Capitals

Capitals

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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