Richard Panik

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With Panik’s return, the Caps strip roster down to the bone and enter Monday’s game with no spare players

With Panik’s return, the Caps strip roster down to the bone and enter Monday’s game with no spare players

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Get out the bubble wrap, the Capitals need to keep their lineup healthy or they could be in trouble. Richard Panik will make his return to the lineup on Monday after spending 10 games on LTIR with an upper-body injury. His return will mean the Caps lose the cap benefit that comes with LTIR and will have to fit his $2.75 million cap hit under the ceiling. That has forced the team into tough moves to cut the roster down to make it cap compliant.

Travis Boyd was held off the ice for Monday’s morning skate as the team made sure it had a healthy lineup for Monday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. Todd Reirden confirmed afterward that Boyd will be sent to Hershey. Because he was on the NHL roster for fewer than 30 days and 10 games, he does not have to go through waivers to be sent back to the AHL.

Tyler Lewington did have to pass through waivers and cleared Monday after being placed on Sunday. He was reassigned to Hershey as well.

While these moves were necessary for the team to get cap compliant, it also leaves the Caps in a bind. With Carl Hagelin still day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Washington now has no healthy spares on the roster.

None.

Zip.

Nada.

The Caps roster has just six defensemen and 12 healthy forwards, excluding Hagelin.

Have you ever gone to work feeling fine and had to leave before the end of the day because you suddenly got sick? If that happens to the Caps, or if someone twists an ankle walking to the rink or suffers some other sort of freak illness or injury, then Washington will be playing the Coyotes down a man on Monday.

This is not ideal, but the cap situation is what it is. For now, the Caps probably can get away with it until the end of the month. Once Hagelin returns it gives the team an extra forward. Of greater concern is the defense, but with the only road cames coming in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, easily drivable from Hershey, so long as there are no unforeseen injuries right before a game it should not hurt the team. On Nov. 30, however, the Caps travel to play the Detroit Red Wings then play three games in California. They have to have a seventh defenseman by that point.

The good news is that Lewington has a low cap hit at just $675,000, lower even than the league minimum. Perhaps the team can bank enough space by the end of the month to fit him back under the cap. If not, then general manager Brian MacLellan will have to get creative yet again and move a piece or two to fit in that seventh defenseman.

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The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The Capitals are 10 games into the 2019-20 season. For the most part, things have gone well. The team is 6-2-2 and sits atop the Metropolitan Division. John Carlson leads the entire NHL with 18 points which puts him in some pretty elite company. Ilya Samsonov looks as good as advertised while Braden Holtby looks like his old self after a brief reset. Alex Ovechkin has six goals already and T.J. Oshie leads the team with seven. Plus, both special teams units look improved.

That’s a pretty solid start.

But there remain two important questions that still need answers.

Who should play on the right on the second defensive pair?

Michal Kempny finally returned after missing the first eight games of the season. He started the last two on the third pair, but is working his way back up to the top pairing. Once he gets there, the defense will finally be at full strength.

That gives Washington a pretty solid top three of Kempny and Carlson, plus Dmitry Orlov. But who should play on the right with Orlov?

Jensen had the first crack at it to start the season, but after some up-and-down play, Radko Gudas was bumped up for a few games. Since Kempny returned, Gudas moved back down to third to play with him and Jensen moved back with Orlov.

So far Gudas has been as good as advertised, but playing well on the third pair does not necessarily mean he should be on the second.

Jensen was one of Detroit’s top defensemen when he was acquired by the Caps. The team is still waiting for that player to emerge. It has been a tough transition for him to Washington's system and, while he has shown flashes of strong play, he remains largely inconsistent. His Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-worst on the team at 46.82-percent. He is one of only three Caps below 50-percent with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tyler Lewington being the other two.

The issue for the Caps may be that they have two high-quality third pair right defensemen in Jensen and Gudas and only one top-four right defenseman in Carlson which leaves a hole on that second pair.

When it comes to the defense, we should reserve all judgment until Kempny is back to playing on the top-pair full-time so we can see this defense at full strength. Until then, however, the second pair remains a question mark.

Can the Caps get enough production from the third line?

There wasn’t much offense to speak of from the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik trio and it didn’t take Todd Reirden long to split them up. Hagelin is the Swiss Army knife of the Caps’ offense, but his offensive production is limited. Panik meanwhile has had a tough start to his Caps’ tenure with zero points and is on long-term injured reserve.

As always, the top six for this team remains lethal and the additions of Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to the fourth line have been home runs. The third line is the only one that remains a question and it may need a boost from a player like Jakub Vrana, who has been playing there the last few games with Eller and Hathaway, to help spark some production. Ultimately, however, you would like to see Vrana back in the top six and Hathaway back on the fourth. Hagelin, Eller and Panik are the best fit for the third, but if they can’t produce together it may mean weakening the top six or the fourth line by moving players around to find a combination that produces on that third line.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What happened to the scoring depth?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What happened to the scoring depth?

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.

Nathan S. writes: Why are Caps so bad against Dallas Stars?

Every team has that one matchup that never seems to go their way. For the Caps, it’s Dallas and that continued on Tuesday. That is now the third straight overtime loss they have suffered at the hands of the Stars and the 13th loss in their last 16 meetings.

These kinds of things are baffling because the coaches change, the players change, everything changes so you can't say this is simply a matchup issue.

These kind of streaks are often -- not always, but frequently -- between two teams from different conferences. The East and West play a different style of hockey. You do not play against the same players as often and you do not coach against the same coaches as often. That can make it harder to know what to expect and some teams are able to get the upper hand as a result.

Is there a mental aspect to it? Maybe a little, especially with guys like me asking the players about it every time these games come up, but that is not the entire explanation. You think Garnet Hathaway or Radko Gudas are worried about playing Dallas? They are new to Washington. The streak against the Stars doesn't mean anything to them. Yet, here we are one day after another loss. These two teams play again on Saturday so maybe the Caps can get a win in that one.

Douglas F. writes: This seems like a season where offensive depth isn't with the Washington Capitals. Was this offseason about getting more grit and heavy hitters for the 3rd/4th lines and bottom pairing for the defense?

Yes, in part. Brian MacLellan definitely wanted to add size to the lineup, but not at the expense of speed. The lesson of having a matchup nightmare like Tom Wilson on the roster is not lost on him.

MacLellan was asked about this on a conference call in July after the free-agent frenzy.

“In our mind, I think you need a certain amount of heaviness -- you can't have too heavy of a lineup -- and you need a certain amount of skill and speed,” he said. “The thing I like about [Richard] Panik and [Garnet] Hathaway is that they both skate well. Garnet had good north-south speed. Panik is a really good skater for his size. So, I don't think that we're sacrificing on the speed side to add heaviness. I think we got big players that can skate and play well.”

The Caps also needed to improve their fourth line and especially needed to improve team defense and that was what really shaped the offseason plan.

I wrote an in-depth piece about this in July which you can read here, but something that was not talked about much last year was just how bad the Caps were as a team on defense.

Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons. In 2016-17, Washington allowed just 2.16 goals per game. Over the past two seasons, that average has skyrocketed to 2.90 in 2017-18 and 3.02 in 2018-19.

Not only was the team bad at defense, but it was also progressively getting worse each year. The salary cap had a lot to do with what MacLellan did in the offseason, but so did defense. Washington could not afford Matt Niskanen anymore so he was traded for Radko Gudas who, at this point in their respective careers, is a better defenseman than Niskanen. RIchard Panik, a two-way forward who can play the penalty kill, was signed as a replacement for the less versatile Connolly. Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic are also very good at shot suppression and bolstered a fourth line that contributed very little last season.

MacLellan really showed his hand when he re-signed Hagelin. With Brett Connolly also in need of a new contract, the team could only afford to keep one. MacLellan elected to re-sign the speedy penalty kill specialist over the 20-goal scorer.

On paper, the team got better defensively, on the penalty kill and on the fourth line, but this came at the expense of scoring depth, namely Connolly and Andre Burakovsky. If you prevent more goals from going in your net then presumably the Caps won’t need to score as many on their own, but I think there is a definite possibility this offense could become dangerously top-heavy and overly dependent on its top-six.

Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik obviously aren’t really goal scorers but they’ve been the quietest line production-wise so far. How much does Lars Eller boost them?

Actually between Hagelin, Eller and Panik, the player with the best offensive season in his career is Panik. He is the only one of the three to top 20 goals and 40 points in a season in his career. Yes, that season came on a line with Jonathan Toews, but clearly Panik can raise his game depending on who he plays with. Eller is certainly an offensive upgrade over Chandler Stephenson, but I think the guy who is going to be relied on to score the most goals on that third line is Panik. You should not expect 20 goals, but I think all three players will be looked on to score 10-15 goals and at least 30 points.

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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