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Connolly has begun carving out a role with the Caps

Connolly has begun carving out a role with the Caps

If there was one Capital who desperately needed a productive night Friday it was Brett Connolly.

And then, as if on cue, the big right wing delivered in Washington's 3-1 win over the Jack Eichel-less Sabres at Verizon Center.

Connolly chipped in with the primary assist on the Capitals' first goal. And in the third period, he helped close out the visitors with a clutch tally on the power play with 4:55 left to play.

The assist on Daniel Winnik’s first period marker was Connolly’s first helper this season. The goal, meanwhile, was Connolly's first since Oct. 30 (and second in 12 games played this season).

“It’s nice to get out there and play consistently and be out there and feel a part of it,” Connolly said. “And to be in some key situations. I was happy it could pay off tonight with a goal and a win. Hopefully we can keep rolling them up.”

It’s been an uneven season for Connolly as far production and role. Both, however, seem to be trending in a positive direction for the 24-year-old, who has spent eight games as a healthy scratch this season.

With T.J. Oshie sidelined week-to-week with an upper body injury, the Capitals are down to 12 forwards, meaning Connolly no longer has to wonder if he’ll be in the lineup. More important, perhaps, he’s now getting a regular shift on the second power play unit, lining up in the middle of the diamond.

Which, of course, is where the puck found his stick against the Sabres.

Anders Nilsson turned back Alex Ovechkin’s initial shot, but the Buffalo goalie could not recover in time to stop Connolly, who had an empty net to fire the rebound into.

“It was a good time in the game to get one,” Connolly said. “I’ve played in that spot before.... It’s a good spot for me. I got a good shot. I just want to use it. I was happy to see that land on my tape.”

Coach Barry Trotz says Connolly’s skillset could make him a productive player with the man advantage.

“He’s dangerous if he’s got time in the middle,” Trotz said. “He can shoot it pretty good. He has those sniper qualities and [he] compete[s] on those loose pucks. He’s got good instincts in that [slot] area. I think that’s something that he can keep growing in his game.”

Trotz’s trust in Connolly is also growing. The former first round pick has now played in five consecutive games, his longest stretch of the season. On Friday, he skated 14:56, his second highest ice time total since joining the Capitals.

“There’s a lot of games this month and moving forward because there’s a little bit more of a condensed schedule,” Trotz explained. “So we’ve been needing those guys to contribute and try not to play Ovi and [Nicklas Backstrom] and those [top] guys 20 minutes a night. If we can spread the wealth, if you will, it will pay us dividends [because] we’ll be a little fresher [later in the season].”

Two goals and three points probably isn't the type of start Connolly (or the Caps) hoped he'd have. But Trotz sounds bullish on Connolly's potential now that he's settling in.

“Conno he has a real set of hands and he’s scored in the past,” Trotz added. “That’s sort of his player identity. He’s getting some confidence. He’s skating really well. I think he’s getting comfortable with us [and] I’m getting comfortable with him.”

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Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
2.90 goals against per game (10th in the NHL)
84.2-percent penalty kill (2nd)

Whatever question marks this team may have on the blue line, John Carlson is not one of them. With 60 points in 49 games, he is on pace for exactly 100 points this season, but do not fall into the trap of thinking his great season is only about the offense. He is easily the most consistent defensive defenseman on the team as well. He is just an all-around elite player who was long ago labeled an "offensive defenseman" and that perception still lingers though it has not been factual since the 2017-18 season when Matt Niskanen was out for a prolonged period and Carlson was leaned upon and excelled.

Carlson has obviously been the highlight of the blue line this season, which is to be expected. Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas have also been bright spots. The penalty kill has essentially been entrusted to Siegenthaler who gets more shorthanded ice time per game (3:06) than any player on the roster, including Carl Hagelin. Gudas is not far behind at 2:43. 

The benefit to this is that this is the team's third defensive pair, yet they are doing the heavy-lifting on the penalty kill allowing the other two pairs who play more minutes 5-on-5 to get some time to rest. The fact that the penalty kill remains among the league's best even with the third pair running the show is a luxury that not many teams can boast.

Dmitry Orlov has been up and down, but he fits the mold of a second-pair offensive defenseman. I view him as more of an asset than a liability and his possession numbers (54.91 Corsi-For percentage) back that up.

Having said that, there are a few major concerns on the blue line. The first is that this team does not have two top-four right defensemen. Carlson is the only one. Nick Jensen has been playing on the second pair, but it is clear that he just cannot handle such a significant role. He has been with the Caps for nearly a full calendar year at this point and his struggles can no longer be dismissed as him simply adjusting to a new team and system. The change in system was a dramatic shift for him as it requires a lot more crossing over onto the left side, something he does not seem to be comfortable with at all. He's not a bad player and I would feel comfortable with him as a third-pair defenseman. In fact, Jensen averages 2:12 per game shorthanded, more than Carlson (1:38) or Michal Kempny (1:25), so he has held a major role on Washington's stellar penalty kill. The problem can be boiled down to this: The Caps have two third-pair caliber right defensemen and only one top four. 

The second issue is that Kempny has not played at the level of a top-pair defenseman essentially all season. In comparison to the issues on the right, this is a minor flaw. Kempny's issues are not nearly as blatant and he is rarely caught out of position. The issue mainly has been how weak on the puck he has been.

One team issue has been how Washington performs against an aggressive forecheck. I will label that a defensive issue because the issue comes from the defensive zone. Everyone on the team has to be smarter with puck management and distribution, but especially the blueliners who are often tasked with starting the breakouts. They have to be able to distribute the puck quickly and smartly in the face of that pressure. This was a major factor in the team's loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round the last playoffs and has seemingly been an issue in the regular season as well.

The only other defensive issue has to do with the penalty kill. Yes, the PK has been stellar, but it has been called upon far too often. Washington has taken 186 minor penalties this season, more than any other team in the NHL. Sure, sometimes the referees like to put away the whistles in the postseason, but the Caps are a physical team that plays a heavy game. That could open them up to more penalties. Most importantly, the team has to be smarter with their sticks and limit unnecessary slashes and hooks.

The verdict: No, the defense is not good enough to win the Cup...yet.

A hole on the top-four is a significant enough weakness that I do not believe the team can afford to ignore it heading into the playoffs.

But don't despair. While I do not believe the current makeup of the defense is good enough, it is not beyond repair. Only one addition is needed to completely shore up the blue line. This team needs an adequate player to plug onto the right side of the second pair. They don't need a superstar, just a serviceable top-four righty. That addition would imrpove the defense to the point of making the team a real contender.

Top four defensemen do not grow on trees, however, especially right ones, and the team's cap constraints will certainly hurt their ability to improve in this area.

This leaves me with two possible solutions the team could explore.

First, and probably the most likely, look for the next Kempny. Find a cheap defenseman on another team's roster who the scouts think has high-upside and is undervalued by his current team, trade a mid-round draft pick and plug him in. The fact that Washington was able to recall Christian Djoos after the Christmas break means Washington has at least banked enough cap space to fit in his cap hit ($1.2 million). Brian MacLellan seems deadset on keeping the roster with only one healthy scratch to bank as much cap space as possible so I think they should have probably at least about $2 million to work with by the time the Feb. 24 trade deadline rolls around. Plus, there is always salary retention, though that would cost more in a trade.

The second option is to bring up Martin Fehervary. He is a left shot, but has been playing on the right with the Hershey Bears. The team certainly loves him which was made evident by him starting the season in the NHL. Even if he may not have reached his full potential yet, he is certainly seen within the organization as a top-four caliber player so bring him up and try him out. For this option, I would like to see him called up sooner rather than later in order to get as much time as possible to adjust to the NHL, but even if this option is on the table, I would not anticipate seeing it until after the trade deadline when the team no longer needs to continue banking that space.

One last note, for anyone wondering if Djoos could be a possibility, I do not see that happening. In his two games with the team this season, he was not put on the ice for a single defensive zone start whether on the fly or off a faceoff. Not one. It is a small sample size, but that shows me there is a lack of trust in him from the coaches when it comes to playing in the defensive zone. That does not sound like a realistic candidate to slot into the top four anytime soon. 

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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