It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Jan. 16 edition below.
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Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.
The Caps have lost three straight and are 3-4-2 in their last nine. Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. Teams are never as good or as bad as they look over the course of the season, but somewhere in the middle. Based on how people are despairing, you would think the Caps are dead last in the standings with no talent on their roster and horrible coaches behind the bench. Let’s pump the brakes a bit here. Washington is still 27-14-5 and tied for first place in the division.
Having said that, they have not played nearly well enough on this stretch. This is not just a collection of narrow defeats either, they are getting outworked and outplayed in some lopsided losses.
The biggest concern for me is the drop off in production from the top nine. Evgeny Kuznetsov has one five-on-five goal this season, Nicklas Backstrom has two goals since Dec. 4 , Lars Eller is on pace for fewer goals than he has ever scored in a Caps’ uniform (11), Brett Connolly has scored only once since Dec. 27 and Andre Burakovsky has nine points for the entire season. The power play is finally starting to show signs of life and now the 5-on-5 offense has run dry. Washington looked very frustrated in Nashville on Tuesday even before the score got out of hand. They were forcing plays that weren’t there, over passing and leaving themselves exposed defensively far too often.
Do I think it’s time to overhaul the entire team and system? No. I just think the team needs to get back to it. Don’t try to do so much, don’t force the passes. I know this team is very selective with shots and it is hard to argue with that philosophy given the success they had last season, but Tuesday’s game showed it has gone to the extreme. Sometimes the best option is to shoot. Recognize that and get some pucks on net or at least make the game more north and south than side to side.
As for changing up the look of the bottom six, I do not look at Dmitrij Jaskin as the key to turning things around. I get the argument, the team should play more physical and if Jaskin is in it at least shows the team has added in a bigger body and is thinking about physical play. I have not looked at the past few games and thought the issue was the team is getting out muscled. Jaskin is good enough to play more than he has in my opinion, but that’s not what’s ultimately wrong here.
Here is what general manager Brian MacLellan said on Friday about areas of need at the trade deadline: “I think the only thing we're going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group."
To me, it seems very clear MacLellan was talking about Andre Burakovsky. I think he would absolutely be available if the right deal came along, but I also think the team is OK holding on to him through this season. He still has value as a 23-year-old restricted free agent so I do not believe the team is in a place where they are willing to sell him off to the highest bidder if that trade does not match what they believe Burakovsky is worth.
Marie S. writes: What do you think is the Caps’ biggest need at the trade deadline, if any?
My biggest target would be depth offense. Piggybacking a bit off of the last answer, if you are ready to move on from Burakovsky, somebody needs to step onto the third line. The Caps have five fourth line players in Jaskin, Travis Boyd, Nic Dowd, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly, but I do not believe any of them are the solution there, at least not this season.
Washington also ranks dead last in faceoff percentage so I could see the team targeting another center. MacLellan said he would not target simply a faceoff specialist – he would have to be a good player too – and I think the faceoff problem is more of a Kuznetsov problem (he is an atrocious 39.45-percent at the dot this season) so I don’t think this is big target for them, just something to keep in mind.
MacLellan also has a tendency to go after depth defenseman so we could see a minor addition to the blue line.
Nathan S. writes: What's wrong with Kuztenzov? Thought he was ready to be an elite player after last year and then he had his earlier comments about not wanting to work hard to be great but have fun. Is lack of work ethic, focus, desire, or obsession with passing first causing him to play poorly?
For context, the full quote referred to is from Kuznetsov on Oct. 10 after a win against Vegas. Here is what he said:
To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 (days) in a year, but I'm not ready for that. I want to have fun and I want to make those risky plays when sometimes you don't have to play and you guys don't understand every time those plays. It's not easy to make. But to be MVP in this league, you have to play even better. You have to go next level. It's not easy. More important, you have to stay focused 365, but that's not my style.
Kuznetsov appears to be talking about two different things here. If you have ever heard analysts complain about overcoaching and taking the creativity out of the game, that’s what I believe he means by the first part of this quote. Kuznetsov is a creative player and does not want to get overcoached and lose that aspect of his game. The second part of that quote answers your question: “You have to stay focused 365, but that’s not my style.”
No player stays focused for an entire 82-game season. Everyone goes through bad games and bad stretches. This seems to affect Kuznetsov more than most, however. For Russian players, coming to North America can be a shock because the practices and workouts are much more intense and the NHL plays more games than the KHL. Perhaps that’s where this comes from.
Christian Djoos suffered compartment syndrome after a hit to his thigh in the Dec. 11 game against the Detroit Red Wings. He underwent surgery on Dec. 13. MacLellan said Friday that he would have a good timetable for a possible return in two weeks.
I saw Djoos skating before practice on Sunday and I can tell you he is not close. He looked very much labored in the brief amount of time he was on the ice. I have seen some timetables saying it takes a little over 10 weeks to recover from and it has been about five weeks at this point. I would wait for the team to give us an update on any timetable, but it certainly looks like we are still talking about Djoos’ return in terms of weeks and not days.
Chris Kreider is a great player, but this seems like a bigger trade than the Caps would be interested in or would really need to make.
Kreider is 27 and already has 21 goals and 33 points. The fact that he would not be a rental is good, but that also ups his trade value making him more expensive. Let’s be clear, Kreider would cost a lot more than just Burakovsky in a trade. Washington’s biggest need is on the third line and I think there is a team out there looking for a boost to the top six that will be willing to give up more than the Caps to get Kreider. The Rangers also probably would prefer to trade him outside of the division. That doesn’t matter as much for trade deadline deals as most sellers do not have to worry about seeing a player they give up in the playoffs if he is a rental. Since he’s not, however, New York would have to play against him next season should they send him to the Caps.
I like the player, but I don’t like a deal for him from either Washington or New York’s perspective.
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