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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: A new look fourth line

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: A new look fourth line

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.

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Oshie Injury Update: Full clearance clears the way for training camp

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Oshie Injury Update: Full clearance clears the way for training camp

A broken collarbone ended T.J. Oshie’s 2018-19 season, but it is not going to affect his return for training camp in 2019. Oshie laid any fears over his health to rest on Monday.

“I'm good,” he said. “Now it's just all getting those muscles built back up as best I can before the season.”

Oshie was on hand at MedStar Capitlas Iceplex on Monday participating in AAA’s Don’t Drive Intoxicated - Don’t Drive Intexticated event in which he helped coach youth hockey players through drills. After skating with the kids, Oshie spoke with the media on his health saying he was fully cleared in July and is expected to be 100 percent for training camp. He even hinted he may have been able to return for the Stanley Cup Final had the team advanced.

Now that there is no fear about whether the injury will limit him, Oshie said his focus has been on building up the muscle in his upper-body he lost while he was out.

“There's a little more emphasis on building muscle up in my shoulders and upper-body because I couldn't do anything really for nine weeks,” Oshie said.

The good news is that the injury and the team’s early playoff dismissal, though not ideal, does come with the benefit of extra rest.

Washington’s deep playoff run and lengthy Cup celebration in 2018 seemed to take its toll in the 2019 playoffs when the team appeared to run out of gas in Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. The relaxed summer has Oshie pining for the start of the season.

“This summer has all been very relaxed,” he said. “I find that you miss it a little bit more when you're like this. Right now I feel like it's time to get going, time for the season to get going whereas before you're almost worn out from traveling all summer. I feel good and I'm excited.”

Unlike most years, Oshie and his family did not spend the majority of the summer in Minnesota. Instead, he elected to remain in the Washington area where he has been working out with John Carlson.

But the summer has gone on long enough and Oshie is ready to get back to the business of hockey.

“I'm ready to roll,” he said. “I can't wait.”

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Capitals Goal of the Year Bracket: Ovi Dangles Canes with Wilson vs Ovi Slapshot

Capitals Goal of the Year Bracket: Ovi Dangles Canes with Wilson vs Ovi Slapshot

With less than a month before training camp opens in mid-September, we are taking one last look back at the 2018-19 season as we dive into the best goals of last year. We compiled our bracket based on the cumulative rankings of our Capitals team, from reporters to producers and everyone in between, and now is your turn to help us determine the best Capitals goal of 2018-19. Below is a Slack conversation between members of the Capitals content team.

jmurph: Alright everyone, our bracket starts today with the 1 vs 16 matchup. Alex Ovechkin factoring heavily into both goals. Our #1 rated goal of the season was Ovi's incredible effort in Game 7 against the Hurricanes to set up Tom Wilson and the #16 seed is a vintage Ovi slapper off a faceoff from February 21 against the Leafs. Let's start in on Goal #1, what makes this the best goal of the season?

JJ Regan: Alex Ovechkin's entire career has been full of jaw-dropping moments. Some times we can take that for granted, but what he did in Game 7 was absolutely phenomenal and I can say, without hyperbole, that the play he made to set up Tom Wilson was one of the best plays I have seen Ovechkin make in his entire career.

Ryan Billie: How about the fact that he literally did EVERYTHING on that Wilson goal?

Rob Carlin: The Wilson goal in the playoffs was sick. Ovi was magical with the puck. And it was a big goal - at the moment. But now that’s just part of a bad memory. Give me Ovi one-timers from 40’feet directly into my veins. I go with the ovi extended hours from his office

jmurph: Wow Rob, going for the UMBC takedown on the opening day

JJ Regan: I love the Ovechkin one-timer...but how many times have we seen him score goals exactly like that? The effort to setup Wilson is an all-time highlight even if the Caps ultimately lost that game.

Ryan Billie: Yeah, that’s a surprise. I don’t think the circumstances of the game take away from the fact it was an outrageous effort. One of the best I’ve ever seen.

Rob Carlin: Yes! Sorry Wahoo Wa. Find me 5 guys who score on that shot.

jmurph: Effort aside, was the goal good?

Ryan Billie: Find me 5 dudes that make that play to Wilson.

JJ Regan: That is really the only argument. The play to setup the goal was great...but was the goal itself?

bmcnally: The goal is still sick. Credit to Wilson for realizing Ovi is playing like he's in a video game and shading away from goal a bit to give him the space to finish the pass

jmurph: Going back to the slapshot, it's crazy how we just think that it's normal to be able to do that with such ease because we've seen Ovi do it so many times

Rob Carlin: The goal was sick. I remember literally jumping out of my seat. Just don’t penalize a 40 foot slap shot just because he’s scored 400 of those.

timmcdonough: the Ovi effort immediately reminded me of the behind-the-back off-the-wall goal against Montreal.. which some people say is his best ever. Plus, nothing better than an Ovechkin rush at home where the entire crowd is standing before the puck hits the net

Ryan Billie: ^^^

bmcnally: That really was a great :"Roman Hamrlik" goal call back from 2009

Rob Carlin: TMac from the top rope! That’s a solid argument

bmcnally: The only real difference is this time he stayed on his feet and had someone with him

JJ Regan: Plus, he didn't actually score the goal, it was Wilson.

Ryan Billie: And it’s crazy, because when Ovi is open for a slap shot, you can feel the air get let out of the arena because you know what’s coming... every time he touches the puck, you just never know what’s gonna happen.

JJ Regan: There is something to be said about how incredible it is that everyone knows what Ovechkin is about to do and you just can't stop it.

jmurph: JJ are you leaning towards Rob on this one? Voting for a 16-1 upset right off the bat?

JJ Regan: Absolutely not. Just giving credit where credit is due. The Ovechkin one-timer is great, but the set up on Wilson's goal is better. An all-time highlight in a highlight career.

Rob Carlin: That’s my argument, JJ. It’s been done 400 times. Yet no one can stop it. When his stick goes up, just waiting, the excitement builds. Every time. He scored this one from 42 feet away. With no screen. Sick.

timmcdonough: I will say this about the other goal... people don’t realize how much preparation and coordination goes into scoring that fast off a faceoff. Clean win, quick pass, off-balance rocket, all in like 3.7 seconds

Ryan Billie: It’s the equivalent of a Steph Curry deep 3. We’re so used to them now they don’t seem special. But they are.

jmurph: I love me some Nic Dowd backhand sauce for 40 feet but I think the Ovi slapper got the shaft here on our list coming in at 16 against an all-timer

Rob Carlin: I’m not dying on this hill. That goal vs Carolina was all world. As Johnny said in the video, he almost threw me off the balcony when it happened. I just love Ovi one timers from way downtown.

JJ Regan: Don't bust my bracket on the first goal! Give me Ovechkin to Wilson!

bmcnally: Yeah I'm definitely going for the playmaking goal with Wilson. It's just so ridiculous someone that size can do that. But before we bury the slapper just wanted to give it the respect it deserves. It's a 16 seed that took the 1 seed deep into the second half before fading

Ryan Billie: Is Carlin pulling a Homer and backing into the bushes??

JJ Regan: That is well done

Rob Carlin: I’m basically just a lawyer in a trial who knows he’s gonna lose but wants his point on record and in the minds of the jury.

jmurph: So it seems like we are all in agreement, if this #16 Ovi slapper comes up against most goals, it might get the nod, but not on this day. Chalk it up and #1 moves on.

Ryan Billie: Not just moves on... but covers as well.

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