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Game #50 – Capitals vs. Hawks Q&A: Greg Young From Japers Rink

Japers Rink has been among the gold-standard in team blogs for over a decade. They lent us Greg this morning. 

The Caps for the second straight year are kinda weird. Theyre near the top of the Metro, so no problems there, but their metrics say they shouldn’t be. Braden Holtby has been good, but short of great. Is it just as simple as the top line is always going to outshoot the percentages and they get just enough saves to make that count? Or just weird?
We’ve been wondering the same thing! There’s been a bit of debate amongst Caps fans about how good our team is this year, and this is something I speculated a bit about this on our site’s podcast earlier this week. I tend to think that the Caps will outperform their expected goal metrics to some degree (Kevin Klein explained why this keeps happening earlier this year, and having the skill of the Capitals helps generally in this area)…but they were still due for some regression this year, because they were outperforming their metrics by an even more extreme degree. The fact that our power play has come crashing back down to earth and is now ranked 11th in the NHL isn’t helping matters much.
One positive note, as your question referenced, has been the goaltending for the Capitals this year. Braden Holtby has bounced back, and is returning closer to his career norms in Save % (.912 this year) and Goals Against Per Game (2.82 this year.) We’ve also been impressed with backup and human typo Pheonix Copley, who is close to Holtby in Save % and GAA.
Ultimately, I still think the Capitals are safely a playoff team, and we’re ultimately still talking about a team with a number of elite-level players, but things definitely aren’t perfect over here in D.C.
You wouldn’t say Evgeni Kuznetsov is having a bad year, as he’s still close to a point per game. But only eight goals after 27 last year in a more free-scoring environment. Just rotten luck on the shooting-percentage?
I wouldn’t say it’s just rotten shooting percentage luck…though he seems pretty likely to improve from a 1.54% (!!) shooting percentage at 5v5. Anecdotally, Kuznetsov has been making some strange decisions in the neutral zone,  is turning the puck over pretty frequently in all zones, and just seems…off. One note is that he did suffer a concussion earlier this year, which he still maybe recovering from, even though he’s in the lineup. We’ve noticed this with Capitals players before, that sometimes it can take a couple of months after a concussion to start getting back in the swing of things.
The Caps find themselves in an interesting spot down the road. Both Backstrom and Holtby will be up for extensions in the summer. Both will be over 30. How careful do the Caps want to be with this or will they hand both significant raises from their current bargain rates of $6 million per year?
Backstrom first: Backstrom’s next contract is going to be a fascinating puzzle for GM Brian MacLellan to solve. Backstrom has consistently managed to hover around a point per game throughout his tenure, a pace he’s continuing this year. His value isn’t just offensive though, he’s continued to draw key defensive assignments, and former head coach Barry Trotz was always vouching for him to get Selke consideration. Yet, at the same time, Backstrom will be 32 when his next contract is discussed, which is a dangerous age to be giving away massive free agent contracts. Personally, I think they’ll have to get a deal done (maybe around 6-7 million a year?), and his legendary passing ability may help stave off a drastic decline in his late 30’s.
Holtby, to me, is a bit clearer of a case. The Capitals top prospect is goaltender Ilya Samsonov, and a lot of people envisioned him taking over the starting job once Holtby’s contract expires. Unfortunately, Samsonov has struggled a bit in Hershey, which has perhaps slowed the calls for him to immediately take over from Holtby. Here, I think the Capitals have the benefit of waiting. If Holtby plays consistently well this and next year and Samsonov continues struggling, they can absolutely work out an extension. However, if Samsonov looks ready and Holtby starts a bit of a decline, it could be time for a transition in net.
What might the Caps do around the deadline and what are you expecting from them in the spring?
I’m actually working on a piece now about this, so stay tuned for more details! Generally, at the deadline, I’d expect them to get a depth forward and maybe another depth defenseman. The problem is that the Caps have basically no cap space (around 400k, according to Capfriendly), which limits any deals. 
The expectation here is that the high talented but inconsistent Andre Burakovsky seems likely to be traded  which could free up around $3 million in cap space. He’s fallen out of favor with the Capitals brass and has been healthy scratched a few times this year, so he could use a change of scenery. There could be a fit by trading Burakovsky either for another player who could use a change of scenery, or maybe to a talent-starved team in exchange for a forward on an expiring deal.

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