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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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Penguins lose Sidney Crosby for a minimum of 6 weeks after undergoing surgery

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Penguins lose Sidney Crosby for a minimum of 6 weeks after undergoing surgery

The Pittsburgh Penguins have already dealt with a litany of injuries this season, but none as significant as this one. The team announced Thursday that Sidney Crosby has undergone what it called a “successful core muscle injury repair” and will be out a minimum of six weeks. Crosby has been dealing with a sports hernia since training camp.

The Penguins have already been without Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for points this season, but obviously neither means as much to that team as Crosby. Despite dealing with the sports hernia, Crosby still leads the team with 17 points in 17 games.

Pittsburgh currently sits fourth in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 10-6-2. Just two years removed from their last Stanley Cup, an aging Penguins roster faced scrutiny heading into the season over whether the team was good enough to keep up in a competitive Metropolitan Division, especially in the wake of getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs in 2019. Though it is still early, losing Crosby for such a significant period of time while the team sits in the middle of the standings could torpedo their chances of returning to the playoffs.

But don’t dismiss the Penguins just yet.

Injuries are nothing new for Crosby who has only once in his career played a full 82 games. In his 13 seasons prior to this year, he has been limited to fewer than 55 games three times, not including the lockout-shortened season. In all three seasons, Pittsburgh still made the playoffs.

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Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

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Capitals complete undefeated month, Ovechkin lets up on Niskanen and is Oshie the best shootout player ever?

The Capitals have not lost in regulation in a month. With their 2-1 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday, Washington extended its point streak to 13 games. The Caps have won 11 of their last 12 and have not lost in regulation since Oct. 14.

Check out Wednesday's game recap here.

Observations from the win

Panik is close

This was easily Richard Panik’s best game as a Cap. He had four shots on goal in the first period and six for the game. He had only seven shots on goal total in his nine games prior to Wednesday. He looked like one of the more dangerous offensive players for Washington and the third line actually looked offensively dangerous.

Now here’s the key, Panik has to continue playing like this. He can’t deliver a performance like this once every 10 games, this needs to be the new normal and not the exception.

Radko Gudas

Yeah, this game mattered to Gudas. He was far more aggressive in the offensive zone than we have seen him at any point this season. In the first period, he cut through the middle of the offensive zone and dangled the puck like a scoring winger. He nearly scored and that would have been a goal to remember.

No consistency by the refs

Slashing is called differently in today’s NHL than it was ten years ago. Heck, it is different than it was five years ago. Old-school hockey enthusiasts hate it, but whatever. It's fine. There’s not enough padding on the gloves and players get hurt from even innocent-looking slashes. It's better to have a few soft calls in the game than more broken fingers.

If you are going to call those light slashes as penalties, that’s fine, but you have to do it consistently. The issue is not that refs are calling too many slashes, it’s just that there is no consistency with those calls.

Jakub Vrana was called for a very light slash on Ivan Provorov in the second period. By the letter of the law, it was a slash. OK, they called it and that means that this is the standard you have now set. In the third period, Sean Couturier gave Wilson a whack in front of the net while he was battling for the puck. Ten years ago, no one would have batted an eyelash over it, t was just a light tap. But the refs set the standard with the Vrana slash, yet there was no call. You could see Wilson, he is used to having grown men throw their fists at his face, complain about what was a light tap to the refs. The severity of the slash was not the problem, consistency was.

That’s the frustrating part. It’s not that the Vrana slash was called, it’s that the same standard was not kept throughout the game.

Ovechkin on Niskanen

In the second period, Alex Ovechkin had Matt Niskanen square in his sights. The commentators on the broadcast praised Ovechkin for following through on his hit even though it was against his former teammate. I hate to disagree, but it sure looks to me like Ovechkin could have ended Niskanen with this hit. I’m fairly certain Ovechkin took something off this, but you be the judge:

Eastern conference

The Caps have played only eight games against the Eastern Conference in their first 20. In those eight games, Washington has not lost a single one in regulation and now has a record of 7-0-1.

Turning point

After the first period, this looked like it was going to be an easy win for the Caps who were completely dominating. After two periods, it looked like Washington would have to settle for a narrow victory. Then Nic Dowd toe picked in front of Matt Niskanen and fell into the former Caps’ legs. As happens in hockey, one bad penalty call quickly turned into a goal as Claude Giroux scored on a 2-on-1 to tie the game.

That was the difference between a regulation win and a shootout win on Wednesday for Washington.

Play of the game

There were a number of great saves by Holtby as the Flyers began to tip the scales in their favor after the first period. This one stands out as the best as Tyler Pitlick thought he could spin and tuck the puck into the far-side of the net, but Holtby was able to turn him aside with the toe.


Stat of the game

T.J. Oshie is not just one of the best shootout players in the league, he is the best shootout player ever.


Quote of the game

Holtby does not say much after games. He talks about shutting everything out and focusing just on his play. He does not get excited for shutouts or overly down on himself after bad games. His entire focus is helping the team win.

One reporter asked Holtby if playing in a game like Wednesday's is more fun because of how he has to push himself when the oppositions' goalie plays so well. Holtby's answer reflects how much respect he has for Philadelphia's Carter Hart.

"Yeah it is. Especially when it’s a guy that’s fun to play against obviously. Connections in different ways. Being Western Canadian, I root for those guys. It was fun. It was fun to see him play really well and it was fun to compete like that."

Fan predictions

Gudas and Holtby were closest. Gudas was buzzing and nearly scored in the first period. Holtby allowed only one goal and was 13:45 away from the shutout.

The Caps as a team could not muster two goals against Hart so that streak is now over.

Ovechkin fell just a bit shy of scoring the 224 goals he needed to pass Gretzky’s record on Wednesday. Oh well, there’s always Friday’s game.

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