It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.
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Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.
James O. writes: Can you compare the play of Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek, and Ilya Samsonov? If you had to pick a backup goalie for this year, who would it be? Also, if you had to pick a goalie to replace Braden Holtby next year, who would it be (within the current caps organization or via free agency).
In three preseason games, none of the Caps’ goalies have been tested all that much. Copley was fine in his start. He did not allow any particularly soft goals and he didn’t make any particularly spectacular saves. The improvement of Vanecek from year to year is evident. He looks very calm and controlled. Sasmsonov made the best overall saves, but he also looked the rawest of the three, meaning there are aspects of his game that still need some fine-tuning.
I do not pretend to be a coach or a scout, but here are some things I noticed about Samsonov. First, he has trouble catching shots with his glove. There were multiple instances against Carolina where he got a glove on the puck but it bounced out and back into play. He also has a tendency to overcommit on saves. I don’t know how much scouting teams do in the preseason, if any, but Julien Gauthier trying the Peter Forsberg move on his breakaway was smart. Samsonov managed to get his stick on the puck and make the save, but that is a good example of what I’m talking about as he was basically sliding out of the net. He just needs to control his movement a little better. I have seen instances in the past where Samsonov abandons his form altogether in a scramble in front and relies on his athleticism to bail him out. That’s just a matter of coaching him to instinctively keep his form so that he can better stop the puck rather than abandon it in a way that teams can exploit.
When it comes to the backup job, considering the context of the team’s salary cap issues and the uncertainty of Holtby’s future, I would start with Vanecek as the backup with the intention of having Samsonov take over later in the season. I do not believe the dropoff between Vanecek and Copley is enough to warrant committing the extra cap space to Copley right given their situation. The Caps need that space.
I should stress that this is only an option if Washington has faith in Vanecek. If, for instance, Washington loses the opener against St. Louis, I don’t want to see Holtby play both games of the back-to-back that weekend because Reirden feels the team needs the points. This cannot be a cap move only. If they don’t trust Vanecek to be the backup, this is a moot discussion and the team has to get either Samsonov of Copley onto the roster and figure out how to make the cap work.
I would send Samsonov back to Hershey to get more coaching, with an occasional NHL call-up, maybe once or twice a month until about February or March when I switch the two and keep Samsonov up in the NHL full-time.
As for next year, if Holtby leaves in free agency which at this point I believe he will, Samsonov is the only one of the three I see with NHL starting potential. His ceiling is much higher than Copley or Vanecek's who I see as NHL backups.
Christopher S. writes: This preseason I’ve been very impressed with Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos, and Jonas Siegenthaler so now I'm hoping all three will remain on the roster. What’s the inside scoop on these three?
Of those three, the only one whose future is uncertain is Djoos because of his $1.25 million cap hit which is a bit steep for a player who is likely going to cycle in and out of the lineup as a No. 6, 7 defenseman. He has looked comfortable in the preseason, but I still think there are concerns over his size as forwards exploited him more last season than the year before. Siegenthaler is waiver exempt, but his cap hit is low enough that sending him to Hershey makes no sense considering you would have to bring someone else up to replace him.
The Caps can afford to keep all three players if Vanecek is Holtby’s backup. If the team elects to go with either Samsonov or Copley, however, then someone, most likely Djoos, is coming off the roster.
The one thing I will say about Jensen is I do not think the team shares your opinion of his preseason. It was assumed he would step into a top-four role this year with Matt Niskanen gone, but thus far, I cannot recall a single practice in which Jensen and Dmitry Orlov have been paired together. Orlov and Radko Gudas, however, have been frequent partners.
You have to take practice pairing with a grain of salt, but at some point you would think the coaches would want to put Orlov and jensen together if they intended on using that pair this season, right?
Gudas has looked good in the preseason, but I think it would say more about Jensen than Gudas if Gudas starts on the second pair and Jensen on the third.
@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Who makes the Caps if you had to guess of the remaining Shane Gersich, Brian Pinho and the defensive prospects Lucas Johansen, Martin Fehervary? Also, who gets backup to Braden Holtby?
If I had to guess, right now I believe Beck Malenstyn and Michael Sgarbossa probably have a leg up on any of the other forward prospects though I don’t think any of them last beyond Evgeny Kuznetsov’s three-game suspension.
I asked Reirden about Malenstyn after the first preseason game and he raved about him. Even if Malenstyn does not make it out of camp, he is someone to watch as a possible call-up at some point this season. Reirden has also been highly complimentary of Sgarbossa in camp. Considering Kuznetsov’s suspension leaves a hole at center that the team needs to be filled, I wonder if Sgarbossa is in the running for that job to start the season before being sent back to Hershey.
Lucas Johansen isn’t close and he struggled a lot in the Carolina game. They love Fehervary’s game, but I haven’t seen anything from him out of camp or in the preseason to make me think he could supplant any of the seven guys penciled in for the Caps’ roster this season. Maybe he could stick around if Michal Kempny is not ready for the start of the season, but I think it is more likely Tyler Lewington is kept as the No. 7 in that case.
@jmfrie3 on Twitter writes: Going into the new season, how do you feel about the defensive side of the game for the Caps?
I feel the team is going to be much better in its own end of the ice. You can put Richard Panik among the players who have impressed me the most this camp and preseason. He looks like a perfect fit on the third line and especially on the penalty kill. With him and a full season of Carl Hagelin manning the PK, I expect this unit to be much improved.
The bottom-six feels like it has more of a defensively responsible identity with its new makeup and I would expect more forward help in the defensive zone this season. The forwards have to take a larger role in this given that allowing high-danger chances was a major problem last season and the team’s defense is built around puck-movers and is going away from the physical players. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but I just think a defense with players like Jensen and Djoos is going to have a harder time boxing out opponents away from the crease than a defense with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
The one issue that concerns me is the second defensive pairing. Someone has to fill Niskanen’s spot and as I mentioned above, I believe that person is going to be Gudas. Gudas looks like a high-end third-pairing player, but I am not sure if I see him as a top-four. The defense is not going to improve if the second pair remains a weakness all season. Gudas has played well this preseason so hopefully he can develop chemistry with Orlov and the two will work well together, but if he indeed starts on the second pairing Gudas is going to be one of the big storylines of the early season.
Micah R. writes: How worried is the coaching staff about being scouted during the preseason? Do they play a more vanilla style like in the NFL? Or are we pretty much seeing what the offense and Power Play will look like to start the season?
We see very basic looks of everything in the preseason, though this is not entirely due to fears over scouting. Training camp rosters are full of junior players, prospects and AHLers, dozens of players who do not play for the Caps and who will not this season. The Caps’ first day of training camp was a Friday and the first preseason game was on Monday. The roster for that game included five players who aren’t on the roster anymore. Obviously that squad did not have a full working knowledge of the Caps’ system and they shouldn’t. Guys like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas and Damien Riat don’t need to know everything right away as they were not going to be in camp that long. Just don’t watch those first three preseason games and think you are seeing exactly what the Caps are going to look like in the regular season.
Is there some thought to not wanting to give the other team an advantage? Of course. This is pro sports and paranoia just comes with the territory. But NHL training camp is more about learning the system and getting used to it by the start of the season. In football, the players have already been studying the playbook and are expected to be familiar and comfortable with it right away.
Christopher S. writes: What exactly did the brain trust see in Lucas Johansen in his draft year? I don’t see anything that would remotely make him a first-round pick much less a seventh-rounder.
This is not really fair to the Caps or to Johansen. Obviously he has not developed as much as the team would have hoped, but it is really easy to judge a pick after the fact. It is much harder to scout and project what a player could be. The fact is Johansen was a very highly regarded prospect and has been for several years.
NHL.com ranked Johansen 9th among its top 10 defensemen eligible for the 2016 draft saying that he “offers a complete game and is smooth in transition. He doesn’t do anything great but does a lot of things well and is considered as steady as they come.”
USA Today said of the pick that “you can see the growth in his game and development curve is heading straight up.”
Bleacher Report labeled Johansen as the team’s best pick that year saying he “has the complete range of skills and was an astute choice.” (By the way, Beck Malenstyn was rated as the team’s worst pick in 2016)
Draft expert Corey Pronman ranked Johansen 72nd in his top 100 prospects for the year. Yes, that means he did not see him as a first-round talent, but that is also a far cry from not even being worth a seventh-round pick as you implied.
And it is not as if the Johansen pick was met with immediate buyer’s remorse either. The Hockey News does a "Future Wach" edition of its magazine every year in which a panel of scouts and NHL executives evaluate prospects and names the top 10 prospects for each team. In 2017, Johansen ranked 5th among Caps’ prospects. In 2018 he was third and in 2019 he was fourth.
It should also be noted that Johansen suffered a significant upper-body injury last season that limited him to just 45 games.
If the Caps could do it over again, would Johanson be their pick? Maybe not, but hindsight is 20/20. That doesn’t mean there was nothing to like about his game and that everyone saw his struggles coming. If the Caps hadn’t taken him high, someone else would have.
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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