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Capitals mailbag: Will the real fourth line please stand up?

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Capitals mailbag: Will the real fourth line please stand up?

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Feb. 13 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.

Ben C. writes: Why don’t they play Dmitrij Jaskin more? He may not score as much but does so much more. Why not a 4th line of Jaskin, Nic Dowd and Travis Boyd?

Michael K. writes: What is the deal with the numerous line changes? Jaskin has showed that he more than deserves to be an every night starter over the likes of Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson, yet he’s scratched for multiple games at a time. Are the inconsistencies relating to line changes affecting chemistry and the play of the team? Is Todd Reirden starting to panic?

I don’t see the frequent changes as a sign of panic, I think Reirden just has not been able to settle on what he sees as the best combination for the fourth line. Part of that is because the team has dealt with so many injuries and Andre Burakovsky took a tour on the fourth when he was in the dog house.

I asked Reirden Monday about Jaskin once again getting scratched on Monday:

I use [Jaskin] at the end of a penalty kill and then it ends up in the back of our net. Those are situations where we have to find people that can be used in all different areas of the game, especially back-to-backs. I think that the penalty killing attributes that Stephenson and Smith-Pelly have add a little bit different element to us so don't have to use our top guys on penalty kill situations tonight.

I also asked him about when he wants to get some consistency on his lines and he said he’s not going to be married to anything until after the trade deadline.

I’m fine with some shuffling on the fourth line throughout the season – with two extra forwards, you need to get guys playing time – but I think it’s getting to be a bit much. Jaskin, to me, is someone that should be getting more games than the 34 he has played in. He plays well and has a positive impact almost every time he’s in the lineup. In my mind, the Jaskin, Dowd, Boyd line has been the best fourth line this team has shown this season and they haven’t gotten much opportunity of late. It’s hard to build much consistency with the lines changes every one or two games. Sometimes players on the fourth line make mistakes, but Jaskin definitely seems to get scratched for them more often than anybody else and I believe there are two reasons why.

First, Reirden believes both Smith-Pelly and Stephenson are better on the penalty kill and he said as much in the quote above. The second reason, and it is not something Reirden has said but is just a theory of mine, is because Smith-Pelly and Stephenson were part of the championship lineup that helped win the Caps their first Stanley Cup. These players were trusted when it mattered the most and they delivered. I believe that’s why Reirden will lean more on players like Smith-Pelly, Stephenson, and Brooks Orpik over players like Jaskin and Jonas Siegenthaler.

The Caps are all-in on defending the Cup and Brian MacLellan has made at least two trades at the deadline every year since being general manager so yes, I do believe the Caps are going to make at least one trade.

I still believe Andre Burakovsky will be available if the right deal comes along. Yes, he is playing well now, but we’ve seen this play out before. With 25 games left in the season, plus the playoffs, do we really expect Burakovsky to play consistently well that long? The fact that he is playing well is a good thing as it should increase his value. Having said that, considering how much the team values keeping its championship lineup together, I would not be surprised if they decide to hold onto him for the playoffs.

But what will they bring in? You can pretty much take it to the bank that they will bring in a defenseman. MacLellan has added a defenseman every trade deadline and I don’t expect this one to be any different. What they do on offense will be dependent on what they decide to do with Burakovsky. Obviously they will have to add a player to the third line if they want to trade him. I think they will at least explore adding a strong faceoff player, but only if he brings something else to the table as well, like penalty killing.

To summarize, I would assume we see MacLellan add a depth defenseman and at least explore adding a depth forward, though I also wouldn’t be surprised if they stand pat on offense.

Actually, I disagree with you. The second pair has been a major issue, but I am much more concerned by the play of Matt Niskanen than I am Dmitry Orlov. Because that pair was struggling, Reirden split them up during the losing streak putting Orlov with John Carlson and Niskanen with Michal Kempny. Orlov was fine, but the second pair again struggled, furthering my belief that the issue is Niskanen.

As for how to fix that, that’s a good question. I hated the Orlov, Carlson and Kempny, Niskanen pairings, as those players do not complement one another as well as the original pairs. That’s not the solution. Niskanen is a righty so moving him down to the third pair doesn’t make sense because it would mean an Orpik, Niskanen pair which is also not a good combo. Do you put Orlov with Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos with Niskanen? Not unless Bowey starts playing better.

Fixing the second pair may be a matter of letting Niskanen play through this just because there do not seem to be any good alternatives despite Washington’s depth on the blue line. And if you think Washington should trade for a top-four defenseman, those players are very expensive, especially rightys. The Caps hit a home run by finding Kempny last season for just a third-round draft pick, chances are lightning will not strike twice and they will not be able to pluck a hidden top-four player from an opponent like they did last year.

Benjamin C. writes: Why does it seem like Caps are undisciplined? Most minor penalties in NHL and nothing is done about it and nothing is changing, at some point this has to be thrown on Todd to blame.

Yes, the penalties are a major problem and, as you correctly note, Washington leads the NHL in minor penalties. It seems like they are undisciplined because the penalties are unnecessary. Brett Connolly’s penalty at the end of their loss to Florida is a great example. Aleksander Barkov had the puck in his own zone with four seconds late and Connolly still felt the need to knock the stick from his hands for no reason.

To say Reirden is doing nothing, however, would be untrue. It is something we know he has addressed in practices and in games. Both he and the players have said as much. He also publicly benched Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jaskin in the first period against the Boston Bruins after they both took bad penalties.

The issue for me is that it was not addressed earlier. This has really been a problem all season and only now does it seem to be a point of emphasis. Habits are hard to break. When penalties were an issue at the start of the season, that’s when you start benching players or moving them down in the lineup or even scratching them. The problem you have now is that there are 25 games left in the season and you are in a tight race in the standings. Can Reirden really afford to bench Kuznetsov and Kempny at this point in the season, the two players with the most minor penalties on the team? Probably not.

It’s fair to blame Reirden for letting the penalties get to this point, but before you grab your pitchforks and torches and conclude that the only explanation is that he is a bad coach, consider this: While the Caps may lead the NHL in minor penalties, the team in second place is Tampa Bay, the top team in the NHL. Coaching is not seen as much of an issue there.

Jimmy H. writes: With the success that Ilya Samsonov is having with the Hershey Bears could you see him coming up to play with the caps anytime soon?

Soon as in next season? Sure. Soon as in this season? No. Unless there’s an injury to Braden Holtby or Pheonix Copley, I do not believe there are any plans to bring Samsonov up. As good as he is playing in the AHL, it still has been an adjustment for him and bringing him up to the NHL in his first North American season would be a lot to ask. It’s better for him to get his minutes in the AHL.

For those of you thinking about Carter Hart and saying bringing your star goalie out of the AHL worked for Philadelphia, you have to consider that Hart grew up playing in North America. He is from Alberta, played junior hockey in the WHL and started this season in the AHL. Again, this is Samsonov’s first season in North America. It is an apples and oranges comparison.

I would not be surprised if Samsonov battles with Pheonix Copley for the backup role in training camp and even gets a few starts next season. For what it’s worth though, MacLellan said in January that he anticipates Samsonov going back to Hershey next season.

Nathan S. writes: Why do Caps often play so poorly to bad and mediocre teams at home? I know that even in the playoffs last year Caps were better on the road for some reason but it does seem that this year Caps are having trouble closing teams out at home and not running anyone out of the building the way Pittsburgh, Nashville, Vegas, Toronto, NYI, etc. often do.

I find zero correlation between how they played at home in the playoffs last season and this season. The Caps’ playoff history weighed on the minds of both the players and the fans and it was probably a relief for the team to be on the road and get away from that. You could feel the tension at home games for the past few years so I’m not surprised they played well on the road.

As for this season, the Caps are 17-9-5 at home. Bad teams play them closely because it’s the NHL and teams can lose to anyone on any given night. Tampa Bay has lost to Anaheim and Ottawa at home, San Jose lost to Arizona and Los Angeles at home, Pittsburgh lost to Carolina and New Jersey at home, etc. I just do not see this as an issue.

Ben C. writes: T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom don’t seem to be getting Ovechkin the puck and that line seems a little slow, why don’t they put Kuznetsov back up there now that he’s playing and skating well?

Ask and ye shall receive.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line used to be very good and it has enough skill to generate some points, but it is just too slow for today’s NHL and over time its deficiencies become apparent. The problem is, with Kuznetsov not playing well, Reirden could not afford to keep him on the top line so he switched things up. The offense will be much better for the switch.

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 GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan does not see why the 2020 Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk

The 2020 season is unlike any other and because of that, it has brought up debates that we typically do not see in a season. From year to years, no one really questions whether the winner of the Stanley Cup was somehow invalid. If you win four best-of-seven series, clearly you deserve to be the last team standing. But now that the NHL has a playoff format for when the league resumes play, there are those who believe this year's Stanley Cup deserves an asterisk.

That notion is ridiculous., but don't take my word for it. Listen to someone who has won the Cup twice.

Brian MacLellan won the Cup in 2018 as the Capitals general manager, but he also won it as a player in 1989 with the Calgary Flames. Obviously the way in which a winner will be determined this postseason is different than a normal year, but to MacLellan, he feels winning the Cup would mean just as much as in 2020 as it would any other year.

"It's going to be different, it's going to be unique," MacLellan said Friday in a video conference. "The format's unique, but I still think players are competitive. You get in that environment, you're going to want to win. Organizations want to win."

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You may be thinking to yourself, "what is he supposed to say?" but really, he had an opportunity to voice a dissenting opinion throughout the process. When the league voted on the 24-team playoff proposal, only two out of 31 teams voted against it and the Caps were not among them. MacLellan could have said this year is different or that it won't feel the same and, as someone who has won the Cup both as a player and a general manager, his opinion would certainly carry some weight.

But that's just not how MacLellan feels about it.

"Once we get into it and it gets competitive, I don't think players are going to sit there [and think] this is not the same," he said.

MacLellan added, "I don't know that it lessens it because we've had a break, we've had a situation that's come into society, come into sports."

Considering the winner of the 2020 Cup will have had to wait through a season pause of several months, played through a training camp, most likely live in seclusion in a hub city for several weeks throughout the postseason, won at least four rounds of playoff hockey (five if a play-in team goes all the way) and do all of it in the midst of a global pandemic, why would anyone think to win the Cup this year could somehow be less difficult or satisfying?

"It'll be different," MacLellan said, "But I think the satisfaction of winning a championship, playing with your team, playing with your teammates, getting through hurdles that you have to go through in the playoffs, I think that's all going to be very satisfying."

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With the NHL limiting teams to 28 skaters for the playoffs, what will the Caps' roster look like?

With the NHL limiting teams to 28 skaters for the playoffs, what will the Caps' roster look like?

In a typical NHL postseason, all roster limits and salary cap restrictions are lifted. This year, however, is no normal postseason and teams are going to have prepare for having a limited number of players on the road.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the NHL has advised teams to prepare for a 28-man roster plus unlimited goalies for training camp and the playoffs. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan confirmed this in a video conference on Friday.

"We got the roster number the other day of 28 plus unlimited goalies," MacLellan said. "So we're in discussions now on how we want to use those extra players and what's the best way we can organizationally."

It should be noted that "unlimited" goalies is a bit of a misnomer because all teams will only be allowed to bring a maximum of 50 people to their hub cities for the playoffs. So sure, bring as many goalies as you want, but for each goalie you bring that's one less staff member who will be able to go.

In a typical postseason, teams will recall several players from the minors to serve as "black aces," who are depth practice players. Several practices in the postseason are optional so having black aces ensures that regardless of the NHL regulars who wish to take part in a practice, there are still enough players to work with whether it be a goalie to shoot on or maybe shooters for a goalie to face against. Black aces also provide depth which is important for the grueling Stanley Cup Playoffs. For the players themselves, it provides younger prospects a valuable learning experience for what the postseason is like and how the veteran players approach it.

With a limited roster and limited personnel, however, MacLellan likely will not be able to bring all the players he normally would want to. Here's a projection of what a 28-man roster may look like for Washington.

The regulars

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
Travis Boyd

Brenden Dillon - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Michal Kempny
Radko Gudas

When the NHL season was paused, there were 21 skaters on the roster. That number is down to 20 after Brendan Leipsic's contract was terminated. There is no reason to think any of the other 20 will not be with the team for the postseason.

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Possible Black Aces

With 20 players, that leaves just eight slots left for black aces. Here are the most likely candidates:

Shane Gersich
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby
Brett Leason
Beck Malenstyn
Connor McMichael
Liam O'Brien
Garrett Pilon
Brian Pinho
Mike Sgarbossa
Joe Snively
Daniel Sprong
Alex Alexeyev
Martin Fehervary
Lucas Johansen
Tyler Lewington
Bobby Nardella

Of those players, my best guess for the eight the team will take would be Gersich, Malenstyn, McMichael, Sgarbossa, Sprong, Alexeyev, Fehervary and Lewington.

First off, MacLellan named McMichael specifically as a player the team was considering taking. I don't think he does that if he was not fairly certain McMichael was going to be included. Malenstyn said in a video conference after the AHL season was officially canceled that he had been told by the team he was going to be a black ace. As for the rest, considering there is a fairly limited number of roster spots, I think the team would lean very largely on players who are more likely to be plugged into the lineup in case of injury. That means guys like Sgarbossa and Sprong would get nods over some prospects like Jonsson-Fjallby or Snively or, on defense, Lewington would be added over prospects like Johansen and Nardella.

Goalies

Braden Holtby
Ilya Samsonov
Pheonix Copley
Vitek Vanecek

Teams will always have a third goalie when possible in the playoffs and Copley also confirmed he will be a black ace in the video conference with Malenstyn. The only question is if the team would bring Vanecek as well just to be safe. With all the unknowns of the coronavirus, it would not be surprising to see MacLellan err on the side of caution and bring a fourth netminder. It may just depend on what other personnel the team may want to bring and if there is space in the 50-person limit for a fourth goalie.

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