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Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

WASHINGTON – The Capitals scored four goals to force a point against the Florida Panthers on Saturday and three of those four goals came from the third line.

Brett Connolly recorded his second career three-point game with two goals and an assist. Lars Eller scored a goal and an assist and Andre Burakovsky assisted on both of Connolly’s tallies. The one glaring setback to the night was a late penalty from Connolly as he chopped the stick out of Aleksander Barkov’s hands resulting in a slashing call. Florida would score on the resulting power play to win the game.

Overall, however, the improved play of the third line is a good sign for Washington as that line has been a question mark for the majority of the season.

“We have a good mix,” Burakovsky said. “Lars is the horse out there making a lot of good plays and winning almost [every] battle. It’s fun to play with him. And obviously Connolly is a great shooter and a great passer.”

“That’s a positive sign for our line,” Eller said, “Because our team needs that secondary scoring for us to win games. That’s going to be crucial going forward as well.”

With top-nine production being such an important part of a team’s success in today’s NHL, the lack of production from the third line has been concerning.

Eller is currently on pace for 10 goals which would be his lowest output since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Connolly has already set a career high in points, but his three goals in the past two games snapped a 13-game goalless drought.

The biggest issue, however, has been Burakovsky who has continued his trend of inconsistent play this season.

Through 49 games, he has only 15 points, putting on pace for 22. That would be his lowest output since his rookie season in 2014-15, a season in which he played just 53 games. That’s not what you would expect from a first-round draft pick in his fifth NHL campaign.

Burakovsky’s play, however, has improved greatly the past two games and he has a goal and two assists to show for it.

“[Burakovsky’s] able to generate some offense now, playing well and capitalizing on chances,” Todd Reirden said.

With the third line finally starting to click, this begs the question, what do the Caps do at the trade deadline?

The Feb. 25 deadline is just over two weeks away and it was believed Burakovsky could be used as trade bait to bring in a forward to jumpstart the third line.

“I think the only thing we're going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in January. That seemed like a very clear reference to Burakovsky.

Moving Burakovsky makes sense not just because of his up-and-down play, but because he is on the final year of his deal and would have to be offered a salary of $3.25 million next season in order for the team to qualify him and retain his rights as a restricted free agent. His current level of production does not seem to justify that kind of money.

But if the third line is playing as well as it is now, do you still make a move?

Burakovsky’s career has been plagued by inconsistent play, including in the 2018 playoff run. After playing poorly, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. He then rebounded with two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The strong play of both Burakovsky and the third line leaves MacLellan with two options. Do you hold on to Burakovsky and hope he continues this level of play into the playoffs in which case you have an incredibly formidable top-nine? Or, do you assume this is just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys and trade him before you get burned when his play begins to drop off again?

Either option is a gamble. The answer may well depend on what other teams are willing to give up for a player like Burakovsky.

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Tom Wilson gets into fiery back-and-forth with LA Kings mascot

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Tom Wilson gets into fiery back-and-forth with LA Kings mascot

Washington Capitals right winger Tom Wilson is used to getting into it with NHL players, but now he's moving on to NHL mascots?

During Monday's 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings, Wilson was sent to the penalty box after taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with Kings' Kyle Clifford. Conveniently, the Kings' lion mascot Bailey was stationed right next to Wilson and the two started to engage in some fun back-and-forth.

As pointed out by Russian Machine Never Breaks, Wilson appeared to tell Bailey that the mascot and Clifford were twins and he was hanging out at the wrong penalty box. While Wilson and the Capitals walked away with the win, Bailey won the fiery Twitter response award. 

Back in December, Vegas Golden Knights' Ryan Reaves injured Wilson with a late blindside hit, and after the game said Wilson 'ran into a lion in the jungle.' While the controversial hit got Reaves ejected, no suspension became of it and Reaves even signed pictures of the hit that he had later removed from being sold by local memorabilia company.

No wonder Bailey's Twitter bio says he's, "the world's sassiest Lion with a little attitude on the side!"

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How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

As the dust settled after the 2018 NHL trade deadline, there were a number of key moves made to change the landscape of the league and the Stanley Cup race. The biggest move made was by the Tampa Bay Lightning who added the top defenseman on the market in Ryan McDonagh. But there was also a number of other big moves with players like Evander Kane, Paul Stastny and Rick Nash all headed to new teams.

A minor trade by the Capitals stood as barely a footnote amid all the flurry of moves. On Feb. 19, Washington sent a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a little known defenseman named Michal Kempny.

“I find out before the morning skate so I just packed two suitcases and I had to catch the plane,” Kempny said. “And that's it.”

On Feb. 17, the Caps were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1 in Chicago. Washington still maintained first place in the Metropolitan Division, but that game highlighted the Caps’ weak defense.

Washington had two rookies playing on their blue line regularly in Christain Djoos and Madison Bowey. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen were a fine defensive pair, but there was no clear partner for the team’s best defenseman, John Carlson. The result was that the Caps dressed a defense with one set tandem and a mishmash of four other players including two rookies joined together into ill-fitting pairs.

The Caps desperately needed another top-four defenseman if they hoped to make a deep playoff run. Finding one midseason, however, is easier said than done.

A top-four defenseman is a valuable commodity and most teams are loathe to give those players up. When one is available, they don’t come cheap.

The Caps made the big splash move in the prior season with the addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The trade did not work out as Shattenkirk never seemed to fit in with the team and ended up playing primarily on the third pair.

Washington did not have a first, second or third round draft pick in the 2017 draft. Giving up a similar haul for a second consecutive season was not an option. In terms of players and prospects, Washington simply did not have the assets needed to land an established defenseman. They had to look at other, cheaper options.

Kempny was a 27-year-old Czech defenseman in his second season with Chicago. His NHL career was not going the way he had hoped. Kempny struggled to earn the trust of Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville playing only 50 games the prior season and was again used sparingly in 2017-18 with only 31 games. He needed a change.

“My situation in Chicago wasn't good,” Kempny said.

Before the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan asked then associate coach Todd Reirden to watch some video on the Czech defenseman.

“Michal I watched play I'd say probably eight games before we acquired him, so it was someone that we were kind of looking at early in the season,” Reirden said during training camp. “As our team was progressing and in some areas not progressing, we needed to look outside for some different options, particularly a guy that was extremely mobile, good skater and could potentially be a good compliment for John Carlson. That was what we saw in him. I thought in particular, comparing the way our system, what we do systematically with our defensemen, his skating ability would really be brought to the forefront with how we do things as a team and I thought that he could excel in that regard with how our team plays. He seemed like a perfect fit.”

On Feb. 19, MacLellan made the trade. It didn’t take long for Kempny to work his way up the depth chart.

“He's obviously a really good skater, one of the best skaters on the team I would say,” Carlson said. “He plays defense quick. He's in people's faces, he's high pressure onto the puck kind of guy.”

“Obviously a great guy that took to everyone else really well as well,” Carlson added. “He just fit in and that was kind of one of the turning points for us as a team getting going, getting ready for the playoffs I would say is right after he got here.”

Kempny played in just 22 games for the Caps before the playoffs. In that time, he quickly found a place in the lineup alongside Carlson. With Kempny and Carlson together, they soon became the top defensive pair on the team. Suddenly a team that could not establish its top four on defense not only had a top four, but a newly established top pair that proved critical to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously he fit in perfectly,” Carlson said. “There was more to our success than that I think, but certainly that was a key moment for us in terms of filling a need that he was perfectly suitable for.”

It wasn’t McDonagh, Kane, Stastny or Nash who proved to be the biggest acquisitions of the 2018 deadline, but a relatively unknown defenseman who could not stay in the lineup in Chicago. It proved to be the biggest trade of the 2017-18 NHL season.

“Certainly it was the perfect move for us,” Carlson said. “Sometimes you try to just get the best player vs. the best player for your team. He fit perfectly.”

Said Kempny, “I was living my dream last season and I'm living dream right now so I really appreciate that I can be here in this league and this team.”

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