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Key Caps questions: Will Devante Smith-Pelly's playoff performance carry over to next season?

Key Caps questions: Will Devante Smith-Pelly's playoff performance carry over to next season?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will Devante Smith-Pelly's postseason performance translate into more production this season?

Tarik:  Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal-scoring surge in the playoffs, to me, was one of the remarkable storylines of the Caps’ Stanley Cup run.

Consider:

  • He scored seven goals in 24 playoff games after scoring SEVEN goals in 75 regular season contests.
  • His goal total in the regular season was tied for 13th on the Caps. His goal total in the playoffs was tied for fourth best.
  • He accomplished it all while skating just 12:02 per game, the 16th highest total on the team.

The goals weren’t stat-padders at the end of lopsided results, either. They weren’t gimmes.

Many of DSP’s goals were as clutch as they were skillful. Like his third period snipe in Game 6 vs. Columbus. And his third period tally in Game 6 vs. Tampa Bay. And his game-winner in Game 4 vs. the Golden Knights. And, of course, the diving, kick-the-puck-to-his-stick marker that knotted Game 5 in the third period and set the stage for the Cup-clinching comeback.

Smith-Pelly’s postseason surge figures to be huge for his confidence entering next season.

The 26-year-old is also going to be plenty motivated to build on that momentum after he passed up more security to sign a one-year, $1 million extension to remain in Washington.

What is DSP’s offensive ceiling? It’s difficult to say without knowing exactly how he fits into Todd Reirden’s plans. But assuming he returns to the same bottom-six role, I don’t see why he couldn’t put up 12 and 12—numbers that would solidify his NHL future and compare to Daniel Winnik’s production in 2016-17.

Let’s not forget that Smith-Pelly produced a 14-goal, 11-assist season (in just 64 games) split between Montreal and New Jersey a few years back. So the upside is there. But, again, it’ll come down to usage. Only six players last season topped a dozen goals while skating less than 13 minutes per game.

JJ: Smith-Pelly's NHL career has been nothing if not inconsistent. One thing appears to be clear is that he is at his best when he has something to prove.

In his first season in the NHL, Smith-Pelly recorded 13 points in 49 games with Anaheim followed by five goals in 12 games in the playoffs. HIs offense was pretty limited during the rest of his time in Anaheim and in Montreal after getting traded, but he took off again when the Canadiens traded him to New Jersey. After scoring only 12 points in 46 games with the Canadiens in 2015-16, Smith-Pelly exploded for 13 points in 18 games with the Devils. A lackluster season the following year led to a buyout and he made his way to Washington.

For that reason, a one-year deal looks like a smart gamble for the Caps. It makes sense that the team would want to see him do it again before committing long-term. From his perspective, it may be the motivation he needs to stay hungry and perform next season.

Or maybe not.

There are those players out there who seem to have an extra gear when it comes to the playoffs. After two dominant postseason performances, Smith-Pelly may be one of those players. Does his prowess in the postseason make it worth getting only 15-20 points worth of production over the course of the regular season? At $1 million for one year, sure, but it makes it very difficult to gauge his worth from year to year.

So what can we expect from Smith-Pelly this season? You can expect an extremely confident and motivated player to take the ice. His usage as a bottom-six player will limit his overall production, but I have a hard time believing he will fall off quite as dramatically as we have seen in the past. My guess is he finishes somewhere between 20-30 points for the season. As long as he performs in the playoffs, however, I'm sure the Caps won't mind.

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Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Tarik: Yes, Jakub Vrana *can* consistently play like a top-six forward. And I think we’ve got enough evidence to say he probably *will* in 2018-19, his second season as a full-time NHLer.

What’s the evidence I’m talking about?

The way he finished off the postseason.

It took Vrana a while to really get going in the playoffs. He was even scratched once vs. Columbus after a looking a little overwhelmed in the opener. But once he experienced that ‘I-can-do-this’ moment—it came when he finished a give-and-go with Lars Eller on the power play in Game 2 against the Penguins—Vrana’s confidence surged and his game took off.

In fact, I thought he was one of the Caps’ best forwards against Tampa Bay and Las Vegas. And I wasn’t alone. The 22-year-old cracked eight minutes in playing time just once in the first Caps’ eight playoff games; he averaged more than 13 minutes per the rest of the way.

And then there was the Stanley Cup-clinching victory. Vrana didn’t score the game winner, but he scored the all-important ice-breaker, a second period snipe on a semi-break that got the Caps’ dreaming about what was possible that night.

No one has ever wondered about Vrana’s ability. His speed and skill screams 20-plus goal scorer. The concerns have always been about focus and hunger, and I think those questions were answered in May and June as the Czech winger shifted his career into a new gear.

Going forward, it’s kind of a good news/bad news situation for Vrana. The good news is that he’s proven to himself and everyone else that he can perform at a world-class level on a night-in and night-out basis. The bad news (if you can even call it that) is this: now that he’s done it, Todd Reirden and Co. won’t accept any excuses or settle for anything less.

JJ: I have to confess I have never understood the trepidation people have when it comes to Vrana. Maybe it stems from the fact that he was a first-round draft pick and is under more scrutiny, but I believe a lot of his "issues" have been largely overblown.

Vrana had trouble focusing in Hershey sometimes. So what? Sure, you would like him to have a different mentality and be 100-percent focused on developing his game and winning in the AHL, but it was clear Vrana was the best player on the team and one of the best players on the ice on any given night. He came to North America to play in the NHL, I do not begrudge him for wanting to make it to the big leagues when he was clearly good enough.

Vrana is also prone to mistakes and turnovers, but he's 22. That's to be expected.

Barry Trotz, who described the NHL as a performance league and not a development league, was at times quick to pull young players from the lineup for making the type of mistakes you would expect young players to make. Vrana was one such player. Because of that, many of Vrana's mistakes were largely overblown. When a player with his talent comes out of the lineup and you watch replay after replay of his mistakes explaining why a player of his caliber is in the press box, you start to think there might be something wrong. There isn't.

Not only will Vrana be another year older this year, but I also expect Todd Reirden will have a bit more patience with him.

The skill is there. Any doubt about whether he belonged was silenced in the playoff run. Tarik mentions Vrana's performance in Game 2 against Pittsburgh, but for me, Game 5 against the Penguins was the real breakthrough.

With Tom Wilson still out with suspension and Devante Smith-Pelly struggling in a top-line role, Vrana stepped in with a big-time performance with a goal and two assists to lead the Caps to the all-important Game 5 win.

Vrana scored 13 goals in his first full NHL season and capped it off with three goals and five assists in his first postseason. He is going to be just fine.

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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

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Key Caps questions: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role in place of Philipp Grubauer?

Tarik: One of the more unappreciated aspects of the 2017-18 season was the outstanding job Philipp Grubauer did in the regular season.

Grubauer, at times, was asked to shoulder the load as starter Braden Holtby went through a “reset.” And the longtime backup maximized that opportunity, establishing career highs in appearances (35), starts (28) and wins (15). In fact, from Thanksgiving until the end of the regular season, Grubi was, statistically speaking, the best goalie in the NHL, posting a .935 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average.

Of course, things didn’t go nearly as well in the playoffs; he was lifted in Game 2 of the first round after giving up eight goals on 49 shots. He didn’t play again for the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but the Caps wouldn’t have won a third straight Metro Division title without him.

So, yeah, backup goalie can be a critical role.

Which brings us to today’s question: Can Pheonix Copley step in for Grubauer, who is now Colorado’s starter?

Let me start off by saying the Caps really like Copley. So much so, they acquired him twice. (The team signed him as an undrafted free agent, dealt him to St. Louis in the deal that brought T.J. Oshie to Washington, then reacquired him in the Kevin Shattenkirk trade.)

At 6-foot-4, 200-pounds, Copley’s got ideal size. The 26-year-old native of North Pole, Alaska is lanky, athletic and coachable. He’s also due to earn the league minimum of $650,000, which provides some salary cap flexibility.

Can Copley handle the responsibility? Well, that’s certainly the expectation. But until he actually does the job, it’s a legitimate question/concern, particularly when you consider how important Grubauer proved to be a year ago.

Copley’s only got two NHL appearances on his resume and his numbers in Hershey last season (15-17-4 / .896 percentage / 2.91 goals against average) aren’t very reassuring. I’m told, however, that he played much better from February through the end of the regular season, and that he’s finally 100-percent healthy. Remember, he suffered a serious groin injury in the 2017 AHL playoffs and missed the first nine games of last season.

If Copley can pick up where he left off with the Bears last season, I think he’ll be fine. He also gained some much needed experience as one of the black aces during the Cup run, facing shots every day in practice from Alex Ovechkin and Co. If Copley fumbles the opportunity, though, the Caps will be forced to go to their backup plan...accelerating the development of 2015 first-rounder Ilya Samsonov, who'll be just 130 miles up the road.

JJ: When trying to evaluate how Copley will be in the NHL, I believe you have to throw out last season. In 41 games with the Hershey Bears, Copley managed only a 2.91 GAA and .896 save percentage. Not good. If you look at those numbers alone, it's fair to wonder why the Caps are OK with Copley taking over the backup role.

The season prior, however, after being reacquired by the Capitals as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk trade, Copley was brilliant in Hershey with a 2.15 GAA and .931 save percentage and he kept those numbers remarkably consistent in the playoffs (2.13, .933). His season was brought to an abrupt end when he suffered a serious groin injury and it was clear from the start of the 2017-18 season that he just had not fully recovered.

I am not concerned that the Capitals will get last year's Copley. Nor am I concerned about another Holtby "reset." That was the worst slump of his career, but coming off a Stanley Cup run, I am expecting a confident Holtby in net and it seems doubtful he would suffer another slump quite as drastically bad as last season.

What I am concerned about, however, is just how much of a load Copley will ultimately be able to handle.

An ideal scenario would be to limit Holtby to about 60 to 65 games. Is Copley capable of providing the Caps with 20+ quality games? It's not enough to just go out and play, he has to play well. A team cannot always take an L just because the backup is in net.

Considering Copley has only two games of NHL experience in his entire career, there is no real way to answer this question and that's why backup goaltending is a potential weakness for Washington next season.

Why go with such a big question mark after returning almost the entire team for a second potential Cup run? Two reasons. First, the team does absolutely have faith in Copley. As noted above by Tarik, that was evident when he was reacquired from St. Louis. Second, because he is a cheap, temporary placeholder for Samsonov who could be penciled in as the backup as early as 2019-20 depending on how his first season in North America goes.

Best case scenario, Copley plays 20-25 games, earns a winning record and Samsonov takes over as backup next season after a strong showing in Hershey.

And the worst case scenario? The Caps are shopping for a backup goalie at the trade deadline.

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