Capitals

Quick Links

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

ovechkin-red-usat.jpg
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.

MORE CAPS NEWS:

Quick Links

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

tj_oshie_usat.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Washington Capitals

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Washington Capitals.

It’s time for the Metropolitan preview you have all been waiting for, your hometown heroes, the Caps.

Washington learned firsthand how difficult it is to defend a Stanley Cup as they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes in what appeared on paper to be a favorable matchup. Now they head into the season with a different looking team, but not because of any knee-jerk reactions to an early playoff exit.

The entire offseason for the Caps has been dictated by the salary cap. With no money under the cap, general manager Brian MacLellan had to say goodbye to key pieces like Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky. The retirement of Brooks Orpik was also a key loss for the blue line.

Despite all the changes you have to give credit to MacLellan for managing to shed salary and still improve the team.

When you look at the numbers, Washington really struggled defensively last season. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

As one would expect, this is leading to the team giving up more goals. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

To combat this MacLellan traded for Radko Gudas who was one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ best defensemen last season and who may prove to be an upgrade over Niskanen at this point in their respective careers. MacLellan also filled the hole on the third line left by Connolly with Richard Panik and added a pair of strong defensive fourth-line players in Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic. The result should be better team defense and a stronger penalty kill.

The concern in losing players like Connolly and Burakovsky and focusing on the defense is that this team is not as offensively deep as it was. The entire top-six returns, but will Washington rely too much on its top scorers to carry the load? And can players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie who are all over 30 still carry that load? it is imperative that players like Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana continue their production from last season and Evgeny Kuznetsov returns to the Conn Smythe-worthy form we saw in the 2018 postseason that we only saw glimpses of last year.

As improved as the team looks overall defensively, a lot will be riding on Nick Jensen. He struggled after getting acquired at the trade deadline, but with Niskanen gone, he will be expected to take on a top-four role most likely alongside Dmitry Orlov. The loss of Orpik also means a regular spot for either Jonas Siegenthaler or Christian Djoos on the third pair with Gudas.

While money was an issue for the offseason, it will continue to hang over the team's head heading into training camp. The Caps remain over the salary cap and will have some tough moves to make. Chandler Stephenson will almost certainly start the season in Hershey, but that will not be enough. Will Djoos go to the AHL? Will we see Vitek Vanecek replace Pheonix Copley as Braden Holtby’s backup to save money? How will Holtby play on the final year of his contract? Will we see prospect Ilya Samsonov come into the NHL this year as next year’s potential replacement of Holtby?

Managing the salary cap is going to be a story all season long and this roster is still going to be shuffled in a fairly significant way even before the end of training camp just to get under the ceiling. That is something to keep an eye on in training camp.

And of course, there is coaching. Todd Reirden enters his second season as head coach. He navigated a rocky 2018-19 season very well leading the team to a division title, but the playoffs were a different story. Among the reasons for the team’s early exit were some curious decisions made by the coaching staff such as electing to play John Carlson on the left in response to the injury to Michal Kempny.

There are a lot of questions surrounding this team that could ultimately cost them their seat atop the division.

Having said all of that, even with how good the Metro will be this year and how much several teams have improved, Washington still maintains the best roster in the division from top to bottom and still should be considered the frontrunners for a fifth title. There are just a lot more potential pitfalls that could derail the season than we have seen in recent years.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The New York Islanders - Can Barry Trotz work his magic again?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title.

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The New York Islanders.

The surprise team of 2018-19 is back to prove that was no fluke. It was the Islanders who finished second to the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division last season, not the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was Barry Trotz who won the Jack Adams Award. It was New York who shook off the loss of star center Jonathan Tavares and somehow made the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs before a getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. 

The Metro appears tougher on paper this time around and the Capitals and Penguins still are formidable opponents. The Islanders also swapped out their best goalie (Robin Lehner) for more of a talented question mark (Semyon Varlamov). And they lost in the Artemi Panarin free-agent sweepstakes to the rival New York Rangers. 

None of that bodes well, but the Islanders do have plenty to build on. They have a balanced top six with Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson centering solid lines. Anders Lee led the team with 28 goals and he was re-signed. Josh Bailey had 56 points, which was second only to Barzal (62). 

And don’t forget about maybe the best fourth line in the NHL (Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck), which combined for 34 goals last season. Cizikas alone had 20.  

Without an 80-point game-breaker - though Barzal has the talent to get there - New York has to be steady in its own end and get close to the fantastic goaltending it received last year from Lehner and Tomas Greiss. 

This time it will be Varlamov and Greiss. In front of them is a fine top pair in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. But the blueline overall features almost no household names. 

The Islanders, thanks in large part to Trotz and some of the same assistant coaches who helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018, shocked the NHL last year. It shouldn’t be a surprise this time if they remain in playoff contention most of the season. 

But the Metro has gotten better and New York at best remained in place. The Islanders won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. Just making it back into the postseason tournament would be a win.  

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: