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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Will Samsonov overtake Holtby this season as the starter?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Will Samsonov overtake Holtby this season as the starter?

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.

@bikeandtrainfan on Twitter writes: Rob. Do you and Alan think there is a much deeper reason as to why Braden Holtby has looked a bit woeful the first week plus?

First, you spelled “JJ” wrong. Second, I have to wonder if pressure over being in a contract year and the fact that Ilya Samsonov is on the roster are messing with Holtby’s head. I asked him this directly on Tuesday and he kind of skirted the question.

Holtby has been in goalie competitions before, but this is different. When Philipp Grubauer overtook him for the starting job in 2018, Holtby was still under contract so at least he was secure in that way. He still had to reclaim the net from Grubauer, but I never got the sense that the organization believed Grubauer was their long-term starter.

Samsonov, however, is different. You don’t draft a goalie in the first round unless you believe he is going to one day be the starter. Now he is in the NHL, backing up Holtby and playing well. The fact that he is with the Caps this season with Holtby on the last year of his contract is no coincidence and I'm sure that fact is not lost on him.

It also won’t be lost on Holtby that the team is tight against the salary cap and there is virtually no way it can afford to bring him back if he makes anything close to his market value. Perhaps he rebounds and plays well the rest of the season in which case he earns a contract at least comparable to Sergei Bobrovsky’s which carries a cap hit of $10 million. That’s more than the team can afford. On the other hand, Holtby could continue to struggle making his value goes down. At that point, why would you re-sign your struggling starter when his replacement is already here ready to go?

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Holtby who looks like he is going to play himself out of town with either good or bad play.

...Or maybe this is just a short slump that all goalies go through and Holtby’s right, we won’t even be talking about this a month from now.

Douglas F. writes: With Ilya Samsonov playing really well to start the season and Braden Holtby struggling a bit do you think Samsonov could start over Holtby like Philipp Grubauer did in 2018?

That depends on what you’re asking. If you’re asking could Samsonov get to a point where he is considered the No. 1 heading into the playoffs? Sure, I could see that. If you are asking could Samsonov start taking the bulk of the starts and finish with 45-50 or more starts this season? No, I dont’ see that unless Holtby completely bottoms out.

First off, when Grubauer took over as the No. 1, he had a lot of starting experience at that point. He played in 50 total games in 2014-15 (49 with Hershey, one with the Caps), 45 games in 2013-14 (28 with Hershey, 17 with the Caps), 56 games in 2012-13 (26 with the Reading Royals, 28 with Hershey and two with the Caps) and 43 games with South Carolina in 2011-12. The team knew Grubauer could handle the rigors of being a starting goalie.

The most games Samsonov played in a single season was 37 and it came last year with Hershey. There is no way the team just decides he is going to be the starter from now on and put him on pace for a bulk of the starts in his first NHL season.

Even when Holtby was at his worst in 2018, Grubauer did not just take over. Holtby was pulled from a game on March 6 and was given some time to reset. Once he returned, it was an even tandem. Holtby got back in on March 16. At that point, there were 12 games remaining in the regular season and Holtby ended up starting in six of them.

@Cappie2020 on Twitter writes: Why does Reirden keep going back to Chandler Stephenson over Nic Dowd?

When the Caps signed Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic in the offseason, I thought it was clear that Stephenson was on the way out. When he signed his new contract that was just under the maximum for a buried salary, I was positive he was Hershey bound and that training camp was just a formality. But Reirden challenged Stephenson in training camp to prove himself and he responded. That carries a lot of weight with coaches. I think the hope is that at his best, Stephenson can be a player like Carl Hagelin. He has the speed and I know Reirden likes him on the penalty kill which is why he kept getting in the lineup last year over guys like Dmitrij Jaskin.

Now sometimes in sports the unfortunate reality is a player can do everything you ask and it is still not enough. To me, that’s where I am with Stephenson. He did everything asked of him, but I don't see room for him in the lineup because the fourth line just clicks better with Dowd and Dowd is a more consistent player. Stephenson is better in terms of skill set than Dowd, but we do no see it consistently enough.

I understand why Reirden wants to keep Stephenson in and will be trying to find a spot for him. He earned at least that in training camp. Overall, however, I agree with you. Dowd is a much better fit for that line and should be playing. The fourth line can’t be just a placeholder for a guy you want to play on the penalty kill. If you want the fourth line to make an impact, it seems to produce and perform better with Dowd at center.

Benjamin C. writes: Richard Panik isn’t big on goal scoring but I haven’t seen any contribution from him whatsoever besides the PK. When do we start to seeing something from him?

Panik has not been great. I liked him a lot in the preseason, but he has struggled since the season has began. He was good against Dallas and had a great scoring opportunity against Colorado, but overall he has been unimpressive.

It's important to remember though that we are seven games into the season. I don't know if every high school was like this, but in mine we had "interim" grades which were a gigantic pain. They were report cards sent in the middle of the quarter that weren't official, but showed what your grade was at that point. They were always terrible because that point in the quarter even if you had one missed homework assignment it would drop your grade significantly. My parents were the type of parents who got on me about my grades so I always hated those stupid things.

The point of that seemingly needless tangent is that it is far too soon to write the book on Panik and declare him a bust. Let him settle in with his new team and his new role first. It is going to take some time. People don’t want to hear that, but sometimes it takes a while for a player to adjust.

So basically what I’m saying is that it is too soon to Panik.

See what I did there?

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Why does Todd have such an itchy trigger finger moving pieces around so much and so early? I mean they’ve been producing points up front, everybody except Richard Panik really.... leave it alone.

This is just something coaches do. Barry Trotz used to do this all the time. Reirden changed the lines and people are upset, but if he did nothing after that horrendous game against Colorado people would be upset about him not adjusting after a bad loss and saying it’s because he doesn’t know how to coach.

I’m not going to go nuts about the fact that Reirden is changing lines. Having said that...I’m not a huge fan of these lines:

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - Garnet Hathaway
Brendan Leipsic - Chandler Stephenson - Richard Panik

Jonas Siegenthaler - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Radko Gudas
Nick Jensen - Tyler Lewington

There’s not much you can do with the defense until Michal Kempny returns, but I’m not sure putting Jensen on the left is a good idea. He does not seem to do well playing on his off-side.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie had its time, but in this day and age that’s a pretty slow line. I have long advocated Oshie should move down to the third line with Eller whom he has chemistry with. Oshie at this point would benefit from fewer minutes and the third line could use an offensive boost, but Oshie is playing really well right now and already has four goals, so I get it why Reirden would move him up.

Vrana has been in Reirden’s dog house for a while now. The problem is he is starting to become one of those players who, if he doesn’t score, he doesn’t do much else. You need more from a top-six player. Panik has struggled so I get that, but Hathaway is a fourth-line player, plus that fourth line was very good with Leipsic, Dowd and Hathaway. I mentioned before, I would not put Stephenson in over Dowd, but that’s just me.

Benjamin C. writes: The Capitals are struggling to close games out and hold a lead. This goes back to that Game 7 loss to Carolina. Is it a mentality issue? Blueline? Braden Holtby? Why are we blowing our leads every game?

My theory on this is that the Caps have been far too passive when playing with the lead. Let’s take the two games against Dallas as an example. In the first game, the Caps held a lead in the third period and did not even register a shot on goal until over 10 minutes into the period. By that point, Dallas had already tied the game. In the second game against Dallas, Washington was very aggressive in the third period and made a 2-0 game 3-0 early on.

Now let's be clear. I am not advocating for the run and gun Caps' style of defense which was, don't play any and always try to outscore your opponent. What I am saying is this team is not good playing on its heels and circling the wagons. They need to play a possession-heavy game and continue pressuring offensively and not simply let the opposition take it to them in the third.

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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What should the NHL look like when the season resumes? Caps GM weighs in on the possibilities

What should the NHL look like when the season resumes? Caps GM weighs in on the possibilities

The NHL season has been paused for two weeks and, with no real timetable for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows when the season could resume. Whenever it does, there is no question that the season format will have to be tweaked in some way to account for the special circumstances. Because of that, just what the season should look like when play resumes has become a major topic of discussion in hockey circles.

Alex Ovechkin said on Thursday that he would like to see the league jump straight into the playoffs. On Monday, Caps general manager Brian MacLellan weighed in.

"Fair to me would be all teams play the same number of games, both home and away," he said on a conference call, "So depending on the time you have when we come back or if we come back, you could set the schedule at 72, 74 games, close to possible of home and away if you could even those out and then kind of go from there after that."

For MacLellan, the biggest issues are the quality of play in the playoffs and the readiness of the players for that high-intensity hockey.

“I think ideally if time permitted, you would like a few games, but I would also be OK with jumping in the playoffs. I think for the benefit of the quality of play and the players’ health, ideally you’re playing a few games before you enter the playoffs.”

"It's going to be a challenge," he added. "We're going to end up being at least two months off, and to come in at various levels of conditioning -- some of it out of the players' hands -- it's going to be a hard thing to accomplish, to get players into game shape and send them into a playoff-type situation almost immediately."

One issue is that even when the coronavirus is under control, that doesn't mean the threat is totally gone. Unless there is a vaccine, should the NHL return this season certain precautions will have to be taken when the players return to begin practicing.

MacLellan said the team is discussing the possibility of small group skates and what precautions the team can take at its practice facility, MedStar Capitals Iceplex, to help prevent any of the players from contracting the virus.

"We've talked about that scenario taking place where we get on the other side of the virus curve and there's beginnings of you can have small groups," MacLellan said. "Could we structure something at [Medstar Capitals Iceplex] where we're bringing in three, four guys at a time? How do we handle sanitizing the training room, the equipment room? We've gone through these scenarios to be prepared if that becomes the case. If they say in June, OK you can start doing this, as an organization we want to be prepared for it. So that is a possibility and we're discussing it internally."

These are issues that must be discussed because the NHL is adamant that the Stanley Cup be awarded this year and that means probably playing hockey deep into the summer.

"I think depending on how the country, the world handles the virus, I think there is a possibility of playing end of June, July, August," MacLellan said. "I think the league is prepared, they've asked for building dates in August so I'm assuming it's a serious consideration on their part."

Just what that hockey will look like, however, is anyone's guess. There are still too many questions and too many unknowns about the league's possible return for there to be any definitive playoff format for the 2019-20 season. Until there is some clarity on when play may resume and how much time there will be for the remainder of the current season, then everyone remains in the dark.

"There's no set answer to it because I don't know how much time we're going to have," MacLellan said. "If we have eight weeks, do we have ten weeks, do we have more than 10 weeks? Depending on that time frame and if that's even legitimate at the time, you would have to set your schedule there. So could you shorten a series? Could you shorten the end of the schedule? I think all those options are on the table and I think it's just how the virus plays out and how we handle it and how much time we would have to get a season in if we could get a season in at the end."

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WATCH: Carl Hagelin is staying in shape by working out with his daughter

WATCH: Carl Hagelin is staying in shape by working out with his daughter

One of the biggest challenges for professional athletes during this coronavirus pandemic is keeping in shape. The lack of practices and games has forced them to find other ways to work out.

Capitals forward Carl Hagelin is doing his best to keep his legs ready for the return of the NHL season by high stepping in his front yard—with his one-year-old daughter Blanche.

If anything good has come out of this outbreak, it’s been the influx of home videos from athletes hanging out with their families.

Hagelin hasn’t posted much on Instagram since the social distancing guidelines went into effect, but this video with Blanche is already one of the best that’s come from a Capitals player so far.

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