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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

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.

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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Lucas Johansen is ready for the most important training camp of his career

Lucas Johansen is ready for the most important training camp of his career

ARLINGTON, Va. -- With all the excitement surrounding the Capitals young defensemen and prospects such as Jonas Siegenthaler, Christian Djoos, Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, it can be easy to forget about Lucas Johansen. His goal for training camp this year is to change that.

“They've always got guys coming in,” Johansen told NBC Sports Washington. “I'm just going to go in there, compete as hard as I can, like I never have before. I'm looking forward to the challenge. A lot of good young talent here to keep the pace up. But yeah, I'm looking to make a statement this year and just compete as hard as I can.”

Johansen, Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2016, has yet to make his NHL debut and is coming off of what was a difficult season.

Whatever chances Johansen had of getting a look for a possible call-up last season were dashed when an upper-body injury limited him to just 45 games. When he finally did return later in the season, it was clear the injury had taken its toll which led to a reduced role in Hershey.

“I'd never been injured that long in the middle of a season,” Johansen said. “I've never taken that much time off of exercise.”

“Once I got back in, we were pushing so hard for a playoff spot there and I kind of fell into the role of a five, six spot there,” he added. “Once I realized this is what we've got to do to win and I bought into that, but obviously I don't plan on being a five, six guy in the AHL, I want to make my way up and play in the NHL.”

Now with Alexeyev and Fehervary both expected to play in Hershey this season, Johansen is in danger of getting passed on the organization depth chart leading to questions about his future with the Caps.

That makes the 2019 training camp a critical one for Johansen who called it “my biggest one yet, for sure.”

So what does he need to show?

For a long time, the knock on Johansen was his size, but he does not believe that is still an issue. He said his weight is up to between 190 and 195, “closer to 195 right now.” That would put him well within the range of a normal NHL player making weight no longer a concern.

Johansen also stated that his play in the defensive zone was an issue and was an area of focus for him while training over the summer.

“If I can clean up my D-zone and be hard in front of the net and hard on guys, that's literally what I practiced all summer,” he said. “I had a really specific plan and that's why I didn't say, oh I just tried to gain weight this summer. I really had a specific plan as to how I can make the NHL this year and I talked to a lot of people about that. I believe for me to take the next step it's just a matter of playing really good defense.”

Working on his defensive play was a good move considering that improving the team defensively was a clear focus for general manager Brian MacLellan over the offseason.

Now, Johansen will have to show the team that he is ready to compete for the NHL, something he has no shortage of confidence that he can do.

“When I play with assertiveness and intensity, I'm for sure confident I could play in the NHL right now,” he said, “So I've just got to consistently show them every day and gain their trust day by day. I'm ready to go. If camp started today, I'd be ready. I'm excited.”

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What can we expect from the special teams?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What can we expect from the special teams?

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

Have a Caps question you want to be 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.

Luka K. writes: What will the power play and penalty kill units look like in 2019-20? Do you think the Caps need to make adjustments to the PP considering last year? Should Jakub Vrana and Christian Djoos play on the second power play unit? What about the penalty kill without Chandler Stephenson? Better or worse? Do you see the PP in the top 5 and PK in the top 10?

A lot of special teams questions to unpack. Let’s start with the power play.

Do I think the power play needs to adjust? Yes, in one very specific area.

*Pulls out bullhorn*

GET. RID. OF. THE. SLINGSHOT.

The power play was fine last year. When it actually got the puck in the offensive zone, it looked just as lethal as ever. The problem was on the zone entries, which were atrocious. If the penalty kill cleared the puck once, the power play was essentially over. The Caps use a technique called the slingshot in which a defenseman, usually John Carlson, skates the puck to the neutral zone, then turns around and passes it back to a trailing forward who takes it in stride. The point is to maintain possession heading into the offensive zone and the puck carrier can either use his speed to take it himself or pass it to teammates left open by the penalty killers who are defending against the speedy puck carrier. That is how it is supposed to work. In reality, it is garbage and should be burned with fire.

Lots of teams use the slingshot, some of them successfully. The issue is that the Caps are bad at it. They need to either get better or scrap it altogether and I would prefer the latter. If they can figure out how to get the puck into the offensive zone, the power play will return to the potent offensive threat it has been in the past.

Jakub Vrana should absolutely play on the second unit. He was a power play specialist in Hershey and his speed makes him an ideal candidate to attack the offensive zone in the way I described. For now, I would give the nod to Dmitry Orlov over Djoos. I feel Orlov has the higher offensive upside, plus you also have to consider what happens if the puck is turned over and the PK counters. I would rather have Orlov as my only defenseman on the ice defending a rush than Djoos.

With all due respect to Stephenson, the penalty kill should be just fine without him with the additions of Garnet Hathaway, Richard Panik and a full season of Carl Hagelin. I did not see him as the penalty kill specialist that Todd Reirden seemed to last season and I fully expect he is going to spend most if not all of next season in Hershey.

I believe Reirden wanted the penalty kill to look like what Arizona had last season; a strong defensive unit with a counter potential that opponents have to account for. That is why we saw him experiment with players like Evgeny Kuznetsov on the PK.

A strong penalty kill is not built with three good defensive players plus one offensive threat. You need four players who know what they are doing in the defensive zone who can also transition the puck into a counter-attack. What makes Hagelin so effective is that he is incredibly smart in his own zone and also has dangerous speed that can lead to offense.

With more options for the penalty kill and personnel more suited to what Reirden envisioned last season, I expect a much-improved PK. Top ten may be a stretch, but if they can fall somewhere in the 8-15 range, Washington will be good.

Phillip M. writes: T.J. Oshie may end up with more time on the third line to rest him this year and reserve him for use in both power play and penalty kill teams. Do you see that as a likely scenario?

I wrote about this very topic early in the offseason and agree with you. It would certainly benefit Oshie for the reasons you listed. Keep him on the power play and the penalty kill, but reduce his minutes. He has great chemistry with Lars Eller and it makes the third line very dangerous.

Is it likely? Probably not.

This was something the team could do more easily when it had Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky who you could move to the second line. I am not sure they have that option now with Hagelin or Panik.

Hagelin can absolutely play on the second line if you need him to, but I would not put him there for an extended period of time. He scored five goals and 19 points last season. Part of that was playing in Los Angeles which was a bad fit for him, but I do not think he can give you the offense you need from a top-six forward.

Just like all free agents, Panik is a wildcard. He cracked 20 goals once in his career, but he did that while playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. I just do not think Reirden is going to look at the players he has available and elect to play Hagelin or Panik on the second line over a guy like Oshie, even if it would ultimately benefit Oshie over the course of the season.

Douglas F. writes: Everyone knows this is a big season for Lucas Johansen who has shown lots of bright spots every now and then but hasn't shown a lot of consistency. What do you see in the future in the former first-round pick?

I wrote on this earlier this month. You can check out the article here.

When talking about Johansen, we have to remember that he suffered an upper-body injury last year that essentially cost him half the season. The issue for him is that the team is very high on Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary. You can be patient with a sixth-round pick, but when a first-round pick falls behind in the organization depth chart, it is not long before he becomes more valuable to you as a trade asset than as a player.

The knock on Johansen when he was drafted was that he was too skinny and needed to put on weight. When I spoke with him last season, he said he managed to get up to 190 pounds and keep that weight on. When I watched him play, however, it is clear that his puck-moving skills still lag behind where you would expect them to be at this point for a puck-moving defenseman. He is always quick to get the puck off his stick which is good in the defensive zone, but he is too reactionary which leads to turnovers. It seems almost instinctive at this point that whenever the puck is on his stick, his primary goal is to pass it away as quickly as possible. This limits his offensive effectiveness. It is hard to score or set up plays when you instinctively fling the puck off your stick every time it gets close.

If you want my prediction, I think he will ultimately be traded and I would be surprised if he is still in the Caps’ organization a year from now.

Phillip M. writes: I’m all about the Caps but I have a soft spot for our former coach Barry Trotz. Everyone is projecting the New York Islanders being at the bottom of the Metro this year. What are your feelings about the islanders? Could they be the Capitals toughest competition in the Metro again?

The Metro is really hard to predict this season. The knock on the Islanders is that they essentially did nothing in the offseason and replaced their Vezina-winning goalie with Semyon Varlamov. It is dangerous to stand pat in a division that improved as much as the Metro did.

I do believe the Islanders will take a step back, but I could see them reaching the postseason again. Trotz is a tremendous coach so you can expect the same type of defensive performance. Plus, goalie coach Mitch Korn is a wizard. It is probably unreasonable to expect Varlamov to replicate Lehner’s season, but he will undoubtedly improve under Korn.

I do not think New York will challenge the Caps, but I do not seem the falling into the division basement which I have squarely reserved for Columbus.

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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