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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role in place of Philipp Grubauer?

Tarik: One of the more unappreciated aspects of the 2017-18 season was the outstanding job Philipp Grubauer did in the regular season.

Grubauer, at times, was asked to shoulder the load as starter Braden Holtby went through a “reset.” And the longtime backup maximized that opportunity, establishing career highs in appearances (35), starts (28) and wins (15). In fact, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season, Grubi was, statistically speaking, the best goalie in the NHL, posting a .935 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.

Of course, things didn’t go nearly as well in the playoffs; he was lifted in Game 2 of the first round after giving up eight goals on 49 shots. He didn’t play again for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but the Caps wouldn’t have won a third straight Metro Division title without him.

So, yeah, backup goalie can be a critical role.

Which brings us to today’s question: Can Pheonix Copley step in for Grubauer, who is now Colorado’s starter?

Let me start off by saying the Caps really like Copley. So much so, they acquired him twice. (The team signed him as an undrafted free agent, dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, then reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.)

At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Copley’s got ideal size. The 26-year-old native of North Pole, Alaska is lanky, athletic and coachable. He’s also due to earn the league minimum of $650,000, which provides some salary cap flexibility.

Can Copley handle the responsibility? Well, that’s certainly the expectation. But until he actually does the job, it’s a legitimate question/concern, particularly when you consider how important Grubauer proved to be a year ago.

Copley’s only got two NHL appearances on his resume and his numbers in Hershey last season (15-17-4 / .896 percentage / 2.91 goals against average) aren’t very reassuring. I’m told, however, that he played much better from February through the end of the regular season, and that he’s finally 100-percent healthy. Remember, he suffered a serious groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs and missed the first nine games of last season.

If Copley can pick up where he left off with the Bears last season, I think he’ll be fine. He also gained some much needed experience as one of the black aces during the Cup run, facing shots every day in practice from Alex Ovechkin and Co. If Copley fumbles the opportunity, though, the Caps will be forced to go to their backup plan...accelerating the development of 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov, who'll be just 130 miles up the road.

JJ: When trying to evaluate how Copley will be in the NHL, I believe you have to throw out last season. In 41 games with the Hershey Bears, Copley managed only a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage. Not good. If you look at those numbers alone, it's fair to wonder why the Caps are OK with Copley taking over the backup role.

The season prior, however, after being reacquired by the Capitals as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, Copley was brilliant in Hershey with a 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage and he kept those numbers remarkably consistent in the playoffs (2.13, .933). His season was brought to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious groin injury and it was clear from the start of the 2017-18 season that he just had not fully recovered.

I am not concerned that the Capitals will get last year's Copley. Nor am I concerned about another Holtby "reset." That was the worst slump of his career, but coming off a Stanley Cup run, I am expecting a confident Holtby in net and it seems doubtful he would suffer another slump quite as drastically bad as last season.

What I am concerned about, however, is just how much of a load Copley will ultimately be able to handle.

An ideal scenario would be to limit Holtby to about 60 to 65 games. Is Copley capable of providing the Caps with 20+ quality games? It's not enough to just go out and play, he has to play well. A team cannot always take an L just because the backup is in net.

Considering Copley has only two games of NHL experience in his entire career, there is no real way to answer this question and that's why backup goaltending is a potential weakness for Washington next season.

Why go with such a big question mark after returning almost the entire team for a second potential Cup run? Two reasons. First, the team does absolutely have faith in Copley. As noted above by Tarik, that was evident when he was reacquired from St. Louis. Second, because he is a cheap, temporary placeholder for Samsonov who could be penciled in as the backup as early as 2019-20 depending on how his first season in North America goes.

Best case scenario, Copley plays 20-25 games, earns a winning record and Samsonov takes over as backup next season after a strong showing in Hershey.

And the worst case scenario? The Caps are shopping for a backup goalie at the trade deadline.

Other key Caps questions

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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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Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

Why a flat NHL salary cap is bad news for the Capitals

When it comes to free agency and projecting which pending free agents a team may try to re-sign, there is a fair amount of guesswork involved. For most of the year, we don't actually know perhaps the most crucial piece of information: the salary cap. The salary cap is not set until after a season is over so while we have projections of what the cap may be, we don't actually know. The one assumption that pretty much everyone makes when projecting the cap is that it will go up. Business is good for professional sports, the value of teams continues to rise as does hockey-related revenue...and then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

The revenue the league stands to lose due to the pause to the season, the cancellation of the remainder of the regular season and a postseason without any fan attendance brought the NHL and NHL Players' Association together to negotiate how to navigate the difficult financial times ahead. As a result, an agreement was reached Monday on a memorandum of understanding for the collective bargaining agreement. As part of the negotiations, both sides reportedly agreed to a flat salary cap for the next two seasons meaning the current ceiling of $81.5 million will remain the ceiling.

That's bad news for the Capitals.

But why? If the Caps can afford to fit their team under the $81.5 million salary cap now, why is it such an issue that the cap will remain at $81.5 million next season?

As I mentioned above, everyone operates under the assumption that the salary cap will continue to rise, including general managers. That's not optimism or poor planning. Really it takes something catastrophic to halt that rise, like a lockout/strike or...you know, like a global pandemic. The point is, every team when projecting out its rosters for next year and beyond, did so with the assumption that the salary cap would rise. Now that it's not, that affects the projections for every team.

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For the Caps, yes, they were able to fit their roster under the $81.5 million cap for this season, but just barely. For much of the season, the team carried only six defensemen, the bare minimum, on the roster. That means if a player got sick or injured the day of the game, the team would have essentially had to play a full game with only five defensemen. It took a lot of cap gymnastics for general manager Brian MacLellan to fit his roster under the cap and it was something that was constantly tweaked all year. Will he be able to do it again next year? Not with the current roster.

The biggest issue for Washington is a number of long-term deals that will now come back to bite them. The Caps have for several years now been a "cap team," meaning they have spent right up to the salary cap ceiling. This is typical for teams looking to compete for the Stanley Cup. If you feel you are a legitimate contender, you try to make every dollar count towards building a championship roster. Without much room under the cap to work with, however, MacLellan had to offer free agents something else in order to entice players to sign. As a result, the team has given out several deals to players of four years or more. The benefit to this is, not only can you continue bidding on free agents without much money to spend, but even if a player does not live up to his cap hit, that cap hit gets lower every year in terms of percentage with a rising salary cap.

In 2017, T.J. Oshie was a free agent. The Caps did not have the money under the cap to re-sign him so instead offered him an eight-year deal. There is no question Oshie left money on the table in terms of a yearly salary, but he got more years. Will he be worth a $5.75 million cap hit when he's 38 and on the last year of his contract? Probably not by today's standards when his cap hit alone takes a little over 7-percent of the team's cap space. With a rising cap, however, that percentage would have gone down each year. Now it won't, at least not as much as MacLellan had anticipated.

For a team that has pushed right up against the cap ceiling the last few years, one of the few sources of relief it could find was the yearly increase to the cap. Now it won't have that for the next two years.

RELATED: NHL, NHLPA ADD 4 YEARS TO CURRENT CBA  

Washington has 11 players with at least three years on their current contracts after the 2019-20 season. Those are players whose cap hits by percentage will remain exactly the same next season. With a salary cap of $81.5 million, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract with a little less than $10.4 million of cap space remaining.  That's $10.4 million to use on at least two forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. That's not a lot.

There are also restricted free agents like Jonas Siegenthaler and Travis Boyd with cap hits of $714,166 and $800,000, respectively. Both players will be due raises. It's hard to imagine the team walking away from Siegenthaler, but even if they wanted to with Boyd, they would still have to replace him with another player who costs money. Plus, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and, most importantly, Braden Holtby will be unrestricted free agents.

Free agency was going to be difficult for Washington to manage yet again in 2020 regardless of how much the cap was going to rise. Now with a flat cap, the team's practice of handing out long-term contracts is really going to come back to bite them and force some difficult decisions. The team has very little money to pay players more than what they're making now. Does this ensure the end of Holtby's time in Washington? Does the team wait on a long-term extension for Ovechkin to get a better idea of where the salary cap may be in a few years? Can the team afford to keep any of its UFAs? Does the team leave Oshie exposed to Seattle in the expansion draft?

At this point, these are all questions MacLellan now has to consider.

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