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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How to beat the forecheck

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How to beat the forecheck

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 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.

Shawn Collins writes: What's Alex Ovechkin’s next contract look like? 5/50? 5/60? We're starting to have a LOT of cap space tied up in mid-30-somethings...no matter how good/great/generational they are/have been. Jakub Vrana still needs to get paid.

I do not see five years for Ovechkin. It is not so much that I subscribe to the "end with Backstrom" theory (if he is 10 goals away from Wayne Gretzky's record by the end of their contracts, sorry, he's not walking away with Backstrom), but mostly because of age. He will be 36 by the time the new contract begins. I know we keep saying this, but at some point his age is going to start to show and I do not think Ovechkin is the kind of guy who wants to stay in the NHL to be a 10-goal a year guy on the third line. I would be surprised if he signed for more than four years. After that he can evaluate how close he is to Gretzky and whether he wants to keep going or return to Russia to play in the KHL where he will in all likelihood still be a star player.

As for the cap hit, it was not lost on me that the cap hit of Backstrom's new deal is just under what Ovechkin's is now. More than anything else, Ovechkin wants to win. I would not be surprised to see him take a similar cap hit to his current one ($9.5-plus million), but I do not believe he goes over $10 million.

It is going to be really interesting to see what Vrana ends up getting on his next deal. The good news is he will still be a restricted free agent so there's no rush. I would anticipate MacLellan waiting until the summer of 2021 and seeing what the cap hit is and who gets poached by Seattle before this one gets done just so he knows exactly how much space he has to work with.

Kevin Easley writes: It seems the Caps have finally found a way to offset the aggressive forecheck tactics Carolina and other clubs (Dallas, Columbus, etc.) have deployed to disrupt the Caps’ skillful offense. Can you provide some details regarding Reirden’s adjustments to counter the aggressive forecheck of Carolina and others?

Sure can. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it. You can read it here.

To summarize, the Caps were much better with their puck management focusing on getting the puck to the outside and using speed to take it up ice. It is much harder to come from behind against an aggressive forecheck so getting a good start is vital. Todd Reirden experimented with rest to make sure the team was ready. Remember how bad that 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils was? Well instead of working their tails off at practice the next day, the team instead had a 20-30 minute practice (which is very short) followed by an optional morning skate before the game against Carolina. The result was a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period.

The Caps also responded to Carolina's forecheck with their own, playing very physically in the Hurricanes' offensive zone hemming them in, not allowing them to get the puck down the ice. When the Hurricanes did finally clear the zone, they had to change lines instead of setting up the forecheck which freed up Washington to move the puck up ice. Finally, Reirden emphasized getting the right matchups. The third line, in particular, is starting to take on a shutdown role to free up the top line for better matchups.

That's just a brief summary. Reirden was really open about how the team prepared for the last matchup against Carolina so be sure to check out the article.

Benjamin Cross writes: Our offense is obviously elite but how much offensive success do you think we get in the playoffs? Ovechkin and Backstrom will do their thing but what kind of Jakub Vrana or Evgeny Kuznetsov will we see? Will our 3rd and 4th lines be able to surprise us and come up big in playoffs?

Vrana and Kuznetsov appear to be streaky players. In Vrana's defense, he was dealing with some kind of an injury in the playoffs last year that he did not want to talk about so I can't tell you how much that may have hampered his performance. On the other hand, he has seven goals in his past eight games after going 10 games without a goal.

Still, I would not be as worried about him as I would Kuznetsov. I think the team can survive if Vrana gets cold, but not Kuznetsov. He is too important to the team and we saw that in 2018. I would ultimately like to see him centering the top line, but I am not sure he has played consistently enough this season to warrant that. We'll see.

I am pretty sure Vrana will be good for the playoffs, but you just never know what to expect from Kuznetsov who can be a series-changing player when he's hot.

I am not concerned at all about the fourth line. In terms of what its role is, it plays it perfectly. You will see goals scored in the playoffs after a prolonged shift by the fourth line that keeps the opposition hemmed in the offensive zone, allowing Reirden to change in the top line and take advantage. I am also getting more and more optimistic about the third line which seems to be developing more of a shutdown role. Offensively it has also played better of late. Don't forget that it was a Carl Hagelin goal assisted by Richard Panik that sparked Saturday's comeback win over the New York Islanders.

The third line is not going to wow you with its offense, but the fact that Reirden has found a way to for that line positively affect the outcome of a game even when it is not producing is encouraging.

Dave Bennett writes: The Caps should not (and hopefully will not) trade Braden Holtby before the trade deadline, but is there a chance that they will try to trade his rights to a team, hopefully on the west coast, prior to him being able to hit the open market to allow a team the chance to work out a contract? My fear is that he hits the open market and somehow ends up in NY with the Islanders and is reunited with Mitch Korn and the Caps have to see him four times a year.

I doubt this will happen. There is one scenario in which I could see that happening and that is if the team decides to help out Holtby and give him a sign-and-trade. If you re-sign with a team, the maximum number of years you can sign is eight, whereas if you sign with a new team you can only sign for seven. So perhaps the Caps, another team and Holtby's agent can work together on a new contract, Holtby signs for eight years with Washington and is immediately flipped to the other team for a mid to late-round draft pick.

But do I see teams lining up to trade for Holtby's rights just to get a head start on trying to convince him to sign there? No.

Holtby is 30 and is going to be a UFA for the first time. This will be his last big contract. If staying in Washington is not feasible, which I would argue that it's not, then I don't know why he would limit himself to only talking to one team. Why not just wait it out and head to the open market? If a team can't be reasonably sure that he would stay, I don't see them giving up an asset just to try it.

Also, I do not see the Islanders going that route. I would be surprised if Thomas Greiss does not re-sign there and even if he doesn't that team needs to add offense, not commit a big chunk of cap space to sign a second goalie over 30.

Alex Graninger writes: It seems like the faceoff wins have always been a struggle for the Caps, even last season. But they really seem to be struggling recently (particularly against the Flyers, 29% won by Caps). What can they do to make sure they win more faceoffs?

Practice makes perfect. Faceoffs are a time commitment. You have to practice them to get better. The other thing the Caps do not do enough of is support. Sometimes if the centers are tied up, the wingers have to come in to support and grab the loose puck.

Nathan S. writes: Favorite Caps team by season to cover vs. least favorite and why? Can you also disregard how the season ended? I want to get an idea of what season you enjoyed while it was happening and before you knew how it would end?

Well, this is a hard one for me. I grew up a Caps fan and while I do a pretty good job of turning that off and staying objective in my coverage, there is still a part of me that is emotionally invested, especially in the playoffs. That makes it hard for me to pick out any team other than 2018 because the regular season all felt like filler until the playoffs. Then, of course, I felt the same frustration many fans felt of wondering why they could not get over the hump. Maybe I'm over that now after 2018. I did not feel all that heartbroken after last year's first-round exit because it was nice to have a slow period before free agency. The playoffs are fun to cover, but it is a lot of working all day and all night from April to June, then having the draft, development camp and free agency back-to-back-to-back right after. That made for a very long spring and a very short summer. In fact, I would probably have to say that the 2018-19 season was my favorite to cover because it was one big celebration up until the playoffs. Everyone was very open and very happy, the team was still very good and fun to watch, and the playoff loss didn't really sting because, hey, still champs.

It used to be taboo for a journalist to admit they used to have rooting interests, but when I hosted the Capitals Faceoff Podcast with former NBC Sports Washington writer Tarik El-Bashir, he would bring it up literally every episode so I guess the cat is pretty much out of the bag at this point. Plus, judging from the periodic comments I get on Twitter about how I don't know anything about hockey and about how I clearly must hate the Caps, I guess I do a pretty good job of staying objective with my coverage.

Anyway, my least favorite team is easy and that's 2013-14. I was not full-time on the Caps beat yet, but I still dealt with the team frequently. It's not that the team missed the playoffs, but how. I did not particularly enjoy interacting with Adam Oates. Every coach of every sports team makes decisions that we don't understand and that's to be expected. We are not privy to what goes on in the locker room, we do not know every dynamic on the team and most people do not understand the game on the same level as the coaches do. There are going to be times when a coach does something that we don't understand and he can't explain why. Oates took that to another level and was almost defiant about his coaching. Things like having John Erskine as a top four defensemen, forcing Ovechkin to the right side, forcing Holtby to stay on the goal line bucking all conventional wisdom for the position that there is, none of those things worked, we all knew they weren't going to work and I don't think Oates felt the need to explain why he was doing anything that he was doing even when it wasn't working.

Eddy Drg writes: Is there a rule that doesn’t allow teams to use those special warm up jerseys during the game on promotion nights like the Fight Cancer, Veterans and so on. Seems they would go for a lot more on the auction if they were actually game-used, not to mention they look great.

The league controls the number of jerseys a team can wear in a season. The main reason for this is so the manufacturer, which right now is Adidas, can keep up with demand and make enough jerseys to sell. They can't keep up if every team keeps coming out with multiple different jerseys. When the NHL first switched from Rebok to Adidias, every team was limited to just a home and an away jersey with no third alternate for that season. Now it is up to three plus any special jerseys for Stadium Series or Winter Classic games.

From a branding standpoint, this does make a certain amount of sense. NBA teams seemingly have new jerseys every night. It's to the point that when I turn the TV on I have no idea who I'm watching anymore. Plus, how many of those jerseys actually sell? NHL teams are not as recognizable and can't really get away with changing their look so frequently from a branding standpoint.

Micah Reed writes: Would you say the average Caps fan is a pessimist or an optimist? Even after the Cup run, it seems like we are always thinking the sky is falling.

Ha, seriously? You must be joking....

Now granted, most of the interaction I have with fans comes through Twitter which is not known for promoting optimism. But based on those comments and the questions I get for the mailbag, the sky is always falling in Washington. I understood it before 2018, but after not just winning a Stanley Cup but doing it the way they did, coming close to firing Barry Trotz midseason, having Holtby bottom out, trading at the trade deadline for no-name defensemen, going down 0-2 to Columbus and still coming back to go all the way, you would think that would buy the Caps a grace period or give the fans some optimism. Nope. Everything Brian MacLellan does is wrong, Todd Reirden is a horrible coach regardless of where the team is in the standings, every player stinks and should be traded, the season is over and the team has no chance to win another Cup because of reasons, etc., etc.

The Caps may have won the Cup, but that Cup seemingly will always be half empty.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. 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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The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

ARLINGTON, Va. --  While the Capitals were on the road, Brian MacLellan was hard at work and finalized a deal on Tuesday to bring San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington. On Wednesday he met with the media to talk about the newest Cap.

"He's got playoff experience, he's a veteran player, physicality, the ability to play with top-end guys, a good character guy," MacLellan said. "I think he'll add a lot of energy in our room and on the ice. He's a physical presence. He checked a lot of boxes for everything we thought we needed."

Here are the six most important things MacLellan said about Dillon.

Dillon may be a top-pair player

Dillon is certainly a top-four defenseman, but the Caps added a player they feel can play on the top pair.

"I think we move him around a little bit," MacLellan said. "He could play with [John Carlson], could play with [Dmitry Orlov]. He's played with two good guys in San Jose. I anticipate the coaches trying him at both spots and see what works best for us."

Todd Reirden echoed those thoughts after practice.

When asked if Dillon playing with Brent Burns made him a natural fit to play with Carlson on the top pair, Reirden said, "That's my first initial thought. That is a similar type of player for sure."

Either Kempny or Jensen is going to get bumped out of the top four

When you re-read MacLellan's comments on Dillon playing in the top four, he said he could play with either Carlson or Dmitry Orlov. Adding a player into the top four means taking someone out and, based on those comments, that player is either going to be Michal Kempny or Nick Jensen.

Dillon is not the solution for the team's problems on the right

Right defense has been an issue for the Caps this season, but it does not sound like the plan is to plug Dillon in on the right side.

MacLellan was asked if Dillon could play on his off-side and he gave a tepid endorsement.

"He could, yeah," MacLellan said. "I think he's played a little bit on the off-side, but Orly's had some experience playing on the off-side. There's a number of different combinations we could try."

Reirden was asked who would play the right if Dillon and Orlov played together, and he said it would be Orlov.

While both MacLellan and Reirden said it would be an option to try Dillon on the right, it did not sound like that was the long-term plan at all.

This was not a reaction trade

Washington has lost four of its last five games and is 11-11-0 since Dec. 23. The team suddenly no longer sits in first place in the Metropolitan Division and trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by a point in the standings. The Caps' recent struggles, however, did not influence this deal, at least according to MacLellan.

MacLellan stated twice that he would have made this deal "regardless because I think it's a great fit for us — I think his skillset and the group we do have. I think one of the things that's been frustrating for me is the play in front of our own net, the compete level in front of our own net, and this is something he brings to the table here. I think he does a great job in front of our net. So I think we addressed that through him."

It should be noted that MacLellan has previously stated he was only looking for depth at the trade deadline and now has acquired a player who may well end up playing on the team's top pair. If you take him at his word, however, MacLellan liked Dillon and liked the upgrade, and that's why this deal got done — not because of the team's current struggles.

Dillon's playoff experience is a major reason why he is now with Washington

Last season, MacLellan traded for a defenseman playing a significant role on a bad team in Nick Jensen. Jensen had zero playoff experience and that showed in the team's postseason series against the Carolina Hurricanes. This year, MacLellan elected to go a different route.

Dillon has 62 games of playoff experience under his belt and helped the San Jose Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 and the Western Conference Final in 2019.

MacLellan was asked how much that experience mattered to him, and he said, "A lot. A lot. I think he’s been in the final. He’s been on good teams, similar to us. I think San Jose and Washington had top teams for a long time and he’s been in that environment, so I think it’s a good fit.”

Physical play is still a major part of the team's identity

Dillon is not the type of player you go out an acquire if physicality is not a priority.

For the season, Dillon ranks ninth in the NHL with 178 hits. His acquisition means the Caps now have five of the top 21 hitters in the league.

"I think we're all attracted to size as long as it can play," MacLellan said. "We like having the big bodies and playing a heavier game, and he's a good skater for his size, too. He has that physical presence, and we're excited to see how it fits for us."

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Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Now's your chance to score some free Chipotle, Caps fans!

By wearing your favorite Capitals jersey on Friday, you can earn a free entree through Chipotle's "suit up and score" campaign with the purchase of another entree of equal or lesser value.

While all jerseys qualify for the promotion, we recommend Alex Ovechkin's as he goes for goal No. 700.

So rock your red, grab a friend and head to Chipotle for this awesome deal redeemable Friday, Feb. 21 only.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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