Jonas Siegenthaler

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Playing with Siegenthaler, Nick Jensen may finally have found his fit in Washington

Playing with Siegenthaler, Nick Jensen may finally have found his fit in Washington

ARLINGTON, Va. -- It would be fair to say that Nick Jensen’s time with the Capitals did not start the way either he or the team had hoped. Brought in at the 2019 trade deadline, Jensen was playing top-pair minutes with the Detroit Red Wings. In Washington, however, it was a struggle to find the best fit for him in the lineup. Originally given a top-four role coming out of training camp this season, Jensen was eventually supplanted on the second pair by Radko Gudas. Now he sits on the third pair with Jonas Siegenthaler.

But as significant as Jensen’s falling down the lineup has been, just as significant has been the positive strides his game has taken in recent weeks.

“I've liked how he's played with [Jonas] Siegenthaler,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “So that's been a good look. I think it's allowed both of them to settle into their game.”

Stepping into a new team on the fly after getting traded to the Caps was a struggle for Jensen and it was made worse by the constant shuffling of the blue line.

An injury to Michal Kempny forced Reirden to keep switching his defensive pairs in search of the right combination through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. The effect that had on Jensen’s adjustment to his new team was not lost on him.

“I think the biggest change was just playing with different guys,” Jensen told NBC Sports Washington. “The D-partner I played with pretty steady in Detroit, we worked pretty well together...I feel like I was always on the same page with my D-partner which led to a lot of success for me there. It was kind of the difference coming over is just getting used to playing with different guys.”

Jensen played with Siegenthaler, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik and on the first pair with John Carlson playing on his off-side on the left, and that was just last season in only 20 regular-season games with Washington and seven more in the playoffs.

This season, Jensen had the benefit of a training camp and time to adjust to the team which he says has helped him settle in.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “In 15 games last year I had more points than I do now, but I feel more comfortable in a sense of being out on the ice and how our team plays and moving the puck and trying to get it out of the D-zone which is one of my primary concerns when I'm out on the ice is getting the puck out of the D-zone and getting it into the forwards' hands. I feel a lot more comfortable this year and I'm getting used to how our team plays and how our forwards play and how we all gel together.”

But the biggest factor of all in how he has played may be the chemistry he has finally found with a defense partner.

Jensen started the season with Orlov on a pair that just did not seem to fit. Now with Siegenthaler, however, Jensen finally seems to be finding his way.

“I think it took a couple, or one or two games I think,” Siegenthaler said, “But I think now I kind of know where he stands, how he skates, how he wants the puck and everything. Smart player.”

Finding chemistry on a defensive pair is a good first step for Jensen finally fitting in with his new surroundings. Having said that, Reirden cautioned that for him to be truly successful in Washington, Jensen will need to eventually be able to play a variety of roles and with different partners, not just Siegenthaler.

“We need to continue to figure out ways to magnify [Jenssen’s strengths] as does he and be able to understand the role that he has on our team,” Reirden said. “Some nights, that's going to be playing with Orlov, some nights that's going to be playing with Siegenthaler. It's going to change. There's injuries and there's things that go on, different matchups that set up differently.”

But for a player who, for the first 40 games with the Caps, just did not seem to fit, finding chemistry with Siegenthaler is an important first step.

“I feel like all our D are very obviously super capable of playing defense,” Jensen said, “And I'm feeling pretty comfortable playing with the D-partner I'm playing with right now.”

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Who plays more in 2019-20 - Christian Djoos or Jonas Siegenthaler?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Who plays more in 2019-20 - Christian Djoos or Jonas Siegenthaler?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at the upcoming training camp fight for playing time on the third pair alongside veteran Radko Gudas. 

The Capitals made some changes on their blueline this summer with Matt Niskanen dealt to Philadelphia for Radko Gudas. With John Carlson and Nick Jensen, that gives three veteran options on the right side. With the hopeful return of Michal Kempny (torn hamstring) and also Dmitry Orlov both on the left side, that leaves one spot for two obvious candidates: Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler. 

That becomes maybe the most interesting battle of camp next month. The top nine is basically settled. There could be a good push on the fourth line. But Siegenthaler and Djoos are two young defensemen in an organization that has invested heavily at that spot in recent years. 

The Capitals will have 2018 first-round pick Alex Alexeyev, 2018 second-round pick Martin Fehervary – both 19 - and 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen all at AHL Hershey this year, among others.

That means this season is critical for Siegenthaler and Djoos to establish themselves lest a younger prospect swipe that spot sometime over the next year. You don’t take players that high in the draft and not give them a shot in the NHL at some point. All three aren’t going to be total busts – although Johansen, 21, has some work to do this season as the oldest prospect of the three. 

Djoos, 25, looked like a mainstay after playing in 22 of 24 Stanley Cup playoff games in 2018. At 6-foot, 170 pounds, he’s never going to be much of a physical presence. But he’s a fine skater and has provided good value already as a seventh-round draft pick in 2012. 

But after playing in 63 games in 2017-18, including most of that Stanley Cup run, Djoos appeared in just 45 last season. A Dec. 11 thigh injury turned into compartment syndrome, a scary issue where blood becomes trapped in the muscle and immediate surgery is needed. He eventually returned to the lineup after missing 24 games but wasn’t totally right in his first eight games back. Djoos then sat for 11 of the next 12 before jumping back into the lineup for eight of the final nine games and the first three of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

The problem: He was eventually benched for Siegenthaler after Game 3 of the first-round series loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and didn’t play again. Maybe an offseason healing will get Djoos back on track. 

But Siegenthaler, 22, will have his chance, too. He held his own in rough circumstances in the Hurricanes series. Kempny had been lost for the season on March 20 and the Capitals were scrambling to keep their blueline together. Siegenthaler played on the top pair with Carlson.

That experience left a better taste after an up-and-down rookie season where he made his NHL debut on Nov. 9 before being sent back to Hershey. He played 26 games, a pretty small sample size. Djoos got in 63 as a rookie even before the Stanley Cup playoffs that spring.

So who will actually win this battle? If both are on the roster, you could easily see a scenario where both players get into 50-plus games, especially as they fill in for any of the five veterans if/when they get hurt, suspended, etc. What’s harder to tell is which one will take advantage. They’re two different players. Djoos could be a better matchup against certain teams while Siegenthaler at 6-3, 206 could be better against others. 

One caveat: Djoos was awarded a one-year, $1.25 million contract in arbitration in July. That means he and the Capitals couldn’t come to an agreement on his worth and he is probably being paid more than the team is comfortable with. 

Needing to shed more than $1.37 million in salary-cap space before the final roster is set at the end of the preseason, Washington could deem Djoos expendable in a trade. A defenseman like Tyler Lewington, 25, could take that No. 7 spot and would cost only $675,000. That’s big savings for a team where every penny will count to get some breathing room. But before that happens, Djoos should at least get to prove his worth in training camp. His salary isn’t the only way for the Capitals to get out of cap jail. 

But whether it’s just during camp or throughout most of the season, Djoos and Siegenthaler will both have their chance. With prospects lining up behind them, it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity. 

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Unlike last year, solving the Caps' salary cap issues will not be as simple as sending waiver-exempt Siegenthaler to AHL

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Unlike last year, solving the Caps' salary cap issues will not be as simple as sending waiver-exempt Siegenthaler to AHL

As the 2018-19 regular season was about to start, the Capitals had a tough decision to make. Tom Wilson was ejected from the team’s final preseason game after a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist and faced a lengthy suspension. Since a player’s salary continues to count against the cap during a suspension, Brian MacLellan had to find a way to replace Wilson with almost no cap space to work with.

Defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, meanwhile, had just wrapped up a solid training camp. He had performed like one of the top-six defensemen on the team and looked poised to make the roster.

Instead, Siegenthaler was sent to the AHL and it was for one simple reason: He was waiver-exempt.

Now in 2019, the Caps once again find themselves in serious cap trouble and once again, Siegenthaler is waiver exempt. This year, however, he won’t have to worry.

Whenever a player with an NHL contract is assigned to the AHL, he has to pass through waivers meaning any team in the league can put a claim on him and take his rights for nothing. When players first enter the league, however, they are exempt from the waiver process allowing them to be sent up or down at any time. The NHL has a lot of complicated rules about how long a player can be waiver exempt for, but for now all you need to know is that Siegenthaler is waiver exempt this season.

One week ago, MacLellan was having a pretty good offseason. He had reshaped the team into a more defensively formidable group and all that was left to do was fit defenseman Christian Djoos in the remaining cap space as the team’s No. 7 defenseman.

But that didn’t happen.

An independent arbitrator awarded Djoos a one-year contract for $1.25 million which brought the team over the cap. On Saturday, the team also re-signed forward Chandler Stephenson to a one-year deal for $1.05 million.

According to CapFriendly, Washington now stands about $1.3 million over the salary cap for next season.

The good news is that teams can be up to 10-percent over the salary cap until the start of the next season. The bad news is that Washington is still going to have to cut salary between now and then in order to get under the cap.

Whenever a team gets in a salary-cap bind, one of the first things to check is the waiver-exempt status of players on the roster. That prospect who is oh-so-close to the NHL and who may be actually slightly better than the veteran he is competing against for a spot in the lineup? Sorry, it’s back to the AHL for you.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. When a player’s talent rises to a certain level, it doesn’t matter what the waiver status is anymore, he’s going to play. We saw this with Jakub Vrana who was also waiver exempt in 2018-19, but there was never any talk of sending him back to Hershey.

For many prospects who are battling for roster spots, however, if you need to clear up space and the prospect is on par with the veteran, sending him down to the AHL is an easy solution. That way you ensure you do not lose a player to waivers for nothing and you still have that prospect in your system ready to call-up when needed.

So great, the Caps should just send Siegenthaler and Stephenson to the AHL. Siegenthaler is still waiver exempt and, since the Caps have two extra forwards, someone is going to be the odd-man out and Stephenson seems the most likely candidate.

Problem solved...and there was much rejoicing. Let’s start the season!

Actually...it’s not problem solved. At all.

Let’s rewind and break this down.

First, the Caps have 14 forwards and seven defensemen under contract. A team only needs 13 forwards (four lines plus one extra) so someone is getting sent down. Stephenson seems the most likely candidate. If MacLellan was really that enamored with Stephenson’s play last season, he would not have gone out and signed not one, but two fourth-line penalty killers.

If you send both players to Hershey, you take Stephenson’s $1.05 million and Siegenthaler’s roughly $715,000 cap hit off the books. That would move the team back under the cap by about $400,000.

But we’re not done. Washington would have only six defensemen at that point. You need six for a game, but you need seven on the roster with an extra.

Why? Hershey’s only a few hours drive, right? Because anything can happen before a game. Maybe John Carlson twists his ankle stepping off the bus on his way to the arena. Maybe Michal Kempny is fine for a morning skate, but gets sick over the course of the day and can’t play. Maybe someone gets injured at morning skate and the Bears are on a road trip and nowhere close to Washington or maybe someone gets sick while the Caps are in California or Vancouver. NHL teams need at least one extra forward and one extra defenseman. That means if you send Siegenthaler down, you have to bring someone else back up.

The most likely candidate at that point would be Tyler Lewington who, though he would not challenge any of the Caps’ top six for a spot in the lineup, could be a serviceable No. 7. But Lewington’s cap hit is $675,000 and that would put the Caps back over the cap ceiling.

That’s a problem, especially given the fact that Lewington has literally the lowest cap hit in the organization meaning recalling a cheaper player is not an option. There are no cheaper options. In fact, the current NHL minimum salary is $700,000 so MacLellan could not even go out and sign another player off the scrap heap just to keep on the roster on an emergency basis.

OK, well if recalling a cheaper defenseman isn’t the solution, then why not send down a more expensive forward and get his cap hit off the books? They can’t do that either.

Teams only get a limited amount of cap relief when forwards are sent to the AHL. This is calculated by the minimum NHL salary plus $375,000. The most cap relief a team can get in the 2019-20 season is $1.075 million.

So if, for example, Garnet Hathaway is sent to the AHL, $425,000 of his $1.5 million cap hit would still count against the cap and that would still put the Caps over. You could send Siegenthaler and any forward on the Caps’ roster down to the AHL and the team still will not have enough money under the cap to recall Lewington even though he is cheaper than the current NHL minimum salary.

While Siegenthaler’s waiver exempt status may look like a tempting option to use to try to fix the team’s cap constraints, his small cap hit of less than $715,000 actually means sending him down does not solve anything.

There are plenty of other options MacLellan has at his disposal to trim salary, but waiving Siegenthaler is not one of them.

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