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. Also, most of these questions came before the Brenden Dillon trade so please keep that in mind as you read.
Brian Murphy writes: Other than your miracle “right side defenseman” instant fix, what do you think is wrong? I vehemently disagree that a “right defenseman” is the cure you think it is.
There are a number of problems that have plagued the Caps of late, the biggest of which being egregious turnovers. Bad turnovers catch the team in bad defensive position and that spirals into disaster. The breakouts have been really bad with the forwards moving too high, too fast and the defensemen making long stretch passes through the neutral zone that are easily picked off. Teams are either waiting for this in the neutral zone or hemming the defensemen deep with the forecheck and they just have nowhere to go with the puck. The defensive coverage has been atrocious and the offense has grown stale.
Some of these mistakes are so egregious, it would get a kid benched on a high school team. Those issues are a product of frustration. John Carlson knows he can't backhand a rebound to no one in the defensive zone or try to bank the puck off the wall to himself through traffic behind his own net. Radko Gudas knows he can't get the puck taken off his stick behind his own net. Nick Jensen knows he can't abandon Wayne Simmonds on the penalty kill so he can drop to a knee to block a shot that Ilya Samsonov would have been able to easily get himself. Those are just mental errors and correctable.
So what is evidence of a bigger problem? The breakouts are concerning considering that was a major reason why the Caps could not handle Carolina's forecheck last season. Offensive depth was an issue. The third line's play improved, but it still lacked a real scoring threat and it was also clear that when the top-six grew stale, Todd Reirden had very few options of how to reshuffle the top-six without players like Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky to plug in there. There's a reason the trade deadline rumors originally centered on fourth line players like Trevor Lewis and evolved into Ilya Kovalchuk. Scoring depth was more of an issue that Brian MacLellan anticipated heading into the season.
And then finally the defense.
While I knew the defense was not quite as bad as it looked -- no NHL defense is that bad -- it only confirmed my suspicion that the blue line was not good enough as constructed to win in the playoffs. I still see right defense as a glaring hole and am skeptical as to whether a defense with Nick Jensen in the top four can go on a deep run. I am also still very wary of the Michal Kempny, Radko Gudas pairing.
I think things are trending in the right direction again with wins over Pittsburgh and Winnipeg and I like the addition of Brenden Dillon. But the jury is still out on the defense.
Skip Pratt writes: The Caps have had a month where they’ve struggled to score and win at the level they were early in the year. We’re looking at the same players and coaching that was largely successful for the first 2-3 months of the season. What causes the difference? Is it that other teams have figured us out, and we aren’t making necessary adjustments? Teams obviously have down days, but for us to be in this “slump” now - after months of playing well, no major injuries to speak of, what causes this? Where does the team look to make the difference and get back to an attitude and gameplay for winning?
A lot of factors go into this and the easy answer to your question is that it is an 82-game season and every team is going to go through ups and downs. For a physical team like the Capitals, that can be much more pronounced. The deeper you get into a season, the harder it is to commit to playing as physically as you were at the start.
For more insight from the players on this, here is a story I wrote last year about why the playoffs are so different from the regular season. That may not sound related, but one of the things the players talk about is how difficult it is to make that physical commitment on a night-in, night-out basis. They do it for the playoffs, but it is hard to make that same commitment for a Monday game in February.
I knew a slump would come in December or January just based on the way the Caps play. Once it did, frustration crept into the game leading to horrendous mistakes that exacerbated the team's issues and it spiraled into a prolonged slump.
One reason why slumps always look like a team has been figured out is because teams are scouting recent games. Brett Leonhardt, one of the Caps' video coaches, spoke with the media prior to the seaosn and revealed the Caps scout out each opponent by watching their opponent's prior three games coming into the matchup. I don't know this for sure, but I am guessing that is probably pretty standard practice around the league. So when the Caps are struggling with something specific, like they were with their breakouts, teams are seeing that when they scout them and preparing for it. That's why the breakouts in particular have been so bad.
The fact that Washington's slump was so long (assuming it's over after two straight wins, which it might not be) is a definite concern, but in general those are the reasons a team like Washington can face a slump during the season.
Jason Woodside writes: The third line needs more finish, the second line has plenty but could use a little more defensive responsibility. It seems natural to me that Richard Panik and T.J. Oshie could switch and that would balance things out greatly. Why haven’t the Caps even tried to see if Evgeny Kuznetsov could make Panik into more of a threat?
Obviously this question came in before the trade for Ilya Kovalchuk which was made to address exactly what you are talking about on the third line. You are right in that the second line strayed a bit from its defensive responsibility and that's part of the reason Nicklas Backstrom is now centering that line. Without the Kovalchuk trade, I don't know if moving Oshie to the third line was in the cards considering how well Oshie has played this season.
I have long advocated Oshie moving to the third line to add more offensive depth to the team and because he is a player who plays the game hard. There's a lot of mileage on that body, but he has just played too well this year to move him out of the top six. He has 25 goals and 22 assists so moving him to the third line is not likely at this point. Reirden knows he has to limit Oshie's minutes and that's why he's not on the penalty kill anymore. For now, that's all the extra rest Oshie seemingly needs.
As for Panik, if you want to put him with Kuznetsov and see what they can do together, fine, but where? Kuznetsov is not coming out of the top six and if you are going to put Panik on his line, who are you taking out? I'm not moving anyone out of the top six for Panik.
John Massey writes: I don't understand why the faceoff percentage has not gotten better. This seems correctable. Where do the Capitals rank overall and where do they rank on those initial power play or penalty kill faceoffs?
Washington ranks 27th in overall faceoffs at 48.4-percent. The team ranks dead last on power play faceoffs at 48.4-percent, but climbs all the way to ninth on penalty kill faceoffs at 46.8-percent. The reason for the big difference there isn't hard to figure out. Kuznetsov is one of the worst players in the game in terms of faceoffs. Among all players with at least 500 faceoffs taken this season, Kuznetsov's win percentage is the second-worst in the entire NHL at 43.0-percent. Only Mathew Barzal is worse (41.2). Kuznetsov plays on the power play, but doesn't on the penalty kill which is the reason for the discrepancy there.
Now, not to throw Kuznetsov under the bus completely, Backstrom also has a sub .500 faceoff this season at 49.5-percent. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd, however, are both having decent seasons at 51.9 and 50.7-percent respectively.
Jason Woodside writes: Do you think Kempny possibly never fully recovered from his injury and that it could explain the level at which he’s playing?
I am not a doctor and do not want to speculate as to whether or not Kempny fully recovered. There's no way for me to give a good answer on that. What I will say, however, is that I do believe it affected his offseason training. He also was limited throughout all of training camp. I know when a player like Justin Williams skips all of training camp and returns in the middle of the season for the Carolina Hurricanes it can make training camp look useless, but it's not. Kempny started the season behind the eight-ball in that sense and has been playing catchup-up ever since.
If you are concerned about whether there may be any lingering issues over Kempny's injury, then next season will be a good indication. If he has an offseason to train and participates in training camp and has the same struggles next year, then it's fair to wonder if that's just who the player is now.
Captain Obvious writes: What do the Caps need to do to gain positive momentum from the outset of a game (obviously, score first, we must have the worst record in the league at giving up the first goal) and play with third period urgency?
The Caps have given up the first goal in 33 out of 63 games this season and have a record of 16-15-2 when trailing first. That's not close to being the most and it's not close to being the worst record.
Getting off to a bad start in a game has been an issue for the Caps (until the last two games in which they scored first and won both times, funny how that works isn't it?). If you've noticed this and I've noticed this, I can guarantee that the coaches have noticed this as well and not just because we have spoken to Reirden and asked him about it. If Reirden knows it, you know he has talked to the players about it which means the issue is deeper than just saying, hey guys we really need to be on our game at the start here.
I went back and looked at some of the goals the Caps have been giving up at the start of games and, you're not going to believe this, but a lot of them are coming off of bad turnovers which leads to bad defensive coverage. If you are playing poorly overall, that means you are playing poorly at the start of games. So I don't look at poor starts in particular being an issue, but poor play overall.
The Caps have started playing better and that has led to better starts. As for finishing strong, the same logic applies, for the most part. The Caps are a physical team and, when they are really throwing the body around, like to wear down their opponents which should in theory lead to stronger third periods, though that's not what happened on Tuesday against Winnipeg. Looking at two games against the Penguins, however, the Caps have outscored Pittsburgh in the third period 6-2 so it seems to be working there in two games in which the Caps were very clearly emphasizing physical play.
Travis Wood writes: A couple years ago, there was tremendous fuss about what to do when Vegas took Philipp Grubauer. What a surprise when they took Nate Schmidt instead. In hindsight, was it? Seattle is a ways away, but it's coming. So far, the media's consensus is a goalie will surely be their target. What if that investigation shows we actually could trade a prospect goalie for a high-end defenseman now?
Everyone knew Vegas was going to take Marc-Andre Fleury. The thought in terms of the Caps was that Vegas could draft their starter and their goalie of the future in Grubauer who was drafted by George McPhee in 2010. What McPhee got right about the expansion draft, however, is he did not approach it from the standpoint of I'm going to select what I think I need, he did it from the standpoint of collecting the most assets possible. Goalies are hard to trade, but defensemen are always in demand.
McPhee was basically open for business and traded away a lot of good players and let it be known that he was open to trading anyone...for a price. I would not be surprised if Seattle tried to copy what Vegas did and acquire several defensemen just to trade away most of them.
Having said that, I think I know what you're getting at. One of the reasons I do not believe the Caps will re-sign Braden Holtby is because of the expansion draft and that teams are only allowed to protect one goalie. If you are suggesting that either Holtby or Ilya Samsonov may not be claimed because Seattle could go after defense instead, I would tell you that's wishful thinking.
While Vegas did select several defensemen, they did still take Fleury. And while the expansion draft is more about setting up Seattle for the future than the present, they will still need a starting goalie which both Holtby and Samsonov would be for them. I don't see any defenseman who would potentially be exposed who would be more enticing to Seattle than either goalie.
It's not going to matter anyway because I can't imagine Holtby signing a long-term deal with the Caps without protection from the expansion draft which he's not going to get because the team will protect Samsonov over him.
Hans Bareihs writes: Are other teams fan bases as pessimistic as the Capital’s fan base?
Ha, I doubt it.
Look guys, I get it. I was right there with you for so many years. I can completely understand why this team's history made so many people feel pessimistic...but usually teams get some benefit of the doubt from its fans after a recent championship and Caps fans are having none of that.
I am not of the opinion that a true fan has to be blindly optimistic, it's something I just don't understand about Redskins fans, but when I am getting emails and Tweets that Reirden should be fired like I was back when the team has the best record in the NHL, come on people, chill.
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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