Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What are the biggest issues facing the Caps?

J.J. Regan

It's time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday's Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

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A quick note, some exciting changes are coming for the Mailbag. Details coming soon.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: What is one area of concern long-term (rest of the season) and short-term (next month or two) that might pop up or become worrisome?

The immediate short-term concern is what will the Caps do when Richard Panik is activated off of LTIR? Someone will have to be waived. Once again, it will likely come down to Chandler Stephenson or Travis Boyd, both of whom are playing well.

And where does Panik slot in when he returns? The changes to the roster to fit under the cap will necessitate he gets back into the lineup. Does he go back to the third line right away to try to spark that line? I know people are down on Panik and he has had a tough debut with Washington, but it's not as if that line suddenly began producing without him. It has been an offensive hole in the lineup before and after he was injured.

The long-term issue is the second defensive pair because it doesn't have a right defenseman. Nick Jensen was supposed to play that role, but it proved to be too much for him in the first month of the season and he was moved down to the third pair. Gudas, who was playing well on the third pair has moved up to the second to play with Dmitry Orlov. I like Gudas as a third-pair defenseman, but the jury is still out for him as a top-four guy. Even if the Caps can get by with him there in the regular season, the playoffs have a way of exposing a team's weaknesses. He may look fine there all season and two games into the playoffs Reirden may suddenly need to scramble to cobble together a passable blue line.

Or Gudas could be fine next to Orlov and there is nothing to worry about. We just don't know and likely won't know for a while.

Even if the Caps did want to upgrade at that position, top-four defensemen are hard to find and don't come cheap, especially right-shot ones. What would the Caps be willing to give up and how on Earth could they afford a player of that caliber under the salary cap?

Jeff S. writes: It seems like the "issues" that Flyers fans always complained about around Gudas aren't really the case here, and haven't been since his start with the Caps. I know it's early, but do we think there's something to be said for his settling-in and finding a team that he's comfortable with, or is it too soon to tell?

Gudas will certainly tell you there's something to that. I asked him about this on Tuesday for a story I'm writing. There was a lot of uncertainty in Philadelphia last year during a season in which both the general manager and head coach were fired and not at the same time. Gudas was voted the best defenseman for the Flyers by the Philadelphia media last season and, while that does speak to the fact that he is a better defenseman than many give him credit for, an NHL team relying on Gudas to be its best defenseman is in trouble and the numbers bear that out. Philadelphia ranked 29, the third-worst in goals allowed last season.

Gudas left that drama behind him in Philadelphia. He has not been tasked with an over-sized role, he came in to be a third-pair guy and make Washington tougher to play against. That's an assignment he is much more comfortable playing than, hey, go be our best defenseman because the rest of our blue line stinks. As a result, he has excelled thus far.

Bill B. writes: I have to say that I've been totally surprised by how good Gudas has been. Given that he's been moved up to the second pair at times, could you foresee the Caps trying to re-sign him and maybe move Jensen? They can't keep both because of the cap and they have to make room for the kids down in Hershey, but if I had to choose right now it would be Radko over Jensen.

The sense I get from the team is that they really like Gudas so I would not be surprised if they try to re-sign him. As you noted, they would have to figure out what to do with Jensen. If Gudas can be a top-four guy, which I am sceptical of at this point, then you can re-sign him and be set on the right with Carlson, Gudas and Jensen.

The price would have to be right to bring Gudas back. He costs only $2.345 million against Washington's cap this year, but that's not his total cap hit. His total cap hit is $3.35 million including the salary Philadelphia retained. At only 29 years old, Gudas may not be as cheap next year for the Caps as he is now. If Braden Holtby leaves in free agency like I believe he will, the cap situation won't be as tight, but cap hit is never not a consideration.

Ryleigh W. writes: Last year during the playoffs, the Caps appeared completely thrown off by Carolina's forecheck. I heard that word bounced around a lot but never completely understood what they were doing so much better that we could not figure out a way to respond. Can you explain it and give some thoughts on if we are doing better with it, who is, why?

Carolina's forecheck is about applying constant pressure. They want to skate quickly into the offensive zone after the puck carrier and harass them in the hopes of forcing a turnover. Whenever the Caps would have the puck in their own zone, at least one player from Carolina would be in the puck carrier's face quickly. If the Hurricanes could get there quickly enough, a second forechecker would move to cut-off the outlet pass. It is a very aggressive style of forecheck that, when it works, creates turnovers in the Caps' defensive zone which is the most dangerous area to turn the puck over. The drawback is that if you can successfully get past the first wave of forecheckers you should have a pretty easy time breaking into the offensive zone. This also leaves them vulnerable to odd-man breaks.

The Caps struggled against this forecheck in the playoffs for two main reasons. It is hard to play a forecheck that aggressive for 60 minutes, 82 games a season so you don't see teams go as aggressive in the regular season as you do in the playoffs. Carolina had been aggressive, but the level to which they were committing to the forecheck in the playoffs seemed to catch the Caps by surprise. Second, Washington is an aggressive offensive team and once the defense gets the puck, the forwards are hauling down the ice. Carolina's forecheck was ideal for cutting off the defense from the forwards and thus cutting off the breakout passes and giving the puck carrier very few options for what to do with the puck.

You beat this forecheck with short, simple passes that allow for a quick transition out of the zone before the forecheck can get set and suffocate the puck carrier's options, or you use speed to aggressively move out of the zone as quickly as possible.

Breakouts have not largely not been an issue for the Caps, but in their last game against Calgary, the Flames forced two turnovers from Orlov that turned into goals so clearly this is still a work in progress. It is hard to tell just how prepared the team is for a forecheck that we only really see work at its best during the playoffs when players are ready to go 100-percent every shift. If it proves to be a problem in the playoffs again, one thing that could help is to make sure each line has a speedster who can move the puck, for example Evgeny Kuznetsov on the first line, Jakub Vrana on the second, Carl Hagelin on the third, Brendan Leipsic on the fourth). It may mean shuffling away from whatever line combinations Reirden may have wanted, but it is a possible solution.

Nathan S. writes: A lot has been made about the Caps playing a more aggressive style of play and getting D-men to jump into the offense. Two questions, is having the D-men more involved a way to help provide more depth scoring? Is this an admission that team made a conscious decision to be less aggressive last year? Is Barry Trotz employing a completely different D-centered system with Isles than he did with the Caps to compensate for the Isles not having the same offensive talent that Caps do?

Yes, this is a way to make up for less depth scoring offensively and it's working. The Caps are getting 3.94 goals per game, the second highest rate in the league, despite the third line producing bupkus.

As for your second question, do I think the team had a strategy of, hey guys let's score fewer goals! No. What this tells me is that the team is moving away from its quality over quantity shot mentality. When you focus so much on getting high-quality shots, this really limits any role the defense can have on the offense because the defensemen are not going to find themselves in those high-danger areas all that often. I think Reirden wants more shots from the blue line for forward deflections and the defense to pinch up more in the offensive zone than Trotz did and I think not having Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky has a lot to do with that.

I have not watched enough of the Islanders to give you a definitive answer, but the sense I get when I do see them is that their defense is based heavily on playing full-team, five men, all the time. That's hard to do with an offensive heavy team like Washington as it comes at the expense of offensive production. Mathew Barzal, for example, had 85 points in his rookie season. He was down to 62 last year in his first season under Trotz because he did not have the freedom on offense that perhaps he would have liked. When you have a limited number of offensive options like the Islanders do, it makes sense to play this way.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: When was the last time the first line scored 5-on-5? It feels like it's been a while. Are they all negative? Time to swap Evgeny Kuznetsov/Nicklas Backstrom or put Tom Wilson back up top…

Two games ago against Buffalo. T.J. Oshie scored a 5-on-5 goal with an assist from Michal Kempny and Alex Ovechkin. The game before that in Toronto, Ovechkikn and Nicklas Backstrom assisted on a 5-on-5 goal for John Carlson and Ovechkin scored a game-tying goal in the third period with assists from Backstrom and Oshie.

Look, I'll admit I don't like the Ovechkin, Backstrom Oshie line in today's NHL because I think it is too slow and because it makes the offense too top-heavy. I get the move though because Oshie was red-hot and Reirden decided to go with the hot hand.

The Caps have won four straight games, have a nine-game point streak. I see no reason why Reirden should panic about his top line not producing for literally one game.

Kevin M. writes: NHL.com shows Alex Ovechkin as the highest goal-scoring LW in the history of the NHL now that he has passed Luc Robitaille. Why is no one talking about this?

Because wings can be fluid and play left or right depending on where a coach chooses to put them. Heck, sometimes forwards are fluid with players going from center to wing all the time.

I am a member of the Pro Hockey Writer's Association and had a vote in last year's postseason awards. When the ballots come out, the PHWA actually sends notes clarifying the position of players who play on either side because in 2013 Ovechkin was moved to the right by head coach Adam Oates and was voted a first-team all-star at both left wing and right wing by the media.

There's a big difference between a goalie and a skater, a big difference between a forward and a defenseman, but not a whole lot of difference between a left and right winger, especially in today's NHL when teams cycle and players switch sides during play all the time. It just does not warrant that much attention because it is sort of an arbitrary distinction. Ovechkin has more goals than any other forward who usually played the left side in his career. Impressive, but not something anyone feels the need to roll out the red carpet for.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What are the biggest issues facing the Caps? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

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