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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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A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

 

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals returned home only to have their six-game winning streak snapped by a Columbus Blue Jackets team that had lost its last four.

Check out the recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

The first period is in the running for worst of the season

Washington was outshot 20-6, could not get possession and could not get the puck out of the defensive zone. Things were getting comically bad as Michal Kempny accidentally shot the puck on his own net which forced a save from Braden Holtby and then a trip as he tried to keep Pierre-Luc Dubois from getting to the loose puck. Later in the period, Gustav Nyquist got a breakaway chance when Jakub Vrana basically passed the puck right to him.

Why was it so bad? Maybe it was the jet lag, maybe the Caps came into this one thinking they would have an easy time against a bad team or maybe it was just one of those nights. Regardless, it was bad. While Washington played better as the game went along, that first period really set the tone for the entire 60 minutes.

Holtby was the only reason the Caps were in this game

The Caps will likely have to choose between Holtby and Ilya Samsonov in the offseason as their goalie of the future. Because of that, some fans are already drawing lines in the sand and declaring themselves for Team Holtby or Team Samsonov. Those Holtby detractors take every opportunity to declare every bad game as Holtby’s fault, but that was just not the case on Monday.

Holtby was the only thing, the only thing keeping Washington in this game.

Holtby made 33 saves for the game, 19 of which came in just the first period alone. The third goal Holtby allowed was soft as he showed Riley Nash too much daylight off the post allowing Nash to bank the puck off him and in, but besides that, it was a really strong game for the Caps' netminder overall.

The third line showed signs of life but remains a work in progress

Coming into this game, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, and Richard Panik had played less than 24 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. Having a full lineup back, Reirden was able to utilize this line and the results were good. They ultimately did not produce any points, but the line looked very good to start and it looks like there is potential there.

"They did some good things," Reirden said. "I thought early on they were probably one of our better lines to start the game. They were the group that was giving us some offense and giving us some possession time and I thought executing at probably the highest level."

Look, I know many fans out there are done with Panik already, but give him time to actually play on the line he was signed to play with. The Caps have banked a ton of points and sit first in the entire NHL. They have the flexibility to experiment with the third line and see if that trio can build some chemistry together.

Keep an eye on the home record

The loss drops Washington's home record to 8-3-4 for the season. Not terrible, but not great either especially when compared to their 14-2-1 record on the road. I'm not ready to think there is something wrong with theCaps at home yet, but this is something that is worth monitoring.

Turning point

The Caps had nothing going for them through 40 minutes, but it would not be the first time they were able to rally from a multi-goal deficit in the third period to get the win. Heck, I'm not sure people would even be surprised by it anymore. When Alex Ovechkin scored less than a minute into the third, my gut reaction was OK, here we go. Here comes the rally.

Nash's goal put an end to all of that when he was able to bank the puck in off of Holtby from behind the goal line. At that point, you knew the game was over.

Play of the game

On the first period breakaway Nyquist received courtesy of Vrana, Nyquist tried to beat Holtby with the backhand through the 5-hole. The Caps' netminder recovered well and swept out the pads to deny him the goal. Had Washington come back to make a game of this one, this save would have been one of the pivotal moments of the game.

Stat of the game

Congratulations to Craig "Woody" Leydig!

Quote of the game

Reirden on what went wrong in the first period:

"There wasn't a whole lot going right. That was, to me, one of our worst two periods of the year."

Fan predictions

You got the score right, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both had one goal and one assist. I'm pretty sure you meant that the Caps were going to win though so you didn't nail this one as much as it looks like you did.

Umm...just a narrow miss there.

Go home Mike, you're drunk.

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Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

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USA Today Sports Images

Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

WASHINGTON - Put it away. 

Honestly, what else can the Capitals say after a 5-2 loss to the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday at Capital One Arena. 

They had won six games in a row. They had just swept a four-game road trip to Detroit and the three California teams (San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim). Things were going great. That's always dangerous in the NHL.  

Use any excuse you want - a trap game before playing the powerhouse Bruins visit in two days, a letdown coming home for the first time since Nov. 29, a sleepy Monday night crowd in early December - but the Capitals were having none of it. 

"Even if you had a winning streak like this, I think it's important - when you lose, there's no easy games in this league, that's for sure,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You’ve just got to bounce back right away. We have a good test on Wednesday against Boston. I think, right?"

Forgive Backstrom if he wasn’t quite certain that a showdown loomed with the Bruins, who have the second-most points in the NHL behind Washington (22-5-5). It’s a tough time of year for players and the calendar gets away from them.

But after eight games out of the lineup with an upper-body injury, Backstrom was just happy to be back on the ice. He even scored a goal late in the third period to cut the Columbus lead to 4-2 before an empty-netter put things away. 

Up in Ottawa, the Bruins (20-5-6) were also losing a game you wouldn’t expect: 5-2 to Ottawa. Combine the Blue Jackets and Senators have just 55 points. That’s barely more than Washington (49) and Boston (46) on their own, but in the NHL there’s too much parity to take any game for granted.

“You've got to be on top of your game or you're susceptible to ending up on the wrong end of things,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “We’ve been really consistent, obviously, through 30-plus games of doing that. Tonight, we weren't. Had a bad start to the game. It cost us.”

Consider it a humbling lesson. Just like when the New York Islanders won a game at Tampa Bay on Monday night and the lead in the Metropolitan Division is seven points for the Capitals. No reason to panic, no reason to do anything other than start a new streak against a top-level opponent on Wednesday that should give both Washington and Boston a good sense of where their game is.

Take the good and toss the bad: Backstrom is back and scored. The penalty kill, with Lars Eller playing a bigger role, was solid again at 5-for-5 and the third line of Eller. Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik played as a unit for the first time since early October. 

Braden Holtby (33 saves, 37 shots) had a great first period in goal, but gave up an ugly bad-angle shot in the third to Riley Nash just a few minutes after Alex Ovechkin had cut the lead to 2-1 in the first minute of the third period with his 21st goal. But Columbus scored three times in the third - once on an empty net. A game Washington was chasing almost the entire way turned into a deserved Blue Jackets win. Things have gone so well so far in 2019-20. Time to flush it fast. The Bruins await.  

“We were lucky it was only a 1-0 game because of the way [Holtby] played,” Hagelin said. “We started getting better and better as the game went on, but it wasn’t enough. That’s one of those games where you have to forget about it and move on.” 

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