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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third line?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third 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.

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?

He’s fantastic.

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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The new normal: Caps adjust to the return of hockey during a pandemic

The new normal: Caps adjust to the return of hockey during a pandemic

Training camps opened across the NHL on Monday, marking the start of Phase 3 of the league's return to play plan and bringing us all one step closer to the postseason. But even though hockey may be "back" it sure does feel a lot different. The practices, once open to the public, are now closed. Most of the media are covering camp from home with only a few sitting at their own tables above the rink, each wearing a mask. Unless they are on the ice or conducting interviews on Zoom, the players are in masks wherever they go.

Hockey may be back, but not in the way anyone is used to.

"It's been weird," Lars Eller said. "I think it was most weird in the beginning coming back and doing these tests and seeing everybody wear masks, but now it's just become normal every day. It's almost you notice someone without a mask now. That's the weird thing, right? That's where we are now."

Professional athletes are known as creatures of habit and the Capitals players are no different. All of those habits now must be cast aside as the players adjust to the health and safety protocols imposed by the NHL and NHLPA.

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That's the reality of trying to play hockey in a pandemic.

"On the ice is normal," Alex Ovechkin said. "On the ice is same rules what we have before. But soon as you step off the ice in the locker room everybody have to wear a mask. It's kind of weird, but I'm pretty sure we're going to get used to it."

"Obviously, it’s things we’re not used to, but for the most part, every other day you just spit in a little tube and then you go onto the rink," T.J. Oshie said. "Obviously, it’s not as comfortable wearing a mask as it would be without, but as far as on the ice stuff it feels like a normal training camp except for we’re kind of ramping things up as we go, which I think is great. I think it’s saving guys from getting hurt. But just less numbers out there, so more reps. Unfortunately, it’s kind of becoming a little bit normal going around with a mask and not being able to hug the guys, but it’s fine and we’re grinding through it.”

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For their part, the players understand and accept the precautions being taken. No one wants to play hockey more than they do and they want to be able to do it in a way that is safe both for them and for their families.

"if we get a chance to play hockey we are going to do whatever we can to make it work," Brenden Dillon said.

He added, "I think our staff here has done an unbelievable job of making us feel safe and ultimately it is going to be about these next couple weeks before we can get to the bubble. We’ve been assured it is going to be as safe as it can be there and a little bit of an unknown until we can get there and get into that routine. It is going to be a little different setup than in your home dressing room, that comfortability that we’ve gotten used to. I think everybody if we can all do our part and realize that with this crazy circumstances we have to be safe.”

The trade-off, however, is that the game they loved and have played for essentially their entire lives looks and feels a lot different than ever before.

"It's been an adjustment, but the whole world's adjusting and we're just adjusting with it," Eller said. "Now it's just started to feel normal. We see every single person around you doing the same thing, it becomes the new normal."

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Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

Capitals top prospect Connor McMichael an option to play in postseason, according to Todd Reirden

When it comes to the playoffs, rarely do black aces generate much excitement. Black aces are players a team recalls from the minors to serve as depth/practice players during the postseason. Most of them are brought in with the expectation that they won't play and, even if they do, it is only out of necessity. And then there are players like Connor McMichael.

The Caps' first-round draft pick from 2019, McMichael is coming off a brilliant season in the OHL with the London Knights where be recorded 102 points in 52 games. Teams will often bring up players they see as future NHLers to serve as black aces even if they are not going to play, just for the experience of being with the team during the postseason. After a productive training camp in September, it is no surprise to see McMichael back with the Caps as the team prepares for the playoffs.

"It was really cool, just coming in and seeing all the pros like [Alex Ovechkin], [Nicklas Backstrom] and those guys, guys I grew up watching," McMichael said. "It was really cool to be around them and to see how they approach the game every single day. So, I took a lot of that back to London. Just here, black acing it, it's a cool experience watching them play in the playoffs and how they treat their bodies every day to be ready to go. So, I'm really excited."

In a typical season, there were be essentially no chance the 19-year-old, 181-pound McMichael would get into the lineup. But this is not a typical season.

RELATED: CONNOR MCMICHAEL A BLACK ACE CANDIDATE FOR PLAYOFFS

The first three games for Washington will be round robin games and, though they matter in terms of seeding, they don't matter in terms of being do-or-die. The Caps could lose all three games and still be in the playoffs. Because of that, it leaves head coach Todd Reirden the opportunity to experiment with his lineup if he chooses. Could that leave an opening for McMichael to possibly crack the lineup for a game?

It's not a subject the coaches have breached with the young forward just yet.

"No, they haven't talked to me about that too much," McMichael said. "The coaches were just telling everyone to be ready. You never know what can happen in the playoffs. You need depth in the playoffs, especially. I'm just ready to go whenever I get my name called."

When asked if McMichael could possibly play in the postseason, however, Reirden made clear that he wouldn't be with the team if he wasn't seen as at least an option.

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"I think that's something that we're going to continue to evaluate," Reirden said. "If we didn't think that he was an option to be able to be played then that would be a player we wouldn't probably bring to the hub city with us. He's going to be there and he's going to be in Toronto, then to me, he's an option because so many things can change so quickly with what's going to happen inside this bubble."

Lars Eller has already expressed his intention to leave the bubble for the birth of his second child which will force the team to replace him in the lineup. Also, the longer the Caps go in the playoffs, the more likely it is that there will be an injury somewhere forcing in someone else. If that opportunity comes along for McMichael, he said he will be ready.

"I'm just really happy to be here," McMichael said. "I'm going to do everything to prove to the coaches that I can play in the lineup and, if not, I'll always be ready in case someone gets hurt or other things happen. So, I'm just really excited to be here and it should be really fun."

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