ARLINGTON — The halfway point of the NHL season has come and gone and now the All-Star break is over, too.
With 30 games left in the regular season, the Capitals are still trying to figure out who they are. That sounds strange for a defending Stanley Cup champion with almost the entire roster back. But after a month of ragged hockey, there are issues. On Monday, general manager Brian MacLellan addressed where his team is now and where it is going with the trade deadline just three weeks away.
LOCKING DOWN ON A No. 2 GOALIE
The first order of business was to finalize a three-year, $3.3 million deal with backup goalie Pheonix Copley. A lot will be read into that move. Starting goalie Braden Holtby is an unrestricted free agent after next season and will turn 32 three months after his contract expires. Meanwhile, the organization’s top prospect is goalie Ilya Samsonov, a 2015 first-round pick, and it also has AHL All-Star Vitek Vanecek, a 2014 second-round pick, at Hershey.
It is no coincidence that Copley’s deal keeps him under contract through the 2021-22 season. The expansion draft for the new franchise in Seattle hits before that season and to be eligible for exposure a goalie has to be under contract for that following season.
“That’s not the sole consideration, but it is one consideration,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s important for an organization to have goaltending depth, guys who can come in and play. We’ve got a guy who looks like he’s going to solidify himself as a No. 2, and I don’t know what the upside is – we’ll find out – but it’s important for us to keep him in our organization.”
In other words, MacLellan has options. He doesn’t know what will happen with the Holtby negotiations and he doesn’t know how his two prospects will develop at the NHL level.
TO TRADE OR NOT TO TRADE BURAKOVSKY
Those roster considerations are down the road a bit. The Capitals also have to plan for the rest of this season. Andre Burakovsky has been listed in almost every national report on trade rumors for two months.
There’s no question it’s been a down season for Burakovsky, who turns 24 on Saturday. He has six goals and six assists in 46 games and the 2013 first-round draft pick is a prime candidate for a change of scenery. In his age 20/21 season he had 38 points and 35 the next year.
Last year he had memorable playoff moments, including two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, but his regular-season numbers were limited (12 goals, 13 assists) due to 56 games after thumb surgery. Given what Washington would have to pay on a qualifying offer this summer ($3.25 million), it’s hard to imagine Burakovsky will be back. That’s too much money for too little production - unless he turns it around.
“Everybody’s working at it with him trying to help him find it,” MacLellan said. “Sometimes confidence comes in, sometimes ice time comes in, and it makes it more difficult for him to find his game.”
Added MacLellan when asked directly if he addresses the trade speculation with Burakovsky: “Not necessarily, no. I want him to do well. He’s a good young player. He’s got upside. We’ve all seen it where he’s played in the playoffs in a top six role and played well. That’s the player we want to have here. We still have two more years of rights on him and we’re hoping that he gets back to that level as soon as we can get him there.”
WHO'S IN A HANGOVER?
The Capitals have other players still trying to find their game. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, the second defensive pairing much of this season and most of last year, including throughout the playoffs, are struggling. The advanced analytics show poor shot suppression from both players. Even if you don’t buy that as a definitive indicator, the eye test alone shows Niskanen and Orlov scrambling at times. MacLellan offered a blunt assessment.
“A little disappointed. I think they were our main pair last year, played great for us in the playoffs and I don’t think they’ve played at the standard that they’re used to playing at,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know. We’ve been trying to figure it out. I think they both seem to be just a little bit off and we’re trying everything we can to help them both find their game.”
MacLellan admitted he’s not happy his team leads the NHL in minor penalties (191). The penalty kill was 24th heading into play Monday (77.9 percent) and hasn’t found traction. Addressing those issues verbally hasn’t done much. Maybe coach Todd Reirden benching center Evgeny Kuznetsov for the final 10 minutes of the first period in Sunday’s 1-0 loss to the Boston Bruins gets players' attention. But maybe not.
The penalties are one thing. Kuznetsov, though he has 43 points (10 goals, 33 assists), isn’t playing at the level he reached last year during the playoffs. There is an argument that he should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy, that’s how good he was. A concussion in November knocked him from the lineup for six games and he’s well off his point pace from 2015-16 (77) and 2017-18 (career-high 83).
It’s reasonable to argue that Kuznetsov has been hurt by a Washington power play that struggled for over a month and is only now getting back to its usual level and that he has a career-worst 7.6 shooting percentage. He should still finish somewhere in the neighborhood off 180 shots, which has been the norm the past three seasons. Again, a blunt, honest assessment from MacLellan.
“For our organization, for our team to do well, we need [Kuznetsov] at the top of his game,” MacLellan said. “Depending on how you look at it, it was one or two, [Alex Ovechkin] and him for MVP last year in the playoffs. That’s why we did well because Kuznetsov played well. I think if he’s not going to play at that level, we’re not going to do as well. He’s that important to our team.”
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