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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

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Capitals Prospect Report: Gersich takes the next step in his development

In Brendan Leipsic's last year in the WHL, he scored 39 goals and 52 assists in just 60 games. In his last season in the AHL, he scored 51 points in 49 games.

Yet, in the NHL he struggled to find a role that seemed to fit until the Capitals signed him to be a fourth-line player.

He is a good example of why it can be difficult to find depth players in the NHL. Prospects make it to the league by being one of the best players at every level from youth hockey to juniors, to the minors. Then when they reach the NHL, they are suddenly not the best player anymore and their game has to adapt. A player like Leipsic who was a top offensive threat in juniors has to become a different player to earn his keep in the NHL.

So when you read about how prospect Shane Gersich has only eight points in 23 games and is focusing more on his play in his own end, you may take this as a troubling step back, but that would be a mistake.

This reflects a necessary step in his development.

Gersich showed some skill at the University of North Dakota. In his final two seasons there, he produced 37 points and 29 points respectively, both in 40 games.

But he never looked like he was going to be a top producer at the NHL level and was never projected to be. Gersich was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft and always looked to be better suited for a bottom-six role in the NHL. Playing in the bottom six means being strong in your own end of the ice, something Gersich is working on this season as detailed in this profile by NOVA Caps.

Travis Boyd is also a player projected for a bottom-six role. In Hershey, however, his role was always an offensive one. He typically played on the top two lines and did not contribute on the penalty kill. He does have a lot of offensive skill for the AHL game, but ultimately he has struggled to find his place in the Caps' lineup because he does not provide the kind of things usually asked of a third and fourth-line player.

Producing points is always important. no matter what line you are on so of course Boyd is still a player with value. Hopefully Gersich will be able to produce at the NHL level as well.

By playing more of a two-way game in the AHL, however, and focusing on things like defensive play and the penalty kill, Gersich will have a much clearer path to the NHL than he would as just a top-six AHL forward.

Other prospect notes

  • We are a long way off from knowing just how good the Caps' 2019 draft was, but the early returns look pretty darn good. Check out a draft class update from The Hockey Writers.
  • With Team Canada gearing up for the World Junior Championship, there is a lot of attention being paid to Connor McMichael. His tremendous season has caught the attention of many analysts including those at The Hockey News where he is declared the prospect who has shown the most unexpected growth in this awkwardly intimate video. Prospect analyst Craig Button also talks about the role McMichael will have on Team Canada and how he has the skillset to fill just about any forward role on the ice.
  • As teams prepare for the World Junior Championship at the end of the month, Aliaksei Protas' tournament has already begun. Belarus is a level below the top tournament and is currently hosting the Division I Group A tournament. Protas has one goal and one assist as Belarus sits fourth in the standings out of six teams.
  • Beck Malenstyn was given a three-game suspension by the AHL for elbowing. The suspension began on Sunday and will keep him out on Saturday and Sunday of this week's action. Here's a video of the play, though it is hard to see exactly what happened.
  • Joe Snively had two points through 16 games. In the past nine, he recorded eight. He scored twice over the weekend and now sits second on the team in goals with seven. Someone asked this week in the Capitals Mailbag if Snively could possibly get a call up this season. As good as he has played, Snively has the maximum cap hit for an entry-level contract at $925,000. Because of that, I doubt we see him in Washington this season.
  • Vitek Vanecek was named Hershey's PSECU Player of the Week after two impressive starts. He got the nod on Friday and turned aside 25 shots in a 2-1 win over Lehigh Valley. Bears head coach Spencer Carbery is very regular in his goalie rotation, but after a strong start on Friday and considering Hershey was playing three games in three nights and Vanecek was going to get two starts anyway, Carbery elected to go with the hot hand on Saturday and started Vanecek again. Vanecek rewarded the coach's faith with a 32-shot shutout performance to once again shut down the Phantoms. The shutout was Vanecek's first of the season. He has now allowed two goals or fewer in five of his past six starts.
  • Bobby Nardella returned to the lineup after missing 12 games with an upper-body injury. He had an assist in Sunday's game giving him four on the season in just five appearances.
  • Check out this profile an Axel Jonsson-Fjallby from Chocolate Hockey.

 

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Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)

Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.

Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43. 

The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.

Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.

Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four. 

The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.

One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.

The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.

The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.

A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.

But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.

Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.

This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.

First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.

The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.

One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon. 

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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