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? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Jason Woodside writes: Where does the blame fall for this underwhelming stretch of play? Is this just a bad stretch or are cracks appearing in the foundation?

Nathan S. writes: Are the Capitals' defensive woes in your view because of their structure not matching the players’ skills, the coaching staff not employing it properly or are the players (defensemen and forwards) just not good defensively? Or is it a combination of all three?

Not surprisingly, defense is a major topic of conversation this week. Things are bad right now. It's been my feeling for a while that this team won't go far with its defense as constructed and boy have things gotten ugly.

I asked around the locker room about the defense on Tuesday and got some pretty basic answers, but that's not a surprise because the last two games we have seen very basic problems. Turnovers, missed assignments, horrible puck management, misplays on the rush, missed assignments, these are basic things. For much of the season the Caps have outscored their problems and when a team has success, there is less urgency within the locker room to fix those problems. It's human nature. This is why teams will follow a long winning streak with a losing streak.  Washington has been relying on its offense, and lately just Alex Ovechkin, to bail it out. You can't always rely on Ovechkin to get a hat trick in the final six minutes of a game. The result is that poor defensive play is now getting exposed and, when that happens, frustration sets in. Monday's game was a frustrated team abandoning its defensive structure and every man chasing the puck like they were the mites on ice.

 

Those things, however, are correctable and will improve over time. No team is ever as bad as its worst slump and the Caps are no exception. There are, however, two larger issues that are of greater concern to me than their recent play. The first is the obvious hole in the top four. Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are both third-pair defensemen. This team does not have a defenseman who can play on the right of the second pair next to Dmitry Orlov.

Were you surprised to see Martin Fehervary called up when he was? You shouldn't be. You also shouldn't be surprised that he played most of those three games on the second pair. This team needs a top-four right defenseman in the worst way and was experimenting to see if a Fehervary-Orlov pair could be the solution.

The other issue is that Michal Kempny is not having a very good season at all. When two out of the top four defensemen are question marks, that's a problem and this is what will keep the team from a deep playoff run if not addressed. Trading for a right defenseman is now a necessity. I would also think we could see a lot more of Jonas Siegenthaler playing with John Carlson. They seem to work well together, though this would complicate the penalty kill structure as Reirden really wants to lean on the third defensive pair on the penalty kill to keep the defense fresh though games.

One quick note on Reirden as I think both these questions hint that perhaps coaching is the problem (and even if that was unintentional, plenty of people on Twitter are), my feeling on coaching is that team performance is the ultimate reflection of the coach and the book on Reirden as a head coach is going to be written based on what they do in the playoffs. I am not putting much stock into this current slump just as I am not putting much stock into the success of the first half of the season. Last year Reirden was put in an impossible situation and the team rebounded from a slow start and a seven-game losing streak to win the division. I felt that was an impressive first year for a head coach, but none of that mattered because they lost int he first round of the playoffs and, in my view, questionable coaching decisions played a factor. That's not the only reason why they lost, but it was a factor. Knowing this, to me whatever happens in the regular season is largely meaningless. OK, if the Caps collapse to the point that they could fall out of a playoff spot that's an issue, but frankly I'm not going to judge Reirden on an in-season slump. I'm going to judge him based on how he manages this team in the playoffs. Until then, my grade for him is incomplete.

 

Steve Singer writes: For me, the two biggest weaknesses on this very good Capitals team are the taking of penalties (thank goodness for the PK) and the powerless Power Play. On the first item, what can the Caps do better to clear the puck out of the zone, reduce the forechecking pressure, and thus limit their penalties? On the second item, what else can they do to energize their lifeless power play?

In fairness to Steve, this email was sent before the last two games, but I have been saying for weeks that this team's biggest weakness is defense and I don't think there is any debate. Having said that, these two issues do need to be addressed.

When it comes to penalties, you are correctly recognizing part of the issue is possession of the puck. When a team is taking as many penalties as the Caps are, it is usually the result of a team chasing the play. Teams that have the puck a majority of the time don't need to hook, slash or hold. The interesting thing is that the team's Corsi-For percentage, a stat that is loosely used to measure possession, ranks seventh in the NHL. When it comes to high-danger Corsi-for percentage, they move down to 16th at 50.10-percent which makes a bit more sense as penalties often come out of desperation.

To me, they need to cut back on the turnovers more than anything. The turnovers are putting everyone out of position and they are reacting with penalties. The first thing this team needs to do is stick to short, easy passes. I don't know why this team is allergic to easy passes, but if I see one more cross-ice pass from a defenseman from the goal line trying to hit someone on the offensive blue line, I'm going to tear my hair out. And that's just from someone analyzing the game from the press box. I can't imagine how it must feel watching that on the bench.

As for the power play, that leads me to the next few questions....

Benjamin Cross writes: This power play has been absolutely terrible. Bad zone entries, barely any zone time, going through the motions like It’s some sort of boring routine, pucks forced back to John Carlson. When will this power play get it together? Why can’t Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Jakub Vrana be more creative with their skills and find something new?

 

Erik Kampmann writers: How many more short-handed goals do the Caps need to give up before the coaching staff REALLY makes some changes on the power play? Switching the position of Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson during the PP doesn't seem to confuse defenders at all. Other teams have figured out how to defend our weak power play and the Caps coaching staff has yet to figure out a better system. What would you suggest?

Douglas Forsyth writes: With our PP struggling recently, is that the Capitals number 1 priority heading into the deadline?

Again, I don't put the problems on the power play anywhere close to the defense. This team can go far with a good defense and a horrible power play. A team with a horrible defense and a great power play is going nowhere fast.

Having said that, I don't want to see major changes to the structure of the power play at this point. I think that's an overreaction. With Ovechkin nearing 700 goals, I've talked to a lot of players around the league about him and everyone says how he is indefensible on the power play. So when the team started to struggle the solution was to put Jakub Vrana on the top unit where he could not be used to shoot, move Evgeny Kuznetsov to the second unit where he has no one to play with and move Ovechkin to the right? Why?

Those are big changes and they were all bad ones.

The issues on the power play aren't hard to diagnose. Yes, it is predictable in that the team wants to get the puck to Ovechkin or T.J. Oshie in the slot, but four penalty killers can't defend against that if you are moving the puck quickly and purposefully. Right now this is what we see on the power play: pass, stickhandle, stickhandle, stickhandle, pass back, stickhandle, stickhandle, pass back, stickhandle, stickhandle, force a pass through traffic, turnover, clear.

Keep moving the puck and for Heaven's sake, Nicklas Backstrom needs to shoot more. The amount of room teams give him when he has the puck is criminal.

If you want more drastic changes, then shuffle the two units so that you can play two power play units that actually have a chance of scoring. Kuznetsov setting up Brendan Leipsic, who has not scored a goal since Nov. 27, is not going to get the job done.

Wilson Thomas writes: I believe that it is time to move on from Panik, and give someone like Travis Boyd a chance on the third line LW spot and free up three million dollars in our tight cap situation. Do you agree?

When you say move on from Panik and free up his cap space, we are talking trade and not just putting him on the bench.

At the risk of repeating myself, what's the biggest issue for the Caps? Defense. Not liking the offensive output of Panik is not high on the list of priorities right now.

 

I don't know why Boyd has not been given more of an opportunity this year. If Reirden didn't want to break up the third line, fine, but what has the fourth line done the past two months? It was great at the start of the season, but has been practically invisible lately.

The problem with moving Panik off that third line is that Reirden wants to use that line as a shutdown line and Panik is much more of a two-way forward than Boyd is. With the defense playing like it is, I'm not doing anything to boost offense that will come at the expense of the defense.

Benjamin Cross writes: Why does Todd Reirden ignore the Stanley cup-winning top 2 lines?

The Caps won a Cup with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson on the top line and Jakub Vrana, Backstrom and Oshie on the second. I am surprised we have not seen those lines more than we have over the last two years, but Kuznetsov's play has been largely inconsistent since then so it is hard to justify putting him up on the top line. Ovechkin is scoring like crazy without him and his two-way play certainly does not warrant a bump up to the top line.

Steven Singer writes: After the humbling loss to the Flyers, I had to wonder ... do the Caps play especially poorly when they’re wearing those awful throwback uniforms? And, why would we want to wear uniforms anyway that remind us of 30 years of futility on ice?

How dare you, sir! The team wears the throwback reds because those jerseys and the blue Stadium Series jerseys are tied for the best look this franchise has ever had and it's not close. I love the throwback reds. Having said that, they are 1-6-2 when wearing those jerseys this season so that's not ideal. They are currently scheduled to wear them three more times this season.

Justin Cade writes: John Scott’s co-host on the excellent podcast “Dropping the Gloves” suggested that Tyson Barrie would be a good fit for Washington at the trade deadline. Should the Leafs agree to deal him, what do you think of this idea? Would Barrie help shore up the Caps defense and would he bring anything to the struggling power play? Do you see any other defensemen potentially on the Caps’ radar as the deadline approaches?

It's an interesting point, but a moot one as long as Toronto's blue line is banged up. They can't afford to move anyone off there right now.

But Barrie does check a lot of boxes. He is a good puck-mover and generally a top-four guy, though he has struggled tremendously in Toronto. I don't know who he would play with because putting him with Dmitry Orlov would not seem like a great fit and if that doesn't work then what's the point? This is also highly unrealistic move because the Maple Leafs are very much in win-now mode so if you're Washington, you're not getting him for picks or a prospect, a roster player would have to be going to Toronto and that makes it hard to see how this one would work.

 

Phillip Martin writes: How do you feel about Dustin Byfuglien if he gets out of his contract and is healthy?

Is he though? The last update from Elliotte Friedman is that he has not even resumed skating yet. I like the thought. A great defenseman who you could potentially get for a dirt-cheap contract just to run out the season and make a playoff run, but I would be stunned if he plays at all this season and certainly would not base any trade deadline decisions on the hope that he could even be an option.

Kevin Easley writes: Given the Caps' glaring need for a righty D-man is there a more perfect potential fit at the trade deadline than Alec Martinez?

Phillip Martin writes: What are your gut feelings about defensemen Zach Bogosian and Sami Vatanen for the Caps?

I have had tons and tons of questions about potential trade targets. Instead of answering each question individually here and on Twitter and in an effort to avoid endlessly repeating myself, I'm going to write on this later in the week, assuming of course the Caps don't make a trade beforehand. Stay tuned.

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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