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How the 24-team playoff both helps and hurts the Capitals

How the 24-team playoff both helps and hurts the Capitals

The return to play format for the NHL is not set in stone and there are still some details that need to be worked out, but it certainly appears as if there will be a 24-team playoff when the league resumes and the Capitals will get a bye through the first round as one of the top-four teams in the Eastern Conference. At face value, that's a good thing. Out of 24 teams, only eight are guaranteed to make it to the next round and the Caps are one of those eight. But no one is quite sure how teams will look when the season resumes and with that uncertainty comes the possibility that the first-round bye might not actually be a positive.

Let's be clear, a bye through the first round is not a bad thing. The NHL has more parity than any other sports league and no one is guaranteed to win a series regardless of who they play. Really, this is about how ready Washington is going to be for a playoff series after sitting out the first round.

When the NHL put its season on pause, just about everyone had an opinion on how things should look when play resumed. If there was one thing all of the players agreed on, except for Alex Ovechkin, it was that the league should not simply jump into the playoffs. Teams had to be able to play games before that whether it be regular-season games or exhibitions. After so much time away from the ice and away from the team, everyone is going to look rusty when they return to the ice. No one wants to go straight from an abbreviated training camp into a do-or-die playoff series. With the NHL pause stretching into May, however, and with no timetable for a return just, time is a factor the league must consider in terms of being able to finish the current season and still have a full 82-games season in 2020-21. As of the time of writing, it does not appear that teams will be able to play exhibition games upon returning...except for the top seeds.

Based on the format that is currently expected to be agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA, the top four teams from each conference will play a round-robin to determine playoff seeding during the first round. While 16 teams will have to go from no hockey, to an abbreviated training camp right to what will likely be a best of five playoff series, the top seeds like the Caps will get three exhibition games before starting the playoffs.

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Granted, these would not technically be exhibition games because they would matter in terms of seeding, but even if the Caps were to be blown out in all three games, they would still advance to the second round. Not having to step into a best of five series with the season on the line immediately out of the pause is a huge advantage, or at least it is when looking just at the first round. But what will happen in the second?

When teams like Washington get their first chance to step onto the ice in the postseason it won't be against teams coming off exhibition games. Instead, the Caps will be playing a team that battled through three to five playoff games. While Washington will be trying to dial up the intensity to playoff levels, they will be playing against a team that has been playing at that intensity for a series already.

Who would you give the edge to between a team that just played a playoff series and one coming out of a three-game preseason?

What will make the 2020 postseason fascinating is the fact that we have absolutely no idea what to expect. This is completely unchartered territory.  Maybe the bye-in round will see teams suffer a number of injuries as they ramp up the intensity too quickly from training camp to postseason and the top seeds breeze past their weakened opponents. Maybe three round-robin games will be all it takes to get the Capitals back up to game speed and ready for their first playoff series. Or maybe teams coming off of a playoff series will find themselves in better game shape, more in sync and better prepared for a playoff series than a team coming off a bye that was preceded by a pause of several months. If we look back at this postseason and see that an overwhelming majority of the top eight seeds lose in their first matchups against teams that were already playing playoff hockey, would it really be that big of a shock?

If given the choice between having to step directly into a do-or-die best of five series or being in the Caps' position of getting a bye and playing three exhibition games before a playoff series, of course you should pick the bye. No team is guaranteed to win that first-round matchup, especially with all the uncertainty of the current season. But that does not mean that the bye won't end up proving detrimental in the second round as teams struggle to get up to playoff speed.

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Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin selling ‘We Will Skate Again’ t-shirts and masks to help local community

Alex Ovechkin will be selling custom "We Will Skate Again" t-shirts, face masks and neck gaiters with all proceeds going toward foundations in the DMV community, the Capitals announced in a press release Thursday.

The products, which can be purchased at the Ovechkin's online store, feature his signature logo. The shirts also have the phrase "We Will Skate Again" written across the front. Here's a look at some of the designs from the press release:

Money raised from t-shirt sales will be donated to the Tucker Road Ducks and The Tucker Road Parent Hockey Organization. The youth hockey team from Prince George’s County, Md., tragically lost their ice rink in 2017 due to a fire. The organization is working to rebuild it, while also striving to make hockey available for kids of any economic background. 

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Proceeds from the masks and neck gaiters will go to the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation's “Feeding the Frontlines” fund, which was created as a way to help those in the community who are dealing with the negative impact of COVID-19.

Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals are gearing up for the beginning of training camp on July 13 as the NHL gets closer to a return.

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How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

How a flat cap could affect the Capitals' approach to the Seattle expansion draft

The NHL salary cap is going to remain at $81.5 million for next two years at least. That is going to make life difficult for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. With the team already tight against the cap ceiling, he won't even get the annual relief of the cap rising. One way in which the team could find a modicum of relief, however, is through the 2021 expansion draft. Every team in the NHL will lose a player to Seattle which means taking a contract off the books. Given the team's cap situation, there is one player specifically to keep in mind when it comes to the expansion draft: T.J. Oshie.

For the expansion, each team will be able to protect eight skaters and a goalie or seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie. It seems safe to assume Washington will choose the latter. Here are the forwards that will still be under contract after the 2020-21 season: Nicklas Backstrom, Nic Dowd, Lars Eller, Carl Hagelin, Garnet Hathaway, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie, Richard Panik and Tom Wilson. The contracts for both Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana expire at the end of the 2020-21 season, but both will almost certainly be re-signed so we can add them to the list.

Of the forwards the team would want to protect, the most obvious choices are Backstrom, Eller, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Vrana and Wilson. Most would assume that the seventh spot should go to Oshie, but should it?

As I wrote yesterday, one of the issues for Washington is that the team has several long-term deals on the books. For a team with little room under the cap, MacLellan had to offer longer-term deals instead of big money ones to remain competitive in the gree agent market. The risk is that it ties you to a player for longer, but even if a player is not living up to his contract, the percentage of his cap hit would decrease every year with a steadily rising salary cap. Well, now the cap is no longer rising and that means players on long deals, like Oshie, are not getting better as the players age.

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to Oshie. First, he will be 34 at the time of the expansion draft and will only be halfway through an eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $5.75 million. Obviously, the chances that Oshie would be living up to that cap hit when he was 37 or 38 were low when Oshie first signed the deal, but that's OK because with a steadily rising cap, the percentage would probably be low enough at that point that it would not be a significant issue. But now the salary cap is flat which means MacLellan is going to have to take a hard look at all of the team's long-term deals and project out what the team can expect from those players towards the end of their contracts.

Oshie is having a great season with 26 goals and 23 assists. He was on pace for 58 points which would have been his best in Washington. He is a leader on the team and a real boost to the locker room. No one could question his value to Washington now, but the question is what will his value be in the second half of his contract?

RELATED: WHY A FLAT SALARY CAP IS BAD NEWS FOR THE CAPS

Granted, Seattle knows all of this, but there are three reasons why Oshie would still be an attractive acquisition. First, Oshie's cap hit is essentially a non-factor for a team starting from scratch. The Caps have very little room to work with under the cap while Seattle has all of the room to work with. A cap hit of $5.75 million would hardly be a deterrent. Second, Oshie is actually from Washington state. While most fans remember Oshie taking the Cup to his hometown of Warroad, Minn., Oshie was born in Washington and lived there until moving to Minnesota in 2002. Third, when building a team, you need players like Oshie who are personable and charismatic. He is the life of the locker room and a natural leader. He would be Washington's native son, returning to lead the team in its inaugural season.

To me, it is not a stretch to think that if Oshie is indeed selected, he would be in the running to be Seattle's first captain. His departure would also provide some cap relief to a Washington team in need of the extra room. Losing Oshie would mean losing that spark in the locker room, however, and MacLellan will have to decide whether that is a fair trade-off.

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