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Key questions for the 2020 postseason: What will the Caps' top-four on defense look like?

Key questions for the 2020 postseason: What will the Caps' top-four on defense look like?

The 2020 postseason will be unlike any other and, as a result, there are a lot of unknowns. As the July 10 start to training camp approaches, let's look at the biggest unknowns facing the Capitals.

Today's question: What will the Caps' top-four on defense look like?

The key weakness for the Caps all season has been the defense, namely the right side of the second pair. Washington has one of the best right defensemen in the NHL in John Carlson and then two bottom-pair right defensemen in Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas. What they are missing is a second-pair right defenseman.

Jensen, who was a deadline pickup in 2019, has struggled to adjust to the Caps, but finally looked like he was starting to gel with Dmitry Orlov just as the season paused. The question now is will he be able to pick up where he left off if and when play finally resumes?

RELATED: HOW WILL HOLTBY PERFORM ONCE SEASON RESTARTS?

The team looks pretty set on the left. Brenden Dillon has stepped in and very quickly took a spot on the top pair left of Carlson. The benefit there was moving Michal Kempny to the third pair as he has struggled this season. With Dillon, Orlov and Kempny, that's a strong trio on the left. Jonas Siegenthaler is also a left defenseman, but can play on the right as well. As much as the defense has struggled, really the key is that second pair because they certainly appear to otherwise have the personnel to be successful. They need Jensen to continue stepping up because, if he can't, there really is no good answer for what to do at that position.

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Orlov has long been touted as a player who can play on either side, but I have yet to see him look comfortable playing on the right side at all this season. When Dillon was acquired, general manager Brian MacLellan was very clear that he saw him only as a left defenseman. Gudas is a right defenseman, but Jensen has outplayed him for the majority of the season so it seems unlikely that he would prove to be a better solution than Jensen against tougher competition.

Maybe a team can get by with a suspect third pair, especially considering the attrition that goes on in the playoffs. Other players will most likely be needed at some point and teams adjust accordingly. But having a hole in the top-four is a glaring weakness and the only real answer the team has is Jensen.

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Even with Nicklas Backstrom injured, now is not the time for Caps to turn to prospect Connor McMichael

Even with Nicklas Backstrom injured, now is not the time for Caps to turn to prospect Connor McMichael

It's been a pretty crazy year for Capitals prospect Connor McMichael. In June 2019, McMichael was selected 25th overall by the Caps in the NHL draft. He would return to the juniors and dominate the OHL with 102 points in 52 games. He also won gold in the World Junior Championship with Team Canada, scoring five goals and two assists in seven games in the tournament. After the OHL shuttered the rest of the season due to COVID-19, it looked like that would be the end of his hockey season, but now he is in Toronto in the bubble with Washington for the playoffs as a black ace. Wouldn't making his NHL debut in the playoffs be a fitting end to his hockey season?

No. No, it would not.

There is understandably some excitement within the fanbase for McMichael and any opening on the offensive lines has led to a number of questions from fans as to whether McMichael could slot in. With Nicklas Backstrom in the league's concussion protocol and out for Game 2, this would be a perfect opportunity to get McMichael in, right? It's not a bottom-six role which would not allow him to utilize his skill. Backstrom's absence leaves a hole at center on the second line. Surely a Caps team with only three 5-on-5 goals in four postseason games could use a forward like McMichael?

The skill was evident in his brief time in Washington for training camp. He pulled off an incredible no-look pass in the preseason that set-up an easy goal. My jaw dropped when McMichael tried to pull the between the legs shot on the defending Cup champion goalie, Jordan Binnington. But bringing McMichael to Toronto was never about getting him into the lineup, it was about giving the experience of what life is like in the playoffs. It's about learning how star forwards like Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin prepare. It's about learning how much time is spent scouting opponents and learning how to practice, how to eat, how to rest, etc. Getting him in was not a priority and that should not change now with Backstrom out.

Let's think about why Backstrom is out in the first place. He was knocked out of the game by a late hit from Islanders captain Anders Lee in a Game 1 that featured a combined 40 PIMs. There was one fight, five roughing penalties, four interferences and one boarding call. This is going to be a very tough, very physical series. Someone is going to have to explain to me why inserting a 19-year-old, 183-pound McMichael  who has no experience even at the AHL level would be a good idea.

RELATED: LOSING NICKLAS BACKSTROM WOULD BE 'HUGE TROUBLE' FOR THE CAPITALS

The Stanley Cup playoffs is the most physical, most intense hockey there is. Against a team that quite clearly showed they want to play physically against the Caps, putting McMichael in a second-line role is not setting him up for success. I am not saying the Islanders would be looking to injure him, but they are not going to ease up on the hitting and physical play either.

Let's not forget, defense is an important part of playing center. In Game 1, the second line matched up primarily against Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. Beauvillier is about the same size as McMichael, but Bailey is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and Nelson is a massive 6-foot-3, 212 pounds.

How does McMichael clear Nelson out of the crease when the defense is pulled away and it's his job to maintain net-front presence in front of Braden Holtby?

None of this means that McMichael can't or won't play. We are not even allowed to watch practice while the players are in the bubble so perhaps McMichael is dominating out there and Reirden knows he can handle whatever the Islanders throw at him. OK, great, but I believe he is much further down the depth chart than you may think.

We already know Travis Boyd is the 13th forward and he has been in since Lars Eller left the bubble to be with his family for the birth of his second child. He will now likely continue to be in with Backstrom out. Beck Malenstyn and Daniel Sprong are both young players with some NHL experience. Recently, when asked about other players who could get into the lineup if needed, head coach Todd Reirden referenced Philippe Maillet and Brian Pinho, not McMichael.

Call me crazy, but I just don't think it's a good idea to take a 19-year-old player who weighs only 183 pounds with zero professional experience and throw him into the second line in a Stanley Cup playoff game against a team that has shown they want to play the Caps as physically as possible. McMichael's time will come, but that time is not now.

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This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

This won't be the first time Capitals turn to Lars Eller at 2nd-line center in playoffs

When the Capitals take the ice for Game 2 against the New York Islanders on Friday, they will be without center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is in concussion protocol and is unclear when he will be able to return. No team can lose a player of Backstrom's caliber and not feel that loss, but Washington does at least have a contingency plan in the form of Lars Eller. The team has had to turn to Eller on the second line in the playoffs before and, though the results were far from perfect, things did end up working out for the Caps. That year was 2018 and the Caps would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

One of the priorities of general manager Brian MacLellan is center depth. He puts a great deal of emphasis on the position and making sure the team is well-stocked in case of injury. That depth was put to the test in 2018 when Backstrom suddenly was out of the lineup in the playoffs with an upper-body injury. That injury turned out to be two fractures in his right hand and it kept him out for four games, starting with Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

With Backstrom out, Eller was called upon to center the second line in his absence.

“I love when those challenges happen because I think I don’t change the way I think about the game or the way I prepare myself," Eller said. "It will basically mean I will be playing more minutes probably than I otherwise would. My mentality is the same, trying to go out there and play a strong two-way game and create offense in every shift."

RELATED: LOSING NICKLAS BACKSTROM WOULD BE 'HUGE TROUBLE' FOR THE CAPITALS

Offensively, the results were great. In those four games, Eller recorded two goals and three assists. There is not much more that could have been asked of him in that respect. Defensively, however, it was another story.

Eller is a good defensive player, but Backstrom is one of the team's best defensive forwards and has been one of the top two-way forwards in the league for much of his career. When you are on the second line you are typically going to get more difficult defensive assignments and Eller struggled at times against those assignments. In Game 6 against the Penguins, Washington allowed only one goal. It came off a faceoff that Eller lost in the defensive zone. In Game 3 of the Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Eller took three bad penalties, one for closing his hand on the puck, one for slashing and one for cross-checking. Tampa Bay would score on his first penalty and earn their first win of the series.

This is not to suggest that Eller was or is a defensive liability, it's just a reflection of the difference between him and Backstrom. Eller is a high-end third-line center. That is where he is at his best and he makes the Caps one of the deepest offensive teams in the NHL. He can plug into the top-six when needed, but he is a third-line center. The Caps are very fortunate to have a player like him who can step into the top lines, but the longer Backstrom is out for, the more noticeable his absence becomes and 2018 is evidence of that.

Now, fast-forward to 2020. Eller will once again be called upon to play on the second line due to an injury to Backstrom. He even is expected to play with the same linemates -- Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie -- as he did in 2018.  If it's just for a game or two, you may not even notice a difference. With every passing game, however, the absence of Backstrom will loom larger, not because of Eller, but because of how good and important a player Backstrom is.

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