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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why is the power play so powerless?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why is the power play so powerless?

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.

First, a quick note. I have had several questions this week about whether some coaches on the staff should lose their jobs over the power play. If you guys want to discuss the power play, I'm here for it. I will talk about the struggles I will talk about what's going wrong, I will talk about possible solutions, etc. What I will not talk about is whether I think a person deserves to lose their job. I find that an inappropriate subject for a beat writer to comment on unless in extreme circumstances like the Bill Peters situation in Calgary or Art Briles or something similar.

Sorry if you think that's a copout, but that's my position.

Now on to the questions.

Nathan S. writes: Why has the Caps coaching staff been unwilling/unable to fix the problem with penalties, defense and power play? All were problems last year and are again this year too. Did they learn anything from last year?

The power play is absolutely frustrating to watch right now, but it's silly to think that the coaches are "unwilling" to fix it. Of course they want to fix it. They know it's bad.

The biggest lesson they learned from last season is that they cannot rely solely on the drop pass to enter the offensive zone. They have mixed up their transitions a lot since last season and use a lot of different methods to get the puck in.

Last year the problem was getting the puck into the offensive zone. The problem this year is they can't do anything when they do get there.

For a while, they did not change anything in the hopes that this was just a slump and the power play would play its way out of it. It did not. Now we are seeing some...bizarre changes that don't seem to make much sense.

Playing Alex Ovechkin on the right? I don't see the value in that if the point is to set up his one-timer. That's much harder on the right since he is a right shot.

Moving Evgeny Kuznetsov to the second unit? That makes sense, you just have to give him tools to work with. Trying to set up Brendan Leipsic for the one-timer just is not good enough.

So the coaches are trying and experimenting with things, but they have not found the right formula yet to "fix" the power play.

Linda Gabler writes: I've read a lot of negative things you've written about Nick Jensen and I've also read articles where the writers offer stats and comparisons to other defensive players across the league that support their comments. These articles don't match your "glaring hole" comments and I'm trying to understand your point of view. Based on these articles, your assessment of Jensen's play doesn't seem to be fair or accurate. What resources do you use to support your comments about him? Just trying to understand what's the real deal. Thanks for your time.

First, let's clarify something. I do not think Jensen is a bad player. He is a perfectly serviceable third-pair right defenseman. The "glaring hole" on the defense is that the Caps have two such third pair righties in Jensen and Radko Gudas and no one who has proven capable of playing top-four minutes on the second pair.

It is my job to watch this team practice and play and I react to what I see. So yes, I use the "eye test" to draw initial conclusions and look at the numbers to see if they agree with what I'm seeing. If the eye test and the analytics don't match up, I'm left to draw my own conclusions based on talking with players, coaches, other media members, etc.

From my observations of Jensen this season, I have come to the conclusion that he is not a top-four defenseman. There are many instances in which he appears out of position, he turns the puck over frequently and does not seem to handle an aggressive forecheck very well. A particularly egregious example would be Jan. 8 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Trying to skate the puck out of the defensive zone, Sean Couturier approached Jensen on the forecheck and Jensen just lost control of the puck. He wasn't hit, it wasn't a poke, he just saw the forecheck coming and turned it over, unforced, and it turned into a goal.

Another glaring issue I noticed with Jensen is that he does not seem to like playing on the left. He is a right defenseman and the system in Detroit allowed him to stick to that side. The system in Washington requires much more switching from side to side and that's something that he's not all that comfortable with. Watch how he defendes against Warren Foegele when caught on the left in this play:

If you watch closely, Jensen holds his stick out in front of him and looks unsure of exactly what to do and that has a lot to do with playing on the left.

Now yes, that play was from last season so let's look at some numbers for this season. Jensen has played primarily with Dmitry Orlov. At 5-on-5, that pair has a Corsi-For percentage of 51.82-percent. When Orlov plays with John Carlson, that percentage shoots up to 61.49. With Michal Kempny, it is 62.50. So with two other defensemen we view to be top-four defensemen, Orlov's pair is able to maintain much more possession with either Kempny or Carlson than with Jensen. When Orlov plays with Gudas, that percentage goes down to 51.77, very comparable to Orlov-Jensen. That would seem to suggest that Orlov plays much better with other top-four defensemen and about the same with Gudas who is a bottom-pair caliber defenseman.

Does some of this have to do with usage? Absolutely. Orlov-Kempny and Orlov-Carlson are used primarily in the offensive zone; 71.43 and 62.60 offensive zone starts respectively compared to 49.03 offensive zone starts for Orlov-Jensen. But Orlov-Gudas are used in a very heavily defensive role with only 38.56-percent offensive zone starts and yet, their Corsi-For percentage is almost equal to that of Orlov-Jensen.

Another red flag? High danger Corsi-For percentage. Jensen's has the worst of any defenseman on the team at 46.39-percent, meaning the team gives up a lot more high-danger chances to opponents than they get when Jensen is on the ice.

At $2.5 million, Jensen would be a steal for a top-four defenseman and yes, comparing him to other players who play as many minutes as him puts him in a positive light in that sense. The issue, however, is not whether Jensen is overpaid, it's whether he's overplayed. OK, so he's a bargain compared to many defensemen playing top-four minutes. The question is should he be playing top-four minutes?

One other thing to note is PDO. PDO, for those who do not know, is the sum of a team's 5-on-5 shooting percentage and their 5-on-5 save percentage. It is used as a way to try to quantify a player's luck. A PDO of 1.000 is considered average with anything above that is lucky and below is unlucky. Jensen has the lowest PDO on the team at .980. Here's the problem. Who has the second-lowest? Orlov with a .985 and who, the numbers would suggest, plays better with other top-four defensemen. Who's the third-lowest on the team? Alex Ovechkin with a .987.

So what does this tell us? It's easy to dismiss Jensen's struggles as bad luck looking at PDO, but even with similar PDOs, that bad luck does not seem to be dragging down the performance of Orlov or Ovechkin nearly as much.

Joe Gwinn writes: Was the Matt Niskanen trade a lemon?

Niskanen is having a good year, but regardless of how he's playing, that trade was necessary and unavoidable. The team's salary cap constraints are such that they have had to carry six defensemen for the majority of the season. They had no choice but to shed salary in the summer and trading away a 33-year-old defenseman who had a really, really bad year in 2018-19, had a high cap hit and still had term made a lot of sense. By trading for Gudas the Caps saved over $3 million in cap space this season and Gudas has played well for them.

Nathan S. writes: Do the Caps rely too much on physicality to the point that they aren't able to be effective playing any other style?

To the contrary, I don't think they stick to the physical play enough. There are a lot of games the Caps get by on pure skill alone, but this team is at its best when it is throwing the body around and manhandling opponents. A lot of this has to do with the makeup of the team. Make no mistake, Washington is built to play a heavy style and I don't just mean "Tom Wilson plays on this team" either. The Caps want to hit and grind down opponents over the course of a game and have the personnel to do it with players like Wilson, Ovechkin, Hathaway, Gudas, etc.

There's no right or wrong way to build a team, it's a matter of preference. The Caps and St. Louis Blues won Cups by being hard, physical teams. The Penguins, as you noted, won with speed.

Zach Damon writes: Why on earth does almost every Washington Capital, save for #8, shoot for the 5-hole on breakaways? This is extremely evident that it’s the only move they try.

Breakaway shots are all based on instinct and that seems to be the first move players default to when alone on net. Be careful what you wish for because the alternative is not always pretty. On the other end of the spectrum, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a breakaway against the San Jose Sharks in a one-goal game and tried a between the legs shot. He overskated the puck and did not even get a shot away.

Should the Caps mix things up a bit on breakaways? Sure, but you can't afford to get too fancy or you could actually cost yourself (and the team) a chance at the goal.

Tim K. writes: With all of this expansion draft protection list talk going around, T.J. Oshie seems to be the odd man out because of finances. What about that his father has health issues, and lives in Washington State? Are family circumstances a consideration in a case like this? I know this is a business first and foremost, but if Oshie was willing to move back home, would the Caps accommodate this (and probably wear a letter for his hometown team)? Alternately, since Oshie took a team-friendly cap hit in exchange for term, with a young family, do the Caps seem willing to make a worse business decision to keep a fan-favorite, on- and off-ice leader on the team if Oshie really wants to stay (and, say, trade a draft pick so Seattle drafts Lars Eller instead)? What are your thoughts?

Some general managers try to help out their players even if they are shipping them out of town and MacLellan seems to be one of them. When Chandler Stephenson was traded, Elliotte Friedman reported that MacLellan had made it clear to Stephenson he would try to send Stephenson to a good situation.

If the Caps did not plan on exposing Oshie and he came to them and said he would be open to it, I think they would consider honoring that. But that probably has more to do with the fact that he will be 34 at the time of the draft with another four years left on his contract. If the team did plan to expose him and he asked them not to, that would be a harder sell for Oshie. This would not be him simply saying he wants to stay, it would be him saying to expose a different player who the team could potentially lose. It seems much less likely that the Caps would honor his request in that scenario and they are definitely not going to trade away an asset to try to steer Seattle away from Oshie just because he asked him to. Very few players in the league have that kind of pull with their team.

Robert Kennett writes: Any chance Peter Bondra ever gets voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame? His .508 Adjusted Goals Per Game Average is 14th All-Time among players with 500+ Adjusted Goals. From 1994-2004 he had the most total goals in the league and the Capitals were 25th in goals during that stretch. He also had the most shorthanded goals during that 10 year span. He is one of two players in league history with more than 500 Goals and Less than 400 Assists, the other is Maurice Richard. Being the premier goal scorer of the dead-puck era has to be good for something right?

Actually Rocket Richard had 422 assists. This is really not as good a comparison as you think as Richard has more goals (544 to 503), more assists (422 to 389) and more points (966 to 892) in fewer games (978 to 1081). Richard won the Stanley Cup eight times and led the league in scoring five times while Bondra did it twice and won no Cups.

I also don't know why it would be a good thing that Bondra has fewer than 400 assists. He is the only player in NHL history to score 500 goals and fewer than 400 assists and that may be a contributing factor to keeping him out.

Never say never. Guy Carbonneau got in this year. He was a great defensive player, but I thought it was a stretch to call him a Hall of Famer. With each passing year, however, it seems less likely that Bondra will get that call. The Hall of Fame seems to have determined that goals alone are not enough and I don't know that there's enough on Bondra's resume to get him in otherwise.

Phillip Martin writes: I’m curious about your projections for the team's future that doesn't have Nicklas Bäckström as a top 6 center. I know we have a potential star on the rise coming, but what will the Capitals options be with Backy in the final year or two of his contract at his salary?

Backstrom will be 37 by the end of his next contract. You have to assume his play will start to decline between now and then. The first obvious move is to replace him on the top line in the not too distant future. The Caps won a Cup with Kuznetsov up top, after all. Then it becomes a matter of how long Backstrom can perform at a top-six level and if Connor McMichael can develop into a top-six NHL center.

Best case scenario? Nic Dowd's contract runs through the next two seasons. McMichael steps into a full-time NHL role after Dowd's contract is up to fill out the team's center depth, then he and Backstrom compete for the second and third-line center the following year after Eller's contract expires. That is dependent of course on if McMichael continues to look as good as advertised. By the end of the contract, Backstrom and the team will have to determine where to go from there.

Brett Eppley writes: Can you do a brief prospect synopsis on the defensive prospects? And what position do you think the Caps should be scouting as they look to the future? Top 4 right-handed defenseman seem to be in short supply but our forward depth needs boosting as well.

Alex Alexeyev is behind where I think the team hoped he would be this year after missing all of training camp, but I like his upside a lot. He is not great at any one thing, but he is very good at everything and that makes him a very good prospect. Projections have him as a top-four NHL defenseman, but I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to Alexeyev and believe he has top pair potential.

I like Martin Fehervary a lot as a prospect and think he can be a top-four. The fact that he seems comfortable playing either side is a good asset to have. He is smart and more physical than you would expect.

Christian Djoos is a bottom-pair defenseman at best. Just not enough size or defensive upside to his game. In his last call-up, he had zero defensive zone starts showing you the level of confidence the coaches have in him in his own zone.

Tyler Lewington is a No. 7 at best at the NHL level. He's probably a better fit as a high-end AHL player.

If Lucas Johansen has an NHL future, I don't think it will be with Washington. The team just has too many left-shot defensive prospects and he keeps falling down the depth chart.

Connor Hobbs may have some potential as a third-pair guy, but that is starting to look more and more like a reach. His offensive prowess just has not translated from the WHL to the AHL and I don't know that he's a good enough defender to make it to the NHL without the offensive upside.

I have not seen enough of Martin Hugo Has, Bobby Nardella, Tobias Geisser or Benton Maass to have a good read on their NHL potential yet.

In terms of need, 90-percent of the time teams should be looking for the best available player and not drafting based on need. Last year was a special case for Washington with the cupboard at forward completely bare. With McMichael and Aliaksei Protas, I think the team can afford to see who falls to them in the draft and pick the best available and that includes goaltender. Washington has been a factory for goaltending talent the past several years. Even if Ilya Samsonov is the next big starter for Washington, it never hurts to develop players behind him as backups or trade pieces.

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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Brenden Dillon fights Evgeni Malkin in his first taste of the Capitals/Penguins rivalry

Brenden Dillon fights Evgeni Malkin in his first taste of the Capitals/Penguins rivalry

It will go down in the game notes as a fight, but that wouldn’t be an accurate enough word to describe the one-sided affair between Brenden Dillon and Evgeni Malkin on Sunday afternoon.

Playing in just his third game with Washington since being acquired from the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, defenseman Brenden Dillon took part in the highly contentious Capitals/Penguins rivalry for the first time. A player known for his toughness on the ice and reputation of sticking up for his teammates, Dillon didn’t take long to endear himself to fans by adding fuel to the longstanding bad blood between the two franchises.

Penguins center Evgeni Malkin shoved the Capitals’ Nic Dowd just after the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the first period. Dillon was quick to jump forward in support of his new teammate, pushing Malkin up against the glass and proceeding to get several headshots in before referees were able to peel him away.

The home crowd roared in support of the newly acquired defenseman, who’s already well on his way to becoming a fan favorite.

Dillon clearly already has this “We hate the Penguins” thing down. If today’s action is any indication, his Capitals tenure is going to be a lot of fun for the D.C. faithful.

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Wayne Gretzky congratulates Alex Ovechkin for reaching 700 goals: ‘See you at 800’

Wayne Gretzky congratulates Alex Ovechkin for reaching 700 goals: ‘See you at 800’

When Alex Ovechkin beat Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood to score the 700th goal of his NHL career, he put himself in the rarest of hockey company. It was an achievement only seven men had done before him and all of them are either in the Hall of Fame or on their way to enshrinement in the next few years.

But the man atop that list, the most storied player of them all, remains head and shoulders above the rest of the sport with 894 career goals—93 more than anyone else. Wayne Gretzky is a name respected by hockey fans everywhere as the greatest player of all time. So when he speaks, his voice carries weight.

Ovechkin is the first player who has a chance to catch Gretzky’s record, which has stood for the last 21 years. Given he stays healthy, the 34-year-old should get close if he stays on the torrid pace he’s been able to maintain despite playing in his 15th season.

Gretzky has a more few years of comfortably resting at the top before Ovechkin can start making things interesting. For now, the Hall of Famer is all class when congratulating the Capitals star.

“Congrats on 700 Alex, @ovi8! You’re truly one of the all-time greats,” he wrote on Twitter. “See you at 800.”

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