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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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20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: How will the contract situation affect Backstrom and Holtby?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby who are entering the final year of their contracts.

Will the contract situations hang over their heads all season and affect their play?

Professional athletes face pressure all the time. They have pressure to perform, pressure to make the playoffs, pressure to make a deep run and to win championships. Sometimes the greatest pressure a player can feel, however, comes when they are playing for a contract.

When you watch some of the greatest athletes in the world perform superhuman feats on the ice, it can be easy to forget that these players are also human. These are people with families. While contract numbers can be fun to play with on CapFriendly, we are also talking about people whose given career field has a limited window. They are quite literally playing for the future security of their families.

This brings us to Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, two players entering the final year of their contracts who also happen to be two of the best players on the team. Backstrom will be 32 by the end of next season and Holtby will be 30. Given their age, the next contract will likely be the last big one of their careers.

With no new update on their respective contracts and the calendar nearing August, it seems very likely, if not probably, that both players will begin the season without a new contract in hand.

One bad season or one bad injury could cause both players potentially millions of dollars. That is also tricky for the team because if the pressure of playing for their next contract messes with their heads, those are two of the team’s best players suffering rough seasons.

If Backstrom and Holtby struggle under the pressure of knowing every night they are playing for their next deals, they certainly would not be the first or last to do so. But let’s not forget who we are talking about here.

If you had to choose the two most unflappable players on the roster, Backstrom and Holtby would both be pretty high on that list. The mentally calm way in which they approach the game suggests both are well-suited to the pressures of a contract year.

While we have grouped both players into a single question as to how they will perform, both of their situations actually look very different.

Backstrom elected to go with security over money in his last contract for 10 years and $67 million. That deal has proven to be an extremely team-friendly contract. According to CapFriendly, Backstrom’s $6.7 million cap hit is only the 65th highest in the league. That’s a bargain for a future Hall-of-Famer in the prime of his career.

While he is certainly entitled to a raise, he also does not strike me as the type of player to hold the team hostage with an outrageous salary ask.

“This is all I know,” Backstrom said at the team’s breakdown day. “It’s crazy, but at the same time it’s a great feeling. I couldn’t ask for anything better from the fans and from the city of Washington.”

It is hard to imagine Backstrom and the team not being able to come to an agreement to keep him in Washington. He is still playing at a high level and, because he has never been an overly fast or overly physical player, he is likely to live up to new contract even in his mid-thirties. For him, there should be less pressure knowing he is likely to be back.

The same cannot be said for Holtby whose future in Washington is far more uncertain.

Much has been written on this topic of late and if you want a real deep-dive into why Holtby is doubtful to return to Washington, you can read my article here. To summarize, the high cost it will take to re-sign Holtby in both money and term as well as the looming Seattle expansion draft and the fact that the team’s top prospect is a goalie make it unlikely the Caps will be able to keep him. That puts even more pressure on Holtby as he faces the possibility of having to move on.

If there is one goalie who you should not worry about mentally, however, it is Holtby.

Holtby set a franchise record in April with his seventh postseason shutout. When asked what that did for his confidence he said, “Nothing. It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."

When Washington was eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in a Game 7 double-overtime loss, Holtby said afterward, “Obviously it's disappointing. It's not where we expected to be. It's a hard-fought series and they just ended up making more plays than we did.”

Regardless of whether he is ecstatic or distraught, happy or sad, you can always expect a calm, monotone response from Holtby in the locker room. This does not strike me as a player who will spend the season sweating over a contract.

To say neither player will even think of their contract situations this season would be unrealistic. They are only human. But it seems unlikely that their future contracts will have any major impact on their play because of the personality of both players plus their respective situations. Backstrom in all likelihood will remain with the Caps while Holtby, even though it appears his future will be elsewhere, probably feels a lot better about his situation after seeing Sergei Bobrovsky sign a massive $70 million deal in the offseason.

Both players are level-headed and in good spots even if they do not have contracts beyond 2020.

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

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Prospect Joe Snively was cheering outside Capital One Arena when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup

There were many incredible aspects to the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, but one of the best was how fans took over the streets in the Stanley Cup Final. Little did we know that a future Cap was among the faithful outside of Capital One Arena.

Forward prospect and Herndon, Va. native Joe Snively was signed as a college free agent in March 2019. He is an alum of the Little Capitals local youth hockey program and, not surprisingly given his background, he grew up as a Caps fan.

For all Washington fans, June 7, 2018, is a day that will never be forgotten as it was the day the team won its first Stanley Cup. We all have our own story of where we were that day and how we watched. Snively is no different.

“I was downtown DC outside the arena watching on the big screen,” he told Mike Vogel in an interview at the team’s development camp.

“It was a great feeling,” Snively continued. “At that time I didn’t know I’d have the opportunity to sign with the Capitals and it was an amazing feeling. I’ve been a Caps fan ever since I started watching hockey and it was great to see them after all those years in the playoffs to win the Cup. It was amazing.”

The Alex Ovechkin era is important to Washington hockey not just because he brought the city a Cup, but because of the increased interest at the youth level. Interest early on should increase the sport and the team’s popularity. That, in turn, should lead to more youth participation which should lead to a more competitive youth program and homegrown talent entering professional hockey. The increased interest from that should further boost hockey in the region thus repeating the cycle.

Snively is just the first example.

It kind of makes you wonder how many other future Caps were in that crowd watching the team win the Cup.

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