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Capitals mailbag: What do the Caps need at the trade deadline?

Capitals mailbag: What do the Caps need at the trade deadline?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Feb. 20 edition below.

Have a Caps question you want answered for next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Greg C. writes: Last year, we heard a lot about the Caps pulling on the rope together. Are things different this year? If so, why aren't they pulling on the rope together this year?

There are a lot of nervous Caps fans out there over the way this season has gone and that has led to some speculation like this, that the team isn’t all on the same page.

To answer your question Greg, there are two things that are different this year. First, this team is the defending Stanley Cup champions. Going all the way and returning almost the exact same roster made many believe Washington would blow through this season, but they haven’t. As a result, that has led to the assumption that there is some underlying problem with the team that’s holding them back, whether it be coaching, lack of effort, fatigue, etc.

In reality, the Caps are about on pace with where they were last year. In the 2017-18 season, the Caps were 34-19-7 through 60 games. This year, they are 33-20-7 through 60, just two points off from last year’s pace. It only feels like they are worse off and that leads me to the second thing that is different from last year and that is the seven-game losing streak.

When the Caps hit their low point last season, it came in consecutive blowout losses to the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche. This year, it came in the form of a seven-game losing streak which made it feel much, much worse, like trying to delicately peel off a band aid instead of just ripping it off quickly.

From my talks with players on the team, the only thing I really get the sense that the team is frustrated about is the constant shuffling on the fourth line, but it sure seems with all the wavier news on Wednesday that problem is about to go away.

Not very. As I pointed out above, Washington is just two points off its pace from last season. Despite losing seven games in a row, losing Tom Wilson for 16-games due to suspension, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s slump and not having their full lineup until February, the Caps are still in second place in the division. Five points is all that separates them from Carolina, the first team out of playoff position, but I do not believe Washington is going to get passed by two teams in the division and two wild card teams in just 22 games.

I think there is definitely something to the “target on the back” theory. The thing that makes it so exhausting is that this was not something that teams think about just in the first month of the season and move on. It is Every. Single. Night. It does not matter to anyone that Washington had that losing streak, until they are eliminated they remain the team to beat. Now that we are in the latter part of the season, teams are still using the Caps as a measuring stick for the playoffs. Think Tampa Bay, far and away the top team in the NHL this season, doesn’t have those three games against Washington in March circled in their calendar? You can bet that is going to be a big talking point when these teams meet up.

Brian MacLellan has traded for at least one defenseman every year at the trade deadline so yes, I would expect him to add to the blue line this year given the team’s struggles on defense. As for shooting, Caps fans get frustrated by this theory, but Washington intentionally limits their shots on goal, focusing on shot quality over quantity. It can get frustrating to watch at times and there are definitely times when some players don’t seem to realize that a low-danger shot on goal is better than a turnover, but the team won a Stanley Cup with this theory so they are not likely to change now.

For more on how the Caps developed this shooting philosophy, you can ready my article on it here.

The answer to your question about faster players is maybe. Elliotte Friedman wrote in his 31 Thoughts column on Tuesday about teams that have checked in on Marcus Johansson and he said “possibly Washington.” Though I have my reservations about brining Johansson back, one thing he would certainly add is speed.

Jay Beagle was great on the faceoff and the Caps certainly miss him, especially on the penalty kill. In the playoffs, he took a majority of the team’s faceoffs on the penalty kill and won a whopping 64.3-percent of them. But I ultimately don’t think faceoffs are going to be a huge priority when it comes to the trade deadline.

Even with Beagle taking so many shorthanded faceoffs, he took 306 faceoffs in the playoffs last year, fewer than Nicklas Backstrom (323), Evgeny Kuznetsov (325) and Lars Eller (330). Ultimately the team’s issues at the dot are going to have to be figured out by their top three centers unless they can find a player who is both strong on the faceoff and a good penalty killer as well.

Not sure I agree with you on this one. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana are the two fastest players on the team and both are in the top six. Vrana in particular has been flying lately and drew two penalties Monday against Los Angeles because of his speed.

The fourth line has been constantly shuffled and the third line began clicking only recently so I do not believe Todd Reirden has enough faith in either line to give them larger roles.

As for switching out players in the top six, who would you move to the bottom six out of Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Vrana, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin? The only move I would consider there is moving Oshie down to the third. He and Eller have great chemistry and I believe Oshie would benefit from getting less ice time, but is there enough faith in either Andre Burakovsky or Brett Connolly to move either player to the second line? That seems doubtful.

I went back and ran the numbers and you are correct, Braden Holtby seems to face more shots than Pheonix Copley. Holtby faces about 31 shots per game, while Copley usually sees about 29 per game. The difference is relatively small, but still large enough to suggest the team plays a bit looser defensively with Holtby in net. It was the same last year as Holtby again averaged about 31 shots per game, but Philipp Grubauer faced only about 27.

There is nothing fundamentally different about how the team approaches the game with either netminder, I think this simply speaks to the level of confidence the players have in Holtby. They may be a tad more focused on keeping shots away from Copley than they are with Holtby knowing they have one of the best netminders in the league between the pipes.

Jimmy H. writes: Brooks Orpik is beloved in D.C. and he loves D.C. Do you see him possibly moving into a coaching position within the organization after he hangs his skates up?

I definitely see Orpik as someone who could coach or get into management. He is always very thoughtful with his answers whenever I speak to him and, when you talk to the other defensemen, it’s clear how much they respect Orpik’s knowledge of the game. Will that be in Washington? I can’t say. A lot of getting into the business is about timing and it may just be a matter of whether there is a position open for him or not. But a big thing for him in the offseason was that he wanted to stay put for his family which is why he chose to re-sign with Washington. When he does retire, I think his first goal will be staying in the area at least a few years while his daughters are still young so yes, I do think it is possible Orpik remains with the organization in some capacity when he decides to hang up the skates.

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

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I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

Alex Alexeyev is the third Washington Capitals' prospect featured in NBC Sports Washington's I Am The Prospect series. Click here to check out more profiles from I am The Prospect.

Like most prospective NHL players, Alex Alexeyev dreams of the day he gets to lift the Stanley Cup over his head.

“It’s the best league in the world," Alexeyev said. "In childhood, they (are) always dreaming about raising that Stanley Cup. It’s my dream too.”

Standing at 6-foot, 3.5-inches tall, the 19-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia, was the Capitals' last pick of the first round in the 2018 NHL Draft.

“He’s an untapped resource," Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said. "I was really impressed with him last year, seeing him for the first time."

Alexeyev's journey to the big leagues began three years ago when he made the move from Russia to North America, earning a spot on the top pair of the Red Deer Rebels' roster in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. It was there in March of this past year that he sustained a "scary" knee injury, almost certainly sidelining him for the time being.

“I was scared and I felt like something (was) definitely wrong with my knee but after some time where I figured out, everyone figured out that it’s not that scary,” Alexeyev said.

Alexeyev rebounded quickly, rehabbing his injury with the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

“The injuries, it’s too bad, but players do get injured and that’s something that can’t be helped, Capitals assistant general manager, Ross Mahoney said. "But he had a really good first half of the season with the Red Deer and exceptional World Junior Tournament, the under-20 tournament.” 

Since then, Alexeyev was a standout at the Caps' Developmental Camp in June.

“He just looks like he’s at a different level than the rest of the kids both physically and ability to play," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got a good skill level, he moves the puck well, he seems to have a good attitude a good work ethic, I’m excited to see him in training camp and see his progression here as the year goes on.

With the loss of Capitals' veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, Alexeyev is focused on making the Caps' 2019-20 roster.

“Alex is a really intelligent player," Mahoney said. "I think he’s got great vision on the ice. He has that ability also to be very patient with the puck.” 

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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.

Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.

The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.

There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.

Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.

"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”

As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.

A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.

Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.

Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.

Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.

“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.

“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.

That is a good problem to have.

“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”

Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.

Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.

“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”

Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.

While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.

“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”

“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”

Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.

The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.

And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.

“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”

“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”

The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.

Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.

The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.

The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.

But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.

From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.

“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.

“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”

That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.

“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”

“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”

Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.

“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.

“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”

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