It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Dec. 21 edition below.
Have a Caps question you want answered for next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com
Please note some questions have been edited for clarity.
Greg C writes: What's your best guess as to what's going to happen long-term with Andre Burakovsky?
Andre Burakovsky is a tricky case. He is a player with obvious top-six skill, but who is plagued by inconsistent play and production. Now in his fifth NHL season, those problems just don’t seem to be going away. The Caps have tried him at a variety of spots in the lineup including in the top-six and he has not been able to establish himself. He is only 23 years old and no one could dispute his skill level so it seems premature to simply give up on him, but the issue facing the Caps is that this is the final year of his contract. As a pending RFA, to maintain his rights Washington would have to offer him a one-year qualifying offer for $3.25 million. Burakovsky has just eight points and is on pace for just 20 for the year which would be a career low. I’m just not sure the Caps would be willing to commit $3.25 million even for one year if that’s the kind of production they think they will get from him.
We have seen Burakovsky as a healthy scratch in the past and he typically responds well to it and finds a spark in his production upon returning to the lineup. Now, however, Burakovksky has sat for four consecutive games. Having a player with his skill sitting in the press box is bound to get attention and rumors abound that teams are calling to inquire about a possible trade.
Now let’s be clear, the best case scenario for Washington is for Burakovsky to catch fire, become a consistently productive player and for the team to keep him as a third-line winger who they can plug into the top-six if the need arises. The fact that he has remained a healthy scratch for this long even with trade rumors swirling suggests to me that the team is at the very least open to discussing a possible deal even if they are not actively shopping him.
Through the first 33 games of the season, Washington has again established itself as a Cup contender so I don’t think general manager Brian MacLellan would be open to talking about a deal for draft picks and/or prospects. Offensively, the Caps are very deep, but the third line becomes an obvious weakness if Burakovsky is traded as there is no clear replacement for him.
So even though Burakovsky is struggling to get back into the lineup, even though teams are inquiring about him, even though it would be expensive to issue him a qualifying offer, even though to many it appears a change of scenery would be the best move for him, a trade is not as much of a slam dunk as you might think. The Caps are better off keeping him if they think he can be a productive top-nine forward. If not, then a team is going to have to be willing to give up someone who can fill that role in order to pry him away from Washington.
Lisa M writes: I am interested in your thoughts on Caps' special teams. The PP has been strong overall but slumped of late, even with all top PP personnel back. Just a temporary blip, or do you see something else going on?
The biggest issue I have seen from the power play of late is zone entries. The Caps look as dangerous as ever when they can actually set up the power play. Getting to that point, however, is a struggle because they can’t get the puck into the zone and their break in often falls apart in the neutral zone or even back in the defensive zone depending on how aggressive the opposing penalty kill is. I believe there needs to be a better game plan for how to elevate the puck from the goal line to the opposing blue line and beyond, but I’m not overly concerned because they have strong stick handlers like Evgeny Kuznetosv and Nicklas Backstrom who should be able to eventually rectify those struggles. I think the key will be a more up-tempo, fast-paced break as the team seems to really struggle on slower, more deliberate entry attempts into the offensive zone.
Lisa M also writes: The PK has been a bigger issue. Why? Did the PK coach change this year? Are they doing something differently this year than last? What do you think the league’s top PKs (Arizona, Minnesota, SJ) are doing that the Caps PK is not?
Yes, the coach in charge of the penalty kill has changed. Lane Lambert followed Barry Trotz to Long Island and Scott Arniel is now in charge of the PK. Yes, the Caps are trying to do something different on the penalty kill this year. Todd Reirden spoke on the first day of training camp about his hope to make some changes to the penalty kill this season. What stands out is that it is far more aggressive in terms of more stickhandling in the neutral zone and more rushes up the ice rather than just simple clears. That adjustment has been a struggle and there have been times in which the Caps found themselves caught up ice after a shorthanded rush allowing for an odd-man rush in the other direction.
As for what they need to improve on, there are two glaring issues that I have seen. First, the penalty killers have a tendency to get drawn in and collapse to one area. If the puck goes to the right corner, you see four Caps players in that corner below the dot. The power play goals the Caps gave up to Rasmus Dahlin and Teuvo Teravainen last week are examples of this. Second, the Caps are not cutting off passing lanes making it too easy for opponents to move the puck around freely. Getting in a passing isn’t just about getting your body there, it’s about making yourself big, stretching the stick, blocking pucks by whatever means necessary and we have not seen that enough.
When comparing it to other penalty kills, the one I focus on is Arizona. Since the new penalty kill is aggressive at moving the puck and generating some shorthanded offense, the Coyotes’ penalty kill seems to be the closest comparable. What makes Arizona so effective at scoring shorthanded is not offensive talent, but speed. Michal Grabner has four shorthanded goals this season. He is lightning quick and that allows him to turn innocent looking turnovers into scoring opportunities and he can do it on his own or on a two-man break. It does no require pushing three or even all four of the penalty killers up ice to get a scoring opportunity. Guys like Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Devante Smith-Pelly, Nic Dowd, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Nicklas Bckstrom, those guys do not have the same kind of breakaway speed as a player like Grabner does. Chandler Stephenson does have great speed, but he needs to get more offensively aggressive if he can fill a similar role.
Through the first month of the season, Kuznetsov looked like a real contender for the Hart. He was dominant every time he took the ice in much the same way as a Nathan MacKinnon or Connor McDavid stand out from among the pack every time they come out for a shift. The concussion Kuznetsov suffered against Winnipeg certainly did not help, but he was starting to slow down even before that and, even after playing in 27 games, he still only has one even strength goal for the season.
Kuznetsov has been subject to highs and lows throughout his career. At his best, he looks like an MVP-caliber player. At his lowest, he’s still an incredibly dynamic and dangerous forward, but just not at that superstar level. The fact that he can very quietly go on an eight-game point streak in which he had one goal and nine assists should terrify the rest of the league. If he can ever learn to be that MVP level player for 82 games, he will be thought of as being on the same level as players like MacKinnon and McDavid, he’s that talented.
Kuznetsov will be fine. At some point he is going to be put back on the top line with Ovechkin for his speed and that will likely reignite him.
Greg C writes: If Ovi keeps playing the way he's playing now, his value will never be greater than it'll be at the end of this season. If the Caps win the Cup again, you have to keep the group together to go for the three-peat, but if they don't, should they entertain offers to trade him?
Wow, so this is not a question I was anticipating. You bring up a valid point about selling high. There are a lot of teams out there that show perhaps too much loyalty to their aging stars and thus end up over paying to keep the band together when the band is past its prime and headed nowhere. The Vancouver Canucks are a good example as they stayed loyal to the Sedin twins for longer than they should have, thus delaying the rebuild to keep a roster together that wasn’t even good enough to make the playoffs.
For 99-percent of players out there, thinking about trading a veteran who will turn 34-years old before next season at the peak of his value would be worth discussing, but there is that one-percent of players who are untouchable and Ovechkin falls into that category.
I know, Wayne Gretzky got traded and if he can get traded, anyone can get traded. But let’s not forget who Ovechkin is or what he means to this franchise. I remember the black and bronze era Caps who struggled to fill half of the MCI Center during a rebuild that led some to wonder if hockey had a future in Washington.
Ovechkin’s place in the history of the franchise means there’s no deal worth trading him for. There is no other player on the roster and no other player in the NHL that I feel that way about, not even Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin is synonymous with the Caps and responsible for turning this city into a legitimate hockey town. As long as he doesn’t go crazy when it’s time to start talking about a new contract, I expect him to be a Cap for life.
Daniel J writes: For guys like Riley Barber, Liam O’Brien, Nathan Walker who’ve been in the organization for some time, do Caps let them pursue other options or will they be on a Boyd/Stephenson path?
Barber, O’Brien and Walker are all in the final year of their contracts and all set to become restricted free agents. All three have seen time in the NHL in the past but have not been able to make the jump from AHL to NHL. The answer to this question ultimately lies in the team’s other top-six forwards.
Burakovsky, Smith-Pelly, Dowd, Stephenson, Brett Connolly and Dmitrij Jaskin are all on the final year of their contract so there could potentially be room in the bottom-six next season for some Hershey players to get the promotion unless of course MacLellan elects to keep the band together for another run. If they can return all of the free agents listed, there is no one I would readily take out for any of the three you listed.
Of those three, Barber probably has the highest upside and the best chance to stay in the NHL. He is not in any real danger of cracking the top-six, but in today’s increasingly skilled game, there is value to having some skill and offensive touch in the bottom-six. Liam O’Brien is a feisty player and is showing more offensive upside this season than I thought he had, but I would put him as a long-shot to be an NHL player. Walker is what he is at this point. He can be a top-line guy in the AHL or an extra forward in the NHL you can feel comfortable plugging into the lineup for a handful of games if the need arises.
As RFAs, the Caps really hold all the cards in terms of their next contracts, but I could see the team being open to discussing with each player what they want their future to be. All three are good assets to have in your back pocket, but I’m not sure I see any of them as every day NHL players so that may open the door for the Caps letting them move elsewhere if those players disagree on their NHL potential.
Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in next week’s mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays and happy New Year to all!
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