Capitals

Capitals

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

Larry T. writes: What are your thoughts on Todd Reirden's use of the bottom-six last year? It seems like the bottom-six played a much more limited role compared to the season before - especially in the playoffs.

The bottom-six as a whole did not play a limited role. The third line played reasonably well and we saw Brett Connolly score a career-high 22 goals and Lars Eller average a career-high 16:32 of ice-time per game. They took on an even bigger role once Carl Hagelin was acquired. The fourth line, however, did see its role reduced.

With no Jay Beagle, the fourth line was one of the few spots on the roster that did not carry over from the 2018-19 season. Reirden spent much of the season trying to find a trio he trusted on that bottom line because most of the combinations he tried did not play well. Nic Dowd did a reasonably good job and solidified his role as the fourth-line center, but Devante Smith-Pelly had an awful season, Chandler Stephenson was largely a non-factor and Travis Boyd looked more like a top-six AHL forward than a bottom-six NHLer. Dmitrij Jaskin played well, but for whatever reason, he could never earn Reirden's trust.

The result was more reliance on the top-nine and less playing time for the fourth. It is no coincidence that the Caps focused primarily on the fourth line in free agency. That was an aspect that needed the most work. While in the 2017-18 campaign and in the playoff run, the fourth line stepped up and contributed, the fourth line last year was largely a non-factor offensively and played poorly defensively. That had to change and that is why Brian MacLellan added both Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic in free agency.

Joe M. writes: You wrote a lot about possible free agent or trade acquisitions but curious as to your thoughts on who you think could make the team this season coming out of Hershey?

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby is the closest to being NHL ready. He already has NHL speed and his game is comparable to Hagelin’s. But this is where going back to Sweden last season really hurts him. He has just 16 games of North American experience. Adjusting to the North American game can take time and maybe the Caps would pencil him into their lineup had he remained with Hershey for the entirety of last season. Assuming he will earn a roster spot after so little time, however, is a real gamble. I would not be surprised to see him in Washington at some point next season likely as a call-up, but I would be pretty stunned if he makes it out of camp.

The other player people love talking about is Shane Gersich, but I watched him play in Hershey in the playoffs and he is not ready for the NHL yet. I absolutely see him as a bottom-six NHLer at some point, but not yet. He needs extra time in the AHL.

People always hate this and complain that good teams fill out their rosters with prospects. The Caps faced a cap crunch this offseason and would have loved nothing more than to fill out their bottom-six with offensive prospects, but you cannot do that if you don’t have forward prospects who are NHL ready. Simply having a hole on the third line does not suddenly make Gersich ready to play.

A rebuilding team would be willing to take the growing pains that come with putting too many green prospects in a lineup. Washington, however, still has Stanley Cup aspirations so you are not adding any prospects to the NHL roster unless you are 100-percent sure they are ready for the big leagues. I do not believe you can say that about either Jonsson-Fjallby or Gersich yet.

The team just revealed what they think of Boyd and Stephenson with all the free agent moves.

First, to address Riley Barber and Nathan Walker, see above. The Caps had Stanley Cup aspirations and relied more on proven veterans rather than unproven prospects to get them there. It makes sense for the team. For the players who will only be able to play hockey for a limited amount of time, however, you just get tired of waiting. That’s what happened with Barber. It is understandable from both sides.

Walker, on the other hand, got 10 games with the Caps as opposed to Barber’s three and that’s because his ceiling is a fourth-line player. That role matches his skill set and it is easier to plug in a prospect onto the fourth line than giving a player like Barber the bigger role his skillset warrants.

Looking to this year, heading into the start of free agency on Monday the big need was a fourth-line player. The team added Hathaway. Great. Done. When they added Leipsic as well, however, that showed you that Boyd and Stephenson were on notice. A team needs 13 forwards for four lines of three plus one extra. Washington carried 14 forwards on its roster for most of the season last year and it led to the team not being able to afford performance bonuses under the cap resulting in a cap recapture penalty this season.

With that in mind, I thought there was no way they would carry 14 forwards on the roster this year and I don’t even know that they will be able to afford to once Jakub Vrana is re-signed. So when MacLellan revealed on a conference call that the team was also adding Leipsic, that was a sign to me that someone is on their way out. You don’t add that extra forward if you are satisfied with the contributions you are getting from Boyd and Stephenson.

For me, I believe the odd-man out is going to be Stephenson. His production went down from 18 points to 11 last season despite averaging slightly more playing time. Regardless of who is still on the roster in September, it is clear there is going to be some competition for the fourth line.

No. These guys are wingers and faceoffs are not a big part of their game. Of Panik, Hathaway, and Leipsic, Panik has taken the most faceoffs with a whopping 57. For context, Dowd took 472 faceoffs just last season in 64 games. Panik and Hathaway each have win percentages of less than 40-percent in their limited attempts. Leipsic at least has a 56.7-percent win percentage but that comes in just 30 faceoff attempts. If there is going to be any improvement winning draws this season, it is going to have to come from Washington’s four established centers.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. 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.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: