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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Looking to and beyond the 2019-20 NHL season

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Looking to and beyond the 2019-20 NHL season

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 to be 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.

A quick note on today’s mailbag. I saved most of the questions for Part 2 because there was no good way to transition from “what do you think about Kuznetsov testing positive for cocaine?” to “how’s the Metropolitan Division look this year?” I tried to keep the answers shorter than usual so as not to make this too long and failed miserably so sorry for the extra long mailbag. I hope you still enjoy!

Joseph P. writes: Excluding the Caps, which team(s) do you feel made the biggest improvements in the Metro division this offseason? How would you rank the teams of the Metro Division as of right now?

New Jersey improved the most. Conventional wisdom says they are a year away from putting it all together, but Taylor Hall dragged a much worse roster into the playoffs almost single-handedly. If he is healthy, watch out. I like what the Rangers did, but when you dive a little deeper they are not quite out of the rebuild just yet. We do not know what to expect from Henrik Lundqvist and Artemi Panarin took a deeper Columbus team to the second round of the playoffs once. Add in the fact that they are going to have to trade either Chris Kreider or Vladislav Namestnikov before the season to get under the cap and this team will carry nearly $7.5 million in dead cap space because of buyouts next season, we may be two years away still from the blue shirts contending.

I have no idea what the Penguins are thinking and Jimmy Rutherford is going to have to spend more prospects and draft picks making up for his own mistakes. They will make the playoffs, but I do not see them doing much more than that. I really like the direction Carolina is going, but I have no faith Petr Mrazek can do what he did last year again and they are going to really miss Curtis McElhinney.

The Flyers are in win-now mode and can compete for the division, but they are not a real threat to go deep in the playoffs. After missing out on Panarin, it looks like there was no plan B for the Islanders. If you stand pat in the Metro, you fall behind so I think they take a step back. I do not buy the optimism around Columbus. It lost its two best players and replaced them with Gustav Nyquist. Goalie Elvis Merzlikins is a goalie to watch for the future, but this year they will miss Sergei Bobrovsky.

My rankings:

1. Capitals
2. Flyers
3. Hurricane
4. Penguins
5. Devils
6. Rangers
7. Islanders
8. Blue Jackets

From top to bottom, the Caps still have the best roster in the division.

From @MichaelJBenelli on Twitter: Who is going to be the backup goalie? Who is traded before the season? Who are the 5-6 defensemen?

Brad R. writes: Do you see the Caps flipping Christian Djoos for a pick or possible mid-level prospect to get under the cap or possibly keeping Vitek Vanicek over Pheonix Copley to comply? Of course both scenarios include waiving Stephenson (do you think he’s claimed or ends up in Hershey?)

First, on Christian Djoos, I do not believe the team is going to trade him right now. He is coming off a down season in which he suffered a significant injury and every general manager in the NHL knows the Caps are above the salary cap. The return for Djoos would be practically nothing, not enough to justify moving him.

I would be surprised if the Caps made any trades before the season. There are other ways for them to get under the cap and, as I said before, every general manager knows the team’s cap situation. Already you have lost leverage in any trade talks.

To get under the cap, the first step is to waive Chandler Stephenson. Stephenson signed a new contract over for $1.05 million next season which falls just under the maximum salary that can be fully buried in the AHL. That’s a pretty clear indication to me that Stephenson is headed to Hershey and I am fairly confident he will pass through waivers. That will leave the Caps with 13 forwards and seven defensemen.

An idea that seems to be gaining traction is to have Vitek Vanecek backup Holtby. If you waive both Stephenson and Pheonix Copley and replace him with Vanecek, that would get the team under the cap. As of now, that would be my best guess for what the team will do, but it will be a temporary solution until the team can bank enough money to bring up Ilya Samsonov and give him a few games. That would leave Jonas Siegenthaler/Djoos and Radko Gudas as the team’s third pair.

Benjamin C. writes: The Caps top 6 is obviously talented and will produce but how do you think our bottom 6 does? Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin showed some chemistry but do you think Richard Panik will be a nice fit with those two?

Panik can be a nice fit if he does two things. First, he has to produce. Of Hagelin, Eller and Panik, Panik is the only one of those three to score 20 goals in a season. I am not expecting or saying he has to score 20 goals, but he will most likely be the offensive focal point of that line. If halfway through the season he has five goals and seven assists, that’s not good enough.

The second thing Panik must due is he must limit offensive chances for the opposition. The reason I do not think they need 20 goals from Panik is because I see defense being a focus this year. If Washington can start cutting down on the high-danger opportunities and goals the team gives up, they can afford to score fewer.

If the third line is not going to be a major contributor on offense -- which it may not given its personnel -- it damn sure better be able to limit the opposition’s offense. If not, then this line just becomes a liability and then it’s time to rethink things.

Nathan S. writes: How savvy are Caps and other NHL teams in helping players from overseas learn or improve English to ensure that they are able to build good chemistry with the rest of the team? According to your recent podcast with the CBJ reporter, Artemi Panarin doesn't give interviews in English and that former Capital Alexander Semin also didn't and often pretended not to speak English to dodge the press. This can't sit well with the rest of the team. Are there issues of cliques forming around players from a given country?

The Caps provide every resource to help a player who needs to learn English. Samsonov has worked with a private tutor provided by the team for quite some time to help him learn and it is one reason why the team really emphasizes coming to play and live in North America. Playing style aside, it is easier to adjust to a new language if you are immersed in it. I do not have experience with other teams, but I assume they have similar resources to provide foreign players.

Just to be clear, I cannot say with 100-percent certainty that Panarin or Semin know English and only pretend not to in order to avoid speaking with the press. It is strongly believed by...pretty much everyone in the media that this is the case. If you wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, then perhaps they are just worried about speaking in a foreign language to the media and being misinterpreted. I could see that. Even players who seem to speak English very well quite often stop a reporter when he’s asking a question to ask what a certain word means.

I interviewed Samsonov in May. As he walked up to me he said, “Hi, how are you?” and afterward he said, “Thank you very much” in clear English. During the interview, however, he used Alex Alexeyev to translate and it was clear he did not completely understand everything I was saying . I could see how someone could get the wrong idea, but he certainly was not ducking me. He answered all my questions, but beyond a few common phrases he had not grasped all of the language yet.

Having said that, when you are as prominent as Panarin or Semin, if you still are not comfortable with the language as long as they were in North America, it is fair to question if learning the language was all that important to them.

In my experience, English tends to be more of an issue for the Russian players and sometimes the Czech’s. Every Swede seems to know English very well. Players from the same country or who speak the same language naturally gravitate towards each other in the locker room. In terms of cliques, sure, it can happen. I definitely got the sense that there was a measure of relief from within the entire organization when Sergei Shumakov left Hershey for Russia. He and Samsonov were often seen together and there were more than a few people who wondered if Shumakov was a bad influence.

You need a strong locker room to avoid these kinds of things and the strength of Washington’s locker room is well known which the Caps certainly have.

Greg C. writes: Why don't you include the salaries of other players on two-way contracts like Lucas Johanson, Shane Gersich & others? I suspect the answer has something to do with being a roster vs non-roster player, but can you elaborate/clarify? Have clubs published their lists of roster players or are we working off presumptions at this juncture?

This is a great question and I am sorry to have to give you an unsatisfying answer. I get pretty much all of my salary numbers from CapFriendly. When I first read your question, I simply assumed CapFriendly was projecting who was most likely to make the team and making its list off of that. That, however, cannot be the case as the NHL has rules saying a team cannot go more than 10-percent over the salary cap in the offseason. Clearly the rosters must be more official in order for the league to keep tabs. On the other hand, once training camp starts the Caps have to officially loan out the players who do not make the team. A guy like Michael Sgarbossa, for example, is not included in the team’s salary cap for now, but he will still have to pass through waivers to be sent to Hershey.

I reached out to CapFriendly to try and get clarification, but I have not heard back so to answer your question, I do not know for sure but the roster must be somewhat official through the offseason in order for the NHL to keep track of a team’s salary cap. I will continue to put my trust in CapFriendly and go off of what they have.

Bill B. writes: I keep hearing the term "banking money" as it applies to the salary cap, but I have no idea what that means. Could you explain how teams bank money over the course of the season?

This goes back to a common misconception in the way the salary cap works. The cap is not just a big number that a team’s yearly salary has to stay under, it actually runs daily once the season starts. An easier way to understand this is to say that a team is not allowed to be on pace to spend more than the cap ceiling.

So what does banking mean? However much money a team is under the cap, the team is saving that much money to spend later on.

Think of it this way. If I give you $7,000 on Monday and tell you that has to last you the week, if you had a cap ceiling you could not spend more than $1,000 per day because that would put you on pace to spend more than $7,000. But what if you only spent $500 per day through Friday? Suddenly you would have $4,500 left and be able to spend $2,250 on Saturday and Sunday. That may be way over the $1,000 per day you were originally limited to, but you banked the space and so the daily amount you can spend and still be on pace to stay under the cap has gone up. That’s how teams are able to load up at the trade deadline.

So what does that mean? Right now if the Caps sent Stephenson and Copley to Hershey, they could only afford Vanecek as the backup. Samsonov’s cap hit is too high until the team banks enough room to bring him up.

There is also another way we see teams bank money known as paper transactions. When a player is waiver exempt, there is no danger in reassigning that player to the AHL. The only rule about this is that a player cannot practice with the NHL team if he has been reassigned. What we see teams frequently do is on days off when there is no practice, they will reassign their waiver exempt players to the AHL, then call them up the very next day. The team has banked those player's salaries for that day. The only downside is that those players lose out on a day of NHL salary and revert to their minor league salary, but if you are good enough to be in the NHL while still waiver exempt, chances are you can make that up pretty quickly.

Greg C. writes: Are you surprised that neither Dmitrij Jaskin nor Devante Smith-Pelly have gotten PTO offers?

Yes and no. Every year when teams start handing out PTOs, I am always struck by the quality of player who cannot seem to find a job. The league continues to get younger, faster and more skilled and that means really good veterans often get left out. In his limited opportunities last season, Jaskin showed he can be an effective NHL player, but when training camps draw near, you will see a lot of players get PTOs who are better than he is.

When Smith-Pelly was put on waivers last season near the trade deadline, I assumed he would get claimed. A fourth line player who scored seven goals in a Cup run just the year before? Surely there is a team out that that could use him in the push to the playoffs. Yet, noon rolled around the next day and Smith-Pelly was still a Cap. Thirty other NHL teams could have acquired him for literally nothing and they all passed so no, I am not surprised that there is not another NHL team out there ready to give him a contract. The Caps were Smith-Pelly’s fourth team in his career and it sure seems like the league may have run out of patience with him.

Phillip M. writes: How do you see the 2020-21 Caps lines looking?

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - Richard Panik
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
Shane Gersich

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Alex Alexeyev - Jonas Siegenthaler
Free-agent veteran

Ilya Samsonov
Free-agent veteran backup

Obviously I am working under the assumption that Backstrom is re-signed and Holtby is not. This will be a big year for Kuznetsov, Orlov and Jensen. If the Caps do well, I could see them all back next year. If not, those would be the possible targets to be moved next offseason. At some point, Jonsson-Fjallby and Gersich are going to breakthrough. With all the long-term signings the Caps have made, however, I am not sure if there will be a consistent spot in the lineup for both.

On defense, I think Alexeyev makes it next season, Djoos ultimately becomes a cap casualty and the team will sign a veteran third-pair guy, most likely a righty to replace Gudas. Martin Fehervary will also be knocking on the door, but you want him getting consistent playing time in Hershey and not watching from the press box at Capital One Arena as a No. 7.

At some point this season, Copley is going to be put on waivers to make room for Vitek Vanecek or Samsonov. As a backup goalie who won 16 games last year whose contract fulfills the requirement to be exposed in the expansion draft, I think he gets taken off waivers. Rather than go with a Samsonov-Vanecek combo, I think the team finds a veteran backup.

Phillip M. writes: What are your thoughts on the Caps prospects’ future? I see no top-six forward and only two possible top-four defenders.

Since this is already a super-long mailbag, here’s a quick breakdown of the potential I see in the team’s prospects:

NOTE: This is where I see a player’s ceiling, most will probably fall somewhere under that)

Top-six forwards: Connor McMichael (still years away), Brett Leason (one or two years away)

Bottom-six forwards: Kody Clark (A few years away), Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (one year away, maybe a call-up this season), Shane Gersich (one year away, maybe a call-up this season), Garrett Pilon (one or two years away), Alexei Protas (several years away), Joe Snively (he could be either a Brett Connolly or a Riley Barber, one or two years away), Riley Sutter (a few years away)

Top-four defensemen: Alex Alexeyev (maybe a top-pair defenseman, one year away, maybe a call-up this season), Martin Fehervary (one or two years away)

Depth defensemen: Lucas Johansen (a year away, maybe a call-up this season), Tobias Geisser (a few years away), Connor Hobbs (one or two years away), Benton Maass (years away)

NHL starter: Ilya Samsonov (one or two years away)

NHL backup: Vitek Vanecek (maybe a call-up this season)

Minor leaguers: Beck Malenstyn (could maybe play a limited fourth-line role for an NHL team), Brian Pinho, Liam O’Brien, Kris Bindulis, Colby Williams, Tyler Lewington (maybe a No. 7 for an NHL team, but only if he is expected to get sparse playing time), Hampus Gustafsson, Steven Spinner, Eric Florchuk, Kristian Roykas-Marthinsen, Alex Kannok-Leipert, Sebastian Walfridsson

Players I do not know enough about to judge: Damien Riat, Bobby Nardella, Mitchell Gibson

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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NHL to move to Phase 2 of return to play plan by June 8

NHL to move to Phase 2 of return to play plan by June 8

The NHL will transition to Phase 2 of its return to play plan, the reopening of team facilities for training activities, on June 8, the league announced Thursday.

Since the season was paused on March 12, the league has considered itself to be in Phase 1 of the plan, meaning self-isolation. While the NHL and NHLPA have made progress off the ice towards a return to play negotiating things such as the playoff format, throughout all those talks the league still remained in Phase 1. This is the first concrete step the NHL has taken towards an eventual return to the ice.

"Beginning June 8 – subject to each Club’s satisfaction of all of the requirements set out in the Phase 2 Protocol – Clubs will be permitted to reopen their training facilities in their home city to allow players to participate in individualized training activities (off-ice and on-ice)," a statement released by the NHL said. "Players will be participating on a voluntary basis and will be scheduled to small groups (i.e., a maximum of six Players at any one time, plus a limited number of Club staff). The various measures set out in the Phase 2 Protocol are intended to provide players with a safe and controlled environment in which to resume their conditioning."

As the statement notes, participation in Phase 2 activities are voluntary and will be limited to six players at a time. 

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Phase 3 of the plan is training camp and, despite Thursday's announcement, we remain far off from that point. According to Pierre LeBrun, the earliest the league would start camps is July 10. Phase 4 is then the resumption of the season.

Presumably, Phase 3 will not start without a date set for when Phase 4. It is hard to believe the NHLPA would agree to an indefinite training camp. Phase 2, however, can begin without any formalized dates for Phases 3 and 4.  So while this is certainly a step towards the return of hockey and a sign that things are improving, all the difficult deciions regarding health and safety protocols as well as a timeline for the eventual 2020 postseason are still yet to be decided.

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Pittsburgh Penguins announce unnamed player tested positive for COVID-19

Pittsburgh Penguins announce unnamed player tested positive for COVID-19

An unnamed player on the Pittsburgh Penguins has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, the team announced on Thursday.

"This player is not in Pittsburgh and has been in isolation at home since first experiencing symptoms," the statement said. "He is recovered and feeling well. Those in close contact with the player leading up to the diagnosis have been notified." 

The organization stated that there would be no further updates on the player or situation at this time. 

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The Penguins are one of the 24 teams that will participate in the NHL's new playoff format once the season resumes. As of now, training camp for teams will not begin until July 10 at the earliest and there is still no clear timetable for when games will begin.

This announcement does bring up the question as to what the league will do if a positive diagnosis happens once play starts up again. Though NHL deputy commissioner Billy Daly has stated that he doesn't believe one positive test will halt the entire postseason, a plan will need to be put in place for how to handle a player contracting coronavirus.

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