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Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

Leafs strike early, never look back in win over Caps

The Caps entered Toronto on the second leg of a back-to-back and the Maple Leafs certainly looked like the fresher team, jumping on the Caps early on their way to a 4-2 win on Saturday night.

How it happened: Toronto opened the scoring less than three minutes into the game as Matt Martin beat Braden Holtby on the first shot he faced. Martin snuck in behind the defense and Mitch Marner found him right on the tape with a pass to spring the breakaway. The Leafs added to their lead in the second period as James Van Riemsdyk struck on the power play. Van Riemsdyk and Nikita Soshnikov collapsed down low on the crease and had all the time in the world to work with as John Carlson went down too early to block the shot. Van Riemsdyk was finally able to chip it past Holtby.

The coffin nail came just 22 seconds in the third. Connor Brown pickpocketed Dmitry Orlov in the defensive zone and fed Zach Hyman in the slot. Holtby made the initial save and another to deny Matt Hunwick, but Auston Matthews finally finished off the play with the rebound goal. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson finally got the Caps on the board in the third period, but a goal by Nazem Kadri and a strong effort from goalie Frederik Andersen were enough to put the game away.

What it means: The loss drops the Caps to 5-2-1 this season in back-to-back games and snaps a five-game win streak for the Caps over the Leafs that stretched back to January of 2015. Washington is now 4-2-0 against Canadian teams this season and 4-1-0 against the Atlantic Division.

Heads up: Head coach Barry Trotz showed that he may be the toughest head coach in the NHL as he took a puck to the head in the very first shift of the game. Off the opening face off, Nikita Soshnikov redirected a puck into the Caps bench, hitting Trotz. You can watch the play here.

Slow start: The Caps have dramatically improved their starts this season, but that was not evident on Saturday. Martin’s goal came just 2:35 into the game. The Caps had scored first in 17 of 20 games heading into Saturday’s contest including their last eight. The best thing you could say about the first period is that the Caps trailed only 1-0, considering they were outshot 15-6 and took three penalties.

Powerless: Despite the rough start for the Caps, they still found themselves trailing only 2-0 midway through the second period with a golden opportunity to get right back into the game. After taking the first four penalties of the game, the Caps had three power plays in the second period including 24 seconds of a two-man advantage. Despite generating eight shots on goal, the Caps walked away empty handed as the Leafs were able to keep the score at 2-0 through 40 minutes. The Caps finished 0 for 4 for the game.

Third period struggles continue: The Caps have identified the third period to be a problem of late. In their last three games, the Caps allowed five goals. It cost them against Columbus and nearly cost them against St. Louis. Heading into the third period Saturday, the Caps trailed 2-0 and needed a strong showing in the final frame. It took Toronto just 22 seconds to score and essentially end any hope the Caps had of getting back into the game. Finishing strong is something this team desperately needs to work on.

Uh-oh: Matt Niskanen took a shift in the opening minute of the third period. That proved to be his last shift of the game. The defenseman went to the locker room and did not return to the bench. According to the team, he suffered a lower-body injury and would be re-evaluated Sunday.

Look ahead: The Caps will get a few days off before hosting the New York Islanders on Thursday. They then head to Tampa for their first meeting with the Lightning this season.

RELATED: Connolly's role emerging

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Should the Caps re-sign Devante Smith-Pelly?

Should the Caps re-sign Devante Smith-Pelly?

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s debate:

Region: Capitals free agents

Should the Caps re-sign Devante Smith-Pelly?

2018-19 stats

54 games played with the Caps, 4 goals, 4 assists, 8 points, 10:51 TOI

Playoffs: 3 games played with the Caps, no goals, no assists, no points, 9:47 TOI

Hockey-Graph contract projections

2 years, $1,170,523 cap hit

The case for re-signing

There is no question that Smith-Pelly can be inconsistent, but he always seems to bring it in the playoffs. Before his seven-goal performance in the 2018 Cup run, Smith-Pelly was brilliant with the Anaheim Ducks scoring five goals in 12 games back in 2014.

With Carl Hagelin re-signed and players like Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and other depth pieces still on the horizon, affordability is pretty much the biggest asset for any free agent available to Washington and it won’t get much more affordable than Smith-Pelly.

Hockey-Graphs can be spot on with some of its projections and outright wrong for others and this case is definitely the latter. Smith-Pelly’s contract for the 2018-19 season was a one-year deal with a cap hit of $1 million. After scoring just eight points and getting demoted to the AHL, there is no way he walks into next season with a two-year deal and a raise. The cap hit is going to be low for Smith-Pelly and that makes him a very attractive choice for the Caps.

Sure, regular season production is an issue, but if you can get a bonafide playoff performer for $1 million or less, that’s a good deal.

The case against re-signing

When the Caps needed to send a player to the minors to free up cap space for Nick Jensen at the trade deadline, the team elected to send Smith-Pelly to Hershey over Dmitrij Jaskin. Jaskin played 37 games last season. That is pretty much all you need to know.

Sure, Smith-Pelly walked into the playoffs and performed well, but he still did not produce. Depth offense is a weakness for the Caps and one they will struggle to address with the little amount of cap space left. You cannot waste that remaining cap space on a player who is going to give you eight points.

Smith-Pelly came into the season in questionable shape, was so ineffective he was sent to the minors and this from a guy who has already bounced around the NHL and who came to Washington after getting bought out by the New Jersey Devils.

On breakdown day, general manager Brian MacLellan said of Smith-Pelly, “Internally we had a couple of issues we had to work through.”

There are just too many red flags here for a Smith-Pelly return.

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

The NHL draft is fast approaching. The first round will take place on Friday and it could be a busy night for the Capitals.

Washington currently holds the 25th pick in the draft. It will be the highest pick this team has had since taking Ilya Samsonov 22nd overall in the 2015 draft. The question, however, is will they stay there?

The more you look at the team’s situation, the more a move in either direction looks like a realistic possibility for the Caps. Here’s why.

Why the Caps could move up

In most situations, an NHL team should pick the best player available. Since most NHL prospects, including most players taken in the first round, will take years to develop before they see NHL action, it does not generally make sense to draft for an immediate need. When teams become fixated on drafting a certain position, it can lead to those teams passing on elite talent at other positions.

For Washington, however, they no longer can afford to ignore the team’s need for a difference-maker at forward.

You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find the last time the Caps drafted a forward in the first round when they drafted Jakub Vrana. Since then, however, they have drafted a goalie, two defensemen and have traded out of the first round completely.

The dearth of forward talent among the team’s prospects is starting to catch up to it. In a year in which the Caps need forward depth but have very little money to fill it, an ideal solution would be to plug any holes on the bottom six with cheap prospects.

Without any top-end forwards in the system, however, that is not really an option.

Riley Barber (sixth-round pick) is an unrestricted free agent and said he does not see himself re-signing with Washington. Nathan Walker (third-round pick) is also a UFA and, though he sounded more open to re-signing with the Caps than Barber, there is no guarantee he does not leave in free agency. Shane Gersich (fifth-round pick) and Garrett Pilon (third-round pick) still look like they need another year in Hershey. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (fifth-round pick) has a whopping 16 games of North American experience and it is hard to know what exactly to expect from him. Kody Clark (second-round pick) and Riley Sutter (third-round pick) still need time to develop.

This team needs a high-end forward prospect, if not for this year then for the near future. It needs that guy who can infuse a bit of youth and excitement, as well as skill, back into the lineup when he gets a call-up. We are not talking about the next Connor McDavid here, just a top-six forward to add to the system because right now it does not appear Washington really has any top-six forwards besides the guys already in the NHL.

That needs to change.

There is value to be found late in the first round of the draft—Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov was 26th overall in 2010 and Andre Burakovsky was 23rd overall in 2013 just to name a few—but waiting for a good forward to drop into their laps this year may not be the ideal strategy knowing they need to pick a forward in the first round.

Moving up the draft will ensure they can grab one of the top forwards available. If they move up high enough, perhaps they could even snap someone who could potentially be ready to help the team in the latter half of the season, though that is a lot to ask of a young forward.

The point is Washington cannot afford to go with the usual “best available” mentality and see who falls to 25. General manager Brian MacLellan will have to get proactive and move up to ensure he gets the best available player at the position of need. We may not be talking Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but even moving up to the mid-round can dramatically affect the quality of prospects available.

Why the Caps could move down

Elliotte Friedman had an interesting note on the Caps in his latest 31 Thoughts column. He listed Washington among one of the most aggressive teams in trade talks saying generally of the NHL “we could see some frenetic attempts to move up and down.”

Friedman also wrote, “Other teams believe the Capitals are in total ‘go for it’ mode.”

When a team is in “go for It mode” and trying to win a Cup, the first-round draft pick can be useful trade bait to help bring in a significant piece and bolster the roster. Granted, Washington has very little cap room available so any trade would likely include sending salary with the pick which would, in turn, lower the value of return, but this team is just one year removed from winning the Cup. It is not as if they need to make a major addition to be a contender.

Trading away a first-round pick would be the exact opposite of addressing the team’s need for high-end prospect forward talent as written above, but it is hard to build a team for now and for the future. With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Co. all in their 30s, it would be understandable why MacLellan would choose to go all-in on winning another Cup in the next few years.

Whether the Caps move up, down or stand pat, we will have all the latest analysis on NBC Sports Washington’s coverage of the draft starting at 8 p.m. on Friday.

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