The Washington Football Team falls back down to Earth in loss to Cardinals

When the Washington Football Team defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1, there was a lot to be excited about: the defensive line dominated, Dwayne Haskins looked in control and the Eagles looked atrocious.

A week later, against a much more formidable opponent, the team looked closer to what everyone expected coming into the season. They’re still technically in first place in the NFC East, but that will likely come to an end in the next week or two.

No one expected them to be a super team after last week; this is still very much a rebuild, but after seeing the starts to their division rivals’ games, it wasn’t out of the question to wonder if Washington had the best team in the division.

Then later that afternoon, the Burgundy & Gold proceeded to fall down 20-0 by halftime before eventually losing 30-15. Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals, to their credit, have been named dark horse contenders by so many people that they probably can’t even be considered dark horses. Still, the growing pains were evident for Washington.

The defense was fine, but not great. They let up too many points too early, but managed to hold Arizona at 20 points for a large stretch. The offense, like last week, couldn’t get anything going, and an already dreadful offensive line lost their best piece when Brandon Scherff went down with a knee injury.

Here’s a scary thought: Chase Roullier is now our best offensive lineman. Geron Christian is simply not a starting left tackle, and Wes Martin has not looked good at left guard either. Some people will blame the offensive ineptitude on Haskins, but when you can’t get blindside protection, it’s hard to do well in the NFL.

Rounding out the line is Morgan Moses, one of the highest-paid right tackles in the league, who he has not seemed to recapture the form that earned him his contract.

As I mentioned last week, the schedule isn’t getting any easier in the coming weeks, and with Scherff now out for three to five weeks, our offense could struggle mightily.

There was buzz earlier in the week that perhaps Allen Robinson wanted out of Chicago, but that has since been shut down. The Bears’ star wide receiver would have been a perfect addition to this offense. Giving Haskins an established, veteran threat to throw to besides Terry McLaurin would have done wonders. Suddenly the offense wouldn’t look too bad beyond the offensive line.

Instead, Robinson appears to be staying put. The pass-catchers looked about as expected as well; McLaurin had a great game (7 rec-125 yds-1 TD), but the rest of the squad was mediocre at best.

Tight end Logan Thomas was peppered with targets for the second week in a row, with Haskins looking his way nine times. Only McLaurin (10) was targeted more. Despite all the attention, Thomas looked out of sync with Haskins for much of the day, grabbing just four receptions for 26 yards.

Maybe Thomas just needs more time to gel with the offense, or maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to be a starting tight end in the NFL. Haskins seems to trust him as a target, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove himself.

The biggest pleasant surprise on offense was JD McKissic. Brought in as a receiving back, McKissic rushed for 53 yards on just eight carries (6.63 yards per carry). He broke off for several long runs that often saved the drive for the offense. Rushing isn’t his calling card, so it’s nice to see that he was able to produce on the ground as well.

As for the other running backs, Peyton Barber was the lead back a week ago, taking 17 carries, but this week Barber had just one carry for one yard. Rookie Antonio Gibson had the most carries this week (13) for 55 yards and a late touchdown. Gibson looked shifty, explosive and perhaps already the best all-around back in this offense.

I still think keeping Adrian Peterson around would have been helpful. He can still play, and if the team is only giving Barber a single carry (in which he converted on 4th & 1), and McKissic and Gibson are more rushing/receiving hybrids, then Peterson seems like a valuable veteran presence in the backfield. Oh well.

We’ve seen the Washington Football Team face a dumpster fire and a legit playoff contender in back-to-back weeks. I think it’s fair to say they fall somewhere in between, at least at this point. This is not a playoff team; they can’t really compete with the best out there (although in this year’s NFC East, who knows?). At the same time, there are a handful of teams in more destitute situations so far.

The offense has to start getting points early, and the defense needs to make more stops early in the game, but I would be shocked if there is no improvement between now and Week 17. At least All-Pro punter Tress Way looked sharp as always; we can definitely count on him.

Cover Photo Credit: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via USA TODAY NETWORK

The Pohory-list: Top 10 undrafted players in DC history

I’ve ranked the top 10 first overall picks and have named the best players selected in each first-round draft slot in the past, so today I’m going to look at the other end of the spectrum. First-round picks, especially the first overall selections, enter the league with high expectations. They are the future stars that teams build around.

Unlike those destined stars, there are plenty more that never hear their name called on draft day. If they’re lucky enough to get signed, they have to fight every step of the way to earn a permanent spot on the roster and then push even more to receive actual playing time.

Most slip through the cracks and are forced to either play overseas or just retire. A rare few are able to prove every team’s front office wrong and show they deserved to be as coveted as the highest-drafted players.

For this list, a player’s entire career will be taken into account, but his time in Washington will be prioritized most when compared to others. So while some players on this list may have had a better overall career than a player ahead of them on the list, they are ranked lower due to their stint in Washington not being as strong as the other’s.

In addition, I won’t be including any of the great Washington Senators of the past. The MLB Draft was not implemented until 1965, so while a legend like Walter Johnson would easily top this list of undrafted players, it wouldn’t be an accurate representation since nobody in that era was drafted. The same rules apply to any player in another sport who began their career before their league’s draft was implemented.

Baseball also has the luxury of extracting international free agents from other countries without going through a traditional draft. Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Luis Garcia are just three players in recent years that signed with the team as international free agents out of the Dominican Republic. Technically none of them were drafted, but they all would have been if they were included in the draft pool, so including any of them would skew the rest of the list.

As such, no Nationals players made the list, as the number of rounds in the MLB Draft make it nearly impossible for anyone who reaches the majors to be undrafted. In any case, here are the top 10 undrafted players in city history:

10 – Ben Wallace, Washington Wizards C (1996-99)

Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport

Wallace is arguably the best undrafted player in NBA history, but he falls so low on this list because he achieved his greatness after leaving the Bullets/Wizards. After spending his first three years in Washington, Wallace went on to become the best defensive player in the league, making six All-Defensive Teams and winning Defensive Player of the Year four times with the Detroit Pistons. He was instrumental in Detroit’s NBA Championship win in 2004.

The two-time rebounding champ wasn’t close to the caliber player he would become in Detroit during his stint in Washington. He averaged just under six minutes per game as a rookie, but by his third season he was averaging 6.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals per game in a rotational role. That’s pretty good for an undrafted player, but it pales in comparison to what he became.

9 – Geoff Courtnall, Washington Capitals LW (1988-90)

Photo Credit: SCORE

Courtnall spent just two seasons in Washington, but made the most of his time here. He finished as the second-highest scorer on the team in both years, totaling 80 points in 1988-89 before finishing with 74 in ’89-90.

Courtnall played just 31 total games with the Edmonton Oilers prior to joining the Caps in 1988, but he managed to help the Oilers win their fourth Stanley Cup in five years. In 19 playoff games, Courtnall contributed just three assists.

Despite spending more time with Boston, St. Louis and Vancouver, Courtnall’s two years as a Cap were two of three seasons in which he received All-Star Team votes. (The only other season was with St. Louis in 1997-98 at 35 years old.) Courtnall didn’t spend a lot of time with the Caps, but with a Stanley Cup and 799 points in 1,048 career games played, Courtnall is one of the better undrafted players in NHL history.

8 – Dino Ciccarelli, Washington Capitals RW (1989-92)

Photo Credit: Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

Ciccarelli is one of the few Hall of Famers on this list, but he comes in at eight purely because he played just three full seasons with the Caps. Much like Courtnall, Ciccarelli was consistently among the team’s top scorers.

In his first full season with the team in 1989-90, Ciccarelli led the team with 79 points (41g, 38a). He played just 54 games the following season, which dropped him down to 39 points (eighth-most on the team), but he bounced back in ’91-92, where his 38 goals and 38 assists put him back among the top three scorers on the team.

He played 19 years in the NHL, scoring exactly 1,200 points in 1,232 games. His 608 career goals are 19th-most in NHL history.

7 – Mark Murphy, Washington Redskins S (1977-84)

Photo Credit: Redskins Historian

Murphy played just eight NFL seasons — all in Washington — with one of the strangest careers arcs I’ve ever seen. Essentially a non-factor in his first two seasons, Murphy abruptly became a full-time starter by his third season and started every game from 1979-82, and he missed just one game the following year in ’83.

Murphy was an absolute ball-hawk in his prime, finishing in the top 15 in interceptions league-wide three times in four years from 1980-83, culminating with a league-leading nine interceptions in ’83, coinciding with his first and only Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.

Following that all-time great season, Murphy started just two games in 1984 in what would be his final NFL season at just 29 years old. Many speculate his active role in the union during the 1982 NFL strike had something to do with his ouster from league circles. Regardless, Murphy’s elite play helped Washington win its first Super Bowl, and he made a great career out of an undrafted start.

6 – Neal Olkewicz, Washington Redskins LB (1979-89)

Photo Credit: Redskins Collect

The Washington Football Team dominates this list, as the Super Bowl teams of old were supplemented by undrafted players who broke out in big ways. Olkewicz is one of them; he spent his entire 11-year career in Washington and helped the team win its first two Super Bowls.

Olkewicz never made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team, but he started every game from 1982-86 and was a constant force in the middle for Washington. Not many defensive stats were tracked back then, but he ironically finished with his career-high for single-season sacks (3.0) in the shortened 1982 Super Bowl season.

He may not be regarded among the very best players in team history, but his impact earned him the distinction of being named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins in 2002.

5 – Jeff Bostic, Washington Redskins C (1980-93)

Photo Credit: Leader In Sports

Bostic was a fixture at center for the famed Hogs offensive line group, and he spent his entire 14-year career with Washington, making him one of only eight players to spend at least 14 years with the franchise. Bostic made just one Pro Bowl in his career (1983), but he was the starting center for all three Super Bowl victories, snapping the ball to a different quarterback in each one.

Bostic’s role in franchise history earned him a spot in the franchise’s Ring of Fame, where he was enshrined in 2015. While he doesn’t garner the same Hall of Fame nomination buzz that teammates Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby did, he remains an all-time great Washington player.

4 – Mike Ridley, Washington Capitals C (1987-94)

Photo Credit: NHL

Ridley started his career with the New York Rangers but was traded to Washington in his second season in the Bobby Carpenter trade. He finished fourth on the team in points during his first full season in 1987-88, and spent the remaining six years among the top three scorers on the team.

In fact in 1989-90, Ciccarelli, Courtnall and Ridley made up the top three scorers on the team. All three of them undrafted, all three on this list. Ridley was fifth on the team in points in ’91-92, but led the team in ’88-89 and ’93-94, and finished second or third in every other year. That consistent offensive output landed Ridley on the top 10 franchise leaderboard for goals (fifth with 218) and points (eighth with 547).

Ridley also brought a solid defensive component to his game, earning himself votes for the Selke Trophy in three different seasons. He made one appearance in the All-Star Game in 1989.

3 – London Fletcher, Washington Redskins LB (2007-13)

Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Fletcher got himself a Super Bowl ring early in his career with the St. Louis Rams in 1999, but he didn’t arrive in Washington until 2007 at 32 years old. In seven seasons with Washington, Fletcher started every single game, extending an incredible starting streak to 215 games, an NFL record among linebackers.

His durability allowed him to be a reliable force commanding the defense. Fletcher led Washington in tackles, often by wide margins, in every season except his final one, when he trailed team-leading Perry Riley (115 combined tackles at 25 years old) by just four (111 at 38). He led the league with 166 tackles in 2011.

Fletcher also totaled 12 interceptions and 11.5 sacks across those seven seasons, and he made the Pro Bowl four years in a row from 2009-12. He only recently became eligible for the Hall of Fame, where he will hopefully be (and should be) inducted within the next few years.

2 – Adam Oates, Washington Capitals C (1997-2002)

Photo Credit: Doug Pensinger/Allsport

Oates is another player on this list who has a bidding to the title of greatest undrafted player in the history of his sport, but he didn’t come to Washington until his 12th NHL season at age 34. Despite his (relatively) advanced age, Oates accomplished a lot in his five-year stint.

In his first full season, Oates was second on the team in points (76) behind Peter Bondra, and his 58 assists more than doubled the next-highest total (Bondra’s 26). His 17 points (6g, 11a) in the playoffs that year co-led the team as the franchise reached its first Stanley Cup Final in 1998.

Oates was named captain prior to the 1999-2000 season, and he led the team in points over the next two years. At 38 years old in 2000-01, Oates co-led the NHL with 69 assists, and he led the league again the following year with 64. A trade to Philadelphia in 2002 marked the beginning of the end for his playing career, but he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.

We won’t talk about his coaching stint — this is purely about Oates as a player.

1 – Joe Jacoby, Washington Redskins OT (1981-93)

Jacoby was also a member of the Hogs, and he tops this list as one of the greatest, if not underappreciated, offensive tackles of his time. Like Bostic, Jacoby was on the team for all three Super Bowls. He primarily played left tackle, but was shifted to the right and briefly played guard in the latter stages of his career.

The fact that the Hogs contained two undrafted players as keystone pieces is mind-boggling; it’s either terrific scouting or terrific luck, but either way, Jacoby established himself as one of the top offensive linemen of the 1980s. He was a two-time AP First Team All-Pro selection, and he earned four consecutive Pro Bowl selections from 1983-86.

Jacoby has been nominated for the Hall of Fame multiple times over the past decade, but he reached 20 years of eligibility in 2018 without being inducted. He still has a chance as a “senior” candidate down the line, but his exclusion to this point is head-scratching. Jacoby spent his entire 13-year career in Washington, and lays claim to the greatest career of an undrafted player in city history.

Five Takeaways from the Washington Football Team’s opening win

Author’s note: The lack in activity over the past few weeks is due to the fact that I recently moved back on to campus for school and needed some time to adjust to my new schedule. Now that I’ve settled in, I plan to get back into a regular cycle. I won’t have the time to post every day or two (like I did throughout the summer), but I plan to post about twice a week going forward (every 3-4 days). Thanks to all my readers for supporting.

Six months after the NBA, NHL and practically every other sports league worldwide shut down operations due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL played their Week 1 slate of games. The pandemic persists, but football is still being played.

With stadiums empty or at limited capacity, the vibe was very different across the league on Sunday. For the Washington Football Team, however, the empty stadium was probably the only familiar part of the game.

With a new team name, new uniforms and new personnel up and down the organization, it was a bizarre experience watching this version of the Washington NFL franchise take the field. After watching yesterday’s game, maybe all the change was necessary.

A year ago during Week 1, the Philadelphia Eagles overcame a 17-0 deficit to defeat Washington 32-27. Today, it was Washington who turned a 17-0 deficit into a victory. A depleted Eagles offensive line left the oft-injured Carson Wentz to the wolves (the Red Wolves, that is) as he was sacked eight times by Washington’s imposing defensive line.

We’ll get to all of that and more as I break down the five biggest takeaways from Washington taking first place in the NFC East:

Dwayne Haskins has a ways to go, but still looked comfortable

Without any preseason action, Week 1 served as a first look for most of the players on the team. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be the biggest determining factor for how much success the team will experience this year. He had a rough go in his rookie season last year, but managed to improve with every start. After putting in a ton of work and slimming down this offseason, Haskins looked much more comfortable running the offense in this first game.

Granted, the offense never really got going until the second half, and Haskins’ numbers weren’t good (17/31, 178 yards, 1 TD, 45.3 QBR), but he did enough to win the game, which is all you can ask for at this point. Most of the credit has to go to the defense, but Haskins stepped up as a leader both on the field and in the locker room.

While coach Ron Rivera was receiving planned treatment for his cancer at halftime, as the team was down 17-7, it was the second-year quarterback who stepped up and spoke to the team in the locker room. It’s part of the quarterback’s job to be a leader, but with more experienced players on either side of the ball that could have addressed the team instead, it’s nice to see Haskins didn’t hesitate to take charge.

Haskins and the rest of the offense have a long way to go, but with Haskins helping to pull out this win and the locker room seemingly behind him, this outcome had to serve as a huge boost of confidence. If Haskins can keep the leadership mentality and continue to improve, the stats will come, but for now, starting out the season 1-0 over a division rival is good enough for me.

That defensive line though

This unit has been hyped as the best on the team, and boy did it show on Sunday. Against a ravaged Philadelphia offensive line, everybody ate. As mentioned, Wentz was sacked eight times, and a couple of those served as major milestones for two players in particular.

Ryan Kerrigan entered this season with 90 career sacks, putting him just one behind Dexter Manley for the all-time franchise record. With a team-leading two sacks yesterday afternoon, Kerrigan was able to pass Manley for sole possession of the franchise record.

On the other end of the milestone spectrum was rookie Chase Young, who recorded his first career sack 12 minutes into the first quarter. Young finished the day with 1.5 sacks, and both plays resulted in fumbles from Wentz. The first was recovered by Eagles center Jason Kelce, but the second was scooped up by Kerrigan late in the fourth quarter to effectively seal the game.

Young wasted no time making his presence known, and it should be a thrill to watch him terrorize opposing offenses this season. Washington will face much better offensive line units this season, so we can’t expect eight-sack days every week, but I can’t wait to see how this unit progresses throughout the season.

The secondary was surprisingly solid

While the front seven deservingly claimed most of the credit, the secondary put together a strong performance behind them. Even while missing major free agent signing Kendall Fuller, who sat out Week 1 with a knee injury, Fabian Moreau and 2019 seventh-rounder Jimmy Moreland held down the fort as each intercepted Wentz to help shift the momentum.

The safeties — Landon Collins and Troy Apke — were among the top five players in total tackles on defense. Apke’s eight were tied with Jon Bostic for most on the team. Apke is a former fourth-rounder who seemed destined to be a career special teamer before surprisingly earning the starting job opposite Collins during camp. The team even cut free agent signing Sean Davis, who was projected to start instead.

Collins, meanwhile, was signed prior to 2019 to serve as a game-changing safety for this defense, and he was named one of the defensive captains this offseason, so hopefully his play will continue to improve after a relatively underwhelming first season in Washington.

Even looking beyond the stat sheet, the secondary did a great job locking up receivers down the stretch, as Ronald Darby contained Desean Jackson on 3rd & 26 with the game still tied, and Moreland stuck with Jackson on 3rd & 3 the following drive (although the pass by Wentz wasn’t accurate anyway).

Secondary was considered a weak spot entering the season, and it’s just one game, but if the front seven can continue to pressure opposing offenses into making mistakes that the secondary can capitalize on, this should be a strong defensive group. To see them play this well without Fuller can give fans some hope that the Washington defense is on the rise.

Keep an eye on the skills players

Washington entered this season with one of the worst rated offenses in the league. Beyond receiver Terry McLaurin and Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, the group had very little to hang their hat on. Despite the low expectations, there were several players in the offense that flashed strong potential.

Antonio Gibson, the 2020 third-rounder out of Memphis, had just nine carries for a team-high 36 rushing yards. It’s a small sample size, but averaging 4.0 yards per carry as a player with limited experience as a back in college is promising. It was just his first game, so watch for Gibson to earn more carries and receptions as this team’s young Swiss Army Knife begins to carve out a larger stake in the offense.

Rather than Gibson, it was free agent signing Peyton Barber who received the lionshare of the carries on Sunday. The fifth-year back had just 29 yards on 17 carries (1.7 YPC), but managed to punch in two touchdowns, including the game-winner.

J.D. McKissic, who was brought in as a receiving back, had a quiet day, but was targeted five times by Haskins. He only brought in one catch, and had three rushes for -2 yards, but once he gels more with the offense, he could turn into a solid change-of-pace back.

Looking at pass-catchers, it seems pretty clear that tight end Logan Thomas could have a major role through the season. Thomas was on the other end of Haskins’ only passing touchdown of the today, and he caught three more passes to total 37 yards. Not a great statline, but it’s worth noting he was targeted eight times, which was the most of any receiver on the team, including McLaurin, who posted 61 yards on five receptions.

Steven Sims Jr. looks like a solid secondary option, and hopefully Dontrelle Inman will be able to pick up the slack left by Kelvin Harmon’s absence. (Harmon suffered a season-ending ACL injury back in July.) This offense won’t be the Kansas City Chiefs, but they will hopefully be able to mesh into a respectable unit.

The next four weeks will show the team’s true colors

Four weeks make up a quarter of the season, so any four-game stretch is important, but the next four weeks will be tough for Washington. Next week they face dark horse MVP candidate Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards are coming off a victory over the reigning NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, and will be much more difficult to beat than the Eagles.

Following that is a meeting with the Cleveland Browns before facing the stacked Baltimore Ravens and the sneaky Los Angeles Rams in consecutive weeks. There’s a realistic chance the team will go 0-4 in that span, and while the Cleveland game could potentially go either way, an upset over any of the other three would put the team in a good spot for Weeks 6-8, where a matchup with the Dallas Cowboys is sandwiched between two smackdowns with the New York Giants.

It’s always great to start 1-0, but with 15 more games ahead on the schedule and much better opponents on the horizon, now is not the time to overreact to a comeback victory over a division rival (although it was definitely fun to watch). This organization has dealt with a lot this offseason, so hopefully this group will be able to put it in the rearview and focus on winning football games. For the Washington Football Team, the latter will be easier said than done.

Cover Photo Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Capitals offseason preview

The tumultuous time in the Toronto bubble has to come to an end for the Capitals after being brushed aside by the New York Islanders in five games. The team walks away with a lot of questions and concerns as it now prepares for the 2020-21 season trying to keep the championship window open.

Here are the biggest things that will need to be addressed during the offseason:

Coaching

With the Capitals facing their former coach in the first round, comparisons were naturally going to be made. While Barry Trotz’s Islanders looked prepared for an extended stay in the bubble, Todd Reirden’s Capitals looked unorganized and unmotivated. Reirden had the impossible task of taking over a Stanley Cup champion, but after two first-round exits in a row, it’s clear the team needs to step in a different direction.

Some will wish the Caps never let Trotz leave, and while I personally would have liked to see him stick around, I don’t really blame Trotz for leaving or the Caps organization for not doing more to have him stay. Trotz did sign a deal where an extension kicked in if he won the Cup, and while it makes sense for him to want to restructure a better deal than what was previously agreed upon, that doesn’t mean the Caps were obligated to match it.

After all, a coach’s lifetime is often short with one team, and Trotz had already lasted four years. The coach was asking for five more years as opposed to the two years on his extension. There were multiple calls for his job in the season leading up to the Cup, and few coaches last over nine years on one team to begin with, so the organization didn’t want to commit that much to a coach who they may have moved on from after two or three more years.

Now on the same coin, owner Ted Leonsis paid Scott Brooks $35 million a year to coach the Wizards, and that has gone no where (although Brooks may not be entirely to blame for that). Still, it’s not difficult to see where priorities lie for Monumental Sports in that sense, but that’s an entirely different topic.

As for the Trotz/Capitals separation, to me, that part isn’t the issue; it’s who they replaced Trotz with that is. In the Alex Ovechkin era, Trotz was the only non-rookie head coach that the team has hired, as the organization has often opted for the less expensive yet less experienced head coach in lieu of veteran coaching talent that could get the best out of the roster.

I can see the appeal of making an in-house hire for a Stanley Cup champion, trying to keep some semblance of the same culture that just won, but after two seasons, it’s clear Reirden just isn’t getting enough out of this team in the postseason. Should the team move on from Reirden (which seems like a given, but in this COVID-influenced economy, may not happen), the team should really invest in a veteran coach.

A couple of big names on the market include Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette. Gallant would be an ironic hire, as he coached against the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final as the Vegas Golden Knights’ first head coach in 2018. He was fired in January after a four-game losing streak despite Vegas still having a decent record.

Laviolette, meanwhile, was fired from the Nashville Predators just over a week before Gallant. He had replaced Trotz in Nashville and led the Preds to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has since taken over as head coach for the U.S. National Team. Will Leonsis open his pockets for a coach with a recent history of playoff success, or will it be more of the same story? The answer will affect how long the championship window will remain open, if it hasn’t already closed.

Outgoing free agents

On the main roster, the Caps have four unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents. With a flat cap for the next several years, cap-strapped teams like Washington will suffer. It’s seemed like the end of the road for Braden Holtby for awhile now. With Ilya Samsonov waiting in the wings and the 2021 Expansion Draft on the horizon, there are just too many factors suggesting Holtby will not be re-signed.

We won’t know for sure until free agency passes, but that’s where all signs point. Radko Gudas, Brenden Dillon and Ilya Kovalchuk are the remaining UFAs; Gudas and Kovalchuk are good as gone, as Gudas’ $2.3 million that come free will be useful in free agency, and the Kovalchuk experiment can be filed away as a failure. The team will have to pay him more than the slashed rate they’ve paid him since the deadline, and he just hasn’t played well enough in Washington to warrant a new deal here.

Dillon looks like the only UFA that could possibly be re-signed, as there is mutual interest between the two sides, although it will likely require a raise from his current $1.6 million salary.

As for the RFAs, Travis Boyd was making just $800,000 this year while Jonas Siegenthaler has reached the end of his entry-level deal. Both are retainable financially, but it will depend on how the team wants to shape its lineup next year. Siegenthaler has proven a solid third-pair defenseman, but with other D-men in their system on the rise, will there still be a spot for him?

Potential incoming free agents

As for potential incoming free agents, it would be wise for the Caps to sign a veteran goaltender on a short-term deal to serve as a capable backup for Samsonov. The team could decide to roll with Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, as the latter served as the team’s backup in the playoffs, but going into the season with just 26 games of experience between both goaltenders is risky.

Samsonov looked great this year but still needs to prove long-term reliability. There’s no doubt he can be the number one netminder going forward, but just in case, a capable veteran to fall back on would be much better for the team.

There aren’t too many attractive options on the market, as it’s mostly made up of declining 35-plus-year-olds or a handful of slightly younger guys that will command a larger role and more money than the Caps can afford to give them. As for the older options, it’s nice to have experience in the crease, but if they’re gonna be a bigger liability than an inexperienced Vanecek would be (and for a larger salary), then it’s not worth the investment. Especially if Vanecek proves to be a suitable NHL backup.

Of the select few that could be fitting options, there’s Thomas Greiss and Brian Elliott. Both are older than 34 and would require anywhere between $2-4 million cap hits (likely on lower side for Elliott).

Greiss just eliminated the Capitals, although he did so on the bench for the New York Islanders. Semyon Varlamov has full control of the starting job on the Island, making Greiss expendable. With Varlamov signed through 2023-24, a much younger (and more promising/less expensive) Ilya Sorokin waiting in line and cap space needed to re-sign Mathew Barzal, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, it would make sense for the Isles to move on from Greiss.

After posting a 2.74 goals against average and .913 save percentage in 31 games this past season, Greiss would be a solid veteran backup for Samsonov in the short-term. For me, he’s the ideal option in free agency.

Elliott, meanwhile, may be re-signed by Philadelphia as the backup for rising star Carter Hart, but in case the Flyers let him walk, he could be an option for Washington. His numbers are declining, as he posted a 2.87 GAA and .899 save percentage, but if Washington sees him as a capable option and Philadelphia doesn’t retain him, he’ll be a name to watch.

Perhaps they’ll opt for another free agent netminder, but the rest of the options seem either overqualified to be a backup or just not worth signing to play over Vanecek. The options are slim, so it’s crucial that Samsonov is prepared to be a number one goalie.

As for the team’s skaters, there won’t be much cap space to work with, and with most players in the lineup signed for the next two or three years at a minimum, there likely won’t be any big splashes unless it comes through a trade.

In-house Replacements

The Capitals have one of the worst prospect pools in the league; that’s just the price you pay when trying to contend for a championship for over a decade. Still, there are several exciting young prospects that should at least make their first NHL appearance next season even if they’re not on the team full-time.

With Gudas and potentially Dillon and/or Siegenthaler departing this year, Martin Fehervary is the most obvious candidate to be promoted to a full-time role. He is the most NHL-ready and he had limited appearances in the postseason this year.

Alexander Alexeyev is another player to watch next season, as the 2018 first-rounder could see some time at the NHL level next year, especially if he performs well in preseason camp. Both Fehervary and Alexeyev could be the future of the defensive unit, so it would be nice to see what we have in each of them.

For forwards, there won’t be too many openings. With the exception of Ovechkin, Nic Dowd and Jakub Vrana, every forward is signed through 2023 or later. A trade could change that, but for now nearly every spot is accounted for. Kovalchuk will likely depart this offseason, opening a third line spot, and RFA Boyd is a reserve forward, so him staying or leaving won’t have any real impact on the everyday lineup.

Brian Pinho received playing time at center during the playoffs after Nicklas Backstrom’s injury, but it was just 8:11 Time On Ice in Game 3 and 3:28 in Game 4. Reirden clearly didn’t trust him to handle a larger role, and I wouldn’t expect Pinho to crack into a full-time role next season. He’s also an RFA, so it remains to be seen whether the team will re-sign him to another minor league deal.

Daniel Sprong was acquired at the trade deadline, and if the Caps decide to re-sign the restricted free agent, he could be a candidate to fill in somewhere on the bottom six at one point or another. Sprong played 63 NHL games in 2018-19 between Pittsburgh and Anaheim. A poor 2019 preseason camp resulted in his demotion to the AHL.

Sprong was never called on to shake things up in the playoffs this year, but if he can continue to play well in the AHL and the Caps find themselves needing someone else to step in early in the season, Sprong would be a prime candidate within the Capitals’ minor league system.

Of course the most exciting prospect in the organization is 2019 first-rounder Connor McMichael, who had an incredible season with the OHL’s London Knights and was on the Capitals’ expanded postseason roster this year. Fans will be clamoring to see McMichael with the parent club, but as a potential franchise cornerstone, he shouldn’t be rushed into full-time action.

That said, I would expect him to make his NHL debut at some point next season, and if he happens to be ready to play a full-time role, then great. The average age of the forward group this year was about 30 years old, so some added youth in the lineup would be a welcome sight.

Way-too-early, pre-free agency lines

Without too many major changes expected this offseason, next year’s lines shouldn’t look too different than how it did this year. If the series against the Islanders gives any preview of what the scoring depth will be like next year, then there is plenty cause for concern.

That said, two longer-term signings that I’ve been critical of will have a chance to build on a solid postseason performance. Richard Panik and Nick Jensen each have three years remaining on their contracts, and while Panik underperformed on the third line during the regular season, and Jensen played more like a third-pair defenseman than the second-pair blue liner he was paid to be, they were two of the team’s better players in the postseason.

Despite not scoring, I felt Panik played fairly well, at least relative to the rest of his teammates, many of whom underperformed. He was even promoted back to the third line by the end of the series. Assuming Kovalchuk is gone, I’d expect Panik to be on the third line, where he will hopefully play well enough to stick.

Jensen, meanwhile, was arguably the team’s best defenseman in the playoffs. John Carlson was playing on one leg, and was on the wrong side of too many Islander goals, meanwhile Jensen was constantly making goal-saving stops and finally looked comfortable in the Caps’ system. Then again, the defensive system didn’t look like one the team should stick with, but he looked comfortable nonetheless.

Can Jensen be trusted to hold down the second-pair right shot position in the long run? It would make things a lot easier if he did. In any case, here is my way-too-early, pre-free agency prediction of what the lines will look like next season:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – TJ Oshie

Richard Panik – Lars Eller – [Free Agent]

Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

Travis Boyd/[Free Agent]/[Hershey Call-up]

Defense

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Nick Jensen

Jonas Siegenthaler – Martin Fehervary

Michal Kempny

Goaltenders

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek/[Free Agent]

I would much prefer to see Carl Hagelin on the fourth line next year. He is still a fast and strong skater, and does well on the penalty kill, but offers so little offensively these days that he’d be much better-suited in a fourth line role. Ideally, a free agent (or even Sprong) will be able to step in on the third line, as Panik will likely replace Kovalchuk on the other wing. It’s not a given that Hagelin will go down to the fourth line, but I’ll predict GM Brian MacLellan will do what’s necessary to give the third line a competent replacement on the wing.

Boyd would probably return as the extra forward, but if he is not re-signed, it would either be a one-year signing that MacLellan likes to add on to round out the bottom of the lineup year-to-year, or someone ready to be called up from Hershey. Pinho and Sprong are both RFAs, but they seem like top candidates if retained. Otherwise, we could see Beck Malenstyn or Garrett Pilon. It won’t be McMichael; if he’s on the main roster, it’ll be because he’s playing. They won’t mess with his development by carrying him as a healthy scratch every night.

On the blue line, Fehervary is naturally a left shot, but he did play on the right for most of the postseason. Michal Kempny hasn’t looked the same since his quad injury that kept him out to start the 2019-20 season, and he fell out of favor by the end of the postseason. If either Dillon or Siegenthaler departs, he will replace one of them in the top six, unless Alexeyev surpasses him instead.

Best-case scenario that definitely won’t happen because it would require way too many things to fall into place lines

If I had to come up with a dream lineup, where everyone involved would play to the best of their potential, it would have the depth required to make it back to the Cup. This isn’t a prediction, this is just me letting my imagination run wild, so take it in, and bear with me:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Evgeny Kuznetsov

Jakub Vrana – [Free Agent]/Connor McMichael – Tom Wilson

Richard Panik – Lars Eller – TJ Oshie

Carl Hagelin – Nic Dowd – Garnet Hathaway

Daniel Sprong/[Free Agent]

Defense

Brenden Dillon – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Martin Fehervary

Jonas Siegenthaler – Nick Jensen

Alex Alexeyev

Goaltenders

Ilya Samsonov

Vitek Vanecek/[Free Agent]

The most striking detail here is moving Evgeny Kuznetsov to the wing. This isn’t an original idea. Given Kuznetsov’s relative lack of effort on defense and poor numbers on the face-off, more and more are believing Kuznetsov would be better served playing on the wing so he wouldn’t be relied on as much in the two-way game. He has actually played on the wing in the past.

Thing is, you don’t make this move unless you find someone competent enough to replace him at center. Backstrom could easily slide in as first-line center, but I’m not sure moving Kuznetsov to the wing is worth playing Eller as second-line center all the time. Eller is fantastic as the 3C, and is capable of filling in on the second line for stretches, as he did this postseason, but it’s not worth hurting the center depth just to maybe improve a single player’s overall production. And this isn’t even taking chemistry into account.

But what if you did find a suitable replacement? Be it the prodigal son of the Capitals’ organization in McMichael or a capable free agent? I would bet against McMichael being ready to play a top six center role next season, so that one is practically a non-starter. As for the free agent market, there aren’t too many top six centers available that the Caps could afford, if any.

Suspending disbelief and assuming McMichael could slot in as the 2C, that would allow Kuzy to move over to wing on the first line, bumping Tom Wilson and TJ Oshie down to the second and third line, respectively. Wilson has already proven a productive top line winger, so teaming up with Vrana and McMichael on the second line would give Washington a ton of youth in the top six, and a look at what could become its future top line.

Oshie is still productive offensively, and is always aggressive on the forecheck, giving 110 percent on seemingly every shift. However Oshie will turn 34 next season, and all that wear-and-tear will start to catch up to him.

Allowing Oshie to play on the third line alongside Eller (whom he has chemistry with already) would not only bring much-needed scoring depth to the third line, but also help preserve Oshie’s talent and energy by requiring fewer minutes per game out of him. By playing with Oshie instead of Hagelin, I’d expect both Eller’s and Panik’s numbers to improve.

Speaking of Hagelin, this would allow for him to comfortably play on the fourth line with incumbents Dowd and Garnet Hathaway. He wouldn’t be relied on as much for offensive production, but he could still use his speed and strength to wear down opponents.

On defense, I have the team trading away Kempny’s contract and bringing up Alexeyev as the extra defenseman to create cap space (which would presumably go to the new second-line center, or perhaps a backup goaltender for Samsonov). I still have Fehervary playing on the right, except on the second pair with Orlov, as I hope Fehervary will be able to play at a top-four level if Jensen can’t carry over his play in the bubble.

If those forward lines clicked and the defense was fully healthy and improved with the full-time additions of Fehervary and Alexeyev, this team would be right back in contention. Unfortunately, I don’t see this being the case. It would take the addition of a truly elite center to allow for the possibility of moving Kuznetsov to the wing, which would require more cap space than the team will have. McMichael just won’t be at that level yet. Maybe they could pull this off in 2021-22, but that won’t happen this year.

This offseason will be an important one for the immediate future of the franchise, so let’s hope MacLellan & Co. make the correct moves.

Cover Photo Credit: Russian Machine Never Breaks

NBA Draft prospects the Wizards should consider, avoid

The Wizards landed the ninth overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery tonight for the second year in a row. The team had a 4.5 percent chance of landing the first overall pick and a 20.3 percent chance of falling in the top four, but instead they stayed put, as they had the ninth-best odds to begin the night. The Minnesota Timberwolves won the lottery for the second time in six years, as they won back in 2015 when they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.

There is little consensus among the top prospects in 2020, so the Wizards could see a future superstar fall right into their lap. Here are some of the prospects I’d be happy with the Wizards selecting, and the prospects I hope they avoid.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily think the “players to avoid” will become busts, I just don’t think they’d be the best fit with the team.

Prospects to watch (in no particular order):

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – C

At 6’9″, Okongwu makes for an undersized center, but would still be a great addition to this team. He averaged 16.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 28 games with the Trojans while shooting 61.1 percent from the floor.

Okongwu brings high upside as a defender, and would pair nicely with incumbent starter Thomas Bryant down low, and Bryant would take some pressure off of Okongwu being a top producer right away.

A concern that I’ve seen about Okongwu is inconsistent shooting mechanics, but with a team that’s already so efficient on offense, the Wizards can probably afford to have Okongwu take time to develop in that area. Otherwise, a top-tier defender who plays hard and brings a lot of upside on offense is just what the doctor ordered for this Washington team.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – SF

Okoro is one of the strongest defensive prospects in this draft, as the SEC All-Defense selection excels in taking on driving opponents while also locking players down off the ball. He could also develop into a strong contributor on offense, especially when it comes to ball movement and decision-making. The freshman averaged just two turnovers per game last season.

The biggest knock against him is shooting, as he converted just 67 percent of his free throws and shot a measly 28.6 percent from three-point land, which limits his potential as a reliable 3-and-D wing. He compensates for the weak shooting by using his handles to get to the rim and finish strong.

He isn’t my favorite prospect on the board, but if he falls to the Wizards and no one else really pops out, I think the Wizards could do much worse than going with Okoro. He’s been projected all over the draft board, so he may not even be an option by the time the ninth pick rolls around.

Killian Hayes, ratiopharm Ulm (Germany) – PG

Hayes was born in Florida but raised in France, as that was where his father, DeRon, was playing basketball professionally. Since he just turned 19 less than a month ago, Hayes is one of the younger prospects in the lottery, but has great promise as a lead guard down the road.

His numbers don’t exactly pop off the page — 11.6 points, 5.4 assists, 29.4 3P% — but allowing time to develop, Hayes has the potential to develop into an All-World playmaker. He doesn’t have the greatest handles, but he has enough control and great accuracy on passes. His shooting needs work, but given his 87 percent rate from the free throw line, it seems like he has the mechanics down and just needs to work that efficiency into real game action.

Standing 6’5″ and 215 pounds, Hayes has the size to defend and overpower opposing guards. His off-ball defense is already viewed as a positive, giving him incredible two-way star potential. With Bradley Beal and hopefully John Wall already holding down the lead guard spots, Hayes would hopefully have time to adjust to the NBA and become a franchise cornerstone within a few years.

It’s unclear where he will go in the draft, as some project him in the top five while others don’t have him even cracking the top 10. Personally, I would be thrilled if the Wizards landed him at nine. As far as guards from France go, he could either be the next Tony Parker or the next Frank Ntilikina. If he lands in Washington, I’m hoping for the former.

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – PF

Bey might be a bit of a reach at nine, but if the team decides to trade further back, he’s an intriguing option. He likely won’t develop into a franchise cornerstone, but his two-way ability profiles as great potential for a strong 3-and-D contributor.

He’s versatile on defense, something the Wizards could use greatly, and can make a strong impact on the offensive end even without being the primary scoring option. He seems like a player who could contribute — especially on the Wizards — from the jump.

Positioning may be a question mark, as the presence of Rui Hachimura and possibly Dāvis Bertāns would make power forward a crowded position. The game is becoming more position-less, so that may not matter so much. Every team could use a strong 3-and-D player, and Bey could develop into one of the more premier options if things break right for him.

Prospects to avoid (in no particular order):

Anthony Edwards, Georgia – SG

Edwards is insanely athletic and viewed by many as the top prospect in the draft (or at least no worse than top three), so unless the Wizards trade up, I don’t believe they will have any chance of selecting him. To that I say: good.

Edwards was a one-man show in Athens this season for an otherwise lackluster Georgia team that went 5-13 in conference play. His elite scoring ability should translate well in the NBA, but I think his overall success will be very situation-dependent. His effort and focus have been question marks at times, especially on defense, so if he winds up on a less functional team, such as the New York Knicks, the Charlotte Hornets or the Wizards, he may not develop as well as predicted.

He seems most efficient when he’s the ball-dominant guard, but I don’t see any team going far if he’s trying to do everything himself. Maybe with a better supporting cast than the one he had at Georgia, the ball will be spread, but I don’t think he would fit well in Washington, and thus the Wizards should pass if he is somehow available or they decide to trade up.

Deni Avdija, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) – SF

Avdija did not get much playing time in the EuroLeague, which could raise some eyebrows about how he’ll perform in the NBA, and it’s clear he will be more ‘project’ than ‘polished’ no matter where he ends up. He’ll be among the biggest boom-or-bust prospects in the lottery.

He’s a strong playmaker from the wing that can defend fairly well, but his shooting is atrocious, especially from the free throw line. Avdija shot 52 percent from the charity stripe (in 75 attempts) with Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, and he averaged just 7.7 points and 4.1 rebounds across all competitions.

In the Israeli League, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game to become the youngest Israeli League MVP ever. The upside is there, but Avdija would definitely be better suited on a contending team rather than being relied on as a key building block. Maybe he can be the guy, but the Wizards need to use their pick on someone less risky if they want to climb out of their purgatory of mediocrity.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – PF

Toppin starred at Dayton, and he was arguably the best player in college basketball this year. He won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award and was named AP Player of the Year. At 22, he’s naturally more physically and mentally mature than most of the other prospects in the lottery and could slide in immediately as a major offensive contributor on almost any team.

Then again, at 22, his upside isn’t the same as the younger prospects. Many teams like to take the 19-year-olds and mold them into productive players on their own rather than taking on a 22-year-old with a higher floor but lower ceiling. However, the Wizards took then-21-year-old Hachimura in last year’s draft over several younger prospects, so age may not be a big factor for GM Tommy Sheppard.

While he brings excitement on the offensive end, his relative lack of rebounding for a player his size is concerning, and I don’t see him as a real threat to take minutes away from Hachimura at the four. I think Toppin will be a fine NBA player, and if he’s the best available at nine, then I’d be satisfied, but I don’t love his fit compared to others.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – SF

Nesmith is an unreal shooter; he shot 52.2 percent(!) from three-point land, and 50 percent on two-point shots. As a result, he averaged 23.0 points per game last season, although he was held to just 14 games after suffering a stress fracture in his foot.

Outside of shooting, the rest of his offensive ability is a question mark. He isn’t a strong presence at the rim, and his passing isn’t as precise as some of the other wings on the board. His defense is solid, but could get better. Much like Toppin, I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Wizards take him if he’s the best player available, but otherwise I think they could do better.

Other prospects I like for the Wizards:

  • Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State – PG
  • Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky – SG
  • Devin Vassell, Florida State – SG

Other prospects I don’t like for the Wizards:

  • RJ Hampton, New Zealand Breakers (NBL) – PG
  • Cole Anthony, North Carolina – PG

We’ll see how things shake out when the 2020 Draft comes around on Oct. 16, and see if the Wizards even take any of the players mentioned, but no matter whose name is called when the Wizards are on the clock, we hope he’ll be the next piece to help bring Washington back to playoff contention.

Cover Photo Credit: L- David Kohl/USA TODAY Sports; R- FanSided

‘Sh*t happens’: the bubble Caps are on on the ropes

“Sh*t happens,” was Alex Ovechkin’s response when asked about missing a wide open net on the power play while the team was losing 3-2 in the second game of their First Round series against the New York Islanders. The tone was resigned, and many took it as a sign of apathy.

However, Ovechkin is one of few on the Capitals’ side who doesn’t look apathetic on the ice. And no matter what his tone was, he was correct. Sh*t happens. And a lot of it did through two games of this series. Credit the Islanders’ suffocating defense and Barry Trotz’s coaching all you want; they deserve it, but the Capitals have done nothing to show why they deserve to be here through two games.

Missing Nicklas Backstrom always hurts, but this team managed to defeat Pittsburgh in 2018 without Backstrom or Tom Wilson for the back end of the series. Then again, this 2020 team is not the one from 2018. That much is obvious.

Entering the series, I praised the Capitals for being one of the deeper teams in the league. After watching these two games, they’ve been about as deep as a kiddie pool. Ovechkin and TJ Oshie are the only goal-scorers so far, the third line has been invisible and Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov, two of the few core players younger than 30, have been as flat as the bottle of Sprite that’s been wasting away in my basement fridge for the past three years.

Braden Holtby has not been great either, but it’s very difficult to be a good goaltender when your defense gives little help. Holtby always gets much more blame and hate than he deserves in these situations, and the fanbase tends to flip on him constantly. You can’t pin everything on him, but the play has been subpar in net. From top to bottom, the defense has just been atrocious. I find myself saying “what are you doing?!” to the TV screen more than anything else.

I’m not sure if it’s age catching up to them, but they collectively look slow and old. It’s a good thing they’re only paying half of Ilya Kovalchuk’s salary since I forget he’s on the team half the time. You’d think four months rest would be an advantage for an older group, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

Perhaps it helps the Isles that Trotz coached this core through four playoff runs, but how big of a game-changer can that be? Shouldn’t the Caps themselves know exactly how Trotz will scheme his team and take measures to play against it? Wouldn’t that cancel each other out to some degree?

This series is the divorce trial; Trotz is the wife walking into court with a fur coat and designer handbag, while the Caps are the down-on-his-luck husband rushing in last minute with a loose tie and messy hair. They’re fighting for custody over their son, Stanley, and the case is starting to look open and shut.

So what has to change? Something (everything?) has to change. A 2-0 series leader wins 86 percent of the time, but the Capitals have experienced the other 14 percent in both directions recently. As we all remember, they were down 2-0 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the First Round in 2018, then rebounded to win four straight. Then the following year, after taking a 2-0 lead over the Carolina Hurricanes, they eventually fell in seven games. 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in hockey, after all.

This isn’t over, at least in theory, but if they continue to play the way they have, they may want to start packing up now. Both Games 1 and 2 in the Columbus series were overtime losses; they could have gone either way, which is far from the case this year. The Islanders deserve this 2-0 lead. They’ve been the better team and have all the momentum.

There is no travel day or change over between Games 2 and 3 this year. No change in atmosphere, no natural shift. Any change will have to come from the guys on the ice and them alone. Not committing two bench minors would be a good start.

The team has to put up more legitimate shots. They totaled just 13 through two periods in Game 2, and most were simply long range, “hope it takes a lucky bounce” kind of shots. They simply have to test Semyon Varlamov more, and that starts with better passing and better entries into the offensive zone. There were just too many shank passes and not enough urgency on the breakouts.

The defense just needs to be better, plain and simple. There has to be more focus and better effort in clearances to keep the Isles from maintaining possession. It’s been a physical series, but they have to stay out of the penalty box. That’s obvious for any team, but you can’t maintain an offensive rhythm if you’re consistently on the penalty kill.

The personnel could also use a shake up, but who do you turn to? I think the easiest pick is Martin Fehervary to slot in on one of the defensive pairs. He’s young and he’s hungry to establish a spot for himself next year. He had a fine game against the Boston Bruins in the round robin, and I don’t see how he can hurt the defense more if he plays poorly. He won’t change the defense all on his own, but sometimes all a group needs is a shake up.

Ilya Samsonov very well could have been selected to start Game 3, but after his off-ice injury, he’s not even in Toronto as an option. Instead, Vitek Vanecek is the backup after a strong campaign in Hershey. Is the struggle bad enough that they turn to Vanecek in Game 3, a guy with no real NHL experience?

It seems like all of Capitals’ twitter is calling for Connor McMichael to make his NHL debut as the third or fourth line center. The 19-year-old OHL phenom is already one of the team’s brightest prospects after being drafted just over a year ago in the first round. McMichael looked great with the London Knights this year, and has the potential to be a top six center down the line, but how much will he be able to help this team right now?

I suppose he’d be more motivated than 90 percent of the roster, and who knows, maybe the third line would make some sort of impact with his presence, but that’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a teenager who hasn’t even appeared in the AHL, much less the NHL. Maybe I’m underestimating the guy, but even if he plays spectacularly, it’ll take a lot more than him to turn things around, even if Connor Mc[first name]’s tend to have transcendent qualities.

Daniel Sprong is an intriguing option to turn to, as he’s one of the only black aces who has actual NHL experience. Sprong was acquired at the trade deadline this year, but he never made an appearance with the Caps. Though he spent most of this season in the AHL, Sprong played 63 games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks last year, totaling 23 points (14g, 9a). You want hunger? How about a fresh 23-year-old fighting to regain a spot on an NHL roster? That type of energy could really ignite the bottom six.

This team has battled adversity before, and the Islanders will continue to be a tough opponent, but the Caps can’t go down without a fight. Sh*t happens, and it’s stinking up the place. Will someone pick up the plunger, or will this team just continue to drown in it? I guess we’ll have our answer tomorrow.

Cover Photo Credit: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Nationals quarter-season review

It’s hard to believe how quickly this season is moving, but after 15 games (plus one incomplete game), the Nats are now a quarter through their season. At 6-9, it has certainly been an up-and-down start, but as this team knows well, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.

However, they’re going to need to get to that beautiful place sooner rather than later. They currently sit fourth in the NL East standings, but are just a half game behind the third place New York Mets and 3.5 games behind the leading Miami Marlins. Of course, the Marlins are having fun with their division lead despite being one of the main coronavirus hotspots that threatened the continuation of the league, but I digress.

Focusing on the Nats, they have plenty of chances to move up in the standings as the season goes on, as they will almost exclusively be playing division rivals, but as it stands right now, they need to start rallying some wins together to get themselves in a postseason spot. Here are some of the main storylines after 15 games.

Soto is raking

Man, did I miss Juan Soto, and so did the Nationals’ lineup. Despite missing the first chunk of the season, Soto is leading the team with five home runs, which includes two absolute moon shots against the Mets that set new records for career-longs.

He’s batting .414 with an astounding 1.486 OPS, although he has not played enough games to actually qualify in those statistics yet. Still, it’s refreshing to see his production has carried over through the pandemic. Hopefully the rest of the offense will be able to catch up.

Starting pitching is a mixed bag

This team lives and dies by starting pitching, so it’s no surprise to see that the current state of the rotation sort of matches the team’s record right now.

Max Scherzer has a 2.75 ERA, allowing 16 hits and 10 walks to go with 29 strikeouts in 19.2 total innings pitched. He’s doing well, but he dealt with an injury scare on Aug. 5 and has been getting himself into more jams than one would like to see.

Stephen Strasburg started the season injured and has made just one start, the unfinished game against the Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 9 in which the team is losing 5-2. In just 4.1 innings pitched, he allowed seven hits and five earned runs while striking out just two batters. He should settle in soon, and the Orioles have been among the more surprising teams this year, but he’s gonna have to deliver if this team wants to improve.

Patrick Corbin has been the most solid starter this season. In three starts, he’s 2-0, and would have been 3-0 had the bullpen not blown the lead in the third game of the year against the New York Yankees back on July 26. He has a 2.50 ERA and has allowed just three walks compared to 20 strikeouts in 18 innings pitched so far this season.

Aníbal Sánchez has been abysmal. The 36-year-old is 0-3 on the year with a 9.69 ERA across 13 innings pitched. He’s allowed a team-high 22 hits, 14 earned runs and five home runs. He still has time to reel it in, but with a season so short, the leash will be much shorter as well.

Austin Voth won the fifth spot in the rotation, with Erick Fedde stepping in for Strasburg and Scherzer when either has been injured. Voth has been a bit unlucky when it comes to run support, or lack thereof. He’s 0-2 on the season, though the most runs he’s allowed in one game is three, and his best outing of the year so far — 5.0 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K — was spoiled by the bullpen, resulting in a no decision.

He hasn’t been amazing, but as a fifth starter, he’s doing about as well as one can hope for. While he has allowed four home runs, he has a 3.21 ERA and has allowed the fewest hits of any starter (12) besides Strasburg, who, again, has just one outing under his belt.

Once the entire rotation can collectively find its groove, wins will be easier to come by, so that should be the main focus entering this next stretch of games.

Tanner Rainey

That’s it. That’s the subhead.

Rainey has been the most pleasant surprise on the team this season, and he’s looking like the team’s best bullpen arm right now. Last year, he threw with a ton of velocity but not much command, which put him out of favor in close games, especially during the postseason.

This year, he is throwing absolute filth. He has allowed just one hit (albeit, a home run) in 8.1 innings pitched for a 1.08 ERA. His 11 strikeouts are tied for most among the team’s relievers, and his 0.360 WHIP is lowest on the team by a wide margin.

Looking beyond the stat sheet, his body language on the mound is incredible. I don’t know what he was doing over the offseason, but he is pitching with much more confidence and the results warrant it. If he can keep pitching like this, he could become the Nats’ closer for years to come. Let’s see how he finishes the season first, though.

The rest of the bullpen isn’t as exciting. Of course, when Rainey is thriving, Sean Doolittle is struggling, because our bullpen has to have issues. That’s just a rule apparently.

Daniel Hudson is doing well as the closer. He has three saves on the year, but a rough outing against the Orioles on Aug. 8 ballooned his ERA to 4.26. He allowed three runs on two hits, the only runs he’s allowed so far this year. If you exclude that hiccup, he has a 0.00 ERA, allowing just one hit and one walk to go with nine strikeouts in 5.2 innings pitched.

Javy Guerra, Sam Freeman and Kyle Finnegan have been the better arms behind Rainey and Hudson in the bullpen, while Ryne Harper, Wander Suero and Will Harris fall into the same “I don’t wanna talk about it” category that Doolittle finds himself in right now.

New additions experiencing varying levels of success

The offense was never going to be the same with the departure of Anthony Rendon this offseason, and while the offense has sputtered at times this year, it has the potential to be almost as potent as it was last year.

As mentioned, Soto is raking, and Howie Kendrick is batting over .300 from the DH spot, but it’s the new players that were biggest question marks entering the season. Some are doing well, while others may need more time to get into the swing of things (pun not intended).

Starlin Castro, while not quite the All-Star he used to be, was still sneakily productive with the Marlins over the past two seasons and has been doing well as the Nats’ everyday second baseman. He is hitting .283 with two home runs and four RBI, and has been good enough defensively.

Carter Kieboom has been rotating in and out at third base, and while the rookie has yet to hit a home run and has just one RBI, it seems like he’ll get better with experience. He is hitting a modest .240 with a .367 on base percentage, but he’s generated a lot of solid at bats and will hopefully continue to develop down the stretch.

Eric Thames is spending the most time at first base, but his bat has been quiet. He’s slashing .219/.306/.281, and he’s struck out 10 times compared to two walks. The Nats signed him hoping to get a left-handed power hitter for the middle of the lineup, but he has yet to heat up at the plate. He’ll have every opportunity to do so, but with Asdrúbal Cabrera hitting well and already slotting in at first occasionally, Thames may fall out of the rotation if he doesn’t pick things up by season’s end.

There is still a good amount of baseball to be played, but the Nats need to pick things up if they want a chance to defend their crown in October; the roads won’t get any less bumpy.

Cover Photo Credit: MASN Sports

What Wizards can take away from NBA bubble

After eight games in the NBA bubble, the Capital City G- I mean, the Washington Wizards did not qualify for the NBA playoffs. Pardon the error, but given the team’s performance, there were instances where I thought Washington might have sent their G-League affiliate instead.

With the absences of top scorers Bradley Beal and Dāvis Bertāns, the expectations were low, but that didn’t take the pain away from watching a handful of sloppy turnovers, ill-advised shot attempts and poor defense. The Wizards challenged the Brooklyn Nets as having the worst roster in the bubble, and yet when the two teams faced off, it was the Wizards who lost by eight points.

That was their slimmest margin of defeat throughout the eight games. Not including the 96-90 victory over the Boston Celtics’ bench in the season finale, the Wizards lost each game by an average of nearly 12 points per game (11.86, to be exact). This Beal-less roster had no business competing for a playoff spot; the league fed this young, unqualified group of players right to the wolves. Well not literally; Minnesota was not a participant in the restart.

So a big takeaway is that without their two best offensive players, the worst defensive team in the league will struggle mightily against other playoff teams. That much was clear from the get-go, but which less obvious takeaways can be drawn from the team’s pride-draining stint in the NBA bubble?

Training camp or fantasy camp?

The Wizards were not going to make the playoffs. Even if they did, at the absolute best they would earn the eighth seed and lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games (I’ll have the Giannis Antetokounmpo/Moe Wagner mind games save the Wizards from a sweep). At worst, well, we pretty much saw that.

1-7 is better than 0-8, and I suppose the very worst would have been losing one of the young guns to a serious injury lasting through next season, but this eight-game stretch was less about contending for the Finals and more about giving the team’s young supporting cast some real game reps against playoff-caliber competition as sights shift towards the 2020-21 season.

But it wasn’t just usual supporting players like Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr. that were in Orlando this month, although we’ll get to them later. Replacing Beal, Bertāns and others who missed time were G-League call-ups and end-of-the-bench players who rarely see real minutes.

It was less of a “who’s who” and more of a “who’s that?” Excuse me as I go on a brief tangent, but I’ve always been amused by the phenomenon of fans of a successful team sharing pictures of the team’s starting lineup from right before they reached prominence.

A great example is the pre-dynasty Golden State Warriors, which featured David Lee, Monta Ellis, Dorrel Wright and Andris Biedriņš as usual starters in 2011-12. Ellis and Lee put together some good seasons individually, but they pale in comparison to what the Warriors became with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson & co.

There’s no indication that the Wizards will blossom into a dynasty anytime soon, but if it reaches that point, the first thing I’ll think back to as they lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in triumph is when Jarrod Uthoff clocked in 24 minutes for Washington in a real, regular season game. This occurred earlier today, in the 96-90 win over Boston, but I will always remember that bit of information as a reference point to see how far the team has come, should they ever experience real success in the near future.

This isn’t meant to clown Uthoff, who totaled eight points and three rebounds in just his 16th career NBA game. He’s getting paid to play basketball and he had the opportunity to play a significant role at the highest level of the game. Good for him.

However, the 27-year-old forward was one of a handful of Wizards players in the NBA bubble who played significant minutes in at least one game when they normally aren’t good enough to see the court. Johnathan Williams, who grabbed 16 boards in 25 minutes against the Celtics today, and Jerian Grant were two other players from the G-League that received a fair share of playing time at one point or another.

We likely won’t see some of these players again, at least not in the same role that they had in the bubble, but in eight games that revealed just how dire things are beyond Beal, we at least saw what we had at the lowest depths of the roster and will be able to build accordingly once the usual stars return.

A foundation is building

With the normal stars not in Orlando, the young trio of Bryant, Hachimura and Brown flashed what they could someday turn into. Bryant averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the bubble while committing just five turnovers total. The 2017 second-rounder did everything to solidify his status as the starting center for this team moving forward.

Brown came to the Wizards as a raw prospect that would take time to develop. Forced into the spotlight, even as the starting point guard occasionally, Brown displayed significant progress that will hopefully earn him a larger role next season. Brown averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists and he just turned 21 years old on July 28.

Hachimura, meanwhile, missed the final game thanks to a quad injury, but the likely All-Rookie selection averaged 14.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Hachimura has the most potential of anyone on the roster, drawing comparisons to All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, even receiving praise from the two-time Finals MVP himself earlier this season. He has a ways to go before reaching Leonard’s level, but if he can even get close, the Wizards will be in fantastic shape in the future.

Beal, John Wall and Bertāns (if re-signed) can’t come back soon enough, but if Bryant, Brown and Hachimura can build off this experience and take a step forward next year, the Wizards won’t be on the edge of the playoff picture when the postseason rolls around.

What positions could be bolstered in 2020 Draft?

With the 2019-20 season officially over for the Wizards, all focus will go to the 2020 Draft. The Wizards hold the ninth-best odds for earning the first overall pick. However this year, holding the top pick may be more burden than blessing; this draft class contained so many question marks before the pandemic, and now the suspension in basketball activity everywhere gives teams less time to work with prospects and observe them up close.

No matter where the Wizards end up drafting from, they must take the best player available regardless of position. That should be the strategy for any team, and even the Wizards could use help at any position, but after viewing the team’s depth beyond Beal, which positions could use the most support?

For me, it’s at center, then guard. Bryant showed why he’s the team’s big man moving forward, but he played just 46 games this season after missing time with multiple injuries. Ian Mahinmi’s disaster of a contract finally comes off the books next year, meaning the only other center under contract is Wagner. Anžejs Pasečņiks could re-sign, but that’s not the most inspiring option.

The center position is becoming less crucial to a team’s success than it was in the past, but grabbing a versatile big to compliment Bryant could go a long way.

Looking at guard, Wall and Beal will hopefully be returning to form as the All-Star duo they once were, and Brown will join Jerome Robinson and Isaac Bonga as younger options in the rotation, so the need may not be as glaring, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Who knows how well Wall will play upon his return, and although Brown showed promise in the bubble, his ceiling doesn’t appear to be that of a perennial All-Star. If the Wizards can land a future franchise cornerstone at guard who can be eased into action behind Wall and Beal, it would be a great fallback option if the All-Stars can’t find their way again.

No matter which position they go with, a naturally great defender should be high on the list of priorities. One lottery pick won’t save the entire defense, but after such an atrocious year defensively, a boost is necessary. I’ll create a list of my favorite prospects in the near future, but for now, the bubble Wizards showed what management should focus on in the draft.

The NBA restart was not a very fun experience for Wizards fans, but at least there are a few things to look forward to in 2020-21 and beyond.

Cover Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

Caps-Isles series preview (ft. Special Guest writer)

After taking a brief look at both the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders in the last post, the Capitals beat the Boston Bruins in the final round robin game to secure the third seed and a first round matchup with the New York Islanders. The two sides kick off their best-of-seven series today at 3 pm (unless they get postponed by the Bruins and Hurricanes going to five overtimes).

The teams last met in the postseason five years ago, when the Caps won in seven games. The last time the Caps saw Islanders coach Barry Trotz in the playoffs, he was hoisting the Cup with them. Now the two sides will meet in what could be a tumultuous series that could swing either way.

The Capitals round robin record of 1-1-1 is far from encouraging, and the playoff-level intensity just didn’t seem to be there, but there isn’t much reason to panic just yet. The shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning could have gone either way, that’s just the nature of shootouts. The loss to the Philadelphia Flyers also hurt, but Philly blew away everyone in their path en route to the top seed in the East.

The lack of intensity may be the biggest concern, but with the real win-or-go home games starting up, that will hopefully change. The team was without Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson for the entire round robin seeding process, but he will be a game time decision for Game 1. Lars Eller, meanwhile, left the bubble for the birth of his son last week and will be forced to miss Game 1.

Once Eller clears the quarantine and testing protocols and gets back into skating condition, he will be able to slide right back into the lineup, but for now Travis Boyd has been slotting in as the third line center. Boyd scored the team’s lone goal against the Flyers in the second round robin game.

Getting back to full strength will be key for playing an Islanders team that boasts a productive top six and a patented Trotzian lockdown defensive system. The Isles made easy work of the Florida Panthers during the Qualifying Round, winning in four games.

The Caps are much stronger than Florida, but with the Isles already rolling, the Caps will need to be at that playoff intensity immediately. It certainly doesn’t help that Trotz knows the inside and out of the Caps’ organization.

Based on the Caps’ three round robin games and the Islanders’ four Qualifying games, here are three players from each team that I would label as big X-Factors:

X-Factors

Alex Ovechkin (WSH) and Mathew Barzal (NYI)

It isn’t really a hot take to label each team’s best and most marketable player as a major influence in the series, but based on how the two have performed so far, even more eyes should be on them for Game 1 and beyond.

Ovechkin went off in the exhibition game against Carolina, scoring twice and assisting a third goal, but he has yet to tally a point since. This team has failed in the postseason despite Ovi’s huge production, so if the Great 8 isn’t involved in the offense, it will be a short postseason for the Caps.

I expect Ovi & Co. to ramp up the intensity now that the real games are starting. It’s worth taking into account that the Caps faced the three other top teams in the conference while the Isles played the 10th seed, but the pressure is there for Ovi, and really the rest of the top six.

Barzal, meanwhile, is the biggest name on the Islanders, but he hasn’t even been the biggest producer in these playoffs so far. Second line winger Anthony Beauvillier is leading the team with five points, and top six forwards Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson have been strong as well.

Barzal isn’t far behind with one goal and two assists, so what makes the 22-year-old an X-Factor is if he truly starts performing like the franchise face he is, that could take the Isles above and beyond. Getting help from the supporting cast is certainly a good thing, but it will be the wunderkind who swings the series.

Dmitry Orlov (WSH) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (NYI)

With Carlson sidelined, Orlov has taken over most special teams duties and an even bigger role leading the blue line. Frankly, the entire Caps’ defense could be considered an X-Factor; Brenden Dillon has proven a crucial pickup from the trade deadline, and Martin Fehervary could be the missing piece for this unit given his solid showing against the Bruins.

However, Orlov has been up-and-down his entire career, and he will continue to play a significant role even after Carlson returns. With the Isles’ top six already humming entering this series, it will be up to Orlov to lead the defensive efforts and help out netminder Braden Holtby.

Defense has been a question mark all year, and if Carlson remains out and Orlov struggles, I don’t trust Dillon, Michal Kempny and the relatively unproven Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler to hold down the fort on their own. Orlov has to set the tone.

Pageau, like Dillon for Washington, has proven to be a valuable trade deadline pickup for the Isles this year. With three goals in four games from the third line, Pageau gives the Isles the depth at center that all successful teams need. There isn’t much to look at beyond the Islanders’ top six forwards, but Pageau is an exception.

He will need to keep that efficiency up for the Islanders to be successful. It takes more than two lines to advance in the postseason, so if Pageau isn’t up to snuff, the entire third line suffers and suddenly New York won’t look as deep.

Braden Holtby (WSH) and Devon Toews (NYI)

Again, Holtby isn’t exactly a lowkey player to pick here, but with Ilya Samsonov unavailable, his role becomes even more important. Holtby led the team to the Cup two years ago after being supplanted as starter in the regular season and winning his job back in the First Round. That didn’t quite happen this year, but the rookie Samsonov had the better numbers entering the stoppage.

Holtby, meanwhile, put up his worst stats in awhile, but he’s looked sharp in the three round robin games. He’s allowed six goals on 80 shots, giving him a .925 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average.

The Islanders have a bit of a 1a/1b situation in net, with former Capital Semyon Varlamov as the starter with Thomas Greiss serving as a backup more than capable of taking over if a switch is needed. The Caps no longer have that luxury; backing up Holtby is Vitek Vanecek, who has zero games of real NHL experience. Holtby will have to be in 2018 form for the Caps to advance.

Toews is the lone defenseman on the Islanders’ first power play unit, giving him a sneaky important role as a two-way player. New York was 4-for-16 on the power play during the Florida series, and Toews assisted three of the goals.

With just one other assist at even strength, the power play has done wonders for Toews’ production at this point. During the regular season, only five of his 22 assists came on the power play, so Toews is certainly capable of relying on more than just man-advantage cookies to create points, but he has been extra lethal on the power play as of late.

The Caps are very familiar with a defenseman racking up assists while running the point for the power play (see: #Johnny4Norris), so it will be up to them to stay out of the penalty box. Even with Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech headlining the defensive unit, don’t let Toews slip by unnoticed.

Players who need to step up for their side:

Jakub Vrana (WSH) – He’s in the middle of a goal-scoring drought and went without a point in the round robin. Vrana, like Ovechkin, needs to start chipping in again.

Anders Lee (NYI) – The Isles’ captain has had enough people step up for him, but he also went without a point in the Qualifying Round. For a first liner, that can’t be the norm.

Ilya Kovalchuk (WSH) – With Eller out to start the series and Carl Hagelin not being a big point scorer, Kovalchuk has to help out Boyd on the third line offensively. The fire has to be burning extra hot in the 36-year-old Russian’s belly if he wants to win his first Stanley Cup.

Derick Brassard (NYI) – As mentioned, Pageau could use help on the third line. Brassard seems like the best candidate.

Strengths & Weaknesses

While I’ve put together my own observations about the Islanders, I’m not as familiar with the team as a true fan. For a more in-depth look at the team’s biggest strength and weakness entering this series, you’ll be hearing from someone who checks that box.

Nick Jones is a Long Island native who has spent his whole life rooting for the Islanders and is one of the biggest fans I know. He also happens to be my cousin. With plenty of family on the Island supporting rival New York teams, there is no shortage of smack talk when New York plays DC, especially in the playoffs.

It’s been five years since the two sides last met, so a lot has changed between both rosters, notably former franchise center John Tavares departing in free agency back in 2018, so let’s get a fan perspective to see what the Caps will be dealing with when they meet for this series.

From the Island

Photo Credit: The Hockey Writers

By: Nick Jones

Biggest Strength: Lines 2 & 3

The Islanders obviously have talent on their top line with All-Star Mathew Barzal, captain Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, who had two goals and an assist in the Qualifying series against the Panthers. And there is much to-do about their fourth line (dubbed the “identity-line”), who match up with most opponents’ top line, led by center Casey Cizikas and flanked by hitters Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. However, it is the two lines in between that have stepped up recently to power the Islanders to Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Second line winger Anthony Beauvillier came alive during the series against the Panthers, registering five points (3g, 2a) in the four games as well as trade-deadline acquisition J.G. Pageau, who added three goals of his own from the third line. 

Overall, eight of the 15 goals the Islanders scored in the Qualifying Round came from these two lines, proving that even when the top line may be struggling to convert opportunities, the Islanders have the forward depth to pick up the slack.

Biggest Weakness: Penalties

In the Qualifying series, the Islanders took far too many silly penalties. Attribute that to rust or the referees calling a tighter game, but the fact is the Islanders cannot afford to be down a man, especially against the potent Capitals power play unit.

It is not that the Islanders were a heavily penalized team (as Caps fans know, Coach Barry Trotz would not stand for that), it was the nature and timing of these penalties and the likelihood that it would lead to a goal for the opponent. For example, in Game 3 (the lone loss for the Islanders), goalie Semyon Varlamov handled the puck below the goal line and outside the trapezoid, resulting in a delay of game penalty. Mike Hoffman then slapped it home about 30 seconds into the man-advantage, a goal that proved to be the game-winner for the Panthers.

In the Qualifying Round, the Islanders Penalty Kill ranked dead last in the Toronto bubble at 71.4% (10-for-14). The Capitals were a Top 10 team on the power play during the regular season, converting nearly 20% of the time. If those statistics stay true for this series, the Islanders will be in trouble.

From the District

Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

By: Joe Pohoryles

Biggest Strength: Forward Depth

As mentioned, the Caps haven’t really lit up on offense during their three round robin games, but they still boast one of the deepest lineups in the league. The second line of Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie would be the first line on a handful of other teams across the league, and Richard Panik, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have come together to form a solid fourth line.

That depth will be huge down the stretch. After all, the team won the Cup with their depth and physical play, which was no better exemplified than the Cup-clinching Game 5 against Vegas, where a player from each line scored in the 4-3 win.

While it’s highly unlikely any of the fourth liners will have a Devante Smith-Pelly-esque explosion, it will be strong play from top to bottom that’ll put the Caps over the top. The quality is there, they just have to start bringing it on the ice.

Biggest weakness: The Defensive Second Pair

I’ve been saying it all year, and any Caps fan that’s watched closely will know this well, but the defense isn’t entirely figured out yet, and that’s a huge concern. Radko Gudas was yanked from the lineup for the third round robin game after proving too much of a liability (ironically, he leads the team with two points so far this postseason).

Against Boston, both Orlov and Fehervary played on the right side, despite being natural left-shot defensemen. Orlov has a shaky past playing on the right, but Fehervary has been touted as a prospect who can play sufficiently on either side.

It was primarily the right-shot on the second pair that was the question mark. When healthy, Carlson has the first pair right-shot locked down, and Dillon, Kempny and Siegenthaler have been playing well on the left. Entering the season, Jensen was pegged to be the right-shot on the second pair, but he has been playing at a third pair level.

If Fehervary continues to play right-shot in the second pair at a competent level, the concern goes way down, but having this many question marks at defense to begin with is not good. Caps fans just have to hope the blue liners play well enough to shut down the revved up Islanders, no matter who the personnel is.

Cover Photo Credit: L- NHL.com, R- Full Sport

Re-evaluating potential first round opponents for the Capitals

The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs are well under way, as the 24-team field navigates through the best-of-five qualifying series and round robin seeding games to set up the normal 16-team field for the rest of the playoffs.

Before the playoffs even started, I broke down which teams the Capitals were likely to face depending on which seed they earned in the round robin games. Given all the possibilities, it was impossible to gauge, but now that the Caps have two round robin games in the books and three Eastern Conference teams have been eliminated with one more series going to five games, there’s a much clearer look at what the First Round will look like in the East.

After losing to the Philadelphia Flyers two days ago, the Caps won’t have any chance to claim either of the top two seeds. They will be playing for the third seed against the Boston Bruins on Aug. 9.

The No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins were upset in four games by the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have just one win in their past 10 playoff games. They now have a one-in-eight chance of receiving the first overall pick in the 2020 Entry Draft, a nightmare scenario for anyone in the league, as the franchise has already lucked out with Mario Lemieux and Crosby as first overall picks.

With Pittsburgh out, the two best remaining teams are the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes, who swept the No. 11 New York Rangers, and No. 7 New York Islanders, who just wrapped up their series against the No. 10 Florida Panthers. The winner of the No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs/No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets series won’t have any effect on the first round matchups; they are pretty much entirely decided.

The No. 1 seed (the winner of Tampa Bay/Philadelphia) will play Montreal, while the loser will play the winner of the Toronto/Columbus series as the No. 2 seed. Meanwhile, the winner of the Capitals/Bruins game will earn the No. 3 seed and face the Islanders, leaving the loser as the No. 4 seed to play the Hurricanes.

From the Capitals’ perspective, the Islanders and Hurricanes are the two teams to focus on.

No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

The Caps defeated the Hurricanes 3-2 in the exhibition game prior to the start of the actual playoff qualifiers, but the Canes made quick work of the Rangers, sweeping them in the best-of-five series. Carolina and Washington met in the first round of last year’s playoffs, where the Canes took out the defending Stanley Cup champions in seven games despite the fact that Washington opened the series with a 2-0 lead.

Had the playoffs gone on a normal schedule, the Canes would be missing several key players due to injury, but with the delay allowing more time for recovery, they’re pretty much at full strength. Even defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who had surgery on his broken leg in January and was ruled out for the season, just returned to practice yesterday.

The Carolina top line is one of the scariest in the playoffs, made up of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. All three are 25 years old or younger, making them a great core Carolina can build around for the long term. Aho already has eight points (3g, 5a) and is shooting at 30 percent(!) in just three playoff games, while Svechnikov scored a hat trick in Game 2, giving him a total of five points (3g, 2a). Teravainen has a goal and an assist after three games.

Outside of the top line, Carolina went crazy during the trade deadline to bolster their lineup for a playoff run. With Vincent Trocheck coming in to play the 2C, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are two high-caliber veteran presences that accompany 24-year-old Warren Foegele on the third line. Foegele doubled his point production from 15 last year to 30 this season (13g, 17a).

Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei were brought in to bolster Jaccob Slavin, Hamilton and the rest of the defensive unit. This lineup is good, in fact better than last year’s team that made the Eastern Conference Finals.

The biggest question marks coming in for Carolina was the goaltending, but so far it’s been sharp. Petr Mrazek started the first two games, allowing a total of three goals on 50 shots. James Reimer started the third game and allowed just one goal on 38 shots. The Caps and Bruins have much stronger offenses than the Rangers, but the goalies starting out hot is a great sign for Carolina.

The Caps may have gotten the best of this group in a single-game exhibition, but with a talented core getting more cohesive with every game, the Canes will prove a tough first matchup if the Caps can’t beat the Bruins tomorrow.

No. 7 New York Islanders

If the Caps can beat the Bruins tomorrow, then they will end up meeting the team led by the coach who took them to the promised land just two years ago. Barry Trotz has the Islanders looking ready to compete, and while many overlook the orange and blue, they should not be taken lightly.

Headlined by All-Star Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have had multiple players step up in big ways in the Qualifying Round. Jordan Eberle scored twice to lift the Isles to a 2-0 series lead in Game 2, while second line forward Anthony Beauvillier scored twice in the series-clinching Game 4 to give himself a team-leading five points (3g, 2a).

Trade deadline acquisition Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored in Games 1, 3 and 4 to elevate bottom six production, while Ryan Pulock (1g, 3a) and Devon Toews (0g, 4a) are doing damage from the blue line.

Trotz is known to have his teams lock down on opponents defensively and the Islanders have done just that. While Florida isn’t exactly a powerhouse, the Islanders held the Panthers to just one goal in two games and two goals in a third. In fact, the only loss of the series was when they allowed three goals (and even then it was a close 3-2 score line).

It helps that Seymon Varlamov, the former Capitals’ first-round pick, has been holding down the fort in the crease. The Russian netminder started all four games of the Qualifying Series and allowed seven goals on 103 shots, which makes for a .932 save percentage and a 1.77 goals against average.

It will be strange going against Trotz in a playoff series, but it will be the reality if the Caps land the No. 3 seed.

Outlook

The Caps should not be scared of either team; they have the talent and depth to beat either one. However, with John Carlson still working his way back from injury and Lars Eller exiting the bubble for the birth of his child, the team may not be at full strength to begin the series.

Add to the situation that they will be facing a team that won their Qualifying Series convincingly, while the Caps lost two (possibly all three) round robin games, the momentum could rest with the opponent. In these playoffs, the hottest teams go the distance, so the Caps will need to get hot quick.

Neither the Islanders nor Hurricanes should be feared, but they definitely shouldn’t be overlooked, and the Caps will need to bring their A-game no matter who they face. For now, it’s about beating the Bruins to get at least one victory under their belt prior to the first round, but looking ahead, it will be a long and bumpy road to the Stanley Cup. We can only wait and see if the 2020 Capitals are up for the challenge.

Cover Photo Credit: L – The Athletic; R – Gregory Shamus/Getty Images