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More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

More trust in Brett Connolly is leading to a career year

After all the pomp and circumstance of the Capitals’ banner raising to start the season was over, a hockey game still needed to be played. That night, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov took their familiar spots on the top line. On their right, was Caps forward Brett Connolly who had earned a chance to compete for that top spot during Tom Wilson’s suspension.

That night was a very early indication to Connolly that things were going to be different this season. Todd Reirden is not Barry Trotz.

Connolly first signed with Washington in 2016. A cast off of the Boston Bruins as they did not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent, Connolly needed a team to take a chance on him. The Caps did, signing him to a one-year deal worth $850,000. Connolly responded with 15 goals and 23 points for Washington, earning him a new two-year, $3 million contract to stick around.

Despite that, however, Connolly never seemed to gain the full trust of head coach Barry Trotz. Connolly averaged just 12:00 worth of ice time per game last season over 70 games.

“Obvioulsy the last couple years you'd like to play a little more, but I knew that with the way that he was coaching and the way Barry was handling me, that was going to be my role for that,” Connolly said. “I took pride it that last year, but this year's a little different.”

Though Connolly’s stay on the top line was brief, he is averaging over two minutes more of ice time per game than last season and it is clear Reirden envisioned him having an increased role.

“I liked how he came into camp,” Reirden said. “I think we had good discussions about a plan for him going into the year. There was room for growth still in his game and he's still a young player.”

“[Reirden] has been really good with me and making sure my minutes are a little higher,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you've still got to earn that, but he's put me in situations to succeed. It's been nice to deliver on that a little bit.”

In just 29 games this season, Connolly has five goals and 18 points. His 13 assists sit just three shy of his career high set in 2015-16 over the course of 71 games. He is currently on pace for a 50-point season which would shatter his previous career high of 27.

Increased playing time should naturally result in increased production, but Connolly has not been a passenger getting carried by better teammates. He has played all through the lineup and keeps producing regardless of the situation.

“There's a lot more trust in me to play in all situations and move up and down the lineup,” Connolly said. “I've played all over the lineup which is nice. It's nice to know that when you're playing well you can be moved up at any time. It's been a really positive change for me and I'm happy that I could deliver a little bit and play well when I am given those opportunities.”

In 2017, Connolly was a healthy scratch for six of the team’s seven playoff games. Trotz elected to go with seven defensemen in the lineup, something he had not done the entire season, rather than dress Connolly.

Reirden has taken a different approach this season and it is paying dividends both for the player and the team.

“He's been really important part of us getting through these injuries because we've used him on the power play in different areas as well,” Reirden said. “I think he's had a strong season and not surprised to see that his numbers are following along, but to me it started with his commitment this summer and then to start the year, the confidence he had and the kind of belief in using him in a different way than maybe he's been used in the past that he could generate some higher numbers.”

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Why the trade for Radko Gudas could signal the end of Brooks Orpik’s tenure with the Caps

Why the trade for Radko Gudas could signal the end of Brooks Orpik’s tenure with the Caps

The Carolina Hurricanes ended the Capitals’ season in the first round of the playoffs and quite possibly Brooks Orpik’s career with it. The 38-year-old defenseman said at the team’s breakdown day that the decision for what comes next, whether retirement or playing another season in the NHL, would have to wait.

“I'm in no rush in terms of deciding on my future in terms of hockey,” Orpik said. “That'll be a more health-related decision down the road."

Whether Orpik wants to come back for one more year in the NHL will be up to him, but the decision on whether to re-sign with the Caps may have just been decided for him.

On Friday, the Caps traded defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Radko Gudas. Most people hear the name Gudas and think of him as a dirty player who can’t play the position, but he is actually a decent defenseman. The media in Philadelphia selected Gudas as the most outstanding defenseman for the Flyers in 2018-19. Plus, his penalty minutes have decreased in each of the past four seasons from 116 all the way down to 63 last season. For reference, Tom Wilson had 128 and Michal Kempny had 60. It’s still high, but it signals a player making a conscious effort to stay out of the penalty box.

Gudas has been suspended four times in his career and he certainly will be watched very closely by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. One big hit could mean a lengthy suspension. That is a definite concern, but in terms of just his play, there is value there as a third-pair defenseman.

With Gudas in, that will almost certainly push Orpik out.

The move gives Washington six defenseman under contract for next season. Teams will usually keep seven for the regular season, enough for three pairs and one extra. Christian Djoos is a restricted free agent and will presumably be back as well, giving Washington seven blue liners.

Djoos had a down year last season, but he did play a third-pair role on the team’s Cup run and he is only 24. It does not make sense to give up on Djoos after one bad year just for one more year with Orpik who will be 39 at the start of next season.

Given Washington’s salary cap situation, the Caps do not have room for an eighth defenseman. If Orpik were to return, it would mean pushing someone else out. The only of those seven defensemen that would make sense to even consider moving for Orpik would be Gudas.

Gudas would not be the first player in the world to be traded and then flipped or bought out soon after. Ironically, the same thing happened to Orpik last season when he was traded to and then quickly bought out by the Colorado Avalanche.

A buyout here, however, would make no sense. According to CapFriendly’s buyout calculator, a buyout would only give Washington $1,166,667 of cap relief and most of that would go to a new Orpik deal making it pointless. Yes, you still have the $3.405 million of cap space the team would have opened up in the trade, but if the plan all along was to re-sign Orpik and ship out Niskanen, then why not just trade Niskanen for draft picks? Then you get his full cap off the books instead of having to go through the trouble of buying out Gudas and having him count against the cap for the next two seasons. That would make no sense.

As for flipping him and trading him to another team, what would the team get for him that would make it worthwhile? You cannot bring on salary or it defeats the purpose so the Caps’ options for a return would likely be limited to players of the same caliber and cap hit. What would be the point of that?

Prior to this deal, Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler were the most likely candidates to play on the third pair next season. Both are left shots. Gudas is a right-shot defenseman which now gives Washington three with John Carlson and Nick Jensen. Gudas also plays with a physical edge. Sometimes he goes too far with it, but so long as he can control himself, he would add the physical presence to the blue line that the team stands to lose with Orpik gone.

There is no reason to trade for Gudas unless the team intended for Gudas to play a role next season. General manager Brian MacLellan chose to trade for a player who is a right-shot, physical, third-pair defenseman which is pretty much exactly the hole they needed to fill on their blue line and essentially the spot Orpik will be vacating. That did not just happen by accident.

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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