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The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The Niskanen trade helps the Caps’ salary cap situation, but tough decisions are still ahead

The 2019 offseason for the Capitals was always going to revolve around the salary cap. The first domino fell on Friday with the trade of defenseman Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps received defenseman Radko Gudas in return with the Flyers retaining 30-percent of his $3.35 million cap hit. In total, Washington freed up $3.405 million worth of cap space for next season.

But that was just step one. There is still a lot of work left for general manager Brian MacLellan to do over the summer to fill out a full roster. Just how much easier did his life get on Friday?

With the move, the Caps now have eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for about $69.5 million. Ideally, a team wants 22 players with 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies. The salary cap has not yet been officially set, but it is projected to be $83 million. That means the team still needs five forwards and one defenseman and has about $13.5 million worth of cap space to work with.

Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos are both restricted free agents and both will almost certainly be back. That is one forward and one defenseman off the wish list. Vrana will probably come in at about $4 million per year and Djoos at $1 million, giving the team about $8.5 million left for four forwards.

The good news is that the team is pretty much set in the top-six which of course means MacLellan will not need to find a big money player. The Niskanen trade allows the team room for a significant depth forward somewhere in the $4 million range for the third line with enough left over to fill out the remaining depth spots. The bad news is that still leaves the team with some tough choices to make.

Carl Hagelin and Brett Connolly are both unrestricted free agents and the team may have enough money for one, but not both. There is also still the question of what to do with Andre Burakovsky. Do you qualify him for $3.25 million? That may not be as tough a pill to swallow at this point, but it is still a significant amount of money to commit to a player with 12 goals in each of the past two seasons. And then there are the team’s other RFAs Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin. MacLellan will have to make a decision on all of those players while still putting together a team with enough depth to compete for the Stanley Cup before the window closes on the Ovechkin era completely.

The Caps lost a good player and locker room presence in Niskanen and now have more cap flexibility as a result, but it does not solve all of the team’s salary cap problems. The team will not be able to add as much offensive depth as perhaps it would have liked and MacLellan will still have to get creative to put together a bottom six formidable enough for a deep Cup run.

 

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Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

WASHINGTON -- The Colorado Avalanche scored on its first three shots of the game and Capitals could never recover in a 6-3 loss Monday. Braden Holtby surrendered the first three goals before being relieved by Ilya Samsonov. The Caps mounted a comeback to make it 4-2, but a back-breaking goal in the third period was the final nail in the coffin of an ugly loss.

Observations from the loss

Let’s talk about the goalies

I know this is pretty much all you guys want to talk about, so let’s talk.

Holtby was bad in this game. No one is going to dispute that. But Colorado is also really, really good and the defense did not help Holtby all that much. All three of those things can be true. Fans sometimes can get one-track minds and I bet there are more than a few people who are going to put this game entirely on Holtby and forget about the other two points.

It’s not Holtby’s fault John Carlson turned the puck over and the completely misplayed the resulting rush defensively leading to the second goal. It’s also not Holtby’s fault that Tyler Lewington was too slow to react to the break-in and was beaten easily by Nazem Kadri.

I am not saying Holtby doesn’t deserve any of the blame for Monday’s loss, I’m just saying let’s not go nuts.

This game doesn’t mean that Holtby is washed up, it doesn’t mean the team should try to trade him immediately, it doesn’t mean that Ilya Samsonov is suddenly the No. 1 goalie going forward. All it means is that Samsonov has earned more playing time. That’s it.

Whatever the plan was for Samsonov, he has played well enough and Holtby has struggled enough that you should consider getting Samsonov more games. I would start him on Wednesday against Toronto and go back to Holby on Friday against the New York Rangers.

For now, however, Holty is still the No. 1. That doesn’t mean that can’t change, but we have seen this play out before with the same goalie Holtby played against on Monday. Philipp Grubauer passed Holtby in 2018 and then the playoffs came around and Holtby was back to being Holtby and retook the crease. I am not going to kick him to the curb because of a bad October.

The Caps’ identity is physical hockey

A 4-0 game could have gotten very ugly very fast. The Caps came out in the second period and committed to a physical game and it completely changed the momentum. A game that looked like it was going to be an ugly, horrendous, “burn the tape” type of game turned competitive. Suddenly it was 4-2 heading into the third period.

The second period reminded me of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final between the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were the better team, highly skilled and should have won that series. They didn’t because the Caps beat the stuffing out of them. That’s why the Washington-Tampa Bay games last year were so physical because the Lightning wanted to show the Caps they weren’t going to be pushed around.

The one downside to being a physical team like that is that it takes a toll. You can’t play that way for 82-games and that’s why, in my opinion, you see these types of teams come out of nowhere in the postseason. A middle-of-the-pack team suddenly commits to the physical game every night and knocks around a stunned Toronto or Tampa Bay.

Turning point

Obviously the turning point was allowing three goals on three shots, so I’ll go with something different and pick Samsonov’s third-period gaffe.

The Caps had taken control of the momentum heading into the third and it looked like they could make a game of it until Samsonov made a huge mistake behind the net.

Samsonov went behind the net to retrieve a puck on a Colorado dump-in. Tyson Jost came to pressure him and Samsonov tried to fire the puck along the boards past him. Jost got his stick in front of the puck and then had a helpless Samsonov stuck behind the net. Jost threw the puck in front of the net and a diving Matt Nieto hit it in.

The Caps still tried to come back, but that was the moment you knew they were going to come up short.

Play of the night

In a win or go home Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2018 ECF, Ovechkin was the best player on the ice. His stats in that game? No goals and no assists. It didn’t matter. He was a physical force and helped the Caps win that game by sheer force of will.

Ovechkin tried to do the same thing on Monday with hits like this one on Samuel Girard.


Stat of the night

With this loss, the Caps have now lost their first three home games for the first time since the 1983-84 season. As my colleague Brian McNally said on a podcast we recorded after the game, those weren’t exactly the glory years of the Caps’ franchise.

Washington has managed some pretty big wins on the road, but those are being wasted by the fact that this team can’t get a win at home.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on Samsonov’s play:

“He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

That’s about as close as you’re going to get to Reirden saying he is considering playing Samsonov more.

Fan predictions

Now this is bold. I like it.

But it was also wrong. Burakovsky got an assist, but Jakub Vrana can’t seem to get out of Todd Reirden’s dog house right now.

Gudas and Kadri were exchanging words behind the play when Oshie scored. I’ll give it to you.

I’m pretty sure Stephen Strasburg started.

Almost. They would have had a shot if not for the Samsonov mistake or the coach’s challenge on Carlson’s goal.

The Caps did not win and saying Holtby looks disinterested just isn’t fair. He has always been a calm, calculated goalie. He even said after “The Save” that it wasn’t a technically sound play. This is just the way he plays and has always played, from Vezina Holtby to 2019 Holtby.

Having said that, he was pulled so you were technically correct. Don’t get weird about it though.

Oh, you got weird.

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4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

4 things to know for the Capitals’ matchup against undefeated Colorado

The Capitals (3-1-2) snapped a three-game losing streak on Saturday and will look to stay in the win column on Monday in a game against the Colorado Avalanche (4-0-0). You can catch all the action on NBC Sports Washington with Caps FaceOff Live kicking things off at 4 p.m. before Caps Pregame Live begins at 4:30 p.m. to bring you up to the 5 p.m. puck drop. Stick with NBC Sports Washington afterward for Caps Postgame Live, D.C. Sports Live and Caps Overtime Live.

Here are four things to know for Saturday’s game.

Colorado is undefeated

The Avalanche is one of two teams left in the NHL that has not suffered a loss of any kind. Of their four wins, only one of them was not in regulation and that also happened to be the only game Philipp Grubauer did not play in net.

All four wins also happen to be at home as Monday’s game will be Colorado’s first on the road this season.

Washington will face former Caps Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer

Things seem to be going well in Burakovsky’s first season with the Avalanche. The winger has two goals and two assists in four games and has scored the game-winner in each of the past two games.

Burakovsky was a restricted free agent in the offseason and his contract carried a large qualifying offer which the Caps could not afford. The team traded his rights to  Colorado for a second and a third-round draft pick as well as a prospect on an expiring contract.

In net, Grubauer enters his second season with Colorado and first as the undisputed starter of the team. He earned the job after last year’s playoff performance in which he won seven games, posted a .925 save percentage and brought the Avalanche to within one win of advancing to the conference final.

In three games this season, Grubauer is 3-0-0 with a .931 save percentage.

The best line in hockey?

Colorado boasts one of the top lines, if not the outright best line in hockey with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. All three players have had their fair share of success against Washington in their careers.

Landeskog has scored 14 points in just 13 games against the Caps, MacKinnon has 13 points in 11 games and Rantanen has seven points in five games.

The Caps have historically been a difficult matchup for Colorado

Washington’s last three games were against the Dallas Stars (twice) and the Nashville Predators, two teams the Caps have not fared well against historically. The roles are reversed for Monday’s game as this time it's the Caps who have been the thorn in the side of their opponent.

Colorado has lost nine of its last 10 meetings with Washington with its last win coming back on Nov. 16, 2017. The last win before was four years prior in November 2013.

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