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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the Capitals' defensive pipeline really look like?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What does the Capitals' defensive pipeline really look like?

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.

Garrett D. writes: I have always been a fan of the Capitals draft philosophy: Take the best player available. However, it has been clear to see that the Caps lack an offensive prospect, and have been selecting defenseman. So, should the Caps take a forward in the first round?

When it comes to the NHL Draft, you always take the best player available. It rarely makes sense to draft for need as most NHL prospects take years to develop and a team’s needs and goals can change dramatically over the course of those years.

Having said that, yes, the Caps must draft a forward in the first round this year.

I plan on writing on this more extensively when we get closer to the draft, but the years of not drafting offensive talent with high picks has caught up to Washington. The last first-round forward taken by the Caps was Jakub Vrana in 2014 and now that the team is in need of forward depth for its bottom six, there are few candidates in the pipeline who can fill those needs.

Washington has to start replenishing that pipeline, not so much for this year as a late first round pick will likely be a few years away from being able to make an impact at the NHL level, but for the future. This is hard to do, however, with the 25th pick in the draft. It is not impossible, many great players have been taken in the 20s or in later rounds, but the issue is if you wait for your turn to pick, you may see all the top forwards taken by that point. When you go into the draft with the philosophy of taking the best player available, that does not matter as much. When looking for a specific position, however, it matters a lot.

Brian MacLellan and Co. will do their due diligence and have grades on every prospect. This year, however, if the top forwards are getting taken quickly with the early picks, MacLellan may need to get proactive and trade up to ensure he gets a first-round caliber offensive talent. That’s why Caps fans should be watching the draft this year. If I was a betting man, I would bet on Washington moving up in the draft.

Christopher S. writes: There are those who are fond of saying that the Caps’ strength throughout the system, other than goalie, is defense.  I’m trying to figure out what that really means. What’s your take on the defensemen in the Caps system below the NHL? Who stands out to you and what is your realistic take on the defense prospects in the system?

Comparatively the Caps’ pipeline is much more stacked defensively than on offense. Does that mean they have the best future blue line sitting in the pipeline? No. Though there are some good players, saying the strength of Washington’s prospect pool is the defense is more a reflection of the lack of top-tier offensive talent in the system.

We already know about Jonas Siegenthaler and it is time to graduate him from prospect to player. He is an NHLer and that is where he is going to play next season.

Alex Alexeyev is the real deal if he can stay healthy. He can be a top-pair defenseman, but he has never played in more than 49 games in any of his three seasons in the WHL, a 68-game league. That is a concern, but his talent is not. The team is also very high on Martin Fehervary. He just competed in the World Championship tournament for Slovakia. That’s not the junior tournament, he was in the senior tournament competing against some of the best players in the world. He has definite potential as a top-four shutdown defenseman.

At 21, Lucas Johansen still has some time to develop, but I have to admit when I saw him in Hershey I expected his game to be further along by now. He is very jumpy with the puck and seemingly in a rush to get it off his stick. That has hurt his offensive production which is not what you want to see from someone who was drafted as a two-way defenseman. I look at him as more of a 4-5 at this point if he can develop his game.

Connor Hobbs has improved his defensive game tremendously and looks very poised in his own end. He certainly has NHL size and would not look out of place in an NHL lineup. Having said that, his offense and especially his shot were thought to be his best assets when he came into the AHL and he has not been able to find the time and space in the offensive zone to be productive at that level. The defensive improvements definitely makes him more dynamic and gives him more NHL potential, but the offensive part of his game needs to catch up. If he can break through, he could be a bottom-pair, power play specialist type.

Tyler Lewington had a great debut with the Caps, but his NHL ceiling is as a No. 7. He is not someone who should be in the lineup every day on an NHL team. You could feel comfortable using him in much the same way the team did with Taylor Chorney and plug him into the lineup for a game here and there when needed. If Lewington is playing 20+ games though, that’s not ideal.

Overall, the Caps have some solid pieces here. There are a lot of players with NHL potential and a few with top-tier potential which is more than you can say about the team’s offensive prospects. At the same time, no one is really looking at the Caps’ prospects and thinking the team is poised defensively to remain a juggernaut for the foreseeable future.

Adam W. writes: Which current or former Caps are candidates for either Hall of Fame induction OR having their numbers retired?  Besides Alex Ovechkin, of course. Relatedly, are Peter Bondra’s chances for HOF recognition hurt by the fact that he played almost his entire career in Washington at a time when it was not considered one of the league’s “glamour” franchises?

I do not think the fact that Bondra played in Washington matters and if it did those 60 games with Atlanta would really hurt. Talk about a glamour franchise.

Mike Gartner and Rod Langway both spent most of their careers with the Caps and both are in the Hall so I do not see the team being a factor.

These questions are always tough because there are no set criteria for having your number retired or making the Hall of Fame. It is just a matter of opinion.

The two players everyone always brings up when it comes to getting their numbers retired are Bondra and Olie Kolzig. With four numbers already retired, it would have been really hard for a team with no Stanley Cup to justify retiring two more. What history would Washington really be celebrating at that point? With that obstacle now clear, however, I could see momentum building for those two.

Admittedly, my standards for both having numbers retired and the Hall of Fame are incredibly high. If you ask me, there are only two numbers worthy of being retired by the Caps and those 5 and 8. Langway saved the franchise and 8 once Ovechkin’s career is over.

Bondra was my favorite player growing up. He was incredible and I loved watching him. Despite his career accomplishments, however, he never rose to the level of a Hall of Famer in my mind. You could make a compelling case based on his numbers. He scored 892 career points and his 503 goals ranks 43rd all-time. He is one of only nine players to score 500 goals who are not in the Hall of Fame and four of those nine players (Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr  Patrick Marleau, Marian Hossa) are either still playing or not yet eligible.

Still, I just do not put Bondra at the same level as other Hall of Famers from his era like Mario Lemieux, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and Mike Modano just to name a few. Those are tough players to be compared to, but that’s the point. You can still be great and not rise to the level of players like that, but to me there are not tiers of Hall of Fame Players. You are either an elite, all-time great or you aren’t. That takes nothing away from what Bondra did as a player, he just does not reach that elite level for me.

In terms of other Caps players who could reach the Hall of Fame, Ovechkin is the obvious one. Anyone who argues against him should no longer have a say in who gets in. He should be unanimously selected in his first year of eligibility. I would also argue that Nicklas Backstrom deserves to be in for his incredible career (and he is still only 31) as one of the best two-way centers of his era.

Nathan S. writes: What can hockey do to be friendlier to minorities beyond the surface level initiatives such as the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone Campaign"?

You do not have to watch hockey for very long to realize that minorities are not heavily represented in the NHL. That is not lost on the league. If you have noticed Willie O’Ree taking on a greater public role within the NHL, that is not by accident.

The first and most important thing the league must do is look to the kids. The answer to all questions regarding growing the game is growing interest at the youth level.

While the lack of minorities in today’s game may deter some people from becoming fans, if kids of all backgrounds grow up watching, playing and loving the game, that becomes less of a factor. The cost of playing hockey and ice availability, however, have long been prohibitive and are major reasons why we do not see as much minority involvement and success in the NHL as we do in the other major sports leagues. That is something the NHL must rectify.

If you want more people to play of any race, ethnicity or socioeconomic class, find a way to mitigate the exorbitant costs and make youth leagues more accessible to everyone. The league also must promote star minority players like P.K. Subban. That does not mean forcing players who shy away from the spotlight to be spokesmen for the league, but Subban is a player with a definite voice and a brand. That should be celebrated, not shunned.  

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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Capitals Prospect Report: Why the preseason matters

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NBC Sports Washington

Capitals Prospect Report: Why the preseason matters

If you watch him in practice, forward prospect Beck Malenstyn’s skills don’t immediately stand out. Neither do his stats. In 18 games with the Hershey Bears this season, Malenstyn has three goals and three assists. And yet, when the Capitals found themselves in injury trouble and in need of bodies not just to serve as healthy scratches but to actually play, Malenstyn got the call.

The Caps have had need of a few players from Hershey already this season. Travis Boyd has been recalled twice and plugged into the lineup, Liam O’Brien was recalled to be a healthy scratch and sent back down to Hershey without playing. But on Wednesday in New York, with Garnet Hathaway suspended and Nicklas Backstrom, Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd all out injured, Washington needed reinforcements to play against the Rangers. They did not call on O’Brien who has previous NHL experience, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby who has scored five goals this season or Shane Gersich who jumped into the Caps lineup when he was signed in 2018. They called on Malenstyn and it is not hard to figure out why.

Malenstyn was one of the standout performers for the Caps in the preseason and Reirden raved about back in September.

“I like the energy he brings,” Reirden said after a preseason game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sept. 16. “I've liked him for a few years now. ... I just love having him around our room, he's a great kid, really hard worker, passionate. I definitely gravitate towards that type of guy. He can change momentum of a game with his speed, he's physical.”

The NHL preseason is fun to watch because you get a chance to see so many prospects who you otherwise don’t get a chance to see because they play for their junior teams or in the minors. Those brief glimpses can leave on impression not just on the fans or the media, but the coaches as well.

Between O’Brien, Jonsson-Fjallby, Gersich and Malenstyn, Malenstyn easily was the most impressive in an actual game setting. So it was no surprise then, when the Caps needed not just bodies but a player, that Malenstyn was among those who got the call. He delivered energy on Wednesday and fired three shots on goal on Henrik Lundqvist. He nearly scored on a short breakaway opportunity.

The preseason can seem long and tedious when everyone just wants to get into the regular season, but for those prospects trying to leave an impression, the preseason matters a whole heck of a lot.

Other prospect notes

  • The injury woes continue for the Caps. Malenstyn and Michael Sgarbossa remain with the team. In addition, Christian Djoos was recalled to Washington and Tyler Lewington was reassigned to Hershey. In 18 games with the Bears, Djoos has tallied one goal and 10 assists.
  • Riley Sutter, who was injured before the season began, finally made his AHL debut on Nov. 15.
  • Vincent Gibbons of McKeen’s Hockey wrote a profile on Alex Alexeyev:

Alexeyev is a great story wrapped in a very good player who has all the tools to be a top four defender in the NHL. He has good size, skates very well, and has more snarl in his game then most give him credit for. Couple all that with a defender who is an excellent passer both in his own zone as well as when quarterbacking a power play, and he shows real promise. He has had some injury trouble the past couple of seasons and had a tragic loss as his mother passed away mid-season in his draft year. Despite so many ups and downs he has been one of the top defenders in the WHL since his arrival from Russia. He projects as playing both sides of special teams although maybe on second units and he could be a very solid second pairing defender.

  • With all the goalie shuffling on the rosters, the result was that Pheonix Copley was called upon to play all three of Hershey’s games last week. He went 1-1-1 despite posting an incredible 0.98 GAA and .959 save percentage in those games. He was named Hershey’s player of the week.
  • Stats update: Aliaksei Protas leads the WHL in points with 34. Connor McMichael is tied for the OHL points lead with 46.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What more does Travis Boyd need to show?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What more does Travis Boyd need to show?

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.

Jack Concanon writes: Why did Todd Reirden seperate the Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie - Nicklas Backstrom - Jakub Vrana lines? They clearly dominated in the 2018 cup run and we saw last year's playoffs that the Ovi-Backstrom pairing doesn't really balance the scoring enough.

Early struggles prompted Reirden to switch up the lines. A lot of coaches go to the line blender during the season whenever the team starts to struggle. It really is no surprise to see different combinations throughout the season. So long as the team keeps winning, the lines don't really matter until the playoffs. That's where you see the "real" combinations.

I am surprised we did not see more of Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson and Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie last year given their success in the postseason, but I am not too worried about what the lines look like right now.

Micah Reed: Why is the coaching staff so stubborn about certain players? Dmitri Jaskin is the last that comes to mind. Travis Boyd is the new one. What are they seeing that we (the fans) can't?

A lot of coaches fall into this trap. It certainly is not limited to Reirden. Joel Quenneville is one of the best NHL coaches in history and ranks second in wins all-time. When he was the head coach in Chicago he had Michal Kempny on the roster. A Blackhawks team always desperate for defense could not find room for Kempny in their lineup and Kempny was largely a No. 7 for them. Clearly, Quenneville got that one wrong.

I try not to judge coaches too harshly on this because the coaches see the players more than we do and presumably know more about what they can bring. Having said that, coaches are frequently proven wrong on certain players. Sometimes it is a question of fitting into a coach's system, sometimes personalities can clash.

This also goes the other way when coaches rely too much on a player who is clearly struggling. In those cases, there sometimes can be a locker room dynamic at play where a certain player is considered a leader by his teammates and a coach knows it won't sit well to bench him.

As for Boyd, he is in danger of falling in this category as a player the coach just got wrong. A team with serious cap issues cannot afford to keep sending a player with an $800,000 cap hit with six points in nine games down to Hershey. I am not sure what else he needs to show the coaches at this point.

Joe Blumenauer writes: John Carlson has been the biggest surprise for the Caps this year, well on his way to a career year so far. What's been the key to his success? Is there a noticeably different style of play for him personally, simply a more aggressive defensive strategy, or is he getting some extra luck bounces this year?

There are two reasons I credit to Carlson's incredible early-season production. First, the Caps are playing more aggressively on defense. The defensemen are expected to jump into the offensive play when they have room. Carlson has taken more advantage of this than anyone as the best offensive defenseman on the roster. The second reason is that Carlson is using more misdirection in his game than previously. He is better at faking shots/passes and looking off opponents to open up passing and shooting lanes.

A good example of this was Carlson's assist on Jakub Vrana's goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 16. Carlson had the puck in the offensive zone with no open lane to distribute the puck. He looked off John Tavares to free up a passing lane then passed cross-ice to Vrana who fired a one-timer for the goal.

Julia Keller writes: Do you think the Caps are playing a shell game with the salary cap by rotating players on and off the injured reserve list?

Yes and it's not sustainable. When Richard Panik returned from LTIR, the Caps trimmed the roster to 12 healthy forwards and six healthy defensemen. It took less than a week for problems to arise from this when injuries to Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd forced the team to recall Tyler Lewington and play seven defensemen against the Montreal Canadiens. Washington had to send Ilya Samsonov down to Hershey the following day to clear up enough room to recall Boyd. Now Garnet Hathway is suspended for spitting, Nicklas Backstrom has an upper-body injury and Brian MacLellan has to do even more roster gymnastics.

And all of this happened on a stretch in which the Caps are on the East coast. They can't do this when December rolls around and they head to California or when they have other road trips that will take them off the coast. Injuries happen, but when you are this close to the cap you are playing with fire.

To make matters worse, the team also is not banking any space which means things are not going to get better anytime soon. A lot of trade deadline deals are made possible by banking cap space which is how teams are able to trade for players they could not afford under the cap when the season began. Washington will not be in a position to do that if things continue the way they are and they are a team with at least one hole to fill on its roster. But we'll get to that.

Nicholas Kabatsky writes: If Travis Boyd continues to play well, what is the likeliness that he will stay in the big club?

Benjamin Cross writes: Travis Boyd seems to be playing very well, but with Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd coming back and Richard Panik starting to show some flashes, is he going to be sent back down?

The injuries will keep Boyd in the NHL for the time being. When everyone gets healthy though if Boyd continues to play this well, I don't know how you can justify sending him back down to the AHL. The salary cap is so tight the team literally skated seven defensemen in a game because that was all they could afford. Here is a player who is producing points in limited minutes with an $800,000 cap hit. I don't care if he doesn't play on the penalty kill, this is a guy who should stick around.

One other thing to consider is that, given all the team's injuries and the Hathaway suspension,  Boyd is going to stick around past the 10-game, 30-day limit for players who pass through waivers meaning he would have to go through waivers again to go to Hershey. No one ever gets claimed off waivers and I'm not saying Boyd would get claimed, but the fact is that there are other players on the Caps' team who would be more likely to pass through waivers unclaimed than Boyd at this point.

The only caveat is that Boyd probably would not be an everyday player when the team is 100-percent healthy. Can he be productive coming in and out of the lineup which is something he struggled with last year or is his production due to getting consistent playing time between Washington and Hershey?

Jason Woodside writes: When are we gonna move Richard Panik? It’s not even about giving him enough time to adjust at this point. Being this close to the cap is not sustainable.

Kaitlyn Carter writes: Now that Panik has his first goal and points as a Washington Capital how will that change his game moving forward?

I still maintain this is too early to sell on Panik, but you asked so let's work through this.

There are two obstacles to moving on from Panik. The first is his contract. He is in the first year of a four-year deal in which he has been injured and scored one goal in 14 games. Teams are not going to be lining up to take that contract off the Caps' hands. I am doubtful that MacLellan would be able to trade Panik and walk away from that deal with another third-line forward who can produce. You're not going to get close to equal value for him. If the only real asset the Caps can get back for Panik is more cap space, is that worth a trade?

The second obstacle is that you still need someone to be a productive third-line winger. If there is no one who can fill that role then you have sacrificed depth just to get rid of a player for little in return. Perhaps the team would be more open to moving on from Panik with how Boyd is playing, but considering how Boyd struggles to stay in the NHL I am doubtful Todd Reirden has him penciled in as a possible replacement for Panik.

There is no question Panik has to produce more. One point in 14 games is not enough. Having said that, he has been noticeably better since returning from injury. Given where the Caps sit in the standings, I think they can afford to be patient and see if his improved play leads to more production before any decision is made on him. But if the Caps do move on, they will be selling really low so don't expect them to get much in return for a trade.

Bill Bridges writes: Now that Nick Jensen has been permanently moved to the third pairing, it seems clear he's not the player the Caps thought they were getting. Do you think Brian MacLellan would consider trading him in-season and bringing up one of the kids from Hershey like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev who have been playing so well with the Bears?

First, MacLellan is not going to replace Jensen with Fehervary or Alexeyev because Jensen is a right-shot defenseman and both Fehervary and Alexeyev are lefties. Promoting those players to the NHL full-time to play their off-side just to get rid of Jensen is not a realistic scenario. Perhaps the team could move Jonas Siegenthaler to the right, but that does not solve the real problem and that is that this team does not have a right defenseman for the second pair.

I also do not think $2.5 million is outrageous for a third-pair defenseman. There is no question though that Jensen has not been the top-four guy they were hoping for and that he has never really looked comfortable in Washington. Trading him is a much more realistic scenario to me then Panik because teams always need a right-shot defenseman and his cap hit is not too bad. We know he can be a top-four defenseman in the right system, it just looks like that system is not Washington's.

The problem is that you have to replace him. As I touched on above, the Caps need a top-four right defenseman and I don't think that replacement is currently within the Caps' organization.

Bailey Dennis writes: What will be the key for the Caps in getting past the second round again this year, since everyone expects that now?

Health and luck are a given since every championship run requires a bit of both. The Caps should be in a better position to advance in the playoffs this year given there will not be as much fatigue as there was last year. Washington just flat out ran out of gas last year and still came within one goal of advancing to the second round. Depth scoring was also a weakness last year as the team relied far too much on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for all of its offense. Continuing to get the type of offensive production from the defense will be a huge factor.

The team must also improve in its own zone. There are still a few too many defensive zone breakdowns and bad breakout turnovers that the team continues to struggle with. That's not just on the defense, but finding that top-four righty would certainly help.

Matthew Tobin writes: What are the chances of Alex Ovechkin passing Wayne Gretzky for most goals all-time?

Joe Blumenauer writes: How likely do you think it is that Alex Ovechkin eventually catches Wayne Gretzky?

A few years ago I scoffed at this very notion. People would ask and I would immediately dismiss it as fantasy. But Ovechkin just will not slow down and now at he very least it seems...possible.

First, let's make sure we understand the enormity of what Ovechkin still has to do to get there. He still needs 222 goals to pass Gretzky's record of 894. Even if Ovechkin scores 50 goals this season (he currently has 15) he would still need another 187. If he plays another five seasons, he would have to average 38 goals per year to get there.

The fact that Ovechkin has made this seem even remotely possible at all is incredible, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.

It's possible, but still not probable that he beats Gretzky.

John Flemming writes: Is it true that, back in the day, Craig Laughlin wrote "PIG FARMER" on Dale Hunter's sticks?

I asked Locker about this and he denies it. He told me it was probably Craig Berube, but that it wasn't him.

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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