Capitals

Capitals Mailbag: Examining the team's center depth

Capitals

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.

Adrian A. writes: General manager Brian MacLellan usually likes to address the D core at the deadline. He seemed to check that box over the past few months. Does he still address it at the deadline? Should he focus on Center depth? Who do you think GMBM should be looking to acquire?

The target can and should be center depth. I was surprised it wasn’t addressed in the offseason when MacLellan was going on his spending spree and it has already been an issue. I just don’t see Brian Pinho as an NHL player and the coaches don’t seem to believe Connor McMichael is ready for the job just yet. That leaves T.J. Oshie on the second line and Mike Sgarbossa on the fourth.

There are two issues with looking for a trade, however. The first is the Caps are quite literally capped out in terms of salary cap room. I don’t think they are going to have room to add anyone. What about a player for player deal? Considering how much emphasis MacLellan put on adding depth in the offseason and how much that has fueled the team to its hot start, I don’t think MacLellan is looking at pretty much any part of the roster as a surplus. That just doesn’t exist this year.

 

If anyone can pull off some cap gymnastics it’s MacLellan, but the pandemic further complicates things. Trades are going to be a bit more complicated as it will take some players longer to get to their new teams because of quarantine time.

It seems like most years we expect a big trade deadline and only a handful of moves happen. I would anticipate that to be the case this year if not even more so.

Josh M. writes: Why hasn't Evgeny Kuznetsov returned to the ice yet? Did he test positive which we haven't heard of? What about day to day guys like Justin Schultz and Lars Eller, etc.? A game or 2? When will the band be back together completely?

Sidd C. writes: Hello from Canada. Any word on Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov?

All we know is that they are day-to-day and remain on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related list. I don't have an answer for you on Kuznetsov. Peter Laviolette by rule cannot tell us if a player has tested positive so we don't know.

But here are the facts. Samantha Pell of The Washington Post reported that Ilya Samsonov tested positive. We know the additional three players ended up on the protocol list because it was found they had been in a hotel room with Samsonov. Now, Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov are back, Samsonov -- who tested positive -- and Kuznetsov are not.

You can draw your own conclusions from there.

Lars Eller is day-to-day and traveled with the team to New York. Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary are also considered day-to-day, but neither has returned to the ice yet.

The usual progression with these things is a player gets injured, they are out of practice, they start participating in practice in a non-contact jersey, then finally they are a full participant. When they get that first practice as a full participant, that's when you look for them to get back in the lineup.

It seems like neither Schultz nor Sheary are close to that point yet.

As for when will the team be at full-strength, will it? We are all just assuming at some point everyone will be back, but given how the start of the season has gone across the league I'm not sure if any team is going to be full strength at any time. COVID outbreaks continue to flare up within teams and the condensed season has already led to a number of injuries. This just may be the balancing act teams have to go through this year. It has been a bit extreme in Washington, but I'm not sure we will see much of the full strength Caps this season, if at all.

 

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Jimmy H. writes: If Evgeny Kuznetsov has a below-than-expected season and lousy postseason pending Caps make it, could you see the team trading him?

If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, of course Kuznetsov can.

Look, do I view Kuznetsov to be as invaluable as I did in the wake of the 2018 Cup run? No. Considering that, considering there is a flat salary cap and considering the team is standing on the edge between contending and the inevitable rebuild, no, I would not be shocked if trading Kuznetsov was explored.

But, as I mentioned in the previous question, the team is very thin at center. Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd are about as deep a center core as you can get, but there is very little depth beyond them yet until McMichael is ready.

This will also depend on what the team's goal is next season. Does MacLellan feel the window is still open? If so, a Kuznetsov trade doesn't get done without a top-six center combing back. If not, it opens up your options for what MacLellan would accept.

Erik K. writes: Connor McMichael has played one NHL game. Do you think this is enough of a barometer for the coaching staff to determine if he's NHL worthy? Or do you think a prospect should be given a few games to prove themselves? I know we have a shortened season but one game doesn't seem sufficient to define a player's ability to make it at the NHL level.

There are a lot of factors that go into evaluating a player and determining if they are ready for the NHL. I thought McMichael was fine in his NHL debut. Not great, but certainly not terrible either. But I don’t see McMichael getting sent to Hershey as an indictment of his play.

Specifically for McMichael, he is a natural center and the Caps want him to develop into an NHL center. Center is the most important skater on the ice and it’s a position that can take a bit of time to grasp. Don’t forget, we may be evaluating these players on one game, but the coaches see these guys in practice as well. They know the strengths and weaknesses of the players. McMichael made his debut as a winger even with the team in desperate need of centers so I have to conclude that they do not believe he is ready to play that position at the NHL level just yet based on what they are seeing from him in practice.

 

McMichael is 20 years old and, in a normal year, would be playing junior hockey right now. Give him time to develop.

Trip R. writes: Why with all of their size and speed are the Capitals on the power play so infrequently?

Because the NHL hates the Capitals!!!

No, they don’t. I know a lot of Caps fans out there think this is true, but fans of all 30 other teams think this is true of their team too and it won’t be long before Seattle is convinced the refs have it out for them as well. That’s not the issue. The issue is possession.

As possession has become the buzzword for analytics, some of your eyes may be glossing over already, but bear with me.

Washington ranks 27th in shots on goal per game, 27th in shots on goal allowed per game and 29th in shot differential. If we look at shot attempts, which is how we generally measure possession, Washington ranks 26th in Corsi-For percentage at 47.0-percent. When you are getting outshot this much, it is a pretty clear indication that you do not have the puck enough.

Granted, this is an imperfect way to measure possession as the Caps themselves showed at the end of the Barry Trotz era when the team was specifically looking for more shot quality over quantity. That, however, is not what the Caps are doing this year.

OK, so what does this have to do with penalties? Well, how does a team draw penalties like hooks, trips and holds? Because one team has possession and the other team is trying to get the puck. The Caps are taking a lot of penalties and not drawing very many because they don’t have the puck on their stick enough to draw those penalties. They spend far too much time chasing the other team and not enough time asserting themselves or their game plan. This is why they take penalties, this is way they can't draw any and this is why they keep giving up big leads.

 

Michael B. writes: Would Craig Anderson play for Caps?

Apparently not.

I would not have guessed we would see eight straight starts for Vitek Vanecek like we have. There have not been any back-to-backs since Samsonov went on the protocol list, but it's just fascinating to me that a goalie who literally would not be playing in the NHL if Henrik Lundqvist did not have a heart condition now can't come out of the lineup. That says a lot about how he is playing, but I wonder if it says a little about Anderson too.

How much trust does Laviolette have in Anderson right now? The longer Vanecek's streak goes, the more you have to wonder just how realistic an option the coaches feel Anderson actually is.

Nathan S. writes: If Caps miss the playoffs (not that I am predicting that) this year do you see them making efforts to rebuild the way NY Rangers did back in 2018?

That's certainly what I would do. When you have guys like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, it is hard to know when to throw in the towel and prepare for the future. It would be easy to say it's Laviolette's first year and this was not a normal season so why not give it one more shot?

But if they don't even make the playoffs even with an upgrade in head coach from Todd Reirden to Laviolette, I don't see any reason to think this core could still compete for a Cup. It's not getting any younger.

As hard as it can be for teams to come to grips with this at the end of a long championship window, the Seattle expansion draft may force Washington's hand.

Imagine this team did not make the playoffs and lost a player like T.J. Oshie or Dmitry Orlov to Seattle. At some point, you just have to recognize it's over. We are not there yet, but if Washington does not make the playoffs then the front office is going to have to have this conversation.

Drew C. writes: This might be getting a little bit ahead of the season and looking into the future but do you find the lack of right-handed defensive prospects in the organization concerning? It seems that pretty much all of the Caps young prospect defensemen seem to be all left-handed. But do you see this as something they should push to address in the higher rounds of the draft looking for position in this case (seeing as this draft is looking to be deep with defenseman) rather than the normal best player available approach?

 

You always, always, always take the best player available in the draft. Always. If you go into the draft determined to get a certain position, that's when you reach on players and make a mistake. If you have too many good players at one position then you can look to trade out of that surplus to fill whatever hole you may have on the roster.

It's not surprising that the team is a bit thin on the right because high-quality right defensemen are hard to find. There are fewer of them than there are lefties and so the position is always in high demand.

Should the Caps be on the lookout for a high-end right defenseman? Sure, but they should not pick one just to pick one if they see a higher upside with someone else. You don't want to be that team that passed on a star player because you reached on a right defenseman.

Adrian A. writes: Looking along the lines of Jagr, Fedorov, Kovalchuk, Lundqvist and Chara, who is the next future Hall of Famer and current Caps nemesis to join the club in the future? Logic says it has to be Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin right? And we all know it can't be Sid... Geno wanting to play with his buddy Oviedo?

Oh, I like this one.

I actually think Kris Letang is more likely than either Crosby or Malkin as I believe Pittsburgh sees Letang as more expendable, plus he’s a right defenseman and everyone always needs a right defenseman. But Pittsburgh is certainly not going to trade any of those players directly to Washington, someone would have to flip them or their contracts would have to run out.

MacLellan likes veteran leadership on defense and depth forwards who are the type of players you hate to play against. Letang fits the mold on defense. His contract run out in 2022 and by then he is probably not going to break the bank. On offense, Patric Hornqvist’s contract runs through 2023, but after this season a no-trade clause turns into a modified no-trade which means his no-trade list becomes only eight teams. I feel like this would be the type of deal MacLellan finds at the trade deadline and manages to convince Florida to retain a third of his salary for a draft pick.

 

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