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Capitals Mailbag: Is the backup goalie job up for grabs?

Capitals Mailbag: Is the backup goalie job up for grabs?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check it out below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Michael K. writes: How would you rate Todd Reirden’s first season as coach? There were a few things I liked and a lot of things I didn't like. Mainly the handling of Dmitrij Jaskin's play and his constant lambasting towards Evgeny Kuznetsov’s play. Are we going to see a lot of the same this season if things go awry?

I’d give him a B grade. Reirden was put in an impossible situation in his first season as a head coach taking over for the defending Stanley Cup champions. There is no way to beat that so chances are his first season was not going to be as good as the season before.

It wasn’t.

Like with all coaches, regardless of their experience level, there were things I liked and did not like. I was impressed with the way the team recovered from the early season slump and how they rebounded from the seven-game losing streak. At no point during that streak did I get the sense Reirden was losing the locker room. Winning a competitive Metropolitan Division given some pretty significant injuries and fatigue reflects that he did a pretty darn good job. I don’t think we really understood how tired the team was until they reached the playoffs and they were exposed for it.

I also am not going to put Kuznetsov’s season on Reirden. He has had inconsistencies in his game before Reirden took over.

Having said that, it wasn’t all good.

I do not understand what went on with Jaskin. I get that a player needs to take advantage of his opportunities, but he was playing well even if he wasn’t producing. Brian MacLellan essentially signed two replacements for Chandler Stephenson this offseason. If the team was so unsatisfied with his play, there probably was an opportunity to get Jaskin more time. Putting John Carlson on the left in the playoffs was not the best solution for replacing Michal Kempny and it should not have taken as long as it did for Reirden to try something else, nor should it have taken as long for him to try Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler was with the team during the home stretch of the season. Why not at least experiment with him with Carlson during a game?

The defense was atrocious last season and that is Reirden’s specialty. Having said that, MacLellan made the team much more defensively formidable this offseason so let’s see how a more experienced Reirden handles Year 2.

@Billiebee111 on Twitter asks: If the Caps are really intent on keeping Christian Djoos on the NHL roster, the only way I could see them doing it is by trying to sneak Copley through waivers and bringing up Vitek Vanecek. Do you think they’d risk losing Pheonix Copley and is Vanecek ready to be a No. 2 in the NHL?

I explored the Vanecek possibility a little bit in last week’s mailbag and yes, I see this as a real possibility.

To answer your question, I do see the team risking Pheonix Copley to waivers for a few reasons. First, at some point the team is going to have to recall Ilya Samsonov. If you are even thinking about moving on from Braden Holtby, you have to see what you have in his potential replacement. I do not think he is going to get as much time as the team would ultimately like to gauge his future, but I would be stunned if he did not play in the NHL at all this season.

Second, when the team signed Copley through the 2021-22 season, it was clearly with an eye toward Seattle. Every team will have to expose at least one goalie with term in the expansion draft and Copley fulfills that requirement. Now that Vanecek is signed through 2022 as well, it allows the team with some insurance if Copley is claimed off waivers.

Vanecek looked like a much more polished product in the AHL last season than Samsonov, but that is because he is closer to reaching his ceiling in his development. I see him as an NHL backup. It would obviously be a big risk to have Vanecek as the backup and risk losing Copley to waivers because if Vanecek shows he’s not ready after all, then you’re in trouble. There is no clear back-up left in the organization and now you have to recall Samsonov sooner than perhaps expected. If it works out, however, this solves a lot of Washington’s problems. The team can afford both Vanecek and Djoos if Copley and Stephenson are both placed on waivers and Vanecek is waiver exempt meaning there is no risk of losing him whenever the team does decide to recall Samsonov.

Damon C. writes: If Braden Holtby does end up leaving next summer, what should be the plan to fill in for him? Since Samsonov hasn’t had any NHL time (and I won’t assume he gets much this season), it would be hard to throw him into a starting role right away. Pheonix Copley is a good back up but with the core being 1 year older when Holtby’s contract is up, I wouldn’t think the Caps would want to roll with a back up goalie and goalie with no (or maybe little) NHL experience to try and win another cup.

We have talked to death about why this season will likely be Holtby’s last in Washington. What you bring up, Damon, is an important question to consider as well.

OK, so you want to move on from Holtby. Then what?

In many ways, I think the answer to this question will depend on where MacLellan thinks the team is next season. If they crash and burn this season or if there is another first-round playoff exit and it looks like the championship window may be closed, then maybe you do roll with a Samsonov-Copley duo or even Samsonov-Vanecek. In all likelihood, what I find more likely is for the team to sign a veteran backup like Thomas Greiss or Jaroslav Halak and have a goalie tandem. Samsonov is not going to be a 60-game starter in 2020-21. A 50-32 split is a pretty realistic figure.

@TheWuWu on Twitter asks: What does the blue line have to do in order to improve this year over last, especially with the new personnel?

First off, the second pair has to be better. Whether you blame Dmitry Orlov or Matt Niskanen at this point is irrelevant. It just was not good enough. There is a lot riding on Orlov to rebound and for Nick Jensen to feel more comfortable on Washington’s blue line. Analytically, Radko Gudas will be an upgrade over 2018-19 Niskanen and he is on the third pair. As long as he stays on the ice and does not get into trouble with the Department of Player Safety, that will be a huge boon for the defense.

Schematically, the team has to be better on the penalty kill and the forwards need to be more involved in helping the team in its own end of the ice. The biggest thing is Washington must take back control of the slot and the high-danger areas in front of the net. 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.

That is the area in which the Caps’ most need to improve.

Benjamin C. writes: Caps get to play the defending champs opening night which is kind of scary if we reflect on last year’s game with us. How do you think we do against the St. Louis Blues?

The NHL seems to have an obsession with having the Caps play a team on its banner night. This will mark the fourth time in the past seven seasons Washington played in a game in which the Stanley Cup banner was raised. They obviously won last year’s game at Capital One Arena, but the two games on the road were both losses, one to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 and the other to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. I do not expect a 7-0 blowout like the one Washington unleashed on the Bruins last season. In fact, I think you may be surprised by how well they play. The Caps have been on both sides of this now and are about as well-equipped to deal with this as anyone given their experience.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Great recognizes great: Phil Esposito explains why Ovechkin is such a dominant scorer

Great recognizes great: Phil Esposito explains why Ovechkin is such a dominant scorer

Phil Esposito knows a thing or two about scoring goals. He’s one of the best of all-time at it. During his 18-year NHL career, he scored 717 career goals which ranks sixth in NHL history...for now. Alex Ovechkin is two goals away from joining Esposito as a member of the 700-goal club and could end up passing him by the end of the season.

Esposito may be from a different era, but he still knows a great goal-scorer when he sees one.

“Well, let me put it this way,” Esposito said. “I don’t give a [expletive] what era it would be. Alex Ovechkin would be still scoring goals, in any era, anywhere.”

A lot of goal-scorers have come and gone without finding nearly the same amount of success as Ovechkin. We all know how great a shot he has, but Esposito recognizes the other qualities that he believes sets Ovechkin apart.

“His positioning and his ability to put the puck on the net all the time,” Esposito said. “If you go back in history through all the guys who scored 700, they usually hit the net a lot. I think that Alex is one of those guys who puts it on the net and puts the onus on the goaltender.”

“To me, it didn’t matter how hard I shot the puck, it’s where I put it,” he added. “If I put it in a location going 50 mph, the goalie couldn’t move his feet fast enough to stop it. … Ovechkin can hit those spots when he has that extra second. But if he doesn’t have that extra second, he makes sure he gets it on the net and that’s the key to scoring goals. Putting it on the net.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Ovechkin’s goal-scoring prowess is that it is coming in an era in which it has become incredibly difficult to score. Esposito noted, “Never underestimate the people who are blocking the shots nowadays, as compared to my day.”

“The way the game is played nowadays and the way the guys get in the [shooting] lanes, and they block shots, sometimes you’ve got to pass it,” Esposito said. “Man, I’d venture to say that without the blocked shots and everything else, like the way it was in the ‘70s, Alex would get more than 550 shots on net. And probably score 75 to 80 goals.”

As Ovechkin’s career has continued, his remarkable ability to stay healthy has become as much of a reason for him climbing the all-time goals list as his goals are. Despite all the talent around the league, no other player in the NHL has even reached 600 goals. Ovechkin's durability becomes all the more impressive with every passing year.

“He’s a monster and he’s very strong,” Esposito said. “Secondly, he’s played with some pain, I’ll guarantee that. And that’s another thing, he plays with the pain. He doesn’t complain about it. He’ll go out and he’ll play.”

Ovechkin has already carved a place for himself in history among the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. That’s not in doubt. But as he sits ever so close to reaching 700 at the age of 34, the answer now on everyone’s mind is can he keep it up?

While 34 is old for most hockey players, age does not seem to be much of a factor for Ovechkin who is one of just three players with 40 goals this season. Considering the rate at which Ovechkin has continued to score, this has led some to wonder if Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals could be in play.

For many reaching 700 will be the last great milestone of their career, but for Ovechkin, it could just be the unofficial proclamation that he is coming for Gretzky’s record.

But if he is going to beat the record, Esposito thinks he is going to need help.

“Stay with the Washington Capitals,” Esposito said. “Stay with a good team. Trust me, I went through that. When I was traded from Boston to [the New York Rangers], New York was a bad team and I certainly didn’t score like I did in Boston, which was a great team. You don’t do it alone in the NHL. You don’t. You’d better have good teammates with you if you’re going to be a good scorer.”

Ovechkin has certainly had that in his time in Washington and will continue to have it after Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal to stay with the team.

And Ovechkin is going to need all the help he can get to reach Gretzky’s record which was long thought to be untouchable.

Until he does, however, as great as he may be, he won’t be the greatest at least according to Esposito.

“I’m not going to say he’s the best of all time,” Esposito said. “Wayne is. Wayne’s No. 1. It’s simple. When I retired, I was No. 2, [Gordie Howe] was the best. And so until you beat the best, you’re not the best. Period.”

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TJ Oshie snipes, the disconnect on the breakouts and is it time to shuffle the lines?

TJ Oshie snipes, the disconnect on the breakouts and is it time to shuffle the lines?

The Capitals tried to win a 60-minute game with only a strong 20 minutes of play in the third period on Monday, but they ultimately lost to the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 after spotting Vegas a 3-0 lead.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

Puck management

Here's a summary of Vegas' first goal. A stretch pass caught two Caps defensemen on the left side of the ice, allowing William Carrier in on the breakaway. Braden Holtby slowed down the puck and John Carlson was able to sweep it off the goal line. Vegas won the loose puck, cycled the puck, Tomas Nosek had all the time in the world to find an open Carrier who set up Nick Holden who was open in front of the crease.

How many ways can a team screw up on one play?

Carlson was the right defenseman on the breakaway. I don't know why he was all the way over on the left. I thought at first he got caught trying to make a line change, but his total shift after the goal was scored was 40 seconds so it was unlikely he was trying to get off the ice. The loose puck after the breakaway was immediately picked up by Vegas. If the Caps win that puck battle, there's no goal. While Vegas was able to quickly set up its offense off the rush, the Caps defense scrambled badly and never got settled.

This was really how the first 40 minutes went. Vegas managed the puck well and won puck battles. Washington did neither of those things.

There's a disconnect between the defense and offense on the breakout

Washington is awful at breaking the puck out of the defensive zone on defense. If the offense is not carrying the puck up the ice on the breakout, it leads to a turnover far too often.

There are three recurring issues I keep seeing on breakouts from the defense. First, the defense holds onto the puck and holds it...holds it...holds it until the forecheckers attack, cut off all the passing lanes and suddenly there is nowhere to go with the puck. The second thing is the passing back and forth between the defense deeper and deeper in the defensive zone until they get hemmed in by the forecheckers and turn the puck over. The passing back and forth behind the goal line without any hope of advancing the puck drives me nuts. The third recurring issue is a stretch pass that has literally zero chance of being successful. A defenseman will have the puck in the defensive zone, look up ice and try to throw a pass cross ice to the offensive blue line which easily gets cut off in the neutral zone.

What's the recurring issue in each of these situations? The forecheck or trap cutting between the offense and the defense.

When you get get a good stretch pass through the forecheck/trap, it can lead to breakaways. Vegas got two in the first period doing that, but those passes have to be open. The Caps are not attempting those passes because the seas are parting and there's a passing lane, these passes are getting thrown into traffic with almost no chance of success. Watching the defense pass back and forth behind the goal line is just as infuriating to watch, and both of these things happen because the three forwards are zipping up ice leaving the defense with few options while trying to get past the forecheck.

There's a disconnect here between the offense and defense in that the forwards are not giving easy passing options to the defensemen and the defensemen are taking too long to distribute the puck.

Time to change the lines

The offense has gotten stale, it's time to change things up. I know coaches like to get their lines in place later into the season, but the Caps are now 11-11-0 in their past 22 games and 4-6-0 since returning from the all-star break. The time to let them just play their way out of this has passed. Changes are needed to find a spark.

To his credit, Todd Reirden does shuffle up lines and pairings within a game, but there was none of that at least among the forward lines on Monday. Michal Kempny missed much of the first period which forced some defensive shuffling, but that was about it. It's time to shake things up to get the team out of this rut.

Turning point

There are several universal truths in the game of hockey and one of them is that if a team botches a big scoring chance on one end, it usually leads to a goal on the other. T.J. Oshie may have scored twice on Monday in the third period, but he should have scored in the first period with an empty-net yawning. Marc-Andre Fleury made a save on a shot from Nicklas Backstrom and the rebound bounced right to Oshie who swung at the puck twice and missed as he was falling to the ice. Vegas broke the puck out of the zone and on the resulting cycle scored to make it 2-0.

Washington was not playing well at all to that point, but Oshie still had a chance to tie the game on his stick. It could have been a completely different game if he buried it. He could not capitalize, but the Golden Knights could as Reilly Smith made it 2-0.

Play of the game

Both of Oshie's goals deserve shoutouts because both were fantastic snipes.

Stat of the game

Washington has looked like a completely different hockey team since Dec. 23 and not in a good way. Here are some stats from NBC Sports Washington's Caps Postgame Live:

The offense is still producing fairly well, but defense and special teams have been absolutely atrocious.

Quote of the game

T.J. Oshie was asked about why so much of the offensive has been one-and-done lately. His full answer on the struggles on the forecheck and the limited offense that comes with it was very good, but this was my takeaway:

"It's amazing how much starts from our D-zone...for the most part we know how to play in the O-zone, it's just we've got to enter the zone as a group of five whether that's carrying the puck or chipping it in so that we have speed and we can support each other."

See above about the disconnect between the offense and the defense.on the breakouts. They are not playing like a five-man unit in sync with each other. They look like a three-man forward line and a two-man defensive pair playing together and neither knows what the other wants to do.

Fan predictions

Sure felt like that's where this was headed after two periods.

Almost. I especially like the Game 4 callback on that second one.

Maybe Ovechkin was waiting for little Alexander. Congratulations!

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