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Capitals mailbag: Will the Capitals get any playoff help from the Hershey Bears?

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Capitals mailbag: Will the Capitals get any playoff help from the Hershey Bears?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the March 20 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.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Michael M. writes: If the Caps play the Penguins in the first round, are you concerned if you’re the Caps or is it just a natural fan reaction to get a little weary of this potential first round matchup?

The mental roadblock that was the Penguins I think is gone after last season’s playoff win over their hated rivals. Having said that, would I like to see Washington draw Pittsburgh in the first round? Of course not. The playoffs are a grind and if the Caps win the division, you hope to get to the softest first round matchup you can. Playing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin does not fit the bill.

As great as this rivalry is, it is totally fair to be weary of the matchup. They have played in the playoffs in three straight years and it is only natural to want to see another team in the playoffs. But that’s the playoff system we have. For some reason the NHL does not think these matchups will ever get stale, ever, and insists on keeping this dumb divisional format.

Those odds were a bit dated and I believe most oddsmakers have the Caps much higher now after they have gone on a bit of a run. To answer your question though, I’m Han Solo when it comes to the odds. I put zero faith in them.

The job of the oddsmaker is not to rank who they believe is the most likely to win, it is to get you to spend money. If you’re a Carolina fan and you’re seeing Vegas put you among the favorites, you’re going to take that to mean your team is for real and you’re going to spend money. If you’re a Caps fan and you see the Caps dropping, you’re going to spend money thinking everyone is sleeping on the defending champs and you are getting quality odds. Several bookies had the Toronto Maple Leafs as the favorites at the start of the season. Did they think the Leafs were really the favorites? Probably not, but Leaf mania was taking over Toronto and some excited fans probably dropped more money than they should have as a result of seeing their favorite team as the favorites.

The Caps getting bad odds likely has a lot to do with the oddsmakers taking the repeat into account, it doesn’t happen all that often, and the fact that Washington is not going to play the New York Islanders in the first round. If there’s anyone that should feel slighted by Vegas, it’s New York. All those teams in the Metro getting some surprise love from Vegas were the teams that were likely to play the Islanders in Round 1.

Ben C. writes: Evgeny Kuznetsov has gotten quiet again and just isn’t playing at that elite level we’ve seen him play on. Is he going get himself together in time?

Todd Reirden switched Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom midway through Tuesday’s game and I wonder if it was because of concerns over Kuznetsov’s play.

We are getting close enough to the playoffs that it is fair to wonder just when Kuznetsov will up his game. It is not always easy to flip the switch and he needs to get his game going now and not just wait for the playoffs.

To be fair, Kuznetsov did score on Tuesday, but every game that passes and he does not look to be at the elite level he was in last year’s postseason, it is fair to wonder if he can get back to that level.

Nathan S. writes: Why do Caps give up so many goals at the start and end of periods? Is thus where inexperienced coaching especially Reed Cashman comes into play?

We’ve asked the players and they don’t know either. It was a problem again on Tuesday as the Devils scored with one second left in the first period. I thought Washington was taking control of the game in Tampa Bay on Saturday, but a goal at the start of the third period gave the Lightning a two-goal lead and really hurt the comeback attempt. This is a real issue and can be huge momentum swing in games.

The good news is that I have asked players about giving up early/late goals at some point every season I have been covering the team. Every team goes through streaks like this. Something as basic as early/late goals is important at every level of hockey, including the AHL where Cashman was coaching before this season, so I am not going to put this squarely on inexperienced coaching.

One way to possibly stop this is to put the third and fourth lines on to start and finish each period to try to combat this.

Benjamin C. writes: Do you think Carl Hagelin and Andre Burakovsky should switch lines? That way Burakovsky could get more chances and Hagelin already gets a lot of minutes from the PK. Also why not do a line with Nic Dowd at center, Burakovsky or Hagelin at left and Chandler Stephenson at right wing?

I was surprised to see Hagelin move up to the third line as quickly as he did, but I would not change the third and fourth lines at this point because both seem to be clicking. Considering how streaky a player Burakovsky is, I would absolutely avoid changing anything with him.

Apparently Reirden thought the same thing as you about a Burakovsky, Dowd, Stephenson line. Personally, I prefer Stephenson on the wing rather than at center.

Faceoffs are just one aspect of a player’s game. No one is going to stay in the lineup just because of faceoffs. Reirden is going to keep in the player he feels adds the most to the lineup.

I’ll give you a good example of what I mean. The Caps signed Wojtek Wolski in 2012 largely because he was good at the shootout. The problem was that he could not do much else. He ended up playing 27 games with nine points and that was his last season in the NHL.

Evidently it is going to take wanting to give Brooks Orpik a night off.

Djoos played Tuesday for the first time since Feb. 23 and he looked good. At this point, however, it seems like Reirden has locked in the defense for the playoffs with Djoos as the No. 7.

I can’t speak for the team, but if I was in charge I would try to bring him back. He completely transformed the team’s penalty kill and you would feel comfortable putting him in any of the four lines if you needed to, at least for a short time.

There are a few obstacles to a possible return, however. Hagelin is a UFA so he holds all the cards. He will be 31 at the start of next season and his best asset is his speed. Once he starts to decline, he will do so rapidly. Brian MacLellan prefers short-term deals for bottom-six players so a good performance in the playoffs is going to mean getting better offers from other teams. Plus, MacLellan also has to think about re-signing Jakub Vrana and Djoos who are both due significant raises and he has to make a decision on what to do with Brett Connolly as well. You have to figure out what your top seven will be on defense and if you need to look for a free agent or two.

It would be great if they could bring Hagelin back, but he is pretty far down on the list of priorities for the offseason.

Well, if the Caps are recalling anyone from the AHL, it’s going to be Devante Smith-Pelly. Sending him to the AHL was a shock. If you start recalling other forwards over him, then I have a hard time seeing him ever suiting up for the Caps again even if they need him to.

But more to your point, I do not get how the team has handled Dmitrij Jaskin this season. From my perspective I thought he played well whenever he got into the lineup. Clearly the coaches disagree. Not sending him to Hershey was about his salary as it is over $1 million and could not be completely buried like Smith-Pelly’s could, but if they had no intention of using him, then perhaps it would have made sense to try to trade or waive him.

As for Riley Barber, after Wednesday’s game there will only be eight remaining in the season. Giving a player fourth line minutes for eight games to see what he can do is really not enough time to say, yes, this player should be in the lineup over Smith-Pelly, Jaskin, Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, etc. Barber has had a hell of a season and I would like to see what he can do, but an important thing to remember is that of his 58 points, 31 of those points have come on the power play. Barber will get zero time on the power play in Washington.

The time to experiment with Barber was way before now.

When the playoffs begin, I expect Smith-Pelly will be on the Caps’ roster regardless of whether Hershey is in the playoffs or not. Having said that, do I foresee any scenario where Smith-Pelly is in the lineup at the start of the playoffs? Not unless there are multiple injuries.

I know a lot of people are upset about Smith-Pelly, but let’s take away what he did in the playoffs. Has he really done enough to warrant an every day roster spot this season? Not really.

Having said that, if a player gets injured in the playoffs and Reirden has to put in either Smith-Pelly or Dmitrij Jaskin, I would still expect Smith-Pelly to get the nod over Jaskin.

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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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Looking ahead to a busy offseason

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 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.

I have written about this before, but Jakub Vrana’s contract has to be priority No. 1. Vrana is absolutely going to be back, but he is going to take a sizable chunk of what little cap room Washington has remaining. General manager Brian MacLellan needs to know how much cap space he is working with this offseason before he can make any decisions about the other free agents like Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin.

The second most important move would be a trade to free up cap space. Everyone assumes that Matt Niskanen would be the player on the trade block, as you noted. With the free agents the Caps could potentially lose and a prospect pipeline devoid of any high-end offensive skill, I just do not see how the Caps can add enough quality forward depth this offseason without clearing cap space.

Fans should circle June 20-22 as target dates for a possible trade. June 20 is the NHL general managers meeting and June 21-22 is the draft. When you get all the general managers together in the same place, that can spark trade deals. Don’t forget, the draft was when Brooks Orpik and Philipp Grubauer were traded to the Colorado Avalanche last year.

As for Backstrom and Holtby, while I am sure MacLellan would like to get those deals done if possible, these do not rank as high on the priority list as both players are still under contract for another season.

Maclellan was asked on breakdown day if he wanted those deals done this summer and he said, “I don’t think it matters. We’ll have conversations and if it feels like it’s going in the right direction, then we can get more assertive on it.”

The Caps have plenty of issues to deal with for this season to worry too much about Backstrom and Holtby right now.

Jacob C. writes: How does Washington adjust their offseason knowing that they have a $1.15 million dollar cap penalty? 

Washington was hit with a cap penalty because of some late performance bonuses that pulled the team over the cap ceiling.

The money situation was going to be tight for the team regardless of the cap penalty so it is hard to know if anything the team does will be directly related to that, but if I had to guess I believe the player the most affected by this will be Andre Burakovsky.

As a restricted free agent, the Caps will have to give him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million in order to retain his rights and prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. That is high for a player who has scored 12 goals in each of the past three seasons.

Maybe you could justify the risk of overpaying him because the team could potentially see both Connolly and Hagelin walk, but with $1.15 million less to spend that may force MacLellan to not qualify Burakovsky and attempt to convince him to sign for less.

Jack Hughes.

OK, so obviously that is not going to happen. I assume your question is more aimed at who I think the Caps would want of the players who may actually fall to them at 25. The team’s philosophy when it comes to the draft is to take the best available player, which it should be, but the Caps have not taken a forward in the first round since 2014 and that lack of offensive talent is really starting to catch up with them. If forwards start dropping off the board, they cannot afford to wait and see who falls to them. My prediction is that that team is going to come into this draft with the goal of drafting a forward. They will have grades on every first round prospect and, if it looks like a number of forwards could fall their way, great. If a bunch of forwards get taken early, however, I would not at all be surprised if MacLellan tries to trade up to make sure he gets a high-end forward prospect.

Next, let’s look at where the Caps like to get their players from. In the last five drafts, Washington has taken nine players from the WHL and 11 players from European leagues. Knowing that, here are the players I would predict to be high on the Caps’ list:

Kirby Dach C, Saskatoon, WHL
Dylan Cozens C, Lethbridge, WHL
Peyton Krebs C, Kootenay, WHL
Ilya Nikolaev C, Russia
Nils Hoglander W, Sweden

The three WHL players I have seen go pretty high in most mock drafts so if you get down to say, pick 15 and one of those guys is still on the board, that’s when it is time to really pay attention and see if MacLellan tries to jump up to snag him.

It depends on what you consider to be “major.” As I mentioned above, if the Caps want to compete for the Cup next season, I do not see how they can avoid making a trade. If trading Niskanen for what would likely be draft picks would be considered “major,” then yes.

Do I see them making a big multi-player trade for significant pieces? No. Do I see them pursuing a big-name free agent like Erik Karlsson or Artemi Panarin? No. Even if MacLellan does trade Niskanen that only frees up another $5.75 million in cap room and the Caps will need just about every penny to fill in their bottom six.

We could see a Niskanen trade, we could see a them trade up in the draft and the team will almost certainly be active on July 1 to find forward depth, but they are not in the running for any of the big name free agents.

Todd Reirden said on breakdown day, “We're going to go through a full review of all that stuff, but I do not anticipate any changes to my coaching staff."

Obviously, he left himself a little bit of wiggle room there, but it does not appear the team is going to make any changes to the staff.

In terms of how they operate, I anticipate Reirden taking a more hands-on approach to the defense. He really made a name for himself in the league for his defensive acumen and the improvement he brought with him as an assistant coach was not as evident last season with him as head coach.

I do not anticipate any major changes to the system the team plays, but I am curious what they do on special teams. I have not seen a team that consistently utilizes the slingshot well on the power play so I am hopeful the breakouts get an update to get rid of the slingshot. I do not know how you could evaluate the team’s play from last season and say, yeah, let’s keep doing that. But, the sling shot was all the rage across the NHL so clearly someone thinks it actually works.

Second, the penalty kill has to adjust for the personnel it has. The Caps tried a more aggressive penalty kill and it did not work for much of the season. Really, it did not seem to click until Hagelin came on board at the trade deadline. If he stays or Washington gets someone on the roster who can run it as effectively as he could, great. Otherwise, you hope the team can accept the fact that a guy like Chandler Stephenson just is not the same player as Hagelin and adjust accordingly. 

First, the defense as that seems like the easier prediction. I see a second pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen. I expected that to be the plan the moment the team re-signed Jensen. The bottom pair will be Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. The Caps need to add too much on offense to commit the money to another defenseman. Siegenthaler looked good in the playoffs and Djoos will be entering his third year in the NHL so it is time for both players to step up. I think we could see someone like Tyler Lewington come in as a cheap No. 7 and as someone the team feels no pressure to get into the lineup.

The offense is trickier as this is where the team may add some free agents. Lars Eller and Nic Dowd will be the centers. That much we know. Travis Boyd remains under contract. I predict MacLellan will be able to work something out with Burakovsky and he stays. A return for Stephenson also seems likely. At that point, the Caps should have about $7.5 million of cap space for two more forwards. I think they could make a run at either Connolly or Hagelin, but not both. It just depends on where their priorities lie heading into free agency. If they cannot get any, they have to turn to free agency and hope they can find a top-nine player they can plug into the third line.

Now here’s where things get interesting. You have the money for one high-end bottom six guy (Connolly, Hagelin or their replacement), but a Stephenson, Dowd, Boyd line does not inspire much confidence. Looking at the prospects, the only prospect who seems close to the NHL is Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, but it is hard to tell given he only played 16 games in Hershey last season.

If the Caps think he is ready, they could look to Jonsson-Fjallby as a Hagelin replacement. If not, could they actually consider bringing back Dmitrij Jaskin? After all, Jaskin will be an RFA and the team could probably get him for pretty cheap. If they do that, Reirden would have to actually use him, but the cap situation makes this not outside the realm of possibility.

So here is what I would say for the third and fourth lines:

Free agent – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Dmitrij Jaskin
Travis Boyd

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

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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

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The Stanley Cup Final is set and the Capitals will hand the Stanley Cup off to Boston or St. Louis

With the St. Louis Blues’ victory on Tuesday, the Stanley Cup Final has officially been set. The Blues will face the Boston Bruins as both teams will battle to supplant the Capitals as the Stanley Cup champions.

St. Louis finished off the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday with a 5-1 Game 6 win and will now look to win its first ever Stanley Cup. One has to wonder whether that game was the last time we will see the 39-year-old Sharks forward Joe Thornton on the ice. For the Blues, this is the first time they have reached the final since 1970, snapping a 49-year drought. They made the final in each of their first three seasons as the NHL grouped all of its expansion franchises into a single division.

St. Louis is now the first team in league history to go from last place in the league in January to the Stanley Cup Final.

This season will be a rematch of the 1970 final in which the Blues were swept by the Bruins. That series gave us the iconic moment of Boston great Bobby Orr soaring through the air after scoring the Cup-clinching goal in overtime of Game 4.

The Bruins have been waiting since Thursday to learn who their opponent would be after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to win the East. Boston will be going for its seventh Cup and first since 2011. Goalie Tuukka Rask was brilliant in that series with a .956 save percentage and a 1.25 GAA. The long layoff, however, could potentially cool off Rask and the red-hot Bruins.

The New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets both swept their first-round opponents and both lost in the second round. The Hurricanes swept the Islanders in the second round and were then swept by Boston. The Bruins will have to shake off the rust as quickly as possible as the final begins.

Boston will have home ice in the final and will host Games 1 and 2 before the series shifts back to St. Louis.

Here is the final schedule:

  • Game 1 in Boston, Mon. May 27
  • Game 2 in Boston, Wed. May 29
  • Game 3 in St. Louis, Sat. June 1
  • Game 4 in St. Louis, Mon. June 3
  • Game 5 (if necessary) in Boston, Thurs. June 6
  • Game 6 (if necessary) in St. Louis, Sun. June 9
  • Game 7 (if necessary) in Boston, Wed. June 12

 

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