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Capitals mailbag: What does Ovechkin skipping the All-Star Game really mean?

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USA TODAY Sports

Capitals mailbag: What does Ovechkin skipping the All-Star Game really mean?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Jan. 9 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

This week’s mailbag was written in bed because I’m sick. I’m trying desperately to finish before my wife comes home and yells at me for working so apologies in advance if the answers are more brief than usual. Thanks as always for your questions.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

The Caps finally broke through on the power play Tuesday against Philadelphia. Prior to that, however, they had only one goal in their last 31 opportunities and that is not going to cut it. I am not about to make any drastic changes, however, not because they scored against the Flyers’ seventh goalie, but because the power play began playing much better in the two games prior against Dallas and Detroit.

The main issue has been zone entries. If the penalty kill gets the puck out of the offensive zone, the Caps have looked incapable of getting it back in. If that continues to be an issue, then I replace T.J. Oshie with Tom Wilson on the top unit and tell the team to dump the puck in. I’m not a big fan of the dump in, but it is very simple and this team has a tendency to get a bit too fancy offensively from time to time. If you can’t keep control of the puck on the zone entry, then having a big body out there like Wilson who can win board battles and chase down loose pucks would help.

For the season, the Caps rank 25th on the PK at 77.2-percent. It has improved slightly over the course of the season as through the last 20 games Washington has managed to kill off 81.2-percent of power plays faced.

When Todd Reiden became head coach, he kept most things the same schematically. The biggest change he made was to the penalty kill which is much more aggressive. The team has struggled at times figuring out when to be aggressive and when to hold back. They still have not found that balance and the fact that the penalty kill has only shown minor improvement since the start of the season is a definite concern for me.

Washington ranks dead last in the NHL in faceoff win percentage so I think there is no question the loss of Beagle – the best faceoff man on the team – has had an impact.

A bad start for the penalty kill is going to weigh the Caps down in the rankings so I am doubtful they get up to the top 15. Instead, I would start evaluating the penalty kill in a different ways. Are they killing off penalties in tie games? Are they killing off penalties when they hold a one-goal lead? Are they killing off third period and overtime penalties?

I don’t think it is a sign of a late Stanley Cup hangover, but more a sign that Ovechkin is 33 years old and coming off a year in which he has played more hockey – and more intense hockey – than he has ever. As I am 32, I hesitate to call Ovechkin “old”, but 33 is not young for an NHL athlete. What he has done this season at his age is remarkable, but he can’t score at that pace forever. If given the choice between a five-day break and a trip to San Jose to play in the All-Star Game for the eighth time in his career or a 10-day break, it’s not hard to see where he’s coming from.

Is it disappointing to West Coast fans who don’t get to see Ovechkin play in person all that much? Sure. Is it a missed opportunity to help grow the game? Perhaps, but I think the NHL gains more fans from the playoffs when the hockey is at its best and the tournament is so wide open – unlike the NBA where you know there are only two or three real contenders. A healthy, rested Ovechkin in the playoffs is better for the game than one exhibition tournament where no one hits and no one plays at 100-percent speed.

A lot has been written already about the Caps’ top-six offensive struggles so there’s no need to rehash it here. The move I would have made was putting Ovechkin back with Kuznetsov and Wilson, which Reirden has done. The continued struggle, as you pointed out, has a lot to do with the power play.

So what do you do?

The biggest issue for me is that Kuznetsov needs to get back to the level we saw him playing at in the first month of the season. Otherwise my solution for fixing the offense is to wait. As I said, the power play looks to be on the up and up and Ovechkin was not going to keep that scoring pace up forever. He still leads the league in goalies despite the recent dry spell and Washington is still in first place so I do not think it is time for any drastic changes. I get the concern over a resurgent Pittsburgh and that the rest of the division seems to be closing the gap, but once the Caps get Kuznetsov and the power play going again, they will be just fine.

Daniel C. writes: Do you see the Caps offering a Kuzy-like long-term contract to Jakub Vrana at the end of this season?

Vrana is on the final year of his entry level contract and is already having a career year with 14 goals – one more than his previous high of 13 – 42 games into the season. Vrana will turn 23 in February so there’s no real pressure for the Caps to sign him long-term, but I believe they will.

General manager Brian MacLellan has shown he is not afraid to lock players in long-term as he has done with Kuznetsov, Wilson, Oshie, Lars Eller, Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson. There’s always a risk with long-term deals and we’ll have to wait and see how good Oshie is at the end of his. Plus, Wilson’s deal could hurt significantly if he struggles to stay out of trouble. The reason I think the Caps sign Vrana long-term, however, is first because it appears like a low-risk move. His top-six skill is undeniable and he is devoted to improving his game. He is always one of the last players off the ice at practice, always putting in the work to get better.

The second reason you lock in Vrana is because the cupboard is pretty dry in terms of offensive talent among the prospects. Vrana is the last forward the Caps selected in the first round and there are no real superstars in the system. Add in the continued struggles of Andre Burakovsky and the need to sign a young top-six forward long-term becomes obvious.

John C. writes: Are the Caps looking at the possibility of trading Burakovsky well before the trade deadline? If so what position are they interested in?

The sense I’m getting is that the Caps have taken calls on Burakovsky, but are not actively shopping him. Even when he struggles to produce, the third line looks at its best with him on the wing. So if they are going to trade him, someone is going to have to really knock their socks off with a trade.

So what would they want?

Since the team is committed to making another Cup run this season, all the rumors suggest the Caps want a player of similar age they can plug into the lineup. Draft picks and prospects are not going to cut it because it would make the lineup weaker for a Cup run.

What MacLellan would be willing to take for Burakovsky changes after the season, however, when his contract expires and the team would have to qualify him for over $3 million to retain his rights. For now though it seems likely Burakovsky will remain in Washington for the remainder of the season.

Jaskin seems to be fitting in quite well. When he first got to Washington he was immediately embraced by fellow Czech Vrana. Jaskin was also born in Russia and speaks the language fluently so you can often see him talking with Ovechkin at practice.
If you’re curious as to how he’s fitting in because his playing time has seemingly evaporated, there are two major factors for this. While the Caps do boast a lot of forward depth, a lot of that depth is fourth line players. Washington’s top-nine seems pretty locked in (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson, Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie, Burakovsky, Eller, Brett Connolly) which leaves five forwards all vying for time on the fourth line. Jaskin struggled initially to adjust to a very different system from St. Louis to Washington, but seems to have figured things out now. Having said that, between Chandler Stephenson, Nic Dowd, Travis Boyd and Devante Smith-Pelly, Jaskin seems to have the lowest offensive upside of those five players and it’s hard to put him in considering how much the top-six has struggled scoring of late.

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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Barry Trotz returns to DC and hands the Capitals a fourth straight loss

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USA Today Sports

Barry Trotz returns to DC and hands the Capitals a fourth straight loss

The New York Islanders outlasted the Capitals in a defensive battle Friday with two third period goals to hand Washington a 2-0 loss in Barry Trotz's return to Capital One Arena. The loss is now the Caps' fourth straight and knocks them down to third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Here are three reasons Washington lost.

Defense

You could definitely see the effect Barry Trotz has had on this Islanders team in this one. Last year, the Islanders were laughably terrible on defense. On Friday, they frustrated the Caps offense all night long.

New York was positionally sound all game long, forcing the Caps to the outside and limiting all of their offensive opportunities. Every time it looked like Washington had a rush developing, the Islanders got back and got in front of the puck. Every time the Caps tried to set up their offense, New York forced them to the perimeter and kept them from the high-danger areas. Thomas Greiss was there to clean up the rest as he recorded his second shutout of the season.

Washington was limited to just 19 shots on goal on the night, 15 through the first two periods.

A third period breakthrough

Braden Holtby looked very sharp for the Caps all night long in his first game since he suffered an eye injury on Jan. 12. He was finally beaten in the third period thanks to a great deflection by Josh Bailey.

Mathew Barzal showed some great puck control as he entered the offensive zone, wheeled around away from the initial defensive pressure, carried it to the high slot and fired a shot. By wheeling around, that allowed Bailey the chance to park himself in front of Holtby for the deflection.

In such a tight defensive game, you knew it was going to be an ugly goal like Bailey’s that would finally break through.

A third-period 2-on-0

John Carlson pinched into the offensive zone. When that happens, that means it’s Michal Kempny’s job to hightail it back on defense if the puck gets past Carlson.

Instead, Kempny tried to step up and to try to keep the puck in at the blue line. Cal Clutterbuck got the puck past him, and it was off to the races with him and Matt Martin on a 2-on-0. Clutterbuck called his own number and finished off the play with the goal to put the Islanders up 2-0.

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First place in the Metro could be on the line for Caps, Islanders tonight

First place in the Metro could be on the line for Caps, Islanders tonight

WASHINGTON — First place in the Metropolitan Division could be on the line when the Capitals host the New York Islanders (7:30 p.m. NBC Sports Washington) at Capital One Arena on Friday. This game is about much more than just Barry Trotz’s return to Washington as head coach of the Islanders – though that is the big storyline in a game with several good ones. Here is what to watch for in tonight’s rivalry game with the streaking Islanders. 

Holtby returns

Good news from the morning skate at Capitals Iceplex where Braden Holtby has been cleared to start against the Islanders tonight following his eye injury last Saturday against Columbus. That wasn’t at all clear Thursday when Holtby practiced, but neither he nor coach Todd Reirden would confirm he was playing against New York. The eye appears to have improved over night, however, and the Caps won’t have to recall a goalie from AHL Hershey. Holtby is expected to start.   

“It’s been a little bit of touch and go,” Reirden said. “Any time you can get your No. 1 goalie in there it’s great for us. Real happy to have him in there for us tonight.”

First place?

This qualifies as a big game in January. The surprising Islanders (27-15-4) have won 13 of 16 to stun the NHL. Remember, this is a team that lost star center Jonathan Tavares in free agency and was expected to be an also-ran this season. Instead, New York (58 points) is one point behind Columbus and the Capitals (59 points) for first place. The Blue Jackets (28-15-3) host Montreal on Friday so there’s no guarantee a win gets New York or Washington (27-14-5) into first place. Columbus (59) is technically ahead of the Caps, but they are even in points through 46 games.

Quick rebound

The Caps were outclassed by Nashville in a 7-2 loss on Tuesday. They are 3-4-2 over the past nine games. They were outscored 11-3 by St. Louis and Nashville this week. A good even strength team most of the season, Washington has been outscored 10-2 at even strength in its past three games. The power play is showing signs of life recently. The penalty kill has shown some improvement. Now the Caps need to plug the leak at evens to get back on track. 

Orpik ceremony

Defenseman Brooks Orpik played in his 1,000th career game on Monday against the St. Louis Blues. He will be honored with a pregame ceremony. Expect gifts from the Caps, his teammates and the NHL. Orpik played 11 years with the Pittsburgh Penguins and is in his fifth year in Washington and has his name on the Stanley Cup twice.  It’s been quite a career for the 38-year-old. 

Barry’s back

Of course, the big story is Barry Trotz returning to Washington after leading the Caps to the Stanley Cup in June. Expect a video tribute in the first period and a huge ovation from the crowd. Given how hot the Islanders are there will be probably be a few of them in the building, too. There’s a reason for everyone to cheer.

“It’s going to be pretty cool for Barry and for the fans and for everyone really,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “Being a head coach of a Stanley Cup champion team carries a lot of weight, it carries a lot of respect, which I imagine he’ll get on the Jumbotron tonight…It’ll be nice to see him again/ Pretty special moments with him on our side of the bench.”

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