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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Is this a slump or something worse?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Is this a slump or something worse?

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

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity. Also, most of these questions came before the Brenden Dillon trade so please keep that in mind as you read.

Craig Boden writes: Do you feel the Caps are just in a slump, which happens over 82 games, or that there is something definitely wrong with the club?

The answer is both. Since this gets to the heart of what everyone really wants to know this week, I'll expand a bit on this.

There are a lot of issues to the Caps' game right now that are based purely on frustration. I have seen a lot of people blaming the "system" for the team's struggles, but, looking at Monday's game in Vegas as an example, there is no system that says both defensemen should be on the left side of the ice leaving open a stretch pass breakaway attempt that ultimately led to the first goal.

There is no system that says no one should challenge Tomas Nosek when he has the puck in the Caps' defensive zone, or cover Williams Carrier or Nick Holden who was standing literally right in front of the crease. There is no system that says lose a loose puck battle to Jonathan Marchessault or to let Reilly Smith cut through three Caps to get the pass and find the shooting lane. There is no system that says Radko Gudas should get the puck stolen behind the net allowing for a quick pass and goal before Braden Holtby could even realize Gudas had lost the puck.

Those are just misplays from a team that can't seem to do much right at the moment, particularly defensively. I can't sit here and tell you the system is the problem when the goals the team is giving up come on plays in which no one seems capable of playing the system or playing even basic defensive hockey. In that sense, this is is a "slump" because this team is not so bad that it suddenly forgot how to play defense. That's frustration taking over and forcing boneheaded mistakes.

The Caps are not as bad as they have played of late, but there are some deeper problems here. The team has lost four of its last five and is 11-11-0 since Dec. 23.

They have earned fewer points than any team in the Metro during that time, even New Jersey. While many teams wish that their slump would be .500, that's too long a sample size to simply expect the team to play its way out of at this point. The first and most glaring issue, and something I have talked about for much of the season, is that this defense just is not good enough. Neither Nick Jensen nor Radko Gudas are good enough to play in the top-four and Michal Kempny is struggling.

That means two of the team's top four on defense is a question mark which led to Monday's trade for Brenden Dillon.

I am also beginning to wonder if forward depth is more of an issue than previously thought. The top six is cold right now, but there is too much talent there to worry about, they'll be fine.

My concern is that, outside of center depth, if the Caps need to shuffle lines, there are not many players they can turn to throw into the top six. Sure, there's Lars Eller, but what about the wings? Carl Hagelin's has very little offensive finish, Richard Panik is a two-way forward whose offensive output has not been good enough to think he could bolster the top six, and Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway are fourth line players.

There is no Brett Connolly or Andre Burakovsky the team can throw into the top six for a game or two when the offense gets stale, which it certainly has of late. That leaves Todd Reirden with few options for how to wake the offense up.

So while I do not think the Caps are as bad as they look right now, there are certainly glaring issues that must be addressed if they have any hope for a deep run.

Nathan S. writes: Why aren't Caps willing to change their systems to address their awful defense?

I touched on this a bit above, but I'm not sure how much you can blame the system when the team is abandoning it the moment they face any adversity in-game and the defensive mistakes are things you wouldn't expect from a high school team. If there were a quick fix to the team's defensive issues, I promise you the team would have adjusted by now, but it's not that simple.

Kevin Mills writes: I read multiple reports about this being the sixth time in six years the Caps traded for a defenseman at the deadline. Is there a reason that the Capitals always seem to have a hole in the defense at the trade deadline?

Yes, Brian MacLellan has traded for a defenseman at the deadline every year since becoming general manager, but it's not always because defense is a hole.

Last season, for example, the team acquired Nick Jensen to supplement the blue line, not because there was any glaring hole to it. The injury to Michal Kempny happened after the deadline and that gets to the heart of why MacLellan always feels the need to add. The playoffs are very long and very grueling and no one escapes unscathed. The prevailing theory within the hockey community and one MacLellan has talked about in the past, is that for a deep playoff run a team needs eight defensemen it can rely on. That's a lot of defensemen so MacLellan likes to add at the deadline.

Justin Tepe writes: With salary cap problems, if the Caps want to make a Cup run does trading a T.J. Oshie or a 2nd/3rd line forward have enough value to get that 2nd pair defenseman? Who can draw enough interest?

Specifically, does trading Oshie for a defenseman make sense? No, absolutely not. Oshie has 24 goals this season, the second-most on the team. I have a hard time believing a move like this would make the team better.

In a more general sense, as I mentioned above, there's not enough scoring depth to risk a move like that. If you trade someone off the second line, who replaces them? There are no clear candidates. You don't want to trade away Hagelin because he is a proven playoff performer and the team's best penalty killer and Panik is not going to be enough to get a top-four defenseman back in return.

Paul Trubits writes: When are the Caps going to realize that Evgeny Kuznetsov is the 2nd coming of Alex Semin (not a good thing)? They beat a good playoff team on the road without him. Eller deserves to be the 2C. Should the Caps trade Kuzy for another 2-3C now while he still has a lot of value and maybe save some cap space for a top-four right D?

I get that Kuznetsov's 2018 playoff run seems like an anomaly at this point, but it did still happen. I don't think it makes sense to trade Kuznetsov because Eller played well in a game against Colorado while ignoring what happened in 2018. That's one game as opposed to 2018. Eller is a third-line center. That's what he is. He's a very good one and one in whom the team can trust in the top six in limited amounts of time, but he is not a 2C. 

Take a guess as to what Eller's career highs are. Every time I watch him play, I think this guy must be a 20-goal scorer, 50-point per season type of player. He's not. In fact, he's never been that. His career highs are 18 goals, 23 assists and 38 points. Now yes, Eller is more of a two-way forward and he doesn't have Jakub Vrana or Oshie on his wing. That's totally fair. But even when Kuznetsov is having a down year, which I would argue this is for him, he is still on pace for 65 points. He can sleepwalk to what most players would consider to be a great season.

I get the frustration. Kuznetsov should be 90 to 100 point player every year. But I don't think 75-percent Kuznetsov hurts the team the way a 75-percent Alex Semin did. He's still a better player than Eller. Trade away Kuznetsov and this team takes a very clear step back.

Tim K. writes: Why do Caps fans insist that a left-handed LD (Alec Martinez) is a perfect fit, or even an option, to fill the second pair RD slot? Am I missing something here?

Martinez actually routinely plays on the right so that's not an issue, but it's moot now after the team acquired Dillon.

Joe Nieves writes: What do you think about trading Nick Jensen and his 4-year contract for Alec Martinez and his 1 more year?

Again, doesn't matter with Dillon, but that would not have been nearly enough to get a deal done. Yes, the Kings would be getting more years, but they would be losing a higher quality player.

Chris writes: I enjoyed reading through the list of potential acquisitions that the Capitals could make by the trade deadline. I was looking at another Minnesota Wild defenseman, however. What are your thoughts trying to trade for Carson Soucy? To me, he looks like a guy similar to picking up Kempny a couple years ago.

Soucy is a left shot, has six goals and six assists which is fairly decent given he plays less than 16 minutes per game, but his PDO is the third-highest on the team and the highest among Minnesota's defensemen so that may have more to do with luck. His analytics aren't great  compared with his teammates so I'm not sure this one would work.

My biggest issue with him is that I'm a big fan of "The Usual Suspects" and his name is close enough that I worry I would call him Keyser Soze by accident, thus torpedoing whatever reporter/player relationship I could have had.

Jason Woodside: Hear me out: Caps bring back Oates to work exclusively with centers on face-offs. Two or three practices a month with no contact allowed with other players. How could he make things worse?

No. He would find a way. Trust me.

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, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Try not to panic

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Try not to panic

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

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Jason Woodside writes: Where does the blame fall for this underwhelming stretch of play? Is this just a bad stretch or are cracks appearing in the foundation?

Nathan S. writes: Are the Capitals' defensive woes in your view because of their structure not matching the players’ skills, the coaching staff not employing it properly or are the players (defensemen and forwards) just not good defensively? Or is it a combination of all three?

Not surprisingly, defense is a major topic of conversation this week. Things are bad right now. It's been my feeling for a while that this team won't go far with its defense as constructed and boy have things gotten ugly.

I asked around the locker room about the defense on Tuesday and got some pretty basic answers, but that's not a surprise because the last two games we have seen very basic problems. Turnovers, missed assignments, horrible puck management, misplays on the rush, missed assignments, these are basic things. For much of the season the Caps have outscored their problems and when a team has success, there is less urgency within the locker room to fix those problems. It's human nature. This is why teams will follow a long winning streak with a losing streak.  Washington has been relying on its offense, and lately just Alex Ovechkin, to bail it out. You can't always rely on Ovechkin to get a hat trick in the final six minutes of a game. The result is that poor defensive play is now getting exposed and, when that happens, frustration sets in. Monday's game was a frustrated team abandoning its defensive structure and every man chasing the puck like they were the mites on ice.

Those things, however, are correctable and will improve over time. No team is ever as bad as its worst slump and the Caps are no exception. There are, however, two larger issues that are of greater concern to me than their recent play. The first is the obvious hole in the top four. Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are both third-pair defensemen. This team does not have a defenseman who can play on the right of the second pair next to Dmitry Orlov.

Were you surprised to see Martin Fehervary called up when he was? You shouldn't be. You also shouldn't be surprised that he played most of those three games on the second pair. This team needs a top-four right defenseman in the worst way and was experimenting to see if a Fehervary-Orlov pair could be the solution.

The other issue is that Michal Kempny is not having a very good season at all. When two out of the top four defensemen are question marks, that's a problem and this is what will keep the team from a deep playoff run if not addressed. Trading for a right defenseman is now a necessity. I would also think we could see a lot more of Jonas Siegenthaler playing with John Carlson. They seem to work well together, though this would complicate the penalty kill structure as Reirden really wants to lean on the third defensive pair on the penalty kill to keep the defense fresh though games.

One quick note on Reirden as I think both these questions hint that perhaps coaching is the problem (and even if that was unintentional, plenty of people on Twitter are), my feeling on coaching is that team performance is the ultimate reflection of the coach and the book on Reirden as a head coach is going to be written based on what they do in the playoffs. I am not putting much stock into this current slump just as I am not putting much stock into the success of the first half of the season. Last year Reirden was put in an impossible situation and the team rebounded from a slow start and a seven-game losing streak to win the division. I felt that was an impressive first year for a head coach, but none of that mattered because they lost int he first round of the playoffs and, in my view, questionable coaching decisions played a factor. That's not the only reason why they lost, but it was a factor. Knowing this, to me whatever happens in the regular season is largely meaningless. OK, if the Caps collapse to the point that they could fall out of a playoff spot that's an issue, but frankly I'm not going to judge Reirden on an in-season slump. I'm going to judge him based on how he manages this team in the playoffs. Until then, my grade for him is incomplete.

Steve Singer writes: For me, the two biggest weaknesses on this very good Capitals team are the taking of penalties (thank goodness for the PK) and the powerless Power Play. On the first item, what can the Caps do better to clear the puck out of the zone, reduce the forechecking pressure, and thus limit their penalties? On the second item, what else can they do to energize their lifeless power play?

In fairness to Steve, this email was sent before the last two games, but I have been saying for weeks that this team's biggest weakness is defense and I don't think there is any debate. Having said that, these two issues do need to be addressed.

When it comes to penalties, you are correctly recognizing part of the issue is possession of the puck. When a team is taking as many penalties as the Caps are, it is usually the result of a team chasing the play. Teams that have the puck a majority of the time don't need to hook, slash or hold. The interesting thing is that the team's Corsi-For percentage, a stat that is loosely used to measure possession, ranks seventh in the NHL. When it comes to high-danger Corsi-for percentage, they move down to 16th at 50.10-percent which makes a bit more sense as penalties often come out of desperation.

To me, they need to cut back on the turnovers more than anything. The turnovers are putting everyone out of position and they are reacting with penalties. The first thing this team needs to do is stick to short, easy passes. I don't know why this team is allergic to easy passes, but if I see one more cross-ice pass from a defenseman from the goal line trying to hit someone on the offensive blue line, I'm going to tear my hair out. And that's just from someone analyzing the game from the press box. I can't imagine how it must feel watching that on the bench.

As for the power play, that leads me to the next few questions....

Benjamin Cross writes: This power play has been absolutely terrible. Bad zone entries, barely any zone time, going through the motions like It’s some sort of boring routine, pucks forced back to John Carlson. When will this power play get it together? Why can’t Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Jakub Vrana be more creative with their skills and find something new?

Erik Kampmann writers: How many more short-handed goals do the Caps need to give up before the coaching staff REALLY makes some changes on the power play? Switching the position of Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson during the PP doesn't seem to confuse defenders at all. Other teams have figured out how to defend our weak power play and the Caps coaching staff has yet to figure out a better system. What would you suggest?

Douglas Forsyth writes: With our PP struggling recently, is that the Capitals number 1 priority heading into the deadline?

Again, I don't put the problems on the power play anywhere close to the defense. This team can go far with a good defense and a horrible power play. A team with a horrible defense and a great power play is going nowhere fast.

Having said that, I don't want to see major changes to the structure of the power play at this point. I think that's an overreaction. With Ovechkin nearing 700 goals, I've talked to a lot of players around the league about him and everyone says how he is indefensible on the power play. So when the team started to struggle the solution was to put Jakub Vrana on the top unit where he could not be used to shoot, move Evgeny Kuznetsov to the second unit where he has no one to play with and move Ovechkin to the right? Why?

Those are big changes and they were all bad ones.

The issues on the power play aren't hard to diagnose. Yes, it is predictable in that the team wants to get the puck to Ovechkin or T.J. Oshie in the slot, but four penalty killers can't defend against that if you are moving the puck quickly and purposefully. Right now this is what we see on the power play: pass, stickhandle, stickhandle, stickhandle, pass back, stickhandle, stickhandle, pass back, stickhandle, stickhandle, force a pass through traffic, turnover, clear.

Keep moving the puck and for Heaven's sake, Nicklas Backstrom needs to shoot more. The amount of room teams give him when he has the puck is criminal.

If you want more drastic changes, then shuffle the two units so that you can play two power play units that actually have a chance of scoring. Kuznetsov setting up Brendan Leipsic, who has not scored a goal since Nov. 27, is not going to get the job done.

Wilson Thomas writes: I believe that it is time to move on from Panik, and give someone like Travis Boyd a chance on the third line LW spot and free up three million dollars in our tight cap situation. Do you agree?

When you say move on from Panik and free up his cap space, we are talking trade and not just putting him on the bench.

At the risk of repeating myself, what's the biggest issue for the Caps? Defense. Not liking the offensive output of Panik is not high on the list of priorities right now.

I don't know why Boyd has not been given more of an opportunity this year. If Reirden didn't want to break up the third line, fine, but what has the fourth line done the past two months? It was great at the start of the season, but has been practically invisible lately.

The problem with moving Panik off that third line is that Reirden wants to use that line as a shutdown line and Panik is much more of a two-way forward than Boyd is. With the defense playing like it is, I'm not doing anything to boost offense that will come at the expense of the defense.

Benjamin Cross writes: Why does Todd Reirden ignore the Stanley cup-winning top 2 lines?

The Caps won a Cup with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson on the top line and Jakub Vrana, Backstrom and Oshie on the second. I am surprised we have not seen those lines more than we have over the last two years, but Kuznetsov's play has been largely inconsistent since then so it is hard to justify putting him up on the top line. Ovechkin is scoring like crazy without him and his two-way play certainly does not warrant a bump up to the top line.

Steven Singer writes: After the humbling loss to the Flyers, I had to wonder ... do the Caps play especially poorly when they’re wearing those awful throwback uniforms? And, why would we want to wear uniforms anyway that remind us of 30 years of futility on ice?

How dare you, sir! The team wears the throwback reds because those jerseys and the blue Stadium Series jerseys are tied for the best look this franchise has ever had and it's not close. I love the throwback reds. Having said that, they are 1-6-2 when wearing those jerseys this season so that's not ideal. They are currently scheduled to wear them three more times this season.

Justin Cade writes: John Scott’s co-host on the excellent podcast “Dropping the Gloves” suggested that Tyson Barrie would be a good fit for Washington at the trade deadline. Should the Leafs agree to deal him, what do you think of this idea? Would Barrie help shore up the Caps defense and would he bring anything to the struggling power play? Do you see any other defensemen potentially on the Caps’ radar as the deadline approaches?

It's an interesting point, but a moot one as long as Toronto's blue line is banged up. They can't afford to move anyone off there right now.

But Barrie does check a lot of boxes. He is a good puck-mover and generally a top-four guy, though he has struggled tremendously in Toronto. I don't know who he would play with because putting him with Dmitry Orlov would not seem like a great fit and if that doesn't work then what's the point? This is also highly unrealistic move because the Maple Leafs are very much in win-now mode so if you're Washington, you're not getting him for picks or a prospect, a roster player would have to be going to Toronto and that makes it hard to see how this one would work.

Phillip Martin writes: How do you feel about Dustin Byfuglien if he gets out of his contract and is healthy?

Is he though? The last update from Elliotte Friedman is that he has not even resumed skating yet. I like the thought. A great defenseman who you could potentially get for a dirt-cheap contract just to run out the season and make a playoff run, but I would be stunned if he plays at all this season and certainly would not base any trade deadline decisions on the hope that he could even be an option.

Kevin Easley writes: Given the Caps' glaring need for a righty D-man is there a more perfect potential fit at the trade deadline than Alec Martinez?

Phillip Martin writes: What are your gut feelings about defensemen Zach Bogosian and Sami Vatanen for the Caps?

I have had tons and tons of questions about potential trade targets. Instead of answering each question individually here and on Twitter and in an effort to avoid endlessly repeating myself, I'm going to write on this later in the week, assuming of course the Caps don't make a trade beforehand. Stay tuned.

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, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why is the power play so powerless?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why is the power play so powerless?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

First, a quick note. I have had several questions this week about whether some coaches on the staff should lose their jobs over the power play. If you guys want to discuss the power play, I'm here for it. I will talk about the struggles I will talk about what's going wrong, I will talk about possible solutions, etc. What I will not talk about is whether I think a person deserves to lose their job. I find that an inappropriate subject for a beat writer to comment on unless in extreme circumstances like the Bill Peters situation in Calgary or Art Briles or something similar.

Sorry if you think that's a copout, but that's my position.

Now on to the questions.

Nathan S. writes: Why has the Caps coaching staff been unwilling/unable to fix the problem with penalties, defense and power play? All were problems last year and are again this year too. Did they learn anything from last year?

The power play is absolutely frustrating to watch right now, but it's silly to think that the coaches are "unwilling" to fix it. Of course they want to fix it. They know it's bad.

The biggest lesson they learned from last season is that they cannot rely solely on the drop pass to enter the offensive zone. They have mixed up their transitions a lot since last season and use a lot of different methods to get the puck in.

Last year the problem was getting the puck into the offensive zone. The problem this year is they can't do anything when they do get there.

For a while, they did not change anything in the hopes that this was just a slump and the power play would play its way out of it. It did not. Now we are seeing some...bizarre changes that don't seem to make much sense.

Playing Alex Ovechkin on the right? I don't see the value in that if the point is to set up his one-timer. That's much harder on the right since he is a right shot.

Moving Evgeny Kuznetsov to the second unit? That makes sense, you just have to give him tools to work with. Trying to set up Brendan Leipsic for the one-timer just is not good enough.

So the coaches are trying and experimenting with things, but they have not found the right formula yet to "fix" the power play.

Linda Gabler writes: I've read a lot of negative things you've written about Nick Jensen and I've also read articles where the writers offer stats and comparisons to other defensive players across the league that support their comments. These articles don't match your "glaring hole" comments and I'm trying to understand your point of view. Based on these articles, your assessment of Jensen's play doesn't seem to be fair or accurate. What resources do you use to support your comments about him? Just trying to understand what's the real deal. Thanks for your time.

First, let's clarify something. I do not think Jensen is a bad player. He is a perfectly serviceable third-pair right defenseman. The "glaring hole" on the defense is that the Caps have two such third pair righties in Jensen and Radko Gudas and no one who has proven capable of playing top-four minutes on the second pair.

It is my job to watch this team practice and play and I react to what I see. So yes, I use the "eye test" to draw initial conclusions and look at the numbers to see if they agree with what I'm seeing. If the eye test and the analytics don't match up, I'm left to draw my own conclusions based on talking with players, coaches, other media members, etc.

From my observations of Jensen this season, I have come to the conclusion that he is not a top-four defenseman. There are many instances in which he appears out of position, he turns the puck over frequently and does not seem to handle an aggressive forecheck very well. A particularly egregious example would be Jan. 8 against the Philadelphia Flyers. Trying to skate the puck out of the defensive zone, Sean Couturier approached Jensen on the forecheck and Jensen just lost control of the puck. He wasn't hit, it wasn't a poke, he just saw the forecheck coming and turned it over, unforced, and it turned into a goal.

Another glaring issue I noticed with Jensen is that he does not seem to like playing on the left. He is a right defenseman and the system in Detroit allowed him to stick to that side. The system in Washington requires much more switching from side to side and that's something that he's not all that comfortable with. Watch how he defendes against Warren Foegele when caught on the left in this play:

If you watch closely, Jensen holds his stick out in front of him and looks unsure of exactly what to do and that has a lot to do with playing on the left.

Now yes, that play was from last season so let's look at some numbers for this season. Jensen has played primarily with Dmitry Orlov. At 5-on-5, that pair has a Corsi-For percentage of 51.82-percent. When Orlov plays with John Carlson, that percentage shoots up to 61.49. With Michal Kempny, it is 62.50. So with two other defensemen we view to be top-four defensemen, Orlov's pair is able to maintain much more possession with either Kempny or Carlson than with Jensen. When Orlov plays with Gudas, that percentage goes down to 51.77, very comparable to Orlov-Jensen. That would seem to suggest that Orlov plays much better with other top-four defensemen and about the same with Gudas who is a bottom-pair caliber defenseman.

Does some of this have to do with usage? Absolutely. Orlov-Kempny and Orlov-Carlson are used primarily in the offensive zone; 71.43 and 62.60 offensive zone starts respectively compared to 49.03 offensive zone starts for Orlov-Jensen. But Orlov-Gudas are used in a very heavily defensive role with only 38.56-percent offensive zone starts and yet, their Corsi-For percentage is almost equal to that of Orlov-Jensen.

Another red flag? High danger Corsi-For percentage. Jensen's has the worst of any defenseman on the team at 46.39-percent, meaning the team gives up a lot more high-danger chances to opponents than they get when Jensen is on the ice.

At $2.5 million, Jensen would be a steal for a top-four defenseman and yes, comparing him to other players who play as many minutes as him puts him in a positive light in that sense. The issue, however, is not whether Jensen is overpaid, it's whether he's overplayed. OK, so he's a bargain compared to many defensemen playing top-four minutes. The question is should he be playing top-four minutes?

One other thing to note is PDO. PDO, for those who do not know, is the sum of a team's 5-on-5 shooting percentage and their 5-on-5 save percentage. It is used as a way to try to quantify a player's luck. A PDO of 1.000 is considered average with anything above that is lucky and below is unlucky. Jensen has the lowest PDO on the team at .980. Here's the problem. Who has the second-lowest? Orlov with a .985 and who, the numbers would suggest, plays better with other top-four defensemen. Who's the third-lowest on the team? Alex Ovechkin with a .987.

So what does this tell us? It's easy to dismiss Jensen's struggles as bad luck looking at PDO, but even with similar PDOs, that bad luck does not seem to be dragging down the performance of Orlov or Ovechkin nearly as much.

Joe Gwinn writes: Was the Matt Niskanen trade a lemon?

Niskanen is having a good year, but regardless of how he's playing, that trade was necessary and unavoidable. The team's salary cap constraints are such that they have had to carry six defensemen for the majority of the season. They had no choice but to shed salary in the summer and trading away a 33-year-old defenseman who had a really, really bad year in 2018-19, had a high cap hit and still had term made a lot of sense. By trading for Gudas the Caps saved over $3 million in cap space this season and Gudas has played well for them.

Nathan S. writes: Do the Caps rely too much on physicality to the point that they aren't able to be effective playing any other style?

To the contrary, I don't think they stick to the physical play enough. There are a lot of games the Caps get by on pure skill alone, but this team is at its best when it is throwing the body around and manhandling opponents. A lot of this has to do with the makeup of the team. Make no mistake, Washington is built to play a heavy style and I don't just mean "Tom Wilson plays on this team" either. The Caps want to hit and grind down opponents over the course of a game and have the personnel to do it with players like Wilson, Ovechkin, Hathaway, Gudas, etc.

There's no right or wrong way to build a team, it's a matter of preference. The Caps and St. Louis Blues won Cups by being hard, physical teams. The Penguins, as you noted, won with speed.

Zach Damon writes: Why on earth does almost every Washington Capital, save for #8, shoot for the 5-hole on breakaways? This is extremely evident that it’s the only move they try.

Breakaway shots are all based on instinct and that seems to be the first move players default to when alone on net. Be careful what you wish for because the alternative is not always pretty. On the other end of the spectrum, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a breakaway against the San Jose Sharks in a one-goal game and tried a between the legs shot. He overskated the puck and did not even get a shot away.

Should the Caps mix things up a bit on breakaways? Sure, but you can't afford to get too fancy or you could actually cost yourself (and the team) a chance at the goal.

Tim K. writes: With all of this expansion draft protection list talk going around, T.J. Oshie seems to be the odd man out because of finances. What about that his father has health issues, and lives in Washington State? Are family circumstances a consideration in a case like this? I know this is a business first and foremost, but if Oshie was willing to move back home, would the Caps accommodate this (and probably wear a letter for his hometown team)? Alternately, since Oshie took a team-friendly cap hit in exchange for term, with a young family, do the Caps seem willing to make a worse business decision to keep a fan-favorite, on- and off-ice leader on the team if Oshie really wants to stay (and, say, trade a draft pick so Seattle drafts Lars Eller instead)? What are your thoughts?

Some general managers try to help out their players even if they are shipping them out of town and MacLellan seems to be one of them. When Chandler Stephenson was traded, Elliotte Friedman reported that MacLellan had made it clear to Stephenson he would try to send Stephenson to a good situation.

If the Caps did not plan on exposing Oshie and he came to them and said he would be open to it, I think they would consider honoring that. But that probably has more to do with the fact that he will be 34 at the time of the draft with another four years left on his contract. If the team did plan to expose him and he asked them not to, that would be a harder sell for Oshie. This would not be him simply saying he wants to stay, it would be him saying to expose a different player who the team could potentially lose. It seems much less likely that the Caps would honor his request in that scenario and they are definitely not going to trade away an asset to try to steer Seattle away from Oshie just because he asked him to. Very few players in the league have that kind of pull with their team.

Robert Kennett writes: Any chance Peter Bondra ever gets voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame? His .508 Adjusted Goals Per Game Average is 14th All-Time among players with 500+ Adjusted Goals. From 1994-2004 he had the most total goals in the league and the Capitals were 25th in goals during that stretch. He also had the most shorthanded goals during that 10 year span. He is one of two players in league history with more than 500 Goals and Less than 400 Assists, the other is Maurice Richard. Being the premier goal scorer of the dead-puck era has to be good for something right?

Actually Rocket Richard had 422 assists. This is really not as good a comparison as you think as Richard has more goals (544 to 503), more assists (422 to 389) and more points (966 to 892) in fewer games (978 to 1081). Richard won the Stanley Cup eight times and led the league in scoring five times while Bondra did it twice and won no Cups.

I also don't know why it would be a good thing that Bondra has fewer than 400 assists. He is the only player in NHL history to score 500 goals and fewer than 400 assists and that may be a contributing factor to keeping him out.

Never say never. Guy Carbonneau got in this year. He was a great defensive player, but I thought it was a stretch to call him a Hall of Famer. With each passing year, however, it seems less likely that Bondra will get that call. The Hall of Fame seems to have determined that goals alone are not enough and I don't know that there's enough on Bondra's resume to get him in otherwise.

Phillip Martin writes: I’m curious about your projections for the team's future that doesn't have Nicklas Bäckström as a top 6 center. I know we have a potential star on the rise coming, but what will the Capitals options be with Backy in the final year or two of his contract at his salary?

Backstrom will be 37 by the end of his next contract. You have to assume his play will start to decline between now and then. The first obvious move is to replace him on the top line in the not too distant future. The Caps won a Cup with Kuznetsov up top, after all. Then it becomes a matter of how long Backstrom can perform at a top-six level and if Connor McMichael can develop into a top-six NHL center.

Best case scenario? Nic Dowd's contract runs through the next two seasons. McMichael steps into a full-time NHL role after Dowd's contract is up to fill out the team's center depth, then he and Backstrom compete for the second and third-line center the following year after Eller's contract expires. That is dependent of course on if McMichael continues to look as good as advertised. By the end of the contract, Backstrom and the team will have to determine where to go from there.

Brett Eppley writes: Can you do a brief prospect synopsis on the defensive prospects? And what position do you think the Caps should be scouting as they look to the future? Top 4 right-handed defenseman seem to be in short supply but our forward depth needs boosting as well.

Alex Alexeyev is behind where I think the team hoped he would be this year after missing all of training camp, but I like his upside a lot. He is not great at any one thing, but he is very good at everything and that makes him a very good prospect. Projections have him as a top-four NHL defenseman, but I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to Alexeyev and believe he has top pair potential.

I like Martin Fehervary a lot as a prospect and think he can be a top-four. The fact that he seems comfortable playing either side is a good asset to have. He is smart and more physical than you would expect.

Christian Djoos is a bottom-pair defenseman at best. Just not enough size or defensive upside to his game. In his last call-up, he had zero defensive zone starts showing you the level of confidence the coaches have in him in his own zone.

Tyler Lewington is a No. 7 at best at the NHL level. He's probably a better fit as a high-end AHL player.

If Lucas Johansen has an NHL future, I don't think it will be with Washington. The team just has too many left-shot defensive prospects and he keeps falling down the depth chart.

Connor Hobbs may have some potential as a third-pair guy, but that is starting to look more and more like a reach. His offensive prowess just has not translated from the WHL to the AHL and I don't know that he's a good enough defender to make it to the NHL without the offensive upside.

I have not seen enough of Martin Hugo Has, Bobby Nardella, Tobias Geisser or Benton Maass to have a good read on their NHL potential yet.

In terms of need, 90-percent of the time teams should be looking for the best available player and not drafting based on need. Last year was a special case for Washington with the cupboard at forward completely bare. With McMichael and Aliaksei Protas, I think the team can afford to see who falls to them in the draft and pick the best available and that includes goaltender. Washington has been a factory for goaltending talent the past several years. Even if Ilya Samsonov is the next big starter for Washington, it never hurts to develop players behind him as backups or trade pieces.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on


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