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Caps' power play struggles continue as they go 0-for-6 against Islanders

Caps' power play struggles continue as they go 0-for-6 against Islanders

For many, the reason why the Capitals lost to the New York Islanders on Thursday was obvious. Two disastrous turnovers in the third period by Dmitry Orlov led to two goals for the Islanders in what had been a scoreless tie and the Caps never recovered.

Matt Niskanen saw Thursday's loss differently.

"The story of the game was our power play wasn't very good," he said.

Obviously the mistakes from Orlov were costly, but the Caps' inability to score leading up to that point, specifically on the power play, put them in that position.

"Five-on-five we probably played well enough to be in the game which we were," Niskanen said. "But you get that many chances on the power play you should win the game so that one's on us I think."

RELATED: Orlov's 3rd period mistakes prove costly in loss to Islanders

Washington went 0-for-6 with the man advantage on Thursday against an Islanders team ranked in the bottom half of the NHL with only 82.1 percent success on the penalty kill. A power play that boasts players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has now failed to score in its last 10 opportunities and has only one power play goal in its last 14 tries. For the season, the Caps have only a 14.3 percent success rate with the extra man.

And failure on the power play doesn't just hurt the team's offense.

"I think the other team gets momentum off of that many kills too," Niskanen said.

"I think you get lot more momentum from killing penalties than you do from the power play," head coach Barry Trotz said, "...I thought especially in the third when it was 0-0, we had a real good chance to take the game in hand right off the start of the period and it gave us a little momentum and then we came up with a couple of 5-on-5 shifts where we had lot of zone time, buzzing around, all of a sudden it comes down and they score. And it is a little bit deflating, but those are the mental components that you've got to fight through."

The team's struggles are particularly frustrating given the success they have had in recent years. Washington has finished at least in the top five in power play effectiveness in each of the last four seasons. A quarter of the way into the season and they are well off that pace.

That's not good news for a team that has lost its last two games and three of its last five.

"If your power play's clicking, it can be really intimidating thing and our power play has been intimidating in the past few years," Trotz said. "This year, the numbers aren't illustrating that it's intimidating right now."

MORE CAPITALS: Caps prank Vrana in warmups

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

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 the next 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 one of the biggest questions on the team’s defense, can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role?

When the Caps acquired Jensen at the trade deadline and immediately re-signed him for four years, the implication was clear. Suddenly, Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit became expendable.

With the team expected to be hard up against the salary cap in the offseason, the salary would need to be moved. Sure enough, Niskanen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas.

Gudas is a good pick up for the third-pair, but this trade is a move that only makes sense if you have a top-four defenseman to replace Niskanen on the right. Gudas, Jensen and John Carlson’s are the team’s three right-handed shots. Carlson is obviously cemented on the top pairing and Gudas is headed to the third. That leaves Jensen as the only real option on the second pair. After seeing him struggle since coming to Washington at the trade deadline, it is fair to be a little worried.

Jensen showed last season that he can be a top-four defenseman in the NHL while with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a healthy scratch on opening night, but he made sure he was not scratched again by the Red Wings and averaged 20:48 of ice-time over 60 games before he was traded.

Sure, a lack of defensive depth helped, but Jensen’s play was what earned him that spot more than anything else and it is why Washington traded for him and re-signed him before he ever played a game for the Caps.

But when he got to Washington, Jensen started struggling. An in-season trade can often be difficult with players forced to adjust to a new team and new system. Jensen certainly will not be the last trade deadline acquisition to struggle to make that transition.

“I think there was a period of adjustment where coaches were asking him to play a different system in a different way than he’s played,” Brian MacLellan said at the team’s breakdown day. “The good games were really good, I thought. And the down games were him trying to figure out system stuff and individual stuff that they were wanting him to do on the ice.”

In Detroit, defensemen do not shift too much from side to side. The blueliners have their side and they skate straight up and down the ice. In Washington, however, defensemen are constantly switching sides during play and you are expected to cover whatever side you are on when the puck begins moving back down towards the defensive zone.

Jensen is a right-shot defenseman and was not at all comfortable playing on the left. That is not uncommon. There are a lot more left-shot defensemen than righties and often if you see a player playing his off-side, it is a lefty playing on the right. Righties just are not expected to play on the left all that often because there are fewer of them. For Jensen, even having to shift over to the left within a play proved difficult.

Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele used this to his advantage in a regular season game against Washington in which he turned Jensen inside-out.

When you watch closely, this play is less about the fancy stickwork of Foegele and more about a defenseman who does not look comfortable at all playing on the left.

It is important to clarify what we are talking about here. The Caps are not asking Jensen to be a left defenseman. That would not be a great situation and there would be no guarantee he would ever get to the point where he could be a top-four defenseman playing on his off-side. The team’s system simply allows for defensemen to cycle from side-to-side situationally. When the opposition transitions down the ice, you may not have the opportunity to switch back to your original side and are instead expected to defend that transition from whichever side you are on. This would largely apply to quick transitions. Adjusting to that is not at all impossible and Jensen’s ability to do so will be absolutely critical for the team’s success next season.

The Niskanen trade certainly looks like a shrewd move by MacLellan as it not only saved the team money, but also upgraded the bottom pair. The move only makes sense, however, if and only if it did not leave the team with a hole in the top-four. In that case, the team will have gotten worse defensively, not better.

With a full offseason and training camp to prepare, Jensen should look far more comfortable within the system. As last season’s camp with Detroit showed, he can be prone to slow starts, but we should know by Thanksgiving if Jensen is starting to feel at home with Washington or if the defense is in serious trouble.

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

The Capitals took care of their last major order of business this summer by signing restricted free agent Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract extension. 

The deal: Two years, $6.7 million with a salary-cap hit of $3.35 million. That’s not bad for an RFA who posted 24 goals in his age 22/23 season.

Washington now has 13 forwards under contract and six defensemen plus both goalies. According to the invaluable web site CapFriendly.com, that leaves salary-cap space of $935,706. That's tight. 

The Capitals need to add one more depth defenseman to get to seven. Christian Djoos received a qualifying offer of $715,000, but as an RFA himself elected to go to arbitration. That hearing is July 22. Chandler Stephenson, another RFA, also chose arbitration. The forward has his hearing on Aug. 1. There might be room only for Djoos unless another move is made. 

During his age 22/23 season, Vrana broke through with a career-high in goals (24) and points (47) and established himself as a legitimate top-six forward on an aging team that needs its young talent to produce if it wants to continue as a Stanley Cup contender.

With captain Alex Ovechkin, 33, center Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and right wing T.J. Oshie, 32, in the top six, Washington has kept a good mix with Vrana, 23, Tom Wilson, 25, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 27, all still in their 20s. Vrana, especially, plays at a speed few others on the roster other than Carl Hagelin can match.  

Since the 2010-11 season, a player who began a season 22 or younger scored 24 goals just 95 times. The list of 55 players who accomplished that feat is littered with stars (Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall) or young phenoms (Sebastian Aho, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel) and there are very few one-hit wonders or busts on that list. 

At worst, those players have provided steady production for several seasons. The Capitals are hoping for a lot more from Vrana, who scored his 24 goals and got his 47 points with limited power-play time (93:28) on the second unit. 

That might not change much this year, but it’s intriguing to think what Vrana could do if injuries strike and he’s moved up. He was on the ice for 59 goals at even strength and just 37 against, which was the best differential among all Capitals forwards last season.   

The two-year bridge contract is no real surprise. The Capitals took the same tact in 2017 with Andre Burakovsky, their 2013 first-round draft pick. But Burakovsky, while he scored some huge goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, struggled to maintain consistency in his game and never had a year like Vrana’s 2018-19. He was traded to Colorado last month in part because of the salary-cap crunch and he just drove coaches crazy for the better part of five years.

Vrana is in essence betting on himself. If he is able to make another leap and get to that 30-goal mark, he will still be a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season at age 25, but one with vastly more leverage. He would be arbitration eligible. He was not eligible this summer. He would be in line for a big payday on a long-term deal from Washington - or would have just two years left before unrestricted free agency after the 2022-23 season.

A similar RFA case happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward Kasperi Kapanen this summer. The Leafs gave their young winger a three-year bridge deal worth $9.6 million and a $3.2 million salary-cap hit. They, too, were facing a tough salary-cap crunch. Kapanen was the 22ndoverall pick in 2014. Vrana was 13ththat same year. Kapanen had 20 goals and 24 assists (44 points) this past season. Vrana gets more power-play time, but Kapanen kills penalties (125:22).    

So Vrana in the end received a little more money than the Kapanen deal and can re-set his contract sooner if he breaks out big. Washington believes that he can and will because Vrana’s skill is undeniable. 

Go back and look at some of his best goals from last season. They often came off the rush when opposing defenders simply couldn’t deal with him or when he snuck behind a defender for a rip off and a scoring chance. He is almost always the last regular on the ice after practice. He’s scored a big goal in a Stanley Cup clincher.

The Capitals now have a balanced top nine with a solid mix of veterans and in-their-prime players. Vrana still has to prove he can build on the promise of last season and his pointless playoff series against Carolina in April, while allowing for a possible shoulder injury, shows his game isn’t a finished product quite yet. 

But Vrana is the one young under-25 forward on the roster – likely in the entire organization – who has the raw talent to become a 30-to-40 goal, 60-to-70 point player. That’s the package the Capitals hoped they were taking in the first round five years ago. Now we will see if Vrana can get there. 

 

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