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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Will Samsonov overtake Holtby this season as the starter?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Will Samsonov overtake Holtby this season as the starter?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

@bikeandtrainfan on Twitter writes: Rob. Do you and Alan think there is a much deeper reason as to why Braden Holtby has looked a bit woeful the first week plus?

First, you spelled “JJ” wrong. Second, I have to wonder if pressure over being in a contract year and the fact that Ilya Samsonov is on the roster are messing with Holtby’s head. I asked him this directly on Tuesday and he kind of skirted the question.

Holtby has been in goalie competitions before, but this is different. When Philipp Grubauer overtook him for the starting job in 2018, Holtby was still under contract so at least he was secure in that way. He still had to reclaim the net from Grubauer, but I never got the sense that the organization believed Grubauer was their long-term starter.

Samsonov, however, is different. You don’t draft a goalie in the first round unless you believe he is going to one day be the starter. Now he is in the NHL, backing up Holtby and playing well. The fact that he is with the Caps this season with Holtby on the last year of his contract is no coincidence and I'm sure that fact is not lost on him.

It also won’t be lost on Holtby that the team is tight against the salary cap and there is virtually no way it can afford to bring him back if he makes anything close to his market value. Perhaps he rebounds and plays well the rest of the season in which case he earns a contract at least comparable to Sergei Bobrovsky’s which carries a cap hit of $10 million. That’s more than the team can afford. On the other hand, Holtby could continue to struggle making his value goes down. At that point, why would you re-sign your struggling starter when his replacement is already here ready to go?

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Holtby who looks like he is going to play himself out of town with either good or bad play.

...Or maybe this is just a short slump that all goalies go through and Holtby’s right, we won’t even be talking about this a month from now.

Douglas F. writes: With Ilya Samsonov playing really well to start the season and Braden Holtby struggling a bit do you think Samsonov could start over Holtby like Philipp Grubauer did in 2018?

That depends on what you’re asking. If you’re asking could Samsonov get to a point where he is considered the No. 1 heading into the playoffs? Sure, I could see that. If you are asking could Samsonov start taking the bulk of the starts and finish with 45-50 or more starts this season? No, I dont’ see that unless Holtby completely bottoms out.

First off, when Grubauer took over as the No. 1, he had a lot of starting experience at that point. He played in 50 total games in 2014-15 (49 with Hershey, one with the Caps), 45 games in 2013-14 (28 with Hershey, 17 with the Caps), 56 games in 2012-13 (26 with the Reading Royals, 28 with Hershey and two with the Caps) and 43 games with South Carolina in 2011-12. The team knew Grubauer could handle the rigors of being a starting goalie.

The most games Samsonov played in a single season was 37 and it came last year with Hershey. There is no way the team just decides he is going to be the starter from now on and put him on pace for a bulk of the starts in his first NHL season.

Even when Holtby was at his worst in 2018, Grubauer did not just take over. Holtby was pulled from a game on March 6 and was given some time to reset. Once he returned, it was an even tandem. Holtby got back in on March 16. At that point, there were 12 games remaining in the regular season and Holtby ended up starting in six of them.

@Cappie2020 on Twitter writes: Why does Reirden keep going back to Chandler Stephenson over Nic Dowd?

When the Caps signed Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic in the offseason, I thought it was clear that Stephenson was on the way out. When he signed his new contract that was just under the maximum for a buried salary, I was positive he was Hershey bound and that training camp was just a formality. But Reirden challenged Stephenson in training camp to prove himself and he responded. That carries a lot of weight with coaches. I think the hope is that at his best, Stephenson can be a player like Carl Hagelin. He has the speed and I know Reirden likes him on the penalty kill which is why he kept getting in the lineup last year over guys like Dmitrij Jaskin.

Now sometimes in sports the unfortunate reality is a player can do everything you ask and it is still not enough. To me, that’s where I am with Stephenson. He did everything asked of him, but I don't see room for him in the lineup because the fourth line just clicks better with Dowd and Dowd is a more consistent player. Stephenson is better in terms of skill set than Dowd, but we do no see it consistently enough.

I understand why Reirden wants to keep Stephenson in and will be trying to find a spot for him. He earned at least that in training camp. Overall, however, I agree with you. Dowd is a much better fit for that line and should be playing. The fourth line can’t be just a placeholder for a guy you want to play on the penalty kill. If you want the fourth line to make an impact, it seems to produce and perform better with Dowd at center.

Benjamin C. writes: Richard Panik isn’t big on goal scoring but I haven’t seen any contribution from him whatsoever besides the PK. When do we start to seeing something from him?

Panik has not been great. I liked him a lot in the preseason, but he has struggled since the season has began. He was good against Dallas and had a great scoring opportunity against Colorado, but overall he has been unimpressive.

It's important to remember though that we are seven games into the season. I don't know if every high school was like this, but in mine we had "interim" grades which were a gigantic pain. They were report cards sent in the middle of the quarter that weren't official, but showed what your grade was at that point. They were always terrible because that point in the quarter even if you had one missed homework assignment it would drop your grade significantly. My parents were the type of parents who got on me about my grades so I always hated those stupid things.

The point of that seemingly needless tangent is that it is far too soon to write the book on Panik and declare him a bust. Let him settle in with his new team and his new role first. It is going to take some time. People don’t want to hear that, but sometimes it takes a while for a player to adjust.

So basically what I’m saying is that it is too soon to Panik.

See what I did there?

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Why does Todd have such an itchy trigger finger moving pieces around so much and so early? I mean they’ve been producing points up front, everybody except Richard Panik really.... leave it alone.

This is just something coaches do. Barry Trotz used to do this all the time. Reirden changed the lines and people are upset, but if he did nothing after that horrendous game against Colorado people would be upset about him not adjusting after a bad loss and saying it’s because he doesn’t know how to coach.

I’m not going to go nuts about the fact that Reirden is changing lines. Having said that...I’m not a huge fan of these lines:

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - Garnet Hathaway
Brendan Leipsic - Chandler Stephenson - Richard Panik

Jonas Siegenthaler - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Radko Gudas
Nick Jensen - Tyler Lewington

There’s not much you can do with the defense until Michal Kempny returns, but I’m not sure putting Jensen on the left is a good idea. He does not seem to do well playing on his off-side.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie had its time, but in this day and age that’s a pretty slow line. I have long advocated Oshie should move down to the third line with Eller whom he has chemistry with. Oshie at this point would benefit from fewer minutes and the third line could use an offensive boost, but Oshie is playing really well right now and already has four goals, so I get it why Reirden would move him up.

Vrana has been in Reirden’s dog house for a while now. The problem is he is starting to become one of those players who, if he doesn’t score, he doesn’t do much else. You need more from a top-six player. Panik has struggled so I get that, but Hathaway is a fourth-line player, plus that fourth line was very good with Leipsic, Dowd and Hathaway. I mentioned before, I would not put Stephenson in over Dowd, but that’s just me.

Benjamin C. writes: The Capitals are struggling to close games out and hold a lead. This goes back to that Game 7 loss to Carolina. Is it a mentality issue? Blueline? Braden Holtby? Why are we blowing our leads every game?

My theory on this is that the Caps have been far too passive when playing with the lead. Let’s take the two games against Dallas as an example. In the first game, the Caps held a lead in the third period and did not even register a shot on goal until over 10 minutes into the period. By that point, Dallas had already tied the game. In the second game against Dallas, Washington was very aggressive in the third period and made a 2-0 game 3-0 early on.

Now let's be clear. I am not advocating for the run and gun Caps' style of defense which was, don't play any and always try to outscore your opponent. What I am saying is this team is not good playing on its heels and circling the wagons. They need to play a possession-heavy game and continue pressuring offensively and not simply let the opposition take it to them in the third.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

Can Braden Holtby quiet goalie controversy, rebound from tough start?

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Braden Holtby has been here before. Every goalie in the NHL has good stretches and bad. Really, one thing that defines a goalie is how they overcome those bad stretches. Holtby had perhaps the greatest rebound a goalie could ever have, going from losing his starting job to Philipp Grubauer in 2018 to taking back the crease in the playoffs and leading the team to a Stanley Cup.

But could this year be different?

A poor start is one thing, but there are also other external factors that may be contributing.

In five games this season, Holtby has a .846 save percentage and 4.27 GAA. His save percentage is the worst among all goalies with at least four starts and his GAA is the second-worst behind only Devan Dubnyk’ s 4.56. It’s a small sample size, but those are horrific numbers made worse by Monday’s performance in which he allowed three goals on three shots before being pulled.

“It was a tough game for Braden and I think he'll be the first one to admit it,” Todd Reirden said after practice on Tuesday. “That's a game I think he'd like to do some things different. I think our team could have played closer to our identity than we did to give him a better chance to have success. But the good thing is he's accountable to it, he knows. He's accountable to himself, he's accountable to his teammates, he's accountable to everybody that he can be better than that and when he gets that chance he will.”

But will he?

Just 16 months removed from overcoming the worst stretch of his career and hoisting the Stanley Cup and still only 30 years old, it seems premature to declare Holtby as finished or to assume he won’t be able to dig himself out of this hole.

“Usually it's just getting back to the basics of things,” Holtby said when asked about overcoming a slump. “A lot of times when things are going your way, you're usually pushing forward too fast and make things [instead] of just letting them come to you. It's just getting back to the basics of playing, trusting your instincts and not letting it affect you. Just go out and play.”

“In times like these - good or bad - it's usually not as good as you think or not as bad as you think,” he added. “You just have to get yourself back to that level mentally where you can break things down and see just those little areas that might be just off a bit that could be the difference.”

But there are two external factors that could be putting pressure on Holtby mentally.

First, this year is the final year of Holtby’s contract. Playing in a contract year can be tough and Holtby certainly would not be the first player to succumb to the pressure that comes with an uncertain future. The second is that his replacement, Ilya Samsonov is now backing him up and doing a pretty darn good job with it.

In three appearances this season, Samsonov, 22, has a .944 save percentage and 1.43 GAA. He was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2015 and the fact that his first season in the NHL happens to be the last of Holtby’s contract is impossible not to notice.

Holtby was asked if his contract or Samsonov’s presence was affecting him mentally.

“I don’t know, I just think it's wanting to win, wanting to get a good start, maybe getting a little ahead of myself,” he said. “In ways, trying to push too hard. Just take a deep breath and just go out and play. I mean, it's seven games in. A couple months, you won't even remember this conversation. You just stick to the process and keep doing what you think you can do to help the team win.”

“When you break it down like that, who his backup is, yes it is a different scenario,” Reirden said. “The one scenario that isn't different is that I still have plenty of confidence in him. Lots of confidence in him. He's been through this before. We saw that in the Stanley Cup year and then he ends up taking over and helping us win the Stanley Cup and be a huge part of it.”

While Reirden still professes his confidence in Holtby, the recent struggles as well as Samsonov’s strong play have at least given him pause.

Following Monday’s loss, Reirden said of Samsonov, “He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

Reirden also would not commit to naming a starter for Wednesday’s game against a star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs team, but he seemed to be leaning towards Samsonov to give Holtby time to reset. At least that’s what it sounded like.

“Much like every player, goalies will go through situations like this and I'm sure that's how [Holtby] feels about the start to the year. I'm confident that we've got a few practices here, he gets to reset and work with [goalie coach] Scott Murray and get things settled in and then he's ready to go again.”

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Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Holtby and Backstrom, but is that realistic?

Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Holtby and Backstrom, but is that realistic?

As the Capitals prepare for the upcoming season, talk of next season is already starting to take over due to the uncertainty surrounding Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom’s future. Both players are in need of new contracts and, not surprisingly, general manager Brian MacLellan would like to keep both.

“We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said at media day. “Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

But is it realistic to keep both players? The unfortunate reality is that it’s not.

First, we have to project how much Holtby and Backstrom could sign for.

Holtby has a very close comparable with Sergei Bobrovsky who just signed a seven-year, $70 million contract. Holtby and Bobrovsky’s regular season stats are almost identical while Holtby has enjoyed much more playoff success. That means the Caps would be looking at a cap hit somewhere in the $10 million range.

For Backstrom, a player of his caliber will be able to command a sizable contract from around the league even at 32 which he will be when he hits free agency. A 34-year-old Joe Pavelski just got a contract from the Dallas Stars with a $7 million cap hit. I view Backstrom’s range to be about $7 to 8.5 million, but $7 million at an absolute minimum.

Basically, to re-sign Holtby and Backstrom will cost the team about $17 million in cap space per year at a minimum.

But wait, those guys want to stay in Washington, right? So they definitely will be willing to take less!

Don’t count on it.

“There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league too,” Holtby said at media day when asked about taking less money to stay with the Caps.

As for Backstrom, he has played the last 10 years with a cap hit of $6.7 million which is an absolute steal. Why would he take less now when he has already been taking less for a decade?

Let’s ignore the discussion of whether it is worth committing that much money to two players who are over 30 on an aging roster. The question is if the Caps have room under the cap for $17 million?

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Carl Hagelin, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Nick Jensen and Pheonix Copley are all under contract for the 2020-21 season. That’s just over $62 million in cap space committed to 10 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie. Add in Backstrom and Holtby and their potential $17 million hit and you have a cap hit of over $79 million for 11 forwards, four defensemen and two goalies. The team will still need to sign two more forwards and three more defensemen.

We do not know what the cap ceiling will be for next season, but it is not expected to climb significantly. Let’s say it goes up to $83 million. That means the Caps will have less than $4 million to sign another five players. The minimum NHL salary for next season will be $700,000. If the Caps add five players at the league minimum, they can just barely fit under the ceiling, but that obviously is not a realistic scenario for how to build a competitive roster. Anything above the league minimum the team will not be able to afford and there are only two players in the entire organization, including prospects, who will carry a cap hit of $700,000 in the 2020-21 season.

Now that is just a projection, we ultimately do not know if the salary cap could go up more, but this projection also does not take into account any of the team’s RFAs including Jonas Siegenthaler who by that point will be due a significant raise.

The bottom line is that there is no way for the Caps to afford both Holtby and Backstrom without a significant trade to free up salary. Even then, whatever extra cap room the team gains from such a trade, much of it will go to RFAs, prospects and other UFAs the team may pursue.

An extension for Holtby and Backstrom handcuffs the entire offseason and would not allow Washington to do pretty much anything else. Whatever other needs the team may have, MacLellan would not be able to afford to address.

That’s not a recipe for success.

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