies may ultimately cost more moenty to the Caps in the long run. For those of you saying Craig Anderson, he is 39 and was signed to be on the taxi squad. If you bring him back, you have to worry about whether he can handle it and second, his price tag will definitely go up.

One of Samsonov and Vanecek has to emerge as a No. 1, no doubt. That’s the most important thing, but it is an asset being able to have such a cheap combined cap hit at the goaltending position, especially when the team has so many good players to sign who will be looking for raises.

So what do you do? You let the season play out, protect the guy you believe has the highest ceiling, then try to gauge Seattle’s interest in the players who will be left exposed. If the goalie is possible, then you try to give them a draft pick to incentivize taking someone else.

Zach D. writes: What can the caps get for a Vrana trade? He avoids contact like the plague, is horrendous defensively and brings nothing else to the rink if he’s not scoring.  He makes terrible passes and turnovers when pressured.  He’s not even an average passer.  As proven last year, he shrinks in the playoffs.  He needs to go.

While I would agree that the Caps need more from Vrana this season, I very much disagree with your assessment of the type of player he is. For a team that plays primarily a heavy, physical style, Vrana does stand out as being...not that, but it is useful to have players with other skills on the roster to give you more tools in the toolbelt.

Vrana is very fast, very skilled and an underrated puck distributor who actually has more assists in his career (73) than he does goals (70). This is why he is used in a distributing role on the goal line in the power play rather than in a better shooting position.

You are also selling low on a player who could prove to be a prolific goal-scorer in the NHL. He had 24 even-strength goals last season, tied for 11th in the league. That was tied with Jack Eichel, one goal less than Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane scored and one more than Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid. His goal-scoring is at an elite level, but no one realizes that because his totals are not inflated by the power play.

 

Back when we were able to go to practice, Vrana was the last player on the ice almost every single day. No one works on their game as much as he does during the season. Selling low on him I think would be a mistake.

Luka K. writes: I know it won't happen and that the past is best left in the past, but if Filip Forsberg is on the trade block, what would the price be for Capitals? Would 2021 1st, 2022 2nd(or Vitek) and Fehervary get it done?

Oh no…Luka. C’mon man.

A time machine is probably the only way Forsberg is coming back to Washington.

FIrst, Nashville has Juuse Saros who is only 25 and they just drafted a highly-touted goalie prospect in 2020 in Yaroslav Askarov so I don’t think they would have any interest in a player like Vanecek.

A first-round draft pick would be just a starting point. If I’m Nashville, a team that has struggled to find consistency down the middle, I am demanding either Connor McMichael or Hendrix Lapierre be part of the deal.

No thanks.

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Stan C. writes: Will Caps make a trade? I would like to trade for Patrick Kane from Chicago.

And I would like the Caps to trade for Connor McDavid, but it ain’t going to happen.

Kane has 30 points in 20 games for a Chicago team very much in the playoff hunt despite how awful that team looks on paper. If the Blackhawks make the playoffs, he will have to be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy.

Chicago will have no interest in trading him and, even if they did, the asking price would be so astronomical it would not be worth it.

 

As for whether the Caps will make any trades, that is going to be difficult. MacLellan has been bold with trades in the past so I have no doubt if he wants to, he will find a way. But you have to remember that, given the cap situation, whatever money the team wants to bring in, it has to ship out. Draft picks alone aren’t going to be enough to bring in another player. Considering the emphasis MacLellan put on depth in the offseason, I don’t think he sees any position as having a surplus so there is no obvious position or player the team would look to move.

Nathan S. writes: If Caps miss the playoffs and continue to play poorly like they have since Dec. 23, 2019, do you see them rebuilding and what would such a rebuild look like?

Missing the playoffs and playing the way they have the past few seasons are two different things. If the Caps make the playoffs and are ousted in the first or second round, I could see a scenario where they could convince themselves it was a product of a weird season mixed with a new coach and they can give the core another year before they decide to tear it down.

If the team just straight up misses the playoffs, I don’t see the rationale in not tearing it down. I don’t know what the management could point to as a reason why a non-playoff team with a veteran core and no cap room would suddenly morph into a contender again.

One thing to keep in mind is that there is a financial benefit to making the playoffs, even if only a round. Given the financial challenges everyone is facing in the pandemic, coming out of the pandemic and going straight into a rebuild will be a tough pill to swallow. I wonder if we see some teams who should embrace a rebuild instead load up for a push for the playoffs. I’m not the Caps would do this, I’m just saying it’s something to keep in mind.

If they go full rebuild, they I think they would look to trade away most players for picks and brace themselves for one or two rough seasons to climb up the draft board. Of the veterans, I would expect the team would want to keep Ovechkin, Backstrom, Wilson, probably Carlson, maybe Vrana, their top prospects and then whoever emerges as the No. 1 goalie. Anyone else, you listen to what other teams would be willing to offer.

 

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want answered in the next mailbag, send it in to capitalsmailbag@gmail.com