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20 offseason Caps questions: What one area must the Caps address for next season?

20 offseason Caps questions: What one area must the Caps address for next season?

Another playoff disappointment—as well as a host of expiring player contracts—has left the Capitals with a ton of questions to answer this offseason. Over the next month, Jill Sorenson, JJ Regan and Tarik El-Bashir will take a close look at the 20 biggest issues facing the team as the business of hockey kicks into high gear.     

This past season was another confounding one for the Caps. After the calendar flipped to 2017, they were the NHL’s best team and finished the season with the most wins, the most points, the fewest goals allowed and the special teams units ranked among the league’s best. But they struggled to get past the upstart Maple Leafs, then couldn’t get past Sidney Crosby and Co. And now the Caps’ two-year window has closed, forcing GM Brian MacLellan to retool on the fly.

Today's question: If there’s one area the Caps must address in the coming months, what is it?

Sorenson:  It’s pretty tough to find an area that the two-time President’s Trophy winning team needs to clean up. My initial reaction is that the Caps needed more even strength goal scoring. You may recall that the Caps failed to score a goal 4 v 4 the entire regular season, one of only two teams (Carolina) to earn that dubious honor. That is an obvious area that needs to be cleaned up, so we’ll put that aside and take a look at 5 v 5. During the regular season, Washington was ranked third in 5 v 5 goals for, with 178. Pittsburgh was ranked at the top (I know, sorry Caps fans) with 185, and Minnesota was a close second with 183. I realize being in the top three teams in that category is excellent, but unfortunately, to beat a team like Pittsburgh in the playoffs the Capitals need to be better at even strength. Furthermore, the Capitals were 11th in the league in 5 v 5 shots for per 60 minutes. The trend continued in the playoffs, with the Caps scoring only 26 even strength goals. Of all the teams that made it to the second round, only the Blues were worse with 20 goals at even strength. For a team with as much offensive firepower, they need to find a way to shoot and score more at even strength.

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Regan:  Their mentality. Let’s face it, there is a mental issue holding this team back. When Nashville lost Games 1 and 2 against Pittsburgh, there was no doubt among the team or fans that they would come back in the series. Two games later, the series is tied at two games apiece. When the Caps lost Games 1 and 2 to Pittsburgh, the conversation was whether that series would go four games or five. That’s not completely an apples to apples comparison as Washington lost both games at home while Nashville lost on the road, but you get my point. And don’t try to pin that strictly on the media. We respond to what we see, hear and feel from the team. You can feel the confidence from the Predators. It certainly didn’t feel like the Caps thought they were going to win that series down 2-0. This Washington team was one of the best teams on offense and defense heading into the postseason. They won’t be as good next season, but that’s okay, Nashville was the 16th team to make the playoffs and look where they are. The biggest thing the Caps need to fix is not on the ice, it is in their heads. That’s the task facing head coach Barry Trotz next season.

El-Bashir: My biggest concern heading into next season is more closely aligned with Jill’s point about the offense, though it’s a bit more general. As in, where are the goals going to come from in 2017-18? We’ve come to take goals for granted in Washington, which has finished 3rd, 2nd and 7th in goals per game under Barry Trotz. But when I consider the players who could be headed out the door this summer—and weigh the cap constraints that figure to prevent quality players from being added—I see more question marks than answers when I look at the roster. I think most people agree that Alex Ovechkin remains a top forward in this league but that his 50-goal seasons are probably in the rearview. T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams finished second and third in goals last season with 33 and 24, respectively, but they are unrestricted free agents and figure to be in high demand. It’s also worth noting that the Caps’ third-ranked offense (3.18 goals per game) was boosted by career years from Oshie, Marcus Johansson, Brett Connolly, Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik. Is it reasonable to expect those who do return to put up similar (or better) numbers, particularly if, as expected, a handful of prospects are sprinkled throughout the lineup? That’s a big ask. To me, next season could hinge Trotz’s ability squeeze enough offense out of a lineup that almost assuredly won’t feature as much proven firepower. So while I can appreciate JJ’s answer about being tougher mentally in the postseason, I think the focus needs to be on getting there first.

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

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Capitals hint at their plans for Shane Gersich next season with new contract

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan began tackling the items on his very long to-do list with the signing of prospect forward Shane Gersich. The team announced Monday that Gersich was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract that carries a cap hit of $700,000.

Gersich will remain a restricted free agent at the end of the deal but will still be one year away from becoming arbitration eligible.

Gersich, who will turn 23 in July, just finished his first full professional season with the Hershey Bears, recording eight goals and 16 assists in 66 games.

“I learned a ton,” Gersich told NBC Sports Washington about his first AHL season. “I think our staff here is unbelievable. They've taught me so much, whether it's [showing] me video or doing skills or whatever. Can't say enough good things about them. And just my overall game, playing 200 feet and being aware of little details in the game. I think my game's grown a ton.”

Gersich’s original contract was for two seasons, but the first year was burned at the end of the 2017-18 season when he signed out of college at the end of the season and joined the Caps’ roster.

That transition from Stanley Cup champion to AHL the following season was a tough one for Gersich initially.

“Obviously, you were making your NHL debut and stuff like that, then it's kind of back to work and square one,” Gersich said. “For me, I know [I'm] definitely not the kid that's going to shy away from working or anything like that. So obviously, you've got to earn everything you get, and then that's how it is at every level.”

The speedy forward played in five games for Washington, three in the regular season and two in the playoffs during the Stanley Cup run. His speed was evident and has led many fans to wonder if the future is now for the young forward. His first year in Hershey showed, however, he still has a lot to learn before he reaches the NHL.

Gersich is still very much learning the game at the professional level. There was a little too much reaction in his game as opposed to action, which mitigated his speed. That is something he knows he needs to refine.

“I think just always being aware out there,” he said when talking about aspects of his game he wants to improve on. “Keeping my head on a swivel and making little plays. Just using my strengths too, I think. I've got to realize that I can use my speed out there a lot.”

The Caps will have a few roster spots open next season and not much money under the cap to fill those spots. Using young prospects is always an intriguing option. Gersich’s new contract, however, seems to indicate the Caps anticipate him spending the season in the AHL.

Gersich’s new contract carries an NHL salary of $700,000, which is actually lower than his first contract with a $925,000 salary. His minor-league salary, however, went up from $70,000 to $115,000. It may look like Gerisch is getting a pay cut based on the NHL numbers, but he actually is getting a raise because, barring a dazzling training camp, he will be spending most if not all of next season in Hershey. And if he does surprise, well now he has a lower NHL cap hit which is very important for a Washington team that will likely be very close to the salary cap.

While the implications of the contract seem clear, Gersich is excited for the opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL at training camp in the fall.

“Obviously, I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “It's been my goal my whole life, and that's the reason I left North Dakota. I think I'm ready for it, but you've got to wait and see until the time comes.”

The Caps also announced Monday the re-signing of forward Brian Pinho to a one-year, two-way contract. His contract carries a $700,000 NHL salary and a $100,000 AHL salary.

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

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In an offseason full of questions, Jonas Siegenthaler isn’t one of them

The Capitals will have a lot of roster spots open and not much money to fill them with this offseason. Adding a young, cheap defensive prospect to the NHL roster will certainly help and that appears to be the plan for Jonas Siegenthaler.

Siegenthaler’s first NHL season began with him in the AHL, but it finished with him playing on the top defensive pairing of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The season did not get off to a great start for Siegenthaler as he became a cap casualty despite a strong training camp. Heading into the start of the NHL season, he looked poised to make the Caps roster.

“I came to camp here with the mindset to make the team and come to camp in good shape and everything,” Siegenthaler said at the team’s breakdown day.

The suspension to Tom Wilson and subsequent acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin off waivers forced Washington to shuffle money to get under the salary cap. Siegenthaler, who was waiver exempt, was sent to the Hershey Bears as a result.

Siegenthaler would have to wait until Nov. 9 to finally make his NHL debut. He would go on to play 26 games his rookie season.

“I think a guy like Siegenthaler came up and played really well,” Lars Eller said.

““I tried to play my best game,” Siegenthaler said. “Of course it wasn’t always easy but I think like I did my best and tried to help the team.”

With a deep blue line, Siegenthaler was sent back to Hershey in February, but was recalled late in the season after Michal Kempny suffered a season-ending injury. The call-up, however, was just to have an extra body. As Todd Reirden experimented with the defensive pairs heading into the playoffs, it did not appear he viewed the rookie defenseman as a real option for the playoffs. Despite all the shuffling, Siegenthaler did not get into the lineup until the season finale after Washington had already wrapped up the division crown.

The Caps struggled in the first round against the Carolina Hurricanes, however, prompting changes to the lineup. The defense still struggled with the constant in-game adjustments and a change was clearly needed. Siegenthaler got into the lineup for Game 4. By Game 5, he was playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair alongside John Carlson.

“He really just seemed very poised,” Eller said. “There wasn't any panic in his game. It's hard to be thrown into a series like that where the stakes are high and I thought he did that really well.”

Still just 22 years old and with a contract that remains waiver exempt for another year, Siegenthaler could enter the 2019-20 season in a position to again have to compete just to make the NHL roster. The possible retirement of Brooks Orpik and speculation over whether Matt Niskanen could be traded, however, leaves the team with spots open on the blue line.

The fact that Siegenthaler was able to go from the AHL to the top pair of the Caps during the playoffs reflects his growth as a player over the course of the year. To expect him to come into next season in a top-pair role would be unfair. Even a top-four role seems unlikely with Kempny likely returning and Nick Jensen taking Niskanen’s spot if he does in fact get traded.

But if the coaches trusted Siegenthaler as a rookie when it mattered most and with him still on an entry-level deal at a time when the team will need to pinch every penny, Siegenthaler will almost certainly be in Washington and not in Hershey for the 2019-20 campaign.

“Next season’s going to be huge,” he said. “I’ll do my best in the summer to keep myself in shape, in even better shape. My goal is to be here a long time and for rest of my career and yeah, just got to work for it.”

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