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.
Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin was great on Sunday but why is he on the second line over Jakub Vrana still? I don’t think Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov have good chemistry so shouldn’t Vrana move to 2nd and Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom try switching, like the Cup run?
@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: How is Jakub Vrana expected to score his 30+ goals if Todd Reirden is going to punish him on the third line? Everybody knows he’s a top 6 forward.
Sometimes as hockey fans we can have very black and white opinions on personnel moves. This player is better than that player, so they should be on the higher line. In reality, it’s not that simple.
Phil Kessel is a top-six player. In fact, he is more than that, he’s a superstar. But if you turn the clocks back to 2016, Kessel was playing on the third line for the Pittsburgh Penguins and you know what? It proved to be instrumental in them winning the Cup.
There are two things at play here. First, Vrana is a young player who is still developing. Second, the Caps need more production from the third line.
Let’s tackle the first part. Young players are going to catch the ire of coaches more than veterans for their mistakes. It is expected they will make mistakes and the coaches have to correct them. If Backstrom turns the puck over, you know he knows better and you move on. The younger players though need more coaching.
You can quibble with the notion that there are other ways to coach than benching a player, but let's be real, none of the early mistakes we have seen from Vrana are new. The fact of the matter is that these games matter and any mistake can cost a team two points. A younger player would probably get more leeway in the AHL, but this is the NHL and coaches care more about winning than anything else.
The issue I see with Vrana’s game in the early going is that he does not contribute much of anything when he’s not producing. Alex Ovechkin can still have a positive impact on a game without a point, as can Backstrom, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, etc. If you’re going to be a top-six forward, you have to contribute more than just points.
That may sound odd, but it’s true. Patrik Laine may be the next great goal scorer, but he just got a bridge “prove it” deal from the Jets because if he’s not scoring, he is essentially a non-factor. The same can be said of Vrana at the start of this season.
You accept that from a bottom-six guy. Brett Connolly did not do much else other than score, but if you can do that on limited third-line minutes, you take it. The reason Hagelin was promoted despite a low offensive ceiling is because he is a player who knows how to affect the game in numerous positive ways not limited to just the scoresheet.
Vrana absolutely has top-six skill, but he needs to learn there is more to the game than points. You can see it in his body language that frustration when he doesn’t score affects his game. That’s a problem. Tuesday’s game was encouraging though because of the play he made on Wilson’s goal, driving hard to the net to clear the passing lane open for Wilson to get the puck. Vrana did not get a point on the play, but he completely set it up.
As for the second part, it is not enough in this day and age to rely solely on your top-six for production. Teams need a top-nine that can score. That third line has not been up to snuff thus far. I have long advocated for Oshie to move to that line in part because having a scorer like him would make that line more dangerous. I suspect putting Vrana on that line is in part due to his mistakes but also partly because Reirden is hosting Vrana can coax more offense out of that line.
As for the last bit about switching Backstrom with Kuznetsov, I am surprised we did not see that more last year given how good the Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson line was in the playoffs in the Cup run. Kuznetsov's inconsistencies may be preventing this for now, but I would not be surprised to see it soon.
Doug F. writes: When Michal Kempny returns I see Tyler Lewington getting the scratch. He's had 17 PIM in his first four games this season and 0 points. Would you see Lewington getting sent down or do you think I'm overlooking something and is there a reason they would keep him up over another defenseman?
Obviously Doug wrote this before Kempny returned.
You were right about Lewington getting the scratch. In terms of whether he will stay in Washington, you are overlooking something and that is the salary cap.
Lewington has the lowest cap hit in the organization at $675,000. The house of cards that is Washington's salary cap likely falls apart without him as the No. 7. With the team as tight against the cap as it is, I do not believe they are close to banking enough space to replacing him.
To be fair, all 17 of Lewington’s penalty minutes came against the Colorado Avalanche when he was named the instigator in his fight against Valeri Nichushkin. He was given a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct all for that one fight so don’t look at those 17 PIM and think it’s because Lewington can’t stay out of the box. He has not taken another penalty other than that one instance.
Lewington’s ceiling in the NHL is a No. 7 defenseman. I know people saw him score the Gordie Howe hat trick last season, but that's not ultimately what you can expect night in and night out. He’s a high-end AHL player, but not someone an NHL team should have playing an every-day role. He’s essentially the new Taylor Chorney in that he’s someone the team can park as a healthy scratch for much of the season without any worry about what it will do for his development. We already know what he is.
At some point, the team will be able to bank enough space for a player like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev, but neither player should be called up unless the Caps intend to use them. If all the Caps need is a cheap No. 7, then Lewington is their guy.
@BRose_bro on Twitter writes: Thoughts on Garnet Hathaway so far?
The type of player he is can be summed up in what he did against the New York Rangers. Hathaway was knocked out of the game in the second period with a broken nose, came back in the third, drew a cross-check, fought Brendan Smith (again, with a broken nose), the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway finished off the game with an empty-netter.
There are a lot of players like Hathway who, on any given night, can prove to be as much of a liability as they are an asset. Hathway was visibly pissed when he returned after his nose was broken and he wanted to fight somebody, but he didn’t put his team in a bad position by taking a dumb penalty because he was mad. He actually drew a penalty before throwing down and it proved to be the pivotal moment of the game.
The fact that he has been able to produce somewhat after getting bumped up to the third line is encouraging too. He ultimately should be a fourth-line player and you hope Reirden doesn’t get too enamored with him and he keeps him on the third line than he should. But otherwise Hathaway looks like a total home run.
@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Where would you rank the Caps’ fourth line among the NHL fourth lines as it’s pretty strong?
It’s a bit too early in the season for rankings (check out my weekly Power Rankings here!), especially given that the trio has moved around a bit with Nic Dowd in and out of the lineup, Hathaway playing on the third and Richard Panik’s brief stint on the fourth before going on LTIR. Having said that, the fourth line has been brilliant and has proven to be a huge asset for the team thus far. The best most teams can hope for from their fourth line is that it doesn’t hurt the team when it’s on the ice. The Caps don’t have to worry about that.
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, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.
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