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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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

Have a Caps question you want to be answered 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.

I have written about this before, but Jakub Vrana’s contract has to be priority No. 1. Vrana is absolutely going to be back, but he is going to take a sizable chunk of what little cap room Washington has remaining. General manager Brian MacLellan needs to know how much cap space he is working with this offseason before he can make any decisions about the other free agents like Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.

The second most important move would be a trade to free up cap space. Everyone assumes that Matt Niskanen would be the player on the trade block, as you noted. With the free agents the Caps could potentially lose and a prospect pipeline devoid of any high-end offensive skill, I just do not see how the Caps can add enough quality forward depth this offseason without clearing cap space.

Fans should circle June 20-22 as target dates for a possible trade. June 20 is the NHL general managers meeting and June 21-22 is the draft. When you get all the general managers together in the same place, that can spark trade deals. Don’t forget, the draft was when Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer were traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year.

As for Backstrom and Holtby, while I am sure MacLellan would like to get those deals done if possible, these do not rank as high on the priority list as both players are still under contract for another season.

Maclellan was asked on breakdown day if he wanted those deals done this summer and he said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”

The Caps have plenty of issues to deal with for this season to worry too much about Backstrom and Holtby right now.

Jacob C. writes: How does Washington adjust their offseason knowing that they have a $1.15 million dollar cap penalty? 

Washington was hit with a cap penalty because of some late performance bonuses that pulled the team over the cap ceiling.

The money situation was going to be tight for the team regardless of the cap penalty so it is hard to know if anything the team does will be directly related to that, but if I had to guess I believe the player the most affected by this will be Andre Burakovsky.

As a restricted free agent, the Caps will have to give him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million in order to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That is high for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

Maybe you could justify the risk of overpaying him because the team could potentially see both Connolly and Hagelin walk, but with $1.15 million less to spend that may force MacLellan to not qualify Burakovsky and attempt to convince him to sign for less.

Jack Hughes.

OK, so obviously that is not going to happen. I assume your question is more aimed at who I think the Caps would want of the players who may actually fall to them at 25. The team’s philosophy when it comes to the draft is to take the best available player, which it should be, but the Caps have not taken a forward in the first round since 2014 and that lack of offensive talent is really starting to catch up with them. If forwards start dropping off the board, they cannot afford to wait and see who falls to them. My prediction is that that team is going to come into this draft with the goal of drafting a forward. They will have grades on every first round prospect and, if it looks like a number of forwards could fall their way, great. If a bunch of forwards get taken early, however, I would not at all be surprised if MacLellan tries to trade up to make sure he gets a high-end forward prospect.

Next, let’s look at where the Caps like to get their players from. In the last five drafts, Washington has taken nine players from the WHL and 11 players from European leagues. Knowing that, here are the players I would predict to be high on the Caps’ list:

Kirby Dach C, Saskatoon, WHL
Dylan Cozens C, Lethbridge, WHL
Peyton Krebs C, Kootenay, WHL
Ilya Nikolaev C, Russia
Nils Hoglander W, Sweden

The three WHL players I have seen go pretty high in most mock drafts so if you get down to say, pick 15 and one of those guys is still on the board, that’s when it is time to really pay attention and see if MacLellan tries to jump up to snag him.

It depends on what you consider to be “major.” As I mentioned above, if the Caps want to compete for the Cup next season, I do not see how they can avoid making a trade. If trading Niskanen for what would likely be draft picks would be considered “major,” then yes.

Do I see them making a big multi-player trade for significant pieces? No. Do I see them pursuing a big-name free agent like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin? No. Even if MacLellan does trade Niskanen that only frees up another $5.75 million in cap room and the Caps will need just about every penny to fill in their bottom six.

We could see a Niskanen trade, we could see a them trade up in the draft and the team will almost certainly be active on July 1 to find forward depth, but they are not in the running for any of the big name free agents.

Todd Reirden said on breakdown day, “We're going to go through a full review of all that stuff, but I do not anticipate any changes to my coaching staff."

Obviously, he left himself a little bit of wiggle room there, but it does not appear the team is going to make any changes to the staff.

In terms of how they operate, I anticipate Reirden taking a more hands-on approach to the defense. He really made a name for himself in the league for his defensive acumen and the improvement he brought with him as an assistant coach was not as evident last season with him as head coach.

I do not anticipate any major changes to the system the team plays, but I am curious what they do on special teams. I have not seen a team that consistently utilizes the slingshot well on the power play so I am hopeful the breakouts get an update to get rid of the slingshot. I do not know how you could evaluate the team’s play from last season and say, yeah, let’s keep doing that. But, the sling shot was all the rage across the NHL so clearly someone thinks it actually works.

Second, the penalty kill has to adjust for the personnel it has. The Caps tried a more aggressive penalty kill and it did not work for much of the season. Really, it did not seem to click until Hagelin came on board at the trade deadline. If he stays or Washington gets someone on the roster who can run it as effectively as he could, great. Otherwise, you hope the team can accept the fact that a guy like Chandler Stephenson just is not the same player as Hagelin and adjust accordingly. 

First, the defense as that seems like the easier prediction. I see a second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. I expected that to be the plan the moment the team re-signed Jensen. The bottom pair will be Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. The Caps need to add too much on offense to commit the money to another defenseman. Siegenthaler looked good in the playoffs and Djoos will be entering his third year in the NHL so it is time for both players to step up. I think we could see someone like Tyler Lewington come in as a cheap No. 7 and as someone the team feels no pressure to get into the lineup.

The offense is trickier as this is where the team may add some free agents. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will be the centers. That much we know. Travis Boyd remains under contract. I predict MacLellan will be able to work something out with Burakovsky and he stays. A return for Stephenson also seems likely. At that point, the Caps should have about $7.5 million of cap space for two more forwards. I think they could make a run at either Connolly or Hagelin, but not both. It just depends on where their priorities lie heading into free agency. If they cannot get any, they have to turn to free agency and hope they can find a top-nine player they can plug into the third line.

Now here’s where things get interesting. You have the money for one high-end bottom six guy (Connolly, Hagelin or their replacement), but a Stephenson, Dowd, Boyd line does not inspire much confidence. Looking at the prospects, the only prospect who seems close to the NHL is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but it is hard to tell given he only played 16 games in Hershey last season.

If the Caps think he is ready, they could look to Jonsson-Fjallby as a Hagelin replacement. If not, could they actually consider bringing back Dmitrij Jaskin? After all, Jaskin will be an RFA and the team could probably get him for pretty cheap. If they do that, Reirden would have to actually use him, but the cap situation makes this not outside the realm of possibility.

So here is what I would say for the third and fourth lines:

Free agent – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin
Travis Boyd

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

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Braden Holtby is back, Carl Hagelin heats up and 700 is coming

Braden Holtby is back, Carl Hagelin heats up and 700 is coming

The Capitals may have lost to the Arizona Coyotes 3-1 on Saturday, but if Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin kept playing like they did, that will lead to a lot more wins down the line.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

Holtby looks like Holtby again

It's a loss, but there are some positives to take away from this game and the biggest is the play of Holtby. Antti Raanta was the star of this game, but Holtby was just as good for Washington with 28 saves on 30 shots. In the third period with the Caps trailing by 1, Arizona tried to close the game, but could not because of Holtby. He absolutely robbed Derek Stepan who stole the puck away from Dmitry Orlov and was in on net. Holtby poked the puck away, but it was still loose in front. Stepan wheeled around to get the shot, but Holtby somehow managed to deny him.

Holtby was Washington's best player. This game may have been a loss, but if Holtby is back to his normal form that will translate to a lot of wins down the stretch of the season.

Raanta was great, but the Caps' offense still wasn't good enough

I think the Caps deserved a better outcome in this game than the one they got, but even with 36 shots on goal and a great performance by Antti Raanta, Washington could have made things tougher on the Coyotes' netminder.

Despite the high volume of shots, there weren't enough high-danger chances and not nearly enough sustained offensive pressure. The offense looked the most dangerous in the first period, but Washington was not able to really push that in the final 40 minutes.

You can't always rely on Ovechkin, you have to be able to generate offense from the rest of the lineup. Not having Evgeny Kuznetsov hurts, but injuries happen and the Caps have very good center depth. They have to play better offensively regardless.

Watch those wings

An issue I have noticed since the team returned from the all-star break is the defense's tendency to lose wings when they go wide. Several teams have taken advantage of this with forwards going wide down the wings, then cutting in behind the defense and Christian Dvorak's goal was an example of that. In this case, Dvorak turns as he goes down the wing as if he was setting up to shoot so I wonder if Jonas Siegenthaler did not expect him to cut inside, but that's exactly what he did and Siegenthaler was slow to react.

This is an issue more on odd-man breaks with the defense stepping into the middle to defend the puck and losing track of what the wings are doing so perhaps Saturday's goal was not indicative of the pattern, but still something to keep an eye on.

700 is coming

With no goals in four straight games, this is now the longest goalless drought of the season for Ovechkin, but don't worry, it's coming.

Ovechkin had 17 total shot attempts in this game with eight shots on goal. He also hit one off the post. I think initially No. 700 was in his head and neither he nor the team was playing well as a result. Now he looks as dangerous as ever and he is going to torch someone for those last two goals sooner rather than later.

Turning point

With the game tied at 1 in the third period, Phil Kessel gave Arizona the lead with a power play deflection to beat Holtby high to the glove side.

The play was really set up by Jakob Chychrun as the Coyotes went low to high, passing out to Chychrun at the blue line. Chychrun wound up for the shot, seemed to hesitate for just a moment, then delivered a slap pass right to the stick of Kessel for the deflection. Chychrun knew exactly what he was doing on that play and delivered the great pass.

Play of the game

Holtby was Washington's best player on Saturday and it was because of saves like this. Watch this highway robbery of Stepan.

Stat of the game

Offense has been a bit tough to come by for the third line and Carl Hagelin in particular, but both are really starting to heat up.

Quote of the game

Ovechkin had 17 shot attempts and eight shots. He did everything but score and he was encouraged by that rather than frustrated.

"I would be pissed if I don't have any chances, but it's OK. It's going to come."

Fan predictions

He definitely tried and credit to you for going bold.

I've been seeing a lot of calls for a Holtby goal lately. He's a great stickhandler so I could definitely see it happening. He didn't get the chance on Saturday though.

You got the Holtby part right. He finished with a .931. The other two...well, you were about as hot as Washington's offense.

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Capitals can't solve Antti Raanta, fall to Coyotes in the desert

Capitals can't solve Antti Raanta, fall to Coyotes in the desert

Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta stifled a strong Capitals' attack all night long as he handed Washington a 3-1 loss on Saturday. The Caps deserved points for their performance in Arizona, but that's what happens when you run into a hot goalie.

Here is why Washington lost.

Antti Raanta 

It takes goals to win, but there's no question why the Coyotes walked away with two points and that was between the pipes. Raanta was brilliant for Arizona with 35 saves.

Washington had plenty of opportunities to take control of this game offensively early on. and poured 14 shots on goal in the opening frame. Raanta really frustrated a Caps' team that seemed to be largely in control at the start in all areas but the scoreboard.

Raanta was particularly strong against Alex Ovechkin who looked more dangerous than he has in any of the four straight games in which he has now been held without a goal. Ovechkin had 17 shot attempts total and managed to get eight of those shots on net. Raanta turned aside all eight to keep Ovechkin at 698 career goals.

With no goals in four games, this is now the longest goalless streak for Ovechkin this season.

Troubling trends

Overall, this was a good defensive game for Washington. But when Arizona finally got on the board in the second period, it was the result of some familiar issues.

Lars Eller managed to get the puck away from Arizona in the defensive zone and tried to launch the breakout. His deke on Christian Dvorak was too strong and he ended up turning the puck over in the neutral zone. As Arizona was just leaving the offensive zone, they were in good position to immediately break the puck back in. Dvorak dropped the puck off to Connor Garland then went wide on the wing. Jonas Siegenthaler was slow to react and when Garland returned the puck to Dvorak, he was behind the defense and tucked the puck through the 5-hole of Braden Holtby.

Turnovers have been an issue in Washington's recent slump. While Eller's turnover was not all that egregious, it still caught the Caps in a position in which they had to scramble defensively to cover a quick rush. The second issue has been a noticeable issue for Washington since the return from the all-star break and that is wings going wide and cutting in behind the defense. Siegenthaler knew he was there and looked like he was in good position, but he was just too slow to react to Dvorak who may have caught him off guard because he turned his body and was basically skating backward when he got to Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler may have thought Dvorak was looking for a one-timer or a pass and wasn't trying to cut behind him. Either way, that's exactly what he did and was alone in front of Holtby.

A Kessel deflection

With the game tied at 1 in the third period, Phil Kessel gave Arizona the lead with a power play deflection to beat Braden Holtby high to the glove side.

The play was really set up by Jakob Chychrun as the Coyotes went low to high, passing out to Chychrun at the blue line. Chychrun wound up for the shot, seemed to hesitate for just a moment, then delivered a slap pass right to the stick of Kessel for the deflection. Chychrun knew exactly what he was doing on that play and delivered the great pass.

An empty-net goal with less than a minute remaining for Lawson Crouse would seal the deal.

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