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Capitals

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out the May 1 edition below.

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

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Nathan S. writes: The consensus is that Todd Reirden was out-coached and a big reason the Caps didn't move onto second round. A big part of this seems to be that assistant coaches Scott Arniel and Reid Cashman were a big downgrade from Reirden and Lane Lambert and that Reirden is clearly not as good of a head-coach as Barry Trotz is. Do you agree and do you think any consideration will be made to shaking up the staff (I know they said no anticipated changes) given that so many fans have lost confidence in Reirden and Caps ownership over the coaching change last year? 

Let’s get this out of the way first, Todd Reirden is not getting fired after one season. I would be stunned. This is a guy they have been grooming to be a head coach for years, they are not simply going to give up on him after one year. I get that the fans are upset, but teams cannot make drastic sweeping changes just because of immediate fan reaction. That’s not to downplay how you are all feeling, but let’s remember everyone was upset in 2017 after another second-round loss to the Penguins and because Nate Schmidt was lost in the expansion draft. Things turned out OK. If the team had reacted to the fans, Alex Ovechkin would have been traded, the rebuild would have begun and there would be no Stanley Cup banner in the rafters.

 

And before we start blaming the new coaching staff, if everyone hates the slingshot let’s remember that Blaine Forsythe is in charge of the power play and he is a holdover from Trotz’s staff. Yes, I hate the slingshot too, but it is something utilized across the league so clearly coaches see value to it, though I cannot for the life of me understand why. The power play did not always utilize the slingshot so it is a new idea added to the old concept to try to update the power play. Neither Arniel nor Cashman are responsible for that.

Reirden was put in an impossible position taking over behind the bench of the defending champs. Anything less than a Stanley Cup would be seen as a failure. Repeating as champions is hard even with the same coaching staff back and Reirden was expected to navigate that as a first-time NHL head coach. So really this was pretty much a no-win situation for him.

Do not take this to mean I absolve the coaches of any responsibility. Looking at the rosters, the Caps should have been good enough to beat Carolina even without T.J. Oshie and Michal Kempny. They clearly have more talent and more experience. Seven games should have been enough to adjust to the forecheck. They played well against it for stretches, but not consistently enough. They did not play nearly physical enough despite that being a clear advantage to their game. Playing John Carlson on the left was a horrible idea and it should not have taken three games to realize it wasn’t working. I don’t know why the plan going in was for Evgeny Kuznetsov’s line to be the “shutdown” line. Why not move him back with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, a line that had tremendous success last season and let Backstrom be the shutdown guy? And again, the slingshot. Yes, the power play scored at 25-percent, but it would have been more if they could have just gotten the puck into the offensive zone…at all.

Reirden just learned an important lesson for a head coach: the regular season and the playoffs are completely different. The test is to see what he does with that experience next season.

Edie R. writes: Were you able to get any other information about what might have been going on with Evgeny Kuznetsov during playoffs (and really the last part of the season) that might have kept him from elevating his game? Was he dealing with any injuries or was it just motivation? If it was a case of attitude/motivation, how is that handled by team mates and coaching staff?

 

Nathan S. writes: Kuznetsov went from being a DC hero to the second coming of Alexander Semin given his down year and perceived lack of effort this past season. Any idea why he dropped off? Opponents doing a better job of matching up against him and/or complacency on his part? Confidence level that he and the coaches are able to get him back to his high level?

Benjamin C. writes: Do you think we’ll see a better Kuznetsov next season?

Kuznetsov is a tough nut to crack. To put it mildly, he has a unique personality and that certainly comes across when you speak to him. The frustration you feel regarding his inconsistent play is shared by the organization.

“I think the frustration from my point or the organization’s point is there’s a top 10 player in the league in there and when he’s on it’s a lot of fun to watch and our team is a lot better,” MacLellan said. “And when the inconsistency is there, I think everybody gets a little frustrated because you want top 10 Kuzy.”

Kuznetsov said he was not dealing with any injuries and he is going to Worlds so I do not think that was the problem.

Like always, Kuznetsov’s comments at the team’s locker cleanout were fascinating and he seemed to suggest that there is a complacency that sets in with him when the team is successful that he finds tough to deal with.

“When you play on a team like we, even if you have a bad night, your teammates have a good night and you're still winning, then another game you win again and you kind of thinks everything's fine, right?” he said. “But when bad games like last game happen, that's when you kind of understand, 'Oh, I got to get better.' And the pain we got, I never forget that game in Rangers [four] years ago, right? When everyone say just remember how it feels, right? And it's been for four years, we don't feel that. ... Last year was pretty fine. Everything's happy. But it's impossible to win everything. I personally like to learn from negative stuff, from bad stuff. Bad games happen like that. You're just trying to focus to not have the feelings again, the same feeling we have last game. When you win, win, win and then you just forgot how that feel and when it's happening right now, we're kind of, 'OK, you don't want to feel that again.'”

If that is the case, then the good news is you should expect a better Kuznetsov next season given the adversity of losing Game 7 in the first round.

In terms of keeping him motivated, however, the team is still trying to figure that out.

“I don’t know that there’s a special way to motivate him,” MacLellan said. “I think he genuinely wants to be that guy and sometimes he just can’t find it personally.”

 

Kuznetsov absolutely has the talent to be one of the best centers in the game. He should be close to if not passing 100 points every single season. He has that kind of talent. If you are not going to get that for all 82 games you can live with that, but you better bring it in the playoffs. This is now the second postseason where, by his standards, he has disappeared, the first being in 2016 when he scored two points in 12 games. The fact that he can record six points in seven games and we are all left wondering what’s wrong with him just reflects the amount of talent we all know he has. He is too important to the team to fall off in the playoffs and if there is one lesson he needs to learn from this it is that there is no switch you can flip once you reach the postseason. You have to be hitting your stride at Game 82, not Game 7 of the first round.

Greg C. writes: Did anyone in the media ask Reirden about not using Smith-Pelly and Nic Dowd in the OTs of Game 7?  Smith-Pelly in particular seemed productive, having five hits in less than nine minutes and, despite both being -1, they had to be fresher than the guys on the ice who looked totally gassed.

We did not ask and the reason for that is because those kind of personnel decisions are not uncommon. Smith-Pelly played 8:56 and Dowd played 8:21, but Carolina forward Patrick Brown actually had a game-low ice time of 8:07. I looked up some of the other double-overtime games of the playoffs this season to compare as well. In Game 2 between the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets, three players on Columbus were held to less than 15 minutes of ice time. I hear you, 15 minutes is still a lot more than nine, so let’s look at Game 6 between the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks. Joakim Ryan played fewer than eight minutes and that is even more significant than either Smith-Pelly or Dowd because he is a defenseman.

When it comes to overtime, most coaches tend to go with their best players as much as possible because all it takes is one goal. It is hard to spread out the ice time as evenly as you may want at that point. The alternative is what we saw from Mike Babcock in Game 7 against Boston where Auston Matthews got only 18:48 of ice time and Zach Hyman got 18:15 despite playing on a torn ACL.

The point is that It is easy to second guess a coach when things go wrong, but I am far less critical of a coach leaning on his best players in overtime than I am of a coach getting burned for still trying to roll lines in critical situations.

Sammy R. writes: Will Andre Burakovsky get traded to another team?

 

MacLellan said of Burakovsky that, “We're going to have to talk about how we want to allocate that money and what role he would play on our team going forward."

Without much offensive talent in the pipeline and given the way he played down the stretch of the season and into the playoffs, I believe MacLellan would prefer to bring Burakovsky back. Given the team’s cap constraints, however, I think $3.25 million, which is what it would cost to qualify him, is too high. They are going to have to gauge what his interest would be in returning for less than that amount. If he would be open to it, then I could see MacLellan not qualifying him then negotiating a new contract for less, maybe in the $2.5 million range. If that will not be an option, then yes, I think trading away his rights is certainly an option.

Chris C. writes: Will Devante Smith-Pelly and Jonas Siegenthaler return to Hershey? Is Siegenthaler going to get a full-time contract? Can the Caps afford Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby? Can the Caps afford Carl Hagelin? Will Ilya Samsonov be brought up?

Thus far, only one player has been reassigned to Hershey and that is goalie Parker Milner who was in Washington serving as the No. 3. As there has been no news on either player, I doubt either Smith-Pelly or SIegenthaler will be going back to Hershey. For Siegenthaler, you have to take this as a sign the team sees him as an NHL player at this point and they should given how he played in the playoffs. Siegenthaler is under contract through the 2019-20 season and will become an RFA after that so no new contract is likely to come this summer. If you are asking if he will stay in the NHL next season, I absolutely believe he will.

Whether the Caps can afford Backstrom and Holtby will be entirely up to how much the players are asking for. This is a timely question as I recently wrote about this and what the challenges would be to extend both players, I encourage you to read that article for a more in-depth look. The problem is the Caps do not really have the cap room to give either player raises and, as both are still at the top of their game and on team friendly contracts, it would not be a surprise if they went to the team with their hands out looking to get rewarded.

If I had to guess, I would say they keep Backstrom, but lose Holtby. The goalie market is insane considering Carey Price has a cap hit of $10.5 million at the age of 31 and Sergey Bobrovsky, 30, will look for and likely get a similar deal this summer. Holtby has absolutely earned a similar deal to whatever Bobrovsky gets, but I do not see the Caps being able to afford committing $10+ million to him, especially when the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie.

 

Speaking of Samsonov, that is also tricky as well. I believe the team would love to get him some playing time in the NHL next season (especially if they expect to lose Holtby), but I do not believe they will risk losing Pheonix Copley to waivers. Having three goalies in the playoffs works because of the frequent optional skates. It does not work in the regular season as numerous examples have shown. This will take very careful management, but yes, I do believe Samsonov will get some playing time in the NHL next season. I will predict it will be around five games.

As for Hagelin, the Caps really cannot afford to anyone right now. I wrote about the salary cap situation recently, but to summarize Washington has eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season with about $10 million remaining. Throw in Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos, both of whom are RFAs and both of who will almost certainly be re-signed. Let’s say Vrana gets a $4 million per year bridge deal and Djoos gets $1 million. Suddenly you have $5 million left. That’s not $5 million to re-sign Hagelin, that’s $5 million to get another four forwards under contract to pull the team up to 13 (four lines of three plus on extra).

So no, if the team does not find a way to shed salary, they will not be able to re-sign Hagelin…or Brett Connolly…or Burakovsky.

I already touched on Backstrom and Holtby, but MacLellan will certainly gauge their interest in returning this summer and try to find out the range of what each player is looking for in terms of salary. If he does not like what he hears, he is not going to rush anything.

If the Caps do end up losing a lot of their RFAs and UFAs due to cap constraints, looking to their prospects to fill some of those roles is certainly a possibility. You mentioned Barber and Gersich specifically, Barber is a UFA and Gersich is an RFA so both will need new contracts before that can happen. But MacLellan is not going to consider anyone if he does not believe they are ready to step into the NHL.

Barber could possibly step into a third-line role if needed and if he is re-signed, but I am not sure where Gersich will be in his development. Everyone fell in love with him when he joined the Caps at the tail-end of the 2018 season, but he was not ready to be a full-time NHL player and he certainly has had his struggles in Hershey this year. He certainly was not ready for a full-time NHL role this season and I honestly do not know if he will be next season either.

 

Looking at some of the other forward prospects, I am not really seeing many players who could step in and make an instant impact with the Caps. Nathan Walker could perhaps play a fourth-line role, but he is a UFA as well. I would be interested to see how Joe Snively looks in camp competing against NHL players given he was able to step into Hershey and score two goals and five assists in nine games, but that is about it.

I will have a better idea on where these players stand next week when I go to Hershey to check out a few Bears playoff games, so stay tuned.

Carl L. writes: What are the chances Matt Niskanen will be traded? With young defensemen coming up and his declining pay, that would seem like a good way to save cap space.

Given the team’s cap constraints, trading NIskanen is more than just a realistic possibility, I actually expect this to happen and I have expected it ever since the team traded for and extended Nick Jensen as both players are right shots.

Niskanen is 32, had a down year and has a $5.75 million cap hit for two more seasons. Having said that, he would still be a top-four defenseman on most teams so he would still carry some value in a trade.

Niskanen has a modified no-trade clause so MacLellan would have to work with him on where he would go and a trade would obviously mean having to find another defenseman, but it could give the team enough flexibility to at least try to keep Connolly, Burakovsky and Hagelin.

Benjamin C. writes: Out of Connolly, Burakovsky and Hagelin, who would you be the most fine with leaving?

This is a very tough choice and if money was not a factor I would try to keep all three. Having a 20-goal scorer on your third line is a definite asset, Burakovsky is still only 24 and has not yet reached his full potential and Hagelin is a very smart player who instantly became the team’s best penalty killer.

Since money is a factor, however, I would say I am most comfortable losing Hagelin. Given that the pipeline is bereft of offensive playmakers – I do not see anyone stepping in to be 10-20 goal scorers next season – the Caps need the production and scoring depth Burakovsky and Connolly can provide. Having players like that in the bottom-six is an absolute luxury few teams can afford. Plus, as depth scoring was a major part of the team’s Cup run and the lack of it was a major reason they lost in the first round, I would be loath to give that up.

 

Hagelin is a great player and a very smart one. You win with players like that and it was not hard to see why he was such a huge part of Pittsburgh’s success. Having said that, he will turn 31 before the start of next season and his biggest attribute is his speed. Once that goes, it tends to go pretty quickly. I would love to have him back, but of those three he would be my pick.

V. H. writes: Will Nicklas Bäckström take part in this year’s World Championship in Slovakia?

No he will not as he is dealing with a hip injury.

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

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