Capitals Mailbag: What the NHL got right and wrong about Hathaway's suspension

J.J. Regan

It's time for a new Capitals Mailbag!

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Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

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Alex G. writes: What's your take on Garnet Hathaway's actions during the game vs. the Ducks?

Dan Graninger writes: Does the 3-game suspension for Hathaway seem a little excessive? How come the guy that sucker-punched Hathaway didn't get some sort of supplementary action as well?

Craig Boden writes: I get why the NHL gave Hathaway the 3 games for spitting, they have to nip it in the bud so to speak. However, does that mean they totally ignore the sucker head shots that started the whole thing to begin with?

I never thought saying someone should be suspended for spitting would be a controversial opinion. Judging on the reaction I got from Twitter, however, that is where we are.

Two things can be true. First, Hathaway absolutely should have been suspended for spitting. Three games, however, is completely ridiculous.

Let's address the first part. Every single active and former player who I have spoken to or whose opinion I have read/heard has said Hathaway should have been suspended. Don't take that as an invitation to send me the handful of outliers I am sure are out there who think it's not a big deal, I just bring this up because I had a lot of fans tell me that media are the only people who considered spitting a big deal. That is just not true. People involved in hockey all recognized that this was a big deal.

As for the sucker punches, I don't like them and I think the NHL needs to clean up players taking shots at each other once the refs step in. Having said that, sucker punches happen in just about every scrum, every game. I don't like that Erik Gudbranson gave Hathaway a shot when the ref stepped in and I think the referee should have done a better job of separating the players and getting Hathaway to the box/off the ice at that point. But we see this literally all the time. I'm not justifying it, my point is that the sucker punch does not somehow justify what Hathaway did because this happens every game and players don't react to it by spitting.

As for the length of the suspension, it was completely absurd. I thought he would get one or two games because any more than that would bring about comparisons to other suspensions. Sure enough, Robert Bortuzzo got suspended four games less than a week later for a vicious cross-check to Viktor Arvidsson which he delivered with clear intent to injure or at least hurt.

To be fair, Hathaway's suspension was handed down by the NHL's Hockey Operations Department which handles match penalties rather than the Department of Player Safety so you have two different departments with two different standards. Still, three games was incredibly harsh. I think the message would have gotten across with one or two games instead, they did not need to go three.

Craig Boden writes: Do the Capitals have enough on their roster when healthy to win another Cup? If not, what changes would you try to make?

To this point in the season, I see two glaring weaknesses. First is second pair right defenseman. The problem is that the Caps have a top-pair guy in John Carlson and two bottom-pair righties in Radko Gudas and Nick Jensen. Both Gudas and Jensen have been given a shot at earning the top-four role and neither has.

"I'd like to see more consistent play out of Jensen and Gudas," Brian MacLellan said Tuesday. "I think at times both of them ahve been really good and then at other times they're both making mistakes, too. I'd like to see one of them grab that No. 4 spot and just hang onto and go forward for the rest of the year."

The second issue is the team is getting little production from the third line. Panik's struggles are well documented at this point, but Carl Hagelin still has not scored so it is not all just on him.

Of the two issues, I think finding a top-four righty is the bigger priority. Missing a top-four defenseman is a glaring weakness and one that will get exposed in the postseason. As for third-line production, I am willing to give them more time to figure things out.

I wrote about this on Wednesday based on what MacLellan had to say about it.  In doing the research, I was stunned by just how little Hagelin, Lars Eller and Panik have played together this season. That line has been together only eight games and for 23:13 of ice time. That is zero sample size. Let's see what that line can do before thinking of other options there.

Timothy Kosecki writes: Given the twin situations on the second/third pair and the salary cap, what is the likelihood of dumping Nick Jensen now, calling up Tyler Lewington to play third pair right defenseman and banking cap space until the trade deadline when the team can bring in a rental?

I do not see this happening. Tyler Lewington is fine as a No. 7. If you need him to step in for a game or two here and there, fine. If you need a player to step in long-term, however, with all due respect to Lewington he's just not good enough for that. This would put more of a strain on the other defensemen who would all start playing more minutes as a result. You don't need Carlson playing even more minutes than he already is.

Case Reed writes: Can the Caps go the whole season with their salary cap without it causing problems?

Max Esterhuizen writes: How do you foresee the Capitals tight salary cap space impacting the Caps during remainder of season, especially if injuries keep being an issue?

Erik Kampmann writes: What exactly are the financial ramifications if the Caps exceed the cap to keep a consistent roster?

First off, the Caps can't go the whole season without it causing problems because it has already caused problems. Playing a game with seven defensemen and down a forward because that's all you can afford is a problem. If things keep going like this, I could see a situation where the Caps are on the road and have to play a man down because they did not have enough money to travel with any healthy scratches and a call-up from Hershey is not able to get to the game in time. That's a problem.

As for the financial repercussions, this isn't a situation where they have to pay a luxury tax or a fine or something like that. It's just against the rules. It's like asking what the financial repercussions are of adding a brick wall in front of the net or releasing a rabid wolverine into the opposition's bench every game. You're just not allowed to do it. The only situation I can think of in which a team goes over the cap is when performance bonuses kick in. Those get added to the cap and can sometimes push a team over. When that happens, however much the team went over becomes dead money the next season. Performance bonuses for Jakub Vrana and Brooks Orpik put the Caps over by $1,150,000 last season which carried over to this season as dead cap space.

If you are asking can the Caps say screw it, go over the cap and worry about the consequences later, no, it doesn't work like that.

The big problems are two-fold. First, as I mentioned before, you have no insurance for injuries. When you have no healthy scratches, if a player twists his ankle on the way to the rink, congratulations, you are playing down a man. The second issue is being so close to the cap does not allow the team to bank space. 

Here's a crash course on banking cap space. If I give you $100 to last from Monday to Friday, the salary cap means you can only spend $20 per day. Any more would put you over the cap because you are on pace to spend over. If you spend just $5 on Monday and Tuesday, however, you can now spend $30 per day from Wednesday to Friday because you have banked that additional space.

The Caps aren't doing that and that is going to make it tough to improve the roster down the line.

Ever wonder how teams start acquiring players at the trade deadline they could not afford at the start of the season? That's how. They have banked the space to afford those players. The Caps aren't banking anything right now. So if the team wants to add a second-pair right defenseman as I noted above (who usually don't come cheap) that will have to be a dollar for dollar trade or the Caps will not be able to afford him under the cap.

Alex Graninger writes: Why specifically was Ilya Samsonov chosen over Vitek Vanecek?

A scout would be better qualified to answer this question. I am not that, but I can tell you what I see and what I have heard. Samsonov's athleticism is elite. He is never out of a play and is capable of getting over to make fantastic saves you would not expect. He is bigger than Vanecek and able to cover more of the net as a result, especially down low where he is incredibly tough to beat. He squares to shooters well. What's more, all his weaknesses are coachable. He overcommits on plays and can slide way too far out of the net. He does not always track the puck well which is not uncommon for European goalies adjusting to the smaller ice. Those things can be coached out of Samsonov's game over time.

Vanecek is good, but he plays small. He squares up to shooters but is more prone to letting in bad goals by not covering the net well. He tries to make up for this by being aggressive which can sometimes backfire. 

The very basic answer to this question is that Samsonov is better and has a higher ceiling than Vanecek. I would project Samsonov to be an NHL starter and Vanecek to be an NHL backup/AHL starter.

Joe Blumenauer writes: When is the earliest we could see Connor McMichael playing for the Caps? Where do you see him fitting into the Caps lineup?

There's no rush. McMichael is a center and the Caps have Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd under contract at least through the 2021-22 season.  And there's Nicklas Backstrom who I am assuming the team is going to re-sign.

I do not see McMichael as a player they would bring up to play wing, he's a center. I see his ceiling being a top-line player, but he has a ways to go before he can be that in the NHL. He has some bulking up to do.

Because he is in the OHL, a Canadian junior league, McMichael can't be called up to play in the AHL or ECHL. He would have to be called up just to play in the NHL only. That is true for another year and I am doubtful the Caps would do that so I think we have to wait for him to play another season in juniors, and then get some playing time in the AHL before they think of bringing him up.

What will that look like when he does reach the NHL? My best guess is that it would look similar to the one-two punch the Caps have now with Backstrom and Kuznetsov except by then it will be Kuznetsov and McMichael, two centers who can play on either the first or second line.

Mary BeVard writes: What is the process at the end of a player's season in Juniors? Could players move to the NHL or AHL teams? What is the impact on the salary cap? Are any players early in their careers exempt from the expansion draft, so not in need of protection?

I touched on this a bit in the last question. Basically the NHL and CHL (which includes the OHL, WHL and QMJHL) have an agreement in place that players drafted and playing in the CHL are ineligible to play in minor professional leagues until the year they turn 20. Players can be recalled to the NHL, but not reassigned to the minors. Sometimes at the end of the junior seasons those players can sign PTOs in the minor leagues, but that is the only exception.

A player like McMichael is already under contract so in the event a player is recalled from juniors, his cap hit would be based on his daily cap hit for the remaining number of days in the regular season.

As for the expansion draft, all first and second-year professionals are exempt from selection so players currently in juniors don't have to worry. They will not suddenly get three years of professional experience by June 2021.

Phillip Martin writes: I keep hearing how the Capitals will be doing a total rebuild soon, but I do not see this team as noncompetitive 4 or 5 years out. Am I being overly optimistic? How do you see us in 5 years as we try to stay competitive around Ovi?

This Caps team depends largely on Alex Ovechkin remaining great. Replace his 40-50 goals with 20-30 and this team is not nearly as formidable offensively. That is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but the fact is this team has a lot of great players on the wrong side of 30. They will not be contenders forever.

Do I see this team completely falling off the map? No, but let's look at Chicago and Los Angeles. Those are two teams not too far removed from being some of the best squads in the NHL. They still have the key players that won them Cups on the roster and those players are still good. They just are not as good as they used to be and can't carry the supporting cast like they once did. The results are...ugly.

What people forget when thinking about this is that the margin between Cup contender and a lottery pick is very slim. You don't have to fall off that much to be talking about grabbing a top-three pick in the draft.

Every team in the NHL thinks it has young talent it can build around. Do the Caps have more than other teams? No. In fact, all the prospect rankings I've seen has the Caps' farm system either dead last or close to it. The emergence of Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas won't mean the Caps can bridge the gap from contender to contender without any dropoff.

The lean years are coming. It's inevitable.

Marie Keller writes: Why does the ref dismiss someone before a face-off at the dot?

The NHL has specific faceoff rules that, if a player violates, can get him tossed by the linesman. Rule 76.6 lists all the possible violations. These are encroachment by other players not taking the faceoff into the face-off circle, physical contact with the opponent before the puck is dropped, failure by the center to position himself behind the restraining lines or position his stick on the ice properly.

Charles Smetheram writes: With several teams having issues with their back-up goaltenders (Vegas, Toronto, NJ) could you see Phoenix Copley getting traded? What could the return be, and would it affect the salary cap issues?

Yes, if the price is right. You are right in that backup goaltending is a need for several teams, but someone, either Holtby or Ilya Samsonov, is going to need a backup next year too because the Caps are not going to keep both goalies. They are either going to re-sign Holtby and trade Samsonov or let Holtby walk. The Seattle expansion draft simply will force Washington's hand as the team will only be able to protect one goalie. Knowing the situation, the Caps could have sold Copley before the season started, but instead had him compete in camp and sent him to Hershey. My feeling is they would prefer to keep him, but anyone can be moved for the right price.

As for the salary cap, since Copley is in Hershey, most of his cap hit is buried in the AHL. He is only counting $25,000 against Washington's salary cap at the moment.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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Capitals Mailbag: What the NHL got right and wrong about Hathaway's suspension originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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