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Capitals mailbag: Who needs to step up in a winner-take-all Game 7?

Capitals mailbag: Who needs to step up in a winner-take-all Game 7?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out the April 24 edition below.

Have a Caps question you want to be 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.

Nathan S. writes: What do you think the atmosphere in Game 7 will be like? Loud like Carolina or tense like in years past? I noticed when game was tied in Game 2, the arena got quiet like in prior years. Old habits die hard I guess or are DC fans just not that rabid? 

This will depend on how the game goes. Look, Caps fans have gotten a bad rap over the years because it did not take much to take the wind out of their sails after seeing multiple playoff failures. I thought the fan base was past that, but when the Caps lost Game 3 and people began tweeting me that the series was over (despite the fact that the Caps were up 2-1 at the time) I realized that that culture of assuming the worst remained ingrained in a lot of the fans.

Having said that, no one who was in Capital One Arena for any of the conference final games or Stanley Cup Final games last year can say the fans did not bring it then. That was the loudest I have ever heard the arena and there was not a shred of doubt or gloom from the fans in those games, even as Washington dropped Games 3 and 4 to Tampa Bay.

To answer your question, yes, Caps fans are rabid, but also quickly deflated in early elimination scenarios. If the Caps come out swinging, the crowd will be behind them. If it’s 2-0 heading into the third period, however, the silence will be deafening.

Benjamin C. writes: I am concerned with the Capitals. Why do they look like they’re sleep walking out there? They don’t look energized out there and we know they have another level.

This may be a bit revisionist history. The Caps won Games 1 and 2. I know they were close wins, but let’s remember in Game 1 the Caps were up 3-0 when Petr Mrazek saved breakaways from Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin before Andrei Svechnikov scored twice to pull the Hurricanes close. Game 2 was won in overtime, but the Caps never trailed in that game. After Game 3 a lot of people were saying Carolina had dominated every game, but that was an overreaction to a blowout loss and to the fact that possession numbers were heavily in favor of Carolina.

Here’s the thing, the Hurricanes were always going to dominate those numbers because those numbers are based on shot attempts and Carolina is a high shot volume team, Washington is not. You have to know that going in and take those numbers with a grain of salt.

Game 3 was bad. The Caps were the better team for the most part in Game 4, but the issue there was an overreaction to the forecheck which had dominated them so completely in Game 3. The Caps adjusted with short passes and speed out of the defensive zone, but one player would zip down the ice with the puck and end up so far ahead of his teammates and surrounded by four Hurricanes in the offensive zone. He would shoot the puck or turn it over and the puck would be headed out of the zone as quickly as it went in. Game 6 started out well, but the last 40 minutes were bad and now it has come down to a Game 7. Overall, I would say the Caps have only really played poorly in two games, Games 3 and 6. It doesn’t take much in hockey to give a team hope, however, and two bad performances were all it took to push this series to seven games.

Let’s also remember that Washington is the only division winner to even make it to seven games. It will be disappointing if they lose in the first round, but it would certainly be par for the course in what is quickly becoming the year of the upset.

Carl Hagelin has played great the last two games so I am not going to bury him. Jakub Vrana has not been much of a factor at all, but really if we are going to talk about players the Caps need more from, the discussion begins and ends with Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov was brilliant in last year’s Cup run and could easily have won the Conn Smythe over Ovechkin with 32 points in 24 games. So far he has just five assists in six games. That is not good enough. Washington does not win the Cup without him playing like a superstar and they may not even make it out of the first round if he does not step up his game on Wednesday. He was invisible in Game 6 and you just cannot have that from a player as important as he is.

Kuznetsov has to be better and if he’s not, he will easily be the biggest disappointment of this series. What’s more, his words from back in October about how it’s “not my style” to be focused 365 days a year are going to come back to haunt him.

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

For whatever reason, the Caps have looked like a completely different team in Carolina. Having a Game 7 in Washington has not been much of an advantage in recent years, but in this specific situation, playing at Capital One Arena will be huge. The Caps have been much better at handling the Hurricanes’ forecheck at home and that will need to continue. The first period has been huge in each home game for the Caps so the opening 20 minutes of Game 7 is going to tell us a lot about who has showed up to play. I expect a very physical start for Washington as that is about the one clear advantage the Caps have established thus far through six games.

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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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.

 

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