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Wild tame the Caps as Washington fails to add to their division lead

Wild tame the Caps as Washington fails to add to their division lead

WASHINGTON – After the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning treated fans to one of the best games of the season, the Minnesota Wild came to Washington and did just enough to walk away with a 2-1 win on Friday.

The Caps were able to fire 58 shots on goal against the Lightning, but managed only 22 against Minnesota, easy pickings for Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk. With the loss, Washington was unable to add to its three-point lead atop the Metropolitan Division.

Here are four reasons the Caps lost.

An emotional letdown

Wednesday’s game between the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning was one of the best, most intense, well-played game of the regular season in the NHL. Friday’s game was…not.

One reason the playoffs are such a grind is because of how much each game takes out of the players emotionally. Washington looked like a team that was still trying to recover from Wednesday’s playoff preview and the emotional letdown led to some pretty rough hockey. Passes were hard to connect, shots were not on target, the puck management was poor, nothing seemed to come easy for the Caps at all.

Perhaps the epitome of the type of night it was for Washington came early in the third period. With the game tied at 1, Tom Wilson came out of the penalty box and was fed an alley-oop breakaway pass by Nicklas Backstrom. The puck, however, never settled for Wilson and when he tried to move to the backhand it simply rolled off his stick. Wilson had a golden opportunity to give Washington the lead, but walked away without so much as a shot on goal.

The power play

The first three power plays of the game all were awarded to Washington, but the Caps failed to convert on any of them. Getting the puck into the zone was a struggle and even when they did get it in, it usually was taken right back after one bad pass and sent in the other direction. The threat of Alex Ovechkin is usually enough to open space on the power play, but that was not the case on Friday. The pass just was not there all night and still Washington tried to force the puck to him at times rather than take advantage of the room that opened up on the right side of the ice.

The Caps managed just as man shots on goal (one) in those three power plays as the Wild’s penalty kill.

Getting caught in the neutral zone

With the puck loose in the neutral zone, Brooks Orpik stepped up to try to get possession. Jordan Greenway swept the puck away from him and then just kept his feet moving to turn the corner around a trailing Tom Wilson. Braden Holtby went down to the butterfly, but Greenway deked around him and buried it into the net. He had plenty of room because Orpik was trailing the play after losing it in the neutral zone and Luke Kunin boxed out Nick Jensen.

Getting caught in the trap

Washington managed to battle back and tie the game at 1 in the second period, but the Wild retook the lead in the third period thanks to a neutral zone trap.

Matt Niskanen had control of the puck and was looking for the breakout. He thought he had Ovechkin open, but Zach Parise stepped up and swept his stick into the passing lane at the last second. Ryan Donato fed it back to Parise and Washington’s breakout was suddenly a 2-on-1 in the other direction.

Neutral zone turnovers are so dangerous because you instantly have gone from offense to defense with no time to get into position. Sure enough, the Wild caught the Caps completely out of position with one defenseman challenging Parise and three red jerseys trailing him meaning there were four Caps players on the right side of the ice and none covering Kunin. Parise found him with the pass and Kunin buried the puck into the top corner for the game-winning goal.

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

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Why the Caps had to trade Matt Niskanen

In an ideal world, you keep players like Matt Niskanen.

A veteran defenseman with years of experience, a player who was given hard minutes during Stanley Cup playoff runs in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 and excelled, a soft-spoken, but blunt man unafraid to say when his team played like hot garbage. These are not guys you look to trade. 

Unless, of course, they have a $5.75 million salary-cap hit for the next two years and your team desperately needs to clear space for other priorities. The Capitals made that long-expected move on Friday when they traded Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas. 

In a vacuum, this is a loss. Niskanen by all accounts has been a better defenseman than Gudas. But they are also on different career trajectories. Niskanen struggled, especially early last season. He is 32. There’s at least a chance we’ve seen the best of him, though he’d argue by the end of last season he was closer to his normal self.

“Not totally shocked, but it caught me a little off guard,” Niskanen told reporters on a conference call Friday. “I knew once the NHL season was over, from now until the draft is typically when things happen.  Not really shocked, a little surprised. I knew this is the time of year when these things can happen and I knew what kind of situation Washington was in, so I knew there was a possibility.

Gudas, 29, is going in the opposite direction – though his ceiling is surely lower than Niskanen’s is at his best. He’s cut down his penalty minutes each of the past three years. He’s of limited offensive value, instead a classic stay-at-home defenseman who’s become effective at limiting the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice. 

And that role won’t have to be a big one. The Capitals have an in-house replacement for Niskanen on the right side of the second pair with Nick Jensen, who is really the on-ice key to this trade. 

Jensen, acquired at the trade deadline from Detroit, was immediately signed to a four-year contract extension sight unseen. The writing was on the wall for Niskanen then. Caps GM Brian MacLellan basically said it out loud at breakdown down when he acknowledged retaining scoring depth is a priority and that he likely would have to move salary. These dots weren’t difficult to connect. 

Gudas is the plug-in defenseman on the third pair who allows Washington’s coaching staff to pick and choose which young player – Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos or whoever – they want to use on a given night. Both players are natural left-side defensemen.

If Jensen can find the comfort level he’d reached with the Red Wings, then MacLellan will have a more balanced roster. Immediately he can focus his leftover resources on the third and fourth lines. Maybe that means re-signing Carl Hagelin. Early indications are that’s a priority. 

But with about $13.49 million in cap space, according to the uber-helpful web site Cap Friendly.com. there is a little breathing room now to take care of restricted free agents (RFAs) Jakub Vrana – expect him around the $4 million mark on a bridge deal – and maybe Andre Burakovsky (a $3.25 million qualifying offer or less than that if they buy out his final two years of restricted free agency). 

But now let’s look at the long-term implications of the Niskanen trade. Gudas is a free agent after next season. That Niskanen money is gone just in time for contract extensions with center Nicklas Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby.  

The Capitals will lose the bonus overage ($1.150 million) they have to pay defenseman Brooks Orpik this year - whether he plays with the team or not (a return seems unlikely now). Gudas’ cap hit is $2.345 million. The salary cap should also rise again from $83 million. Without moving more salary, keeping both Holtby and Backstrom seems like a long shot. 

Speaking with Holtby on Saturday at the Capital Pride Parade, he insisted to NBC Sports Washington that he hadn’t heard anything from his agent about contract talks beginning. That’s something you’d expect to happen this summer - or not at all if Holtby rightly pursues a top-level goalie contract. 

Montreal goalie Carey Price has a $10.5 million cap hit, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is at $8.5 million and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could hit double figures as he enters the free agent market this summer. 

Backstrom, too, a bargain for nine years now, will want a raise. He now has the 20thhighest cap hit for a center ($6.7 million). You’d have to think he’d seek well over $8 million. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov has had a $7.8 million cap hit since 2017.

Niskanen knew all of this, of course. He understands the business side of the sport. A player with his own moral code, who was always, always at his locker when he made a mistake in a game or when someone had to account for a poor team performance, leaves Washington after five years with a Stanley Cup and few regrets. It’s what he came here to do.  

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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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