Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How has Todd Reirden changed in his second year at the helm?

J.J. Regan

It's time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

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Joe Blumenauer writes: How does the Chandler Stephenson trade affect the Caps' issues for this season?

Not as much as you may think.

The Caps had an extra forward on its roster due to all the injuries. Someone was going to get sent down to Hershey anyway with the team getting healthy. In that sense, the trade has very little effect as that extra guy is in Vegas instead of Hershey and they have a fifth-round pick to show for it.

What's really important is that the team chose to stick with Travis Boyd over Stephenson because that is what the ultimate choice came down to. That actually is significant as Boyd has a lower cap hit by $250,000. Crunching the numbers, I believe that will allow the team to keep 13 forwards and have enough money to recall Tyler Lewington as a No. 7. It is important to have an extra at each position to avoid playing shorthanded due to any late, unforeseen injuries or illnesses.

So, to me, it isn't so much the trade that is significant, it's the fact that the team kept Boyd over Stephenson.

Lisa Millholland writes: Do you see a change/growth in the coaching staff this year, given that they are now in their sophomore year as a coaching group?

I am going to reserve my judgment largely until we see what happens in the playoffs. I thought Todd Reirden and his staff were put in an impossible situation and navigated the regular season very well last year. The only time I felt they were making questionable coaching decisions was in the playoffs so if you want to see growth, that's where you'll find it.

But one thing I have noticed is that they are doing a much better job of coaching to a player's strengths and not trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Reirden said last year he wanted to add more speed and skill to the penalty kill and then we saw players like Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov play there. That was not going to work and everyone knew it. I have not seen Reirden try to force players into any roles they were ill-suited for.

One other thing, Reirden seems more open to letting players change his mind about them with their play, as much as the salary cap will allow him to anyway. I did not think there was anything Chandler Stephenson could do to stay out of Hershey this year. He was brilliant in training camp and rightly earned a roster spot. Since then, Travis Boyd has outplayed him and again, he is now on the roster while the team traded away Stephenson. Richard Panik went to the fourth line while he was struggling and has stayed on the third line since his play improved.

Last season Stephenson did not play well and he continually got into the lineup despite his poor play. I don't know what it was about Dmitrij Jaskin that Reirden didn't like, but once Reirden made up his mind about him it did not matter how well he played. Reirden has not been as rigid with his personnel decisions this season.

Joe Blumenauer writes: The Caps have been fantastic this year both on the road and in winning come-from-behind games. Is that more attributable to Todd Reirden making great mid-game adjustments or veteran leadership on the team?

Certainly, the coaching staff deserves some credit here for the adjustments, but there is a confidence in this team that goes from the leaders on down that they are never out of a game and that comes from years of being able to mount those type of comebacks. There were a few years in the Barry Trotz era where it didn't matter if the deficit was one, two or three goals heading into the third period. As a writer who needs to turn in a game story just as a game ends, I always had to debate with myself how much I wanted to write before the third period started because I knew they would mount a crazy comeback. This team has a similar feel.

Josh Cohen writes: For what reasons did Todd Reirden choose Ilya Samsonov over Pheonix Copley?

There are on the ice reasons and off the ice reasons why Samsonov is the backup over Copley. A scout or a coach would be more qualified to explain the on-the-ice reasons, but I will tell you what I have seen. Both players have similar size, but Samsonov's athleticism is off the charts. Because of that, you can never count him out on a shot. He is very good at finding a way to get in front of the puck, even if it looks unorthodox or frantic at times. This can look troubling at times as it is in stark contrast to Braden Holtby's controlled style of play, but plenty of goalies play the frantic, Dominik Hasek style of netminding so it is nothing to be concerned about. Samsonov is extremely tough to beat down low, squares well. He can sometimes over commit on a play and slide out of position and he does not always track the puck well which is common for European goalie adjusting to the North American game. The point is that his biggest weaknesses are coachable and will get better with time. This is a starting-caliber goalie at the NHL level.

Copley is not. He has good size, but he does not move well in the crease and so does not cover as much of the net as you would expect a 6-foot-4 goalie to. He also does not control rebounds well. A number of his best saves in the 2018-19 season came as a result of his own inability to control the rebound. I saw him as a high-end AHL starter. I was wary of him as an NHL backup. Sixteen wins obviously speaks for itself, but I am not sure he could do that again.

The bottom line is that Samsonov is an NHL starter, Copley is an AHL starter/NHL backup. Even at 22 years old, Samsonov is and has proven to be the better netminder.

That's on the ice. Off the ice, with Braden Holtby on the last year of his contract, the Caps have to see what Samsonov can do and had to get him NHL time this season. Add in the fact that Copley has a $1.1 million cap hit and Samsonov's is only $925,000, and really the team had to keep Samsonov over Copley.

Joe Wallen writes: The Caps seem to have more elite talent from Europe than most, in not all, NHL teams. Is it coincidence, i.e. always drafting the best player available, or do the Caps scout differently than other NHL teams?

I don't know if they scout differently, but there is the Caps certainly seem to be and have been more open to drafting European players. Sometimes it can be a challenge to get European players to come to North America and sometimes the transition from European to North American hockey is extremely difficult. There are definitely challenges that come with European players, but there is also an old-school mentality that still exists in hockey among some people who will always believe it is better to have Canadien players and you can't win with too many Europeans.

Don Cherry was not popular because he was a novelty, he was popular in part because a lot of people agreed with what he was saying. Do you know how many questions I got from people before the Caps won the Cup asking me if having too many European players was the problem for Washington? Heck, there is a large segment of Toronto Maple Leafs fans who think it is more important that Toronto be an all Canadian team than to win the Cup. That is not an exaggeration.

For rational people, we know this is ridiculous. While Cherry tried to say the Caps won the Cup because of Holtby and Tom Wilson, he neglected to mention the all-time Great Russian who won the Conn Smythe, the all-star Russian center who could have won the Conn Smythe, the future Hall of Fame Swedish center, the elite American defenseman, the Dane who scored the Cup-clinching goal, the Czech who tied the defense together when the team traded for him at the deadline, etc.

The Caps are thankfully free from that antiquated notion, but it still exists among circles in the NHL and there remains those who will always value Canadian players over Europeans.

Nathan S. writes: One of the benefits of physical play in the playoffs is that you can wear down your opponent over the course of a seven-game series. However, do you have any concern that Caps are too physical at times for the regular season this year?

This is one of the biggest reasons why the playoffs in the NHL is so different from the regular season. The physical play a team can commit to in the playoffs, you just can't commit to over 82 games. There's no way. I asked the players about this in April and they were very open about it. You can read that story here.

The Caps are at their best when they play a hard, physical game. That's why I do not think they will keep up the pace they are on now for the entire season and will struggle in January/February. They should be fine for the playoffs, though.

Ayla Bellegarde writes: Since the loss of Jay Beagle, we still haven't been able to get a consistent face-off man. Who would be a contender we could pick up or trade for?

No one. The two biggest weaknesses on the team right now are top-four right-shot defenseman and third-line production. The defenseman is more pressing and will come back to haunt Washington in the playoffs if left unaddressed. And if the team wanted to bolster the third line, they would do it on the wings, not at center where Lars Eller has that position locked down. Because of the team's cap situation, I don't know if they can afford pretty much anything at the trade deadline. If they do make a move, however, a top-four defenseman and a third-line wing are a much higher priority than a faceoff specialist. I just don't think there's enough cap room to worry about faceoffs right now, which has been an area the team has improved on anyway.

Samuel Resnick writes: Do you think the Caps will try to make any big moves at the trade deadline this season?

As noted above, I think they need a top-four right defenseman. Third line production is a problem now, but we have barely seen the third line healthy this season so I will withhold judgment there. But top-four defense is a glaring hole that needs to be addressed.

The problem is that the Caps have no cap room and are not banking any additional cap room which teams use at the trade deadline. If I had to guess, I would say the scouts are hard at work trying to find a Michal Kempny type of deal, an under-appreciated defenseman the team can get for cheap who could potentially step into a larger role in Washington. Good luck, those guys are hard to find.

Marla Galvan writes: Does Peter Bondra ever come back to watch Caps games, or is he still involved with the organization in any way?

Bondra actually works for the Caps in an ambassador role. It is not a figurehead job or just a fancy title, it is an actual job that I have heard he takes very seriously so much so that he won't let people call him "Bonzai" at work. He started in that role in 2017 and has a Cup ring since he was a part of the organization during the Cup run. Bondra is also the executive director of the Capitals Alumni Association.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. 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 Part 1: How has Todd Reirden changed in his second year at the helm? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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