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What are the biggest decisions facing the Caps as the NHL heads toward resuming play?

What are the biggest decisions facing the Caps as the NHL heads toward resuming play?

Gary Bettman laid out the league’s return to play plan on Tuesday bringing us all one step closer to hockey.

While we still do not know exactly when the league will return from its pause, it certainly is clear that the NHL is trending more toward an eventual return. That means it is time to turn our eyes towards the biggest questions facing the Capitals when they return to finish the 2019-20 season.

Though the Caps will enter the playoffs as one of the top four seeds in the conference, their place in the standings comes largely form a fantastic start to the season. Since Dec. 23, Washington ranked 22nd in the NHL with only 33 points and the team seemed to be struggling significantly.

After a pause of several months, how the team played before the pause does not matter significantly. Too much time has passed to say any momentum - or lack thereof - will carry over once the teams take the ice again. Having said that, the 69 games that Washington did play before the season paused showed a number of key questions the team will face once it returns to play.

Here are the biggest decisions facing the team and some of its players when play resumes.

What is the best defensive lineup?

For most of the season, this question has been largely who will be the right defenseman on the second defensive pair? Given the team’s overall defensive struggles, however, it is more accurate to label the blueline as a whole a question mark for Washington.

The second pair is obviously the biggest weakness for the team as neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas was able to stake their claim to the spot on the right. Jensen did seem to be playing better before the season was paused, but it is anyone’s guess how he or that pair -- with Dmitry Orlov presumably playing on the left -- will look coming out of the pause.

Brenden Dillon, a deadline acquisition, has played 10 games with the Caps. He will get three more exhibition games and that’s it, then it’s time for the postseason. Is that enough for him to solidify his spot on the top defensive pair alongside John Carlson?

Michal Kempny has struggled significantly all season long and the reset that the season pause could provide may be exactly what he needs to turn things around. If not, however, then the third pair becomes a question mark as well. Kempny and Radko Gudas did not play well at all in the handful of games in which they were paired together and either one of them could see their role taken by Jonas Siegenthaler, who has been one of the team’s top penalty killers this season.

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How does the team fix the struggling power play?

Given the scoring talent this team boasts, there is no reason for it not to rank in the top half of the league on the power play, but the extra man had become a significant hole for Washington's offense over the course of the season. It ranks 17th on the power play overall at 19.4%, but since Dec. 23, that rate fell to 17% which ranks just 24th in the NHL over that span

That’s not good enough.

In season, we saw only minor adjustments being made as head coach Todd Reirden tried to fix the power play, but it felt like the team was just grasping at straws. With plenty of time to analyze and diagnose the problem, Reirden will need to bring solutions for the extra man unit with him when training camp resumes.

Who is the No. 1 goalie?

When the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins met for the first time this season on Feb. 2, Ilya Samsonov got the start. That was a reflection of where the goalie competition stood at that time with Samsonov putting together a stellar rookie season and Braden Holtby struggling. Holtby seemed to right the ship somewhat, however, and heading into the pause there was little question that he had retaken his spot atop the goalie depth chart.

But that was before the pause. How will both goalies look when they return to play?

Reirden will not have much time to assess his goalie tandem before having to decide who will start in the playoffs. While Holtby should be the presumed No. 1 going in, the fact that Samsonov was able to overtake him at some point this season is a good indication that Holtby may have a short leash if he begins to struggle again.

Where will Holtby play next season?

Every team and every player has been affected by the NHL’s pause to the season, but the players who may perhaps be the most affected are the big name, big money free agents like Holtby.

Holtby is in a tough spot. At 30 years old and with his numbers declining, Holtby’s next contract was likely to be his last big one. With his expected replacement, Samsonov, already playing well in limited NHL starts, with the team’s tight cap situation and with an expansion draft looming which would prevent Washington from providing Holtby with a no-movement clause, there seemed to be little chance Holtby would remain with the Caps.

But the league now faces an uncertain salary cap situation will mean there will be fewer suitors and less money available for Holtby in the free agent market.

Will it make sense for Holtby to return to Washington on a one-year deal despite the fact that he will be 31, his numbers continue to decline and he will almost certainly come into next season as the No. 2 behind Samsonov? Would Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan entertain that possibility? Or will there be enough money left out there in free agency for Holtby to move on?

This is not a decision that will need to be made until after the season, but it is absolutely something that will be weighing on his mind as the team returns to play.

Is the championship window still open?

With the additions of Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk, MacLellan has shown that he is all-in on a Cup run this season. But what about beyond this season?

Alex Ovechkin is 34, Nicklas Backstrom is 32, T.J. Oshie is 33, John Carlson is 30, Holtby is 30 and may not even be back next season. The fact is that the championship window is not going to be open forever and the Caps do not have enough talent in the pipeline to expect this team to simply reload and continue on as Cup contenders once those top players begin to noticeably decline.

It is going to be very hard to judge the Caps based on what happens in the postseason given the unusual circumstances, but the fact is MacLellan must evaluate this team and how likely it is to continue to compete in the near future. Will a quick exit mean it is time for a reboot or is there enough left in the tank for another run beyond this season? That is the tough question MacLellan will have to answer.

How will players manage the health risks?

One thing that will weigh heavily on the minds of every player and team staff member involved in the resumption of play will be the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and then bringing it home to their families. No one wants to be isolated from their loved ones for several months, but everyone will have to decide just how cautious they are going to be.

This is especially true of Reirden whose son, Travis, suffers from common variable immunodeficiency. Bringing the coronavirus home could put Reirden’s son at serious risk. How will Reirden handle being at the rink when training camp resumes? How will Oshie, Jensen or Backstrom handle the risks with newborns at home? This question is certainly not limited to the Caps, but it is the biggest question facing everyone as the league continues heading towards the resumption of the season.

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7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

7 things to watch in the round-robin that will tell us if the Caps are Cup contenders

Hockey is back! Or at least we have a date for when hockey will be back. After pausing the season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, the NHL will return to action on Aug. 1 when the qualification and round-robin rounds begin. As one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Washington will play three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. You can view the schedule and a list of important dates here.

By the time the Caps return to the ice for their first game, nearly five months will have passed since the last time they played so the 2020 postseason will essentially be a clean slate. When trying to size up the team's chances at a Cup run, the round-robin will give us our first glimpse of what we can expect from them. Here are the specific areas to keep an eye on.

Braden Holtby

Todd Reirden has already declared that the starting goalie job is "Holtby's job to lose." Holtby had a rough regular season (.897 save percentage, 3.11 GAA), but he has a Stanley Cup to his name and the fifth-best playoff save percentage of all-time. While it makes sense to start Holtby going into the playoffs, you can bet he will be on a tight leash. The fact is that his numbers have been in steep decline the last three years. A lengthy pause could prove beneficial for the 30-year-old netminder who will turn 31 in September, but considering he wasn't even able to get on the ice until the team moved into Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan on June 11, just how well he will play after so much time off is a complete unknown.  

You also have to consider the fact that Ilya Samsonov will be the team's backup and played well for the majority of the season. While I believe Holtby would have to completely fall apart in the round-robin for Samsonov to start in the first round, I do think that Holtby's performance will dictate just how long the leash is once the playoffs start in earnest.

RELATED: CAPS SET TO RETURN AUG. 3 VS. LIGHTNING

The new players

The Capitals acquired defenseman Brenden Dillon and forward Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline. At the pause, Dillon has played in only 10 games for Washington while Kovalchuk played in seven.

The transition to a new team during the season can be a tough one for players, but they have certainly had a significant amount of time to study up on their new team's system. They also will get a brief training camp before heading to Toronto that will give them more practice time to adjust. That could be a huge boost for Washington when looking at Dillon in particular. Defense is the major weakness of the team and Dillon has taken on a top-pair role with John Carlson.

On the other hand, while the number of games Dillon and Kovalchuk would have gotten before the playoffs would be limited, its more than they are getting now. Ultimately you're not going to be able to adjust to a new system without playing in it. Instead of a few regular-season games to adjust, Dillon and Kovalchuk's next game will be in the round-robin when the games count again.

General manager Brian MacLellan acquired both players with roles in mind for a Cup run. Both players now have to learn on the job and get up to speed quickly in order to live up to the roles MacLellan acquired them for.

The veteran players

The Caps are a veteran-heavy team. Nicklas Backstrom is 32, John Carlson is 30, Lars Eller is 30, Carl Hagelin is 31, Braden Holtby is 30, Ilya Kovalchuk is 36, T.J. Oshie is 33 and Alex Ovechkin is 34. After such a long pause, the veteran players will come into camp well-rested, but also a few months older.

After nearly five-months in between games, this has essentially been a full offseason for the league and a player's performance varies from season to season. Five months is not an insignificant amount of time and age may catch up to a handful of players at some point during the postseason even after having so much time to recuperate. These three games will give us a look at whether players like Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be able to perform at an elite level for another postseason run.

Michal Kempny

Kempny may have saved the team in 2018, but in the 2019-20 season, he was really struggling. A torn hamstring affected his preparation in the offseason and even after he returned he did not look like he was quite right. It's unclear if that had to do with any lingering physical issues or if it was purely mental. Regardless, he has had plenty of time to either heal further or regain his confidence which should mean improved play.

if the Caps suddenly got back 2018, first-pair Kempny, that would be a huge boon for the blue line.

Lineup decisions

Offensively, you can pretty much pencil in these lines:

Ales Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway

If those lines change going in, that's significant and bears watching. If they change over the course of the three round-robin games, that is something to keep an eye on to see if there is something Reirden does not like or wants to switch up.

Defensively, there are more question marks.

Can Kempny regain a top-pair role? Where does Dillon ultimately fit? Who plays on the right side of the second pair? Does the team dress three lefties and three righties or does Reirden go with four lefties?

Granted, all of these decisions have to be taken in context. Whether Reirden is reacting to someone's play or to the standings of the round-robin is important to keep in mind. Still, there is not much time to really experiment with and I would expect Reirden to give his projected lineup for the playoffs as much time as possible to prepare for the playoffs.

The power play

The power play has been terrible this season and ranked 24th in the NHL since Dec. 23.  Many have argued it has become too predictable, but really, everyone knew what they were trying to do for years and still couldn't stop it. Zone entries and puck movement have been the two biggest issues with the power play unit this season. The quick puck movement that makes a power play so hard to cover just has not been there and the players appear to be slower and more methodical with their puck movements, to their detriment. Even if the power play can improve to just average for the payoffs, that will be a major boost.

Defense

The biggest weakness of all for the team this season, the defense has been just flat out bad. The team has struggled to find a partner for Carlson, the team has only one top-four right defenseman and the efforts to shuffle players in and out of the top four have led to some dreadful third-pair combinations. Carlson has to be the team's best blueliner every night, someone has to lay claim to the top-pair role and Nick Jensen or Radko Gudas need to show they can handle a second-pair role.

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NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

NHL restart schedule: Capitals return to the ice Aug. 3 against Lightning

In one fell swoop, the NHL and its players union voted Friday to approve a package deal that included both the NHL’s return-to-play plan and a new Collective Bargaining agreement. The tentative agreement reached upon Tuesday became official when it was approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors and received a simple majority in the player vote.

The 24 teams that qualified for the expanded Stanley Cup playoffs will begin formal training camps Monday in preparation for an Aug. 1 start to the postseason. The Capitals have already guaranteed themselves one of the top four spots in the East and will play in a round-robin tournament to determine seeding before the first round.

RELATED: NHL, PLAYERS UNION AGREE ON SEASON RESTART PLAN IN NEW CBA

Here’s what Washington’s postseason schedule will look like in the seeding round and when they would be on the ice if they make it all the way:

Aug. 3 – Capitals vs. Lightning (seeding game)

Aug. 6 – Capitals vs. Flyers (seeding game)

Aug. 8 – Bruins vs. Capitals (seeding game)

Aug. 11 – First round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Aug. 25* – Second round of Stanley Cup playoffs begins

Sept. 8* – Conference finals begin

Sept. 22* – Stanley Cup Finals begin

Oct. 4* – Last possible day of Stanley Cup Finals

*Date still tentative

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