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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: How can the Caps improve on defense?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: How can the Caps improve on defense?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Zack Damon writes: I could be wrong, but I believe the Caps now have a losing record (or .500 at best), against the Metro. Don’t fall for the fools’ gold of the most points in the league and “best team in hockey” due to having the most points.

You can't have it both ways. You can't tell me their overall record is meaningless, but conclude they are total frauds because they are only 7-7-1 in the Metro. Either regular-season results matter or they don't. You wrote last week that you think Carolina would easily beat Washington in the playoffs because of their two earlier losses to them this season. Well, Washington was 19-7-2 against the Metro last season and 4-0-0 against Carolina.

Didn't matter much in the playoffs, did it?

I am much more inclined to believe that regular season results do not matter so long as a team can string enough points to make it into the playoffs. You have to determine how a team will perform in the playoffs based on how they play, not on head-to-head records.

Elias Rohan writes: This team is a fake contender. They have the “we’re good enough to just flip the switch when we need to” mentality. It’s a VERY bad look!! Also, this team has NEVER shown in its history the ability to handle & win in the playoffs with high expectations. The ONLY times in the franchise’s history they’ve shown well in the playoffs have been with no expectations. Additionally, the power play is non-existent & has been in decline since last year, with no signs of improving, which it won’t due to predictably, as you’ve touched on.

I think you are getting caught up in recency bias. The Caps have not been at their best the last few weeks and that is coloring your perception leading to some overreaction. Just as it was premature to start planning the Cup parade in November, it's too early to write them off.

The "flip the switch" mentality would be bad if the Caps continue playing like they are currently into April. Otherwise, this is an overreaction. Did you really expect the Caps to play consistently well from Game 1 through 82? Tampa Bay last year was an anomaly because never keep up that pace for 82 games. I think you are being a tad unrealistic with your expectations if you are selling off the Caps for not being as good in December and January as they were in October and November. Like I said, if the Caps continue playing the way they have over the last few weeks into February, March and even April, then it is time to be concerned. For me, two months of inconsistent play do not negate an entire season, especially when we saw earlier in the season how good this team can be.

As to your second point, I have never bought into the theory that the Caps were successful because of low expectations. Since you reference franchise history, let's look back. In 1998 the Caps finished fourth in the conference and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. With all due respect to that team, I think the fact that the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the East all lost in the first round had more to do with that run than the fact no one had expectations for that team. The 2012 upset of Boston confirmed to me the sad fact that Bruce Boudreau is not a good playoff coach. When they played with a modicum of defensive awareness, they ended up defeating the defending champs.

Sure, everyone thought Tampa Bay would win the conference in 2018, but I don't get this idea that there was somehow no pressure on Washington heading into the postseason. What do people think happened in the second round when the Caps played Pittsburgh? Do you honestly believe there was no pressure on them because everyone thought they were going to lose to the Penguins again?

Hey, this is the same team that beats us every year, our entire roster may be dismantled if we don't find a way to bear our archrivals, but at least there's no pressure!

OK, no one really paid much attention to the Columbus series, but do we all think there was just no media scrutiny, no attention paid to the Caps-Penguins rematch because they were supposed to lose? That there was somehow a weight lifted going into the series because of that? I just don't buy it.

Mr. Murphy writes: The Caps almost ALWAYS giving up the first goal, plus their AWFUL infatuation with the penalty box has been ongoing ALL year. It’ been quite unsightly. ADDITIONALLY, their power play isn’t “slumping,” it’s been sliding ongoing since basically late last year. Their 3rd line is nothing short of a joke so don’t get caught up in the team & speak with your heart simply because you cover them.

Mr. Murphy, you are picking and choosing what parts of my analysis to pay attention to. As I wrote, I do not think this team can win with the defense as it is currently constructed. I also remember, however, that the Stanley Cup is not awarded in January. The St. Louis Blues were dead last in the NHL in January 2019. How'd that work out for them?

I am not saying don't count out the Detroit Red Wings, I am saying don't count out the team that dominated the NHL for the first two months of the season just because they have flaws. Every team in this league has flaws. Every one of them.

The Caps have to stop taking so many penalties. They can improve on that. The power play has to be better. I don't lump it into last year because the problem last year was that the power play couldn't break the puck into the offensive zone to save its life. That has not been the problem this year so to simply say the power play has been bad since last season ignores the fact that the problem has evolved from break-ins to the set up. Offensively, the third line is not going to come close to expectations, but it has proven to be pretty sound defensively so it is not a liability and in fact was a key part of the team's win over Carolina on Monday.

Again, I do not believe the Caps can win with their defense as currently constructed. They need to upgrade there, but I definitely put them among the contenders if they do that.

Fred W. writes: If you took a snapshot of the teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today, what would be our record against those teams?

Here is the Caps' record against each team in a playoff spot or close to one as of the time of writing:

Eastern Conference
0-0-0 against Pittsburgh (2nd in the Metro)
1-1-0 against the New York Islanders (3rd in the Metro)
2-1-0 against Boston (1st in the Atlantic)
3-0-0 against Tampa Bay (2nd in the Atlantic)
2-0-0 against Toronto (3rd in the Atlantic)
2-1-1 against Carolina (1st Wild Card)
1-1-0 against Philadelphia (2nd wild card)
1-2-0 against Columbus (1st team out)
2-0-0 against Florida (2nd team out)

Western Conference
1-0-0 against St. Louis (1st team in the Central)
1-0-1 against Dallas (2nd team in the Central)
0-1-0 against Colorado (3rd team in the Central)
0-0-1 against Arizona (1st team in the Pacific)
0-0-1 against Edmonton (2nd team in the Pacific)
2-0-0 against Calgary (3rd team in the Pacific)
1-0-1 against Vancouver (1st wild card)
0-0-0 against Winnipeg (2nd wild card)
1-0-0 against Vegas (1st team out)

Benjamin Cross writes: What are we going to do about Jensen? He mishandles pucks, holds onto it too long, turnovers and only 2 points offensively. I start to wonder what he’s doing?

Jensen has certainly struggled. At this point, I think confidence is playing a factor.

I think Jensen can be a decent third pair defenseman. He's playing in the top four which brings with it more pressure and more minutes. He showed in Detroit that he can be a good player, but the mistakes he is making are egregious to the point that I really do think it is in his head.

I've written this before, but this is another situation in which having only six defensemen on the roster hurts. He could use a few nights off to get his game back together, but instead he has to play because there is no one else on the roster to take his place. Also, in the interest of fairness, he was pretty good on Monday against Carolina. Hopefully he can build on that.

Larry Thibodeau writes: I often hear the 'systems' that NHL teams play are similar with subtle differences. So what makes a player struggle in when they switch teams? If they're all similar, why is Jensen struggling to play within the Caps' system? Is it that he isn't as good as the Caps GM / scouts thought, or is it more that he's not a top 4 defenseman?

The biggest difference between Detroit's system and Washington's is that in Detroit, defensemen stay in their lane. If you are a right defenseman, you play the rigth side of the ice only. In Washington, there is a lot more crisscrossing, especially in the offensive zone. When you get up the ice, swinging to your off-side makes it easier to take one-timers.

There are fewer right defensemen than left defensemen at just about every level of hockey which means right defensemen do not play the left side nearly as often as left defensemen have to play on the right. Since coming to Washington, Jensen has never really looked all that comfortable playing on the left.

Remember this?

Jensen has to defend against Warren Foegele coming down the left side. You would be hard-pressed to play this worse than Jensen did there and it's because he was on his off-side.

So the issue with Jensen is he came into a system that he did not and seemingly still does not feel comfortable playing in and he is playing for a team where mistakes matter. OK, so you let in a goal with the Red Wings. Who cares? They stink. You let in a goal with the Caps and it is more noticeable because these games matter a heck of a lot more.

Ryan Jones writes: I've read for quite some time now that you believe that the Caps need to improve at the top 4 right defenseman position. What moves do you think they would make to get the cap space to acquire a top 4 defenseman?

Blake Boynton writes: What do the Caps have to give up to trade Nick Jensen... bring in a top 4 - right shot- defenseman... AND stay under the salary cap?

Michael Fleetwood writes: I think at this point it's obvious that Nick Jensen has struggled this season. Do you think the Caps will look to make an improvement over Jensen or will they stick with him given he is under contract for the next three seasons and they are tight against the cap?

I've lumped these three questions together because the answers are related. I don't see the team making any trades to shed salary at this point. The two guys most people ask about are Richard Panik and Jensen. There is no way they trade Panik. The third line may not be anywhere close to what the team had hoped in terms of offense, but it is proving to be pretty good defensively. I don't think they mess with that now.

I am doubtful they trade Jensen for two reasons. First, you would have to package him with an asset to get a team to take that contract, as Blake suggested, or you would have to swap him for another player with a bad contract. That's all you are getting for him. If you think you are going to get a top-four defenseman for him, then the price of that asset the Caps would be sending with him goes up significantly. Second, with Radko Gudas on the last year of his contract, this team may need a third-pair right defensemen next season, a role Jensen is much more suited for than the top-four one he is currently playing.

So how then does the team improve the defense? I think there are two possible solutions. First, bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left-shot, but he has been playing the right in Hershey. See what he can do. Maybe he's not ready, maybe he can get away with playing on the right in the AHL, but not in the NHL, or maybe he would be an upgrade. You don't know unless you try.

The second solution is to look for the next Michal Kempny, a right defenseman with a low cap hit who scouts think is being undervalued by his current team. Those guys are hard to find and you may not hit on him, but that to me is the most likely option.

The fact that the team was able to recall Christian Djoos at the end of December means the team has at least enough cap space to add a player with Djoos' cap hit of $1.25 million. That will go up as the team continues to bank space so I think they could potentially add a cap hit of around $2-2.5 million. You can also get creative with salary retention when making trades.

Benjamin Cross writes: The power play is frustrating, all that talent yet Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are casted off to the side and usually end up “quarterbacking” it to John Carlson which isn’t quarterbacking. Why can’t Kuznetsov and Backstrom start shooting or getting more involved or Kuznetsov go to left side of goal? Why doesn’t T.J. Oshie touch the puck on half our power plays?

The reason why the power play sets up entirely on the right side is to draw the penalty killers away from Alex Ovechkin as much as possible. If the defense can't set up in front of Ovechkin, it allows him to get his shot off on target. A goalie facing an Ovechkin shot is already in trouble. Trying to stop an Ovechkin shot when it's a cross-ice one-timer is really tough to do. Goalies essentially just have to slide over and hope the puck hits them because they are not going to be able to get set.

Oshie does not touch the puck all that much because his job is the play the slot. He is there to take quick shots from in close. It is up to Backstrom and Kuznetsov to distribute the puck where ever there is room.

Look, I'm not going to criticize this set up and say anyone is being wasted by it. It was effective for years so clearly it can work this way. My criticism of the power play for a while now has been exactly what you suggest, Backstrom and Kuznetsov need to shoot more. Teams know the power play is trying to get the puck to Oshie and Ovechkin so they give Backstrom and Kuznetsov a ton of space. They can't do that if they have to account for those guys shooting and that should open up more room to distribute the puck where they want to go.

Micah Reed writes: Why exactly is the Capitals 6v5 unit so much better than the 5v4 unit? Teams have been playing an aggressive style against the Caps powerplay to limit time and space. Shouldn't that same strategy work against the 6v5 with even more bodies meaning there is less space to work with for the puck handlers?

Yes, power plays are more dangerous with fewer bodies on the ice. A 4-on-3 power play should be more effective than a 5-on-4 and a 5-on-4 should be more effective than a 6-on-5. So why has it not been that way? To me this gets to the heart of one of the reasons the power play is struggling.

At 6-on-5, the Caps play with a sense of urgency. With the goalie pulled, there is no time to waste and the team plays at full speed down the ice and distributes the puck quickly when they get into the offensive zone. The puck does not stay in any spot for too long. Right now, I think the power play is being just too casual when they get set up. When Backstrom passes to Kuznetsov, if there is no shot and Oshie is not open, it needs to go right back to Backstrom. There's no reason for Kuznetsov to stand around with the puck and stickhandle when there's nothing there. I'm not singling out Kuznetsov, I'm just using him as an example. The players on the ice need to make quicker decisions with the puck. Faster passes will do more to draw a penalty kill out of position than a slower tempo will.

JR Banks writes: NO PLAYER GOAL SONGS. This is a TEAM game.

I disagree with you entirely. The new goal songs bring electricity after a goal that I have not seen since they played Rock and Roll Pt. 2 after every goal (the "Hey" song). You can play a team sport and still celebrate players for their accomplishments. This is one of the things that drives me nuts about baseball. You better not celebrate. You better be careful how you lay the bat after a  home run. You better not go too fast or too slow around the bases. You better not look at anyone for too long while you're doing it. You better not show one ounce of personality because it's a team game and you are breaking the unwritten rules of the game if you do.

And even with as silly as baseball can get about these things, those players still have walk-up songs.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

The 6 most important things Brian MacLellan said about new Caps acquisition Brenden Dillon

ARLINGTON, Va. --  While the Capitals were on the road, Brian MacLellan was hard at work and finalized a deal on Tuesday to bring San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon to Washington. On Wednesday he met with the media to talk about the newest Cap.

"He's got playoff experience, he's a veteran player, physicality, the ability to play with top-end guys, a good character guy," MacLellan said. "I think he'll add a lot of energy in our room and on the ice. He's a physical presence. He checked a lot of boxes for everything we thought we needed."

Here are the six most important things MacLellan said about Dillon.

Dillon may be a top-pair player

Dillon is certainly a top-four defenseman, but the Caps added a player they feel can play on the top pair.

"I think we move him around a little bit," MacLellan said. "He could play with [John Carlson], could play with [Dmitry Orlov]. He's played with two good guys in San Jose. I anticipate the coaches trying him at both spots and see what works best for us."

Todd Reirden echoed those thoughts after practice.

When asked if Dillon playing with Brent Burns made him a natural fit to play with Carlson on the top pair, Reirden said, "That's my first initial thought. That is a similar type of player for sure."

Either Kempny or Jensen is going to get bumped out of the top four

When you re-read MacLellan's comments on Dillon playing in the top four, he said he could play with either Carlson or Dmitry Orlov. Adding a player into the top four means taking someone out and, based on those comments, that player is either going to be Michal Kempny or Nick Jensen.

Dillon is not the solution for the team's problems on the right

Right defense has been an issue for the Caps this season, but it does not sound like the plan is to plug Dillon in on the right side.

MacLellan was asked if Dillon could play on his off-side and he gave a tepid endorsement.

"He could, yeah," MacLellan said. "I think he's played a little bit on the off-side, but Orly's had some experience playing on the off-side. There's a number of different combinations we could try."

Reirden was asked who would play the right if Dillon and Orlov played together, and he said it would be Orlov.

While both MacLellan and Reirden said it would be an option to try Dillon on the right, it did not sound like that was the long-term plan at all.

This was not a reaction trade

Washington has lost four of its last five games and is 11-11-0 since Dec. 23. The team suddenly no longer sits in first place in the Metropolitan Division and trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by a point in the standings. The Caps' recent struggles, however, did not influence this deal, at least according to MacLellan.

MacLellan stated twice that he would have made this deal "regardless because I think it's a great fit for us — I think his skillset and the group we do have. I think one of the things that's been frustrating for me is the play in front of our own net, the compete level in front of our own net, and this is something he brings to the table here. I think he does a great job in front of our net. So I think we addressed that through him."

It should be noted that MacLellan has previously stated he was only looking for depth at the trade deadline and now has acquired a player who may well end up playing on the team's top pair. If you take him at his word, however, MacLellan liked Dillon and liked the upgrade, and that's why this deal got done — not because of the team's current struggles.

Dillon's playoff experience is a major reason why he is now with Washington

Last season, MacLellan traded for a defenseman playing a significant role on a bad team in Nick Jensen. Jensen had zero playoff experience and that showed in the team's postseason series against the Carolina Hurricanes. This year, MacLellan elected to go a different route.

Dillon has 62 games of playoff experience under his belt and helped the San Jose Sharks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 and the Western Conference Final in 2019.

MacLellan was asked how much that experience mattered to him, and he said, "A lot. A lot. I think he’s been in the final. He’s been on good teams, similar to us. I think San Jose and Washington had top teams for a long time and he’s been in that environment, so I think it’s a good fit.”

Physical play is still a major part of the team's identity

Dillon is not the type of player you go out an acquire if physicality is not a priority.

For the season, Dillon ranks ninth in the NHL with 178 hits. His acquisition means the Caps now have five of the top 21 hitters in the league.

"I think we're all attracted to size as long as it can play," MacLellan said. "We like having the big bodies and playing a heavier game, and he's a good skater for his size, too. He has that physical presence, and we're excited to see how it fits for us."

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Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Here's how you can score free Chipotle by wearing your Caps jersey Friday

Now's your chance to score some free Chipotle, Caps fans!

By wearing your favorite Capitals jersey on Friday, you can earn a free entree through Chipotle's "suit up and score" campaign with the purchase of another entree of equal or lesser value.

While all jerseys qualify for the promotion, we recommend Alex Ovechkin's as he goes for goal No. 700.

So rock your red, grab a friend and head to Chipotle for this awesome deal redeemable Friday, Feb. 21 only.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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