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Capitals mailbag: Caps are even with last year's pace so why is everyone still panicking?

Capitals mailbag: Caps are even with last year's pace so why is everyone still panicking?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Feb. 27 edition below.

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

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

The boring answer is that the NHL is a highly competitive league and that there is not much separation between the best team in the league and the worst. Or at least that’s true for most teams -- Ottawa is in a league of their own for how bad they are now after the trade deadline.

But the Caps may not be in as many close games as you think. Washington has been in 20 one-goal games this season which ties them for 14th in the NHL. Sure, one-goal games can easily become two-goal games with an empty-netter and sometimes scores can be deceiving as to how close a game really was. The point is that pretty much everyone plays in a lot of close games over the course of the season, the Caps are not unique in this.

Nathan S. writes: Why do Caps play so badly against bad teams this year?

See above. Again, the NHL is a competitive league and while there is a clear distinction between good and bad teams in the standings, the separation is not as wide on the ice in terms of talent.

I know, the losses to Buffalo and Anaheim were bad. In my mind, games against bad teams are more important than the big matchups against good teams because you need to get the points against teams you should beat. That makes those losses disappointing. Having said that, every team in the NHL loses to bad teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning are far and away the best team in the NHL with only 11 regulation losses this season. Among those 11 are losses to Vancouver, Arizona (a 7-1 blowout), Ottawa, Buffalo and Anaheim.

You are going to lose to bad teams over the course of an 82-game season.

As quick aside, every week I do this mailbag and the prevailing sense I get is that fans are panicking over the state of the team. A seven-game losing streak will do that. I get it. But let’s compare this year’s team to last year’s through 64 games:

2017-18: 36-21-7, 195 goals for, 190 goals against, 21.7-percent power play, 79.6-percent penalty kill
2018-19: 36-21-7, 217 goals for, 204 goals against, 22.2-percent power play, 78.1-percent penalty kill

Caps fans know better than anyone that a regular season is not an indicator of playoff success so I am not trying to say they are on pace for another Stanley Cup because they have the same record as last season. I’m also not saying that the team does not have issues. The second defensive pair is struggling, I don’t like the penalty kill or how they play defensively late in games, I don’t understand the constant fourth line shuffling, etc. The point I’m trying to make is that this team has not taken a dramatic step back. They are right where they were last season even with a seven-game losing streak. There are things they need to improve on, but Washington is absolutely among the Cup contenders this year.

Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin looks pretty good out there but he doesn’t seem like he’s gonna get that much 5 on 5 minutes on the 4th line. Any chance they move him up? 

One thing Todd Reirden said he liked about Hagelin is his versatility. Speed is an asset you can plug almost anywhere in the lineup. That’s part of what makes him a valuable deadline pickup. If this team is healthy and playing well, Hagelin will most likely stay on the fourth line, but he will still get plenty of minutes playing on the top penalty kill and in 4-on-4 and 3-on-3 situations. We already saw that in just his second game with the Caps.

If there’s an injury Reirden could put Hagelin almost anywhere. Rather than switching up all the lines, I believe Reirden will just plug in Hagelin and move on. Hagelin will be best utilized on the bottom-six, however, and as long as the third line is playing as well as it is, the fourth line is where he will stay.

Dmitry Orlov is not getting benched in the playoffs. He remains one of the team’s top-three defensemen so that’s not going to happen.

I asked Reirden on Tuesday on if he will rotate players on the third pair and he said it was important initially to pair Jensen with the most veteran player who knows the system the best so that he can learn from him. For now, that means Brooks Orpik. I would certainly like to see what a Christian Djoos – Jensen pair looks like and not just because I want to name it “Jen and Djoos.”

Let’s not forget that both Orpik and Djoos suffered significant injuries this season and missed a lot of time. I think the Caps need to figure out where both players are heading into the postseason and would not assume Orpik or Djoos will or should play just because they did last year.

Luka K. writes: The Madison Bowey trade makes me question the Capitals development of their D prospects. Bowey is a fairly high draft pick, from a great junior team, has great tools, was our top D prospect for 5 years in row and he never figured it out. Also lack of Lucas Johanson and Connor Hobbs development is worrying. Winning teams have a tough task to achieve both winning and developing but do you think Caps are doing good enough job?

Madison Bowey may yet turn into a solid NHL player, but it was clear he was falling behind in the depth chart and the team has a logjam of defensive prospects. They can’t keep them all. It makes sense to sell high on a player you believe may not develop as much as you would have hoped rather than to continue scratching him and watch both his development and trade stock plummet.

Bowey was a great two-way defenseman in the WHL with Kelowna and in the AHL with Hershey. I loved his instincts at both levels, he really knew when to step into the offense and when to pull it back on defense. He never developed the same recognition in the NHL and was very timid offensively. He was more aggressive defensively, but players took that to their advantage to draw him out of position. Those things can be corrected with time and perhaps they will be in Detroit.

Before we take Bowey as an indictment of the team’s defensive development, let’s remember that John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Christain Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler were developed within the system. Johansen suffered an injury that has held him back this season, and Hobbs has taken a massive step forward in his development. Before, I thought he was a fringe NHL defenseman at best who possessed a great shot. He has developed a lot of the defensive aspects of his game to the point that I believe he could have an NHL future. That’s a credit to the job both the hockey ops and Hershey staff have done.

Benjamin C. writes: I am concerned with the Caps decision to get rid of Dmitrij Jaskin. Devante Smith-Pelly is pretty good on penalty kill but he hasn’t contributed to anything this season. I realize he was part of our success last year but at some point you have to move on from that and look at this season. I would like to hear your thoughts on it.

This email came in last week so good news, Benjamin! The Caps took your advice and waived Smith-Pelly over Jaskin and I think a lot of it had to do with your reasoning. Smith-Pelly just has not contributed much this season. He always seems to perform in the playoffs, but with a crowded roster he has not done enough to warrant getting a jersey every night. The fact that he passed through waivers without another team claiming him is a clear indictment of his performance this season.

As for Jaskin, I do not know why he is not used more. He seems to play well whenever he gets in, but I guess he does not fit what Reirden wants to do. With Hagelin in, I am not sure I see him getting much playing time.

The team made a conscious decision to waive Smith-Pelly instead of Jaskin so no. I do not believe they will turn around and waive Jaskin now just so they can bring Smith-Pelly back.

The salary cap no longer applies in the playoffs so I assume both Smith-Pelly and Siegenthaler will be recalled at that point. Riley Barber probably will as well, but only after Hershey is eliminated from the playoffs. I do not think the Caps would consider him pressing enough to pull from the AHL postseason unless there was an injury.

Kuznetsov. When the Caps lost seven straight, he managed only two goals and five points in those seven games. Since the return from the bye week, Washington is 9-4-1 and Kuznetsov has seven goals and 15 points in those 14 games. The Caps do not win the Stanley Cup without Kuznetsov playing as brilliantly as he did last season. He played so well, in fact, that he could have won the Conn Smythe over Alex Ovechkin and it would have been tough to argue against it. He needs to be one of Washington’s best players every single night.

Blake B. writes: Up to this point, the Capitals have surrendered 8 goals against when the opposing team pulls their goalie for an extra attacker. Why has it been such a struggle to close out games and score empty net goals?

To be fair, Washington has only lost only one game in which they have given up a goal with the opposition goalie pulled – the San Jose debacle in which Evander Kane scored at the last second – but your point is well taken. It’s an area the team needs to improve.

Reirden was asked about this on Tuesday and basically said unlike in the previous year where the same players were in that role all season, the personnel has changed as Reirden has looked for the right combination of players to use in that situation. He basically is taking the same philosophy with his 6-on-5 defense as he has with the fourth line in that the first three quarters of the season were an audition and now it’s time to figure out who gets the job.

If you’re saying to yourself that three quarters of the season seems like a long time to make up your mind, yes, yes it is. It’s a philosophy that probably would not be all that successful if the team were a bubble team, but for with the Caps as good as they are Reirden has been able to do this without it costing the team. It’s a luxury he may not always have.

Nathan S. writes: As much as I enjoy the regular season, it seems odd that teams play a grueling 82 game schedule, more than half the teams qualify for the playoffs, and then once you get to the playoffs, the NHL no longer does a 1-8 seeding system that reseeds after every round. I know this was designed to create or enhance rivalries like Caps-Pens but this also cheapens the long regular season. Is there anyway to fix this without adding more teams in the playoffs or eliminating playoff rounds? IS this a concern among players, teams, or leagues?

The NHL’s current playoff format is complete garbage. Yes, it makes it more likely we see teams like the Caps and Penguins meet in the playoffs, but for every Caps-Penguins rivalry there is a Caps-Rangers which, after both teams met in the playoffs five times in seven years, nobody wanted anymore. Admit it, if the Caps and Penguins met again in the playoffs this season for the fourth straight year, part of you would want to see someone else. It absolutely cheapens the regular season because teams in the best division automatically have a harder road to the playoffs.

In 2018, Winnipeg and Nashville were the top two teams in the league. Because they are in the same division, however, they didn’t play in the conference final. Instead, they met in the second round. The same thing happened in 2017 with the Caps and Penguins meeting in the second round.

The NHL is not like the NBA where the first two rounds of the playoffs don’t matter. There are compelling matchups in every single round. There was no reason to mess with the old format to force rivals to play each other repeatedly every year. It takes away the advantage teams gain for strong seasons and makes those rivalries stale.

Is there concern over it? Some. In 2017, Daniel Winnik called the playoff format “the stupidest thing ever” which is an accurate description. I don’t think he was alone in this, but despite the fact that most people seem to dislike this system, there also seems to be zero momentum from the league to change it.

I have seen some suggestions that more teams should be added to the playoffs, but that’s a horrible idea. More than half the league already makes it. This isn’t that hard. Keep it at 16 teams, seed the top eight teams in each conference and re-seed each round. That’s the best way to do it and hopefully the NHL will one day go back to that.

Rodney O. writes: This is Black History Month and as an African American man who loves hockey, I was wondering if the Capitals have had the most minority players to play for them in the NHL?

I have not been able to find statistics about all minority players in the NHL, but I did find some specific to black players. In their history, the Caps have had 11 black players: Madison Bowey, Donald Brashear, Anson Carter, Jason Doig, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Mike Grier, Mike Marson, Bill Riley, Reggie Savage, Devante Smith-Pelly and Joel Ward. That ranks very close to the top as there are only three NHL teams – Buffalo, Edmonton and the New York Rangers – that have had 12 black players.

Willie O’Ree was the first black player to play in the NHL when he made his Boston Bruins debut on Jan. 18, 1958. Marson and Riley were the second and third respectively when they both played for the Caps in 1974. Riley only played one game with Washington, but that game on Dec. 26, 1974 was the first time a team dressed two black players in a game.

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

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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