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Caps struggle to diagnose the problem with the penalty kill

Caps struggle to diagnose the problem with the penalty kill

With a 14-2-1 record in their last 17 games, everything has been going right for the Capitals lately.

Well, almost everything.

A Washington team that boasts the best defense in the NHL is suddenly struggling on the penalty kill. Coming into Wednesday’s game against the Boston Bruins, the Caps had allowed one power play goal in each of their last five games. On Wednesday, the penalty kill was victimized again and it nearly cost them the game.

Washington jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period against the Bruins and looked well on their way to another big win. Just when it looked like the Caps were going to finish them off, however, Washington gave Boston some life with a penalty late in the first period and early in the second.

Brad Marchand scored on each to tie the game at 2. Washington managed only one successful kill on the night in the three power plays the team faced.

RELATED: Trotz provides an update on Justin Williams

Why has the penalty kill been a problem of late? No one can really put their finger on it.

“I don't know,” Matt Niskanen said. “It's been all different types of goals. It's not like there's one thing that's biting us. Record's been decent in spite of that, but definitely our penalty kill's going to have to do better in the future.”

“It's just some mistakes I think maybe that we don't usually make,” T.J. Oshie said. “I think our penalty kill, our four front guys and the guys in the back end do a really good job. Tonight, they just beat us on a couple plays. Something we'll clean up. Some of those things we usually don't let them get to those points.”

The problem is when there’s not one thing wrong, it makes it that much harder to fix.

Head coach Barry Trotz agreed with his players’ assessment after the game, saying the two power play goals the team allowed to Boston came on two very different plays.

“The first one we did a really good job and then we made a real bad change,” Trotz said. “We didn’t get the puck down the ice, it was sort of a real short regroup on their part and we made a bad change. ... The second one, they had a lot of zone time, hit us with a couple seems and we weren't able to get a handle on it.”

One issue could be Jay Beagle’s roll of late.

Beagle played on the second line Wednesday in place of Justin Williams who was a late scratch. He played on the top line in place of T.J. Oshie in New Jersey last week prior to the All-Star break.

Beagle, who Trotz called his “Mr. Fix It” is also one of the team’s top penalty killers. Playing him in the top six means more minutes at even strength would ultimately means fewer minutes on the penalty kill. Trotz also told reporters that he does not think Beagle has fully recovered from the flu which forced him to miss last week’s game against the Ottawa Senators.

Could the penalty kill struggles just be boiled down to Beagle not being 100 percent? If that’s the case, the team better hope he doesn’t dog it in the postseason.

MORE CAPITALS: Oshie accuses Trotz of embellishment after near collision after warmups

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

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USA Today Sports Images

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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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

Jakub Vrana has made it through his entry-level contract and signed a new deal Tuesday for two-years, $6.7 million.

To celebrate his new bridge deal, we look back at the top 5 moments from Vrana's last three seasons with the squad.

5: Vrana's first goal

Against the Buffalo Sabres on the road, Vrana introduced himself to Capitals fans with a tap-in off an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed to beat Robin Lehner.

It would be the first of 40 goals he's scored in his young Caps career.

4: Pick-pocketing the Flyers

They say the best offense is a good defense, but Vrana didn't have to settle on this goal.

With a nifty poke check at the Caps defensive blue line, Vrana went full blast towards the Philadelphia Flyers defense, beat them, then roofed a shot for his 13th goal of the season.

3: Helping to lift the curse against the Penguins

Vrana scored his first-ever playoff goal against the Penguins during the 2018 Stanley Cup run, but it was his Game 5 dagger that put Caps fans on their feet.

Thanks to a cross-crease feed from Alex Ovechkin, Vrana was able to slot the puck past Matt Murray in the dying minutes for the game-winning goal. The Caps would add two more, going on to win 6-3.

2: Stanley Cup Celebration

It's no secret the boys partied hard after they won the Cup in 2018, and Vrana presented us with one of the greatest moments during the epic celebration. 

This moment with Joe B. will never, ever get old. The party continued at the Stanley Cup parade a couple days later. 

After a solid show along the parade route, Vrana graced us with his stellar dance moves.

1: Game 5 Stanley Cup Final opening goal

Big players come up in big games, and Vrana proved to be one of those players in the Capitals' 2018 Stanley Cup run.

In enemy territory against the Vegas Golden Knights with the Stanley Cup on the line, Vrana powered down the ice and roofed a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the opening goal of Game 5.

Here's to hoping we see many more big moments in the years to come from Jake the Snake.

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