It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Jan. 23 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.
Benjamin C writes: I am very concerned about Kuznetsov, will he turn things around? Is Reirden getting after the players about their play? Why does it seem like they’re lacking effort? Why is the defense struggling? Why are players trying to force passes and force themselves up the middle in traffic? Why aren’t our “scorers” producing on offense? Sorry for all the questions.
Let’s go through this point by point.
Kuznetsov finally scored his second five-on-five goal of the season Tuesday which just goes to show you how bad his slump really has been. It is disappointing and badly hindering the team. We know how good he is and if he could play like that for 82 games, he would be among the top players in the league. Until he proves he can do that, however, I don’t think anyone outside of Washington will view him that way. Having said that, yes, he will turn it around. He’s too talented to struggle this much for too long.
Until Tuesday, Todd Reirden was going out of his way to remain as positive as one can during a lengthy losing streak. He was pretty angry on Tuesday and I would be stunned if he was not conveying this to the players behind closed doors. This was one of my biggest questions about Reirden as a head coach. He’s such a nice guy, but sometimes the players need the coach to dress them down. You knew Barry Trotz could do that. I have been very interested in how Reirden would react to a situation like this. He has played it pretty close to the vest, but I think we got a glimpse of what he’s actually saying to the players after Tuesday’s loss.
It seems like they are lacking effort because they had a long postseason, a short offseason and they realized they still have half a season left of hockey to go. It’s a grind and they’ve hit the dog days of the season.
The defense is struggling primarily because of the team’s poor puck management. Turnovers are about more than changing possession, it also catches a team out of position. If you’re headed up the ice with the puck and the defense is thinking about getting set up on the blue line, they are not in the best defensive position. That’s what makes turnovers so dangerous, especially against fast teams that can take advantage quickly. Having said that, certainly it appears Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny have struggled. When three of your top four defensemen are not playing well, you’re going to have a hard time winning.
Players forcing passes and forcing plays is a sign of frustration. No one is scoring and clearly that is wearing on the team. Rather than making the simple plays, they are forcing the puck into traffic and stickhandling themselves into turnovers which only exacerbates the problem.
You have to hope that Tuesday’s game was a get right game for the team’s top offensive players. Alex Ovechkin had a hat trick and four points, T.J. Oshie had three points, both Jakub Vrana and Nicklas Backstrom had two assists and Kuznetsov scored his second 5-on-5 goal of the season.
Boris K writes: It seems as though the Caps are mentally exhausted. What would it take for the guys to press the reset button at this point of the year?
The reset is about to come in that the Caps have the All-Star break and the bye week coming immediately off the break. Wednesday is their last game before Feb. 1, over a week away. The problem is that if they lose Wednesday in Toronto, they will head into the break with seven straight losses and that streak will fester. To some, there may not be much difference between losing seven straight or six out of seven. Given the circumstances, however, I would argue Wednesday’s game is about as close to a must-win as you can get in January because you can’t let this losing streak follow them into the break.
They have lost their structure at the moment because they are frustrated. That’s when system and structure go out the window. Instead of making the plays you’re taught to make, you begin putting the puck where you shouldn’t and trying to force plays that aren’t there. The issue isn’t that Reirden doesn’t know anything about defense. He does and for the first 42 games of the season, the system he put in place was pretty effective. For the last seven games, however, they have gotten away from that.
When Madison Bowey tries a weak stick check at Brandon Saad who blows through him like a freight train, that’s not on Reirden, that’s on Bowey for playing that like a Mite on Ice as opposed to an NHL defenseman. When Jonathan Toews turns Orlov into a pretzel because Orlov approaches him as if he has never played defense before and doesn’t know what it means to be square, that’s not on Reirden.
Ryan H. writes: What systematic holes or changes do you see that need to be made in order for the Caps to pull themselves out of this slump?
Since puck management is my biggest concern, I would tweak how the team breaks up the ice. The decisions the team is making with where to go with the puck are very curious so I would stress short passes in the neutral zone. Nothing over the middle or cross-ice. Those aren’t connecting. If your teammate is over 10 feet away, don’t pass it. I would also stress dumping the puck in which I never thought I would say. I don’t like the dump and chase because, for the most part, I question the wisdom of willingly giving up possession in the hopes that you can win a board battle in the offensive zone, but this team needs to get back to basics. I’m putting a grinder on every line, someone I trust to win board battles, and telling the team if they face any pressure from the center line to the blue line, then dump and chase. Even if you don’t win the puck back, you’re at least losing it in the back end of the offensive zone and not in the neutral zone where teams can quickly strike on the counter (like on San Jose’s 3-on-0 on Tuesday).
One other change, I would never use Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie as a line again. That line is just too slow for today’s NHL. Yes, Ovechkin and Oshie combined for four goals Tuesday, but one goal was on the power play and Kuznetsov was on that line in the third period, not Backstrom.
Well, the first problem is that there are no difference making call ups you can make. As a product of being one of the top teams in the NHL for so long, the Caps don’t have very many top-name prospects. Looking at Hershey, there are just no impact skaters on the roster there that would make any real difference on Washington’s roster. Plus, it would be a process trying to add any of them. The Caps have no cap space and already have two extra forwards on the roster meaning you would have to expose someone to waivers to make that move.
Adding Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich or Riley Barber to the bottom six is not the key to turning things around. As for trades, that leads us to the next question.
Edward F. writes: What player(s) are the Washington Capitals staff looking for in trading Andre Burakovsky? Will this player be a 2nd or 3rd line player they are targeting? What changes are coming in the second half of the season for a playoff push?
Brian MacLellan was about as forthcoming as a general manager will be about being open to trading Burakovsky. Let’s forget about the team’s current losing streak for one second. The Caps are all-in on trying to repeat as Cup champs this year. If you take away a player from the top nine and don’t replace him, you’ve made your roster weaker for that Cup run. So while the team is certainly open to trading Burakovsky, MacLellan is going to be looking to bring back a top-nine player in any trade.
With only 12 points in 43 games, the fact that he has been a healthy scratch six times and in order to retain his rights you would have to issue him a qualifying offer of $3.25 million after this season, that all hurts his trade value. At best, I don’t think they will be able to get anything but a third line player back in return. Maybe they can get a similar situation, young player in need of a change of scenery. That would be their best option. If you see Burakovsky moved for picks and or prospects, however, don’t be surprised if the Caps immediately flip some or all of that return to another team for a top-nine player.
I could see MacLellan also going after a depth defenseman, he tends to like stockpiling defense for the playoffs, but those are the only real moves I think we are going to see. I have a hard time believing we are going to see any Earth-shattering, roster changing trades in reaction to the current streak. This team won the Stanley Cup and I think that trumps a bad seven games. For now, anyway….
As I’ve touched on, the issue is puck management. Turning the puck over in the neutral zone resulting in an immediate rush in the other direction is hard to recover from. Doing it over and over and over again will kill you. Both Braden Holtby and Pheonix Copley have not played well of late, but I absolutely am not looking to Hershey for any relief there.
Ilya Samsonov is just starting to play well with four straight wins and a 0.99 GAA and .950 save percentage in that stretch. His numbers for the full season, however, are a 3.26 GAA and .874 save percentage. Sticking a goalie adjusting to the North American game in net the way this team is playing? No thanks. Just look at Carter Hart in Philadelphia. He has played admirably for the Flyers, but with little help in front of him Philadelphia sits just one point out of last place...in the NHL. So it’s not as if adding their prospect netminder before he is completely ready is doing wonders for the team.
Vitek Vanecek has actually had the better season in Hershey with a 2.87 GAA, .901 save percentage and his first all-star nod. Having said that, I have always been sceptical of him as an NHL goalie and I think playing him is not the solution either.
Holtby will be fine. It’s the defense in front of him the team needs to work on.
Stephen M. writes: One thing I have noticed most of the season is bad passing. Instead of tape to tape, it is typically tape to skate or worse. Also, many passes are made lazily and then end up getting intercepted because they were not crisp enough. What can the coaching staff do in the way of drills to help improve the passing?
Passing drills are a very frequent part of team practices. Adding extra emphasis to it would not be the worst thing in the world because you’re right, some of those passes have been off. It’s hard to hit a one-timer if the puck is at your skates. That to me goes more towards bad decision making and, again, poor puck management. Sometimes the easy passes are the best option. This team does not want to do anything easy it seems.
Reirden is shuffling up the lines quite a bit in a search to find more offense. I don’t think the problem is with the frequent line changes, I think it is the choice of lines.
NHL coaches shuffle lines all the time. Trotz would routinely shakeup the lines with great regularity even when things seemed to be going well. He would finally settle on his combinations late in the season and stick with it so I am not concerned with the constant shuffling. My biggest concern, as I have said, is the reliance on Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie to turn things around. That line has had success in the past, but as the NHL continues to get faster I question just how effective that line can be anymore.
Kuznetsov’s slump also hurts since he is such a big part of this team. If he’s not producing on the first or second line, that is a major hole in the lineup.
So, getting back to your question, is the offense struggling because of the line changes? No. They are struggling because their top center is slumping and the response is to group three of their best playmakers onto a line that is not set up for success in today’s NHL.
Team building trips are typically scheduled before the season based on when the schedule allows for it. The schedule definitely does not allow for it when the team returns from break. The Caps will play seven games in 12 days after the bye week. The first six of those games are all at home. The seventh is in Columbus on the end of a back-to-back and that really stinks because from Columbus they go west for the dreaded California gauntlet. After that, trips to Toronto and Buffalo are tacked on for good measure making it a six-game road trip.
I could see the team trying to do a team exercise like what you’re talking about in California as they play in San Jose on a Thursday and then have two days before playing in Anaheim on a Sunday.
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.
MORE CAPS NEWS: