(Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

Updated, 11 a.m.: More from Katie.

Updated, 10 a.m.: Tarik and Katie are answering a few questions they didn’t get to yesterday.

Updated, 1:30 p.m.: We’ll be posting replies throughout the day. Tarik gets it started after the jump.

The NHL All-Star break gives the Capitals a few days of quiet after a wild first half-and-some-change of the season that has seen coaching changes, injuries to key players (and again), a suspension, and probably some other stuff we’re forgetting.

There’s a lot to talk about. Where will Washington end up in the jam-packed Southeast? Will Alex Ovechkin ever fully return to form, and when will Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green return at all? Has Coach Dale Hunter bought another suit?

Capitals writers Katie Carrera and Tarik El-Bashir are around today to answer questions or just offer up an ear to some healthy midseason ranting. Share your thoughts in the comments section below or tweet us (@kcarrera, @TarikElBashir, @CapitalsInsider), and check back here for responses.

— Question from jerry2178:
Tarik - is Hunter getting it done? Is he here to stay? Certainly a big fan myself, but was curious of the view of someone closer to the action and chatter might say.

— Tarik:
At the end of the day, Dale Hunter will be judged on his record and what the team accomplishes (or doesn’t) in the playoffs --assuming they get there, of course. The Capitals are 14-10-2 since the coaching change, and they sit in first place in Southeast Division after Tuesday’s enormous win over the Bruins.

 They are allowing fewer goals (some quick math tells me they’re yielding 2.42 per game under Hunter, which put them in the top-10). That’s huge considering how porous the team had become under Bruce Boudreau.

 But how much of that is forcing opposing forwards to the outside, keeping down odd-man jailbreaks and blocking more shots? And how much of that is Tomas Vokoun/Michal Neuvirth standing on their heads?

I’ll tell you this much: As Neil Greenberg has correctly pointed out, the team can’t continue to get out-shot and out-chanced night in and night out. Including the Bruins game, that’s 10 straight games in which they’ve been outshot.

Having the ice titled that much in the other team’s favor is unsustainable. And quietly, the players will tell you that.

— Question from capscoach:
What is GMGMs hesitation to get a legitimate 2nd line center? How do you think the players are liking (and responding) to DH?

— Katie:
Second-line centers don’t grow on trees. If you look around the NHL, most teams could use an extra top-six-capable pivot and the Capitals are certainly no exception, particularly if Nicklas Backstrom misses significantly more time with a concussion.

I’m not sure the lack of picking up someone to fill the second-line center role is hesitation on the part of George McPhee but moreso his tendency to try to fill spots from within. McPhee has long advocated a philosophy of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” and preferred relying on prospects. Some of his attempts to fill the spot by adding a player didn’t quite work out, either.

Take Jason Arnott last season. Immediately the veteran seemed like a positive pickup, but his critiques of the team — which he shared quickly upon arrival — wound up rubbing many in the dressing room the wrong way. When factored in with his limited production and durability issues, there was little doubt that Arnott would not return to Washington this season.

So while I won’t argue that the Capitals don’t need an experienced center to bolster depth down the middle, how much should be given up to get one? Trading for or signing someone to a lengthy deal because on paper he appears to be a correct fit doesn’t mean he will be in the long run.

As for the second part of your question, players seem to appreciate Dale Hunter’s direct approach and there’s certainly a different attitude about what is expected of them on a nightly basis. Consistency is the main issue, but as players have said recently, it’s up to them to solve that problem more than the coaching staff.

— Question from Roa-Cap:
When will Evgeny Kuznetsov in a caps uniform?

— Katie: It could be next season, but aside from that things are murky. There have been optimistic reports out of Russia that Kuznetsov will indeed make the leap to North America for the 2012-13 season, but first he’ll have to sign an entry-level deal. That shouldn’t be much of a problem as long as Kuznetsov wants to come to the NHL and is willing to leave the rather comfortable life he’s made for himself in the KHL.

— Question from bagher1:
Why won't the Caps shoot more? How can DH get the team to shoot more?

— Tarik:
 I don’t think the Caps are trying NOT to shoot. They simply don’t have the puck as much as they used to under former Coach Bruce Boudreau.

It’s certainly something that Hunter must address. They’ve been out-shot 10 games in a row. And, as I mentioned in a previous answer, you can’t continually play in your own end and depend on shot-blocking and goaltending.  

— Question from hockeynightincanada:
Could we possibly be seeing a new blueline by next season? Green and Carlson are RFAs, and Wideman a UFA. While I am sure they would make an offer for Green of all, would he be willing to take a cut in pay to stay? As for the others, if Schultz doesn't get moved this season, you gotta think he never will get moved, so do you buy his contract out? Tom Poti's career is also likely over, so does he just sit on the LTIR in the final year of his contract? Erskine's name has been brought up in rumors too. The only defenseman that I know will be here for the next 2 years for sure is Orlov.

— Katie:
Tons of questions in this one. The overall look of the defensive corps could definitely change next year and there’s already been a good amount of transition between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns.

Much of what will happen to the defense depends on Mike Green’s health. He underwent successful sports hernia surgery and may even begin skating the week following the All-Star Game, but whether the Capitals intend to keep him likely depends on how he performs once he returns to the lineup and if they’re convinced he can stay healthy. As an RFA this season, Green’s qualifying offer will be one-year, $5 million. That’s a lot of cap space to tie up if they’re worried about his health.

As you can imagine, the route the Capitals take with Green will have a trickle-down effect. If Dennis Wideman continues along at this pace, leading the team in ice time while sitting fourth among defensemen in scoring, he may be on course to receive a big contract this summer when he becomes a UFA for the first time in his career. If that’s the case and the 28-year-old wants to test the open market, Wideman could easily price himself out of the Capitals’ range.

John Carlson, as an RFA who is going through something of a sophomore slump, doesn’t have much leverage in negotiations (think back to Karl Alzner’s deal this summer) and it’s likely the Capitals won’t let him go anywhere. Even though it’s been an uneven first half for Carlson, his potential and value to the organization with precious little in the pipeline on defense make him an important piece. Dmitry Orlov has overachieved this year and they’re very happy with his progress. Would be surprised if they let him go.

As for the others: Tom Poti has one more year left on his contract and there’s no real hope of him playing again. Under the current CBA, the Capitals are unable to buy him out, though it’s possible that could change with a new agreement that will need to be worked out this summer. Jeff Schultz clearly doesn’t fit in with the plans of this coaching staff. So one would imagine if Dale Hunter and the rest of the group return next year, he will likely head out of Washington. (For the time being, though, given how little Schultz has played and thus how little value he has on the trade market, don’t be surprised if he sticks around for depth.)

— Question from DCCapsfan19:
Tarik, only a month to go till the Daytona 500, any predictions and are you headed down? Also, with sponsorship dollars hard to come by, and the NHL struggling to attract a strong fan base in the south, do think the NHL sponsoring a car for a race or two would be a good idea? 

— Tarik:
I haven’t had detailed conversations with my editors about whether I’ll cover the race but I’m operating under the assumption that I will. That said, I’m hoping I do go. After all, who could complain about four days on the beach in February? My pick: After coming so close, this is Carl Edwards’s year.

As for whether the NHL should sponsor a car, I’d have to imagine that marketing experts on both sides have already studied the possibility. And if it made sense, you probably would’ve already seen one of the major sports leagues put millions of dollars behind a team.

— Question from pch49:
Katie/Tarik - thanks for taking questions. Curious - what the story is behind Schultz's benching? I am certainly not a huge fan of 55, but have to give him credit where its due, i.e. he doesnt take penalties, usually hits his outlet passes, plays a high percentage game in our zone, and is good on the PK. Is Dale looking for a grittier game out of him? Also if they are indeed shopping him around, wouldn't it be better to give him some minutes?? thanks and GO CAPS!

— Katie:
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly, but from the get-go Jeff Schultz didn’t seem to fit in the style of defense that Dale Hunter and Jim Johnson want. A big part of it is the physical presence they want the defensemen to have. Schultz’s lack of snarl has been a main target of his detractors throughout his career.

His lack of grit plays a big role, as does his mobility. Now, I know someone’s going to say: What about Roman Hamrlik? Yes, at 37 Hamrlik is certainly not going to win any fastest skater competitions, but his veteran savvy, combined with what has been an improvement in his game under Hunter, has helped him remain among the top-four blueliners.

 It simply doesn’t appear as though this coaching staff believes Schultz fits into its plan. That said, given how little he has played and what that does to his value on the trade market, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Capitals hang on to Schultz at least through the end of this year to provide a little cushion should injuries befall the defense.

[Note from Lindsay, 3:30 p.m.: Katie’s going to go work on a story now and Tarik had to head off to Georgetown basketball. In fact, he made me take dictation while he was sitting in traffic. He talks too fast. Anyway, they’ll both be answering more of these questions tomorrow as well, so check back for that and feel free to keep the entertaining conversations going in the meantime.]

Update, 10 a.m.:

— Question from coastallp74:
Knowing how much Backstrom, and Green will make a difference when they return, what other position do we need to upgrade most?

— Tarik: I understand what you’re asking, but you’ve got to stop at your first point. The Caps’ decision making at the trade deadline will be based on the health of Backstrom and Green.

I haven’t even seen Backstrom around Verizon Center recently. That’s not good news. Green, meantime, should be able to return late next month. But who really knows whether he’ll be 100 percent?

If Backstrom is still concussed, and not close to returning, the Caps’ top priority at the Feb. 27 deadline will be a playmaking center; Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are not the answer.

If there are doubts about Green, look for GM George McPhee to pursue a puck-moving defenseman who can help the Caps get out of their own end every once in a while.

After those issues are addressed, then we can talk about what else the Caps need.

— Question from pch49 (a repeat, but Tarik wanted to answer also):
Katie/Tarik - thanks for taking questions. Curious - what the story is behind Schultz’s benching? I am certainly not a huge fan of 55, but have to give him credit where its due, i.e. he doesnt take penalties, usually hits his outlet passes, plays a high percentage game in our zone, and is good on the PK. Is Dale looking for a grittier game out of him? Also if they are indeed shopping him around, wouldn’t it be better to give him some minutes?? thanks and GO CAPS!

— Tarik: Although Dale Hunter has never come out and said exactly why Jeff Schultz isn’t playing, I’ve got a couple of thoughts on the subject.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s hockey or business, when a new boss takes over, employees are sorted into two categories: Folks who fit into the new regime’s plans, and those who don’t.

Schultz clearly does not. Does his relative lack of physical play rub Dale Hunter, a rugged player in his day, the wrong way? Probably.

Is he too sluggish to play in Jim Johnson’s defensive zone coverage system, which requires more player pursuit and less zone coverage? Probably.

Was his confidence already down when the coaching change was made? Definitely.

The bottom line is this: Schultz is an NHL defenseman. It just doesn’t look like it’s going to be here, at least not as long as Hunter is coach.

Perhaps Bruce Boudreau would be interested in a reunion in Anaheim. He really liked Schultz.

— Question from liv_and_pops:
I really trying to determine what value Joel Ward is bringing each night. From what I see, he doesn’t make great passes, doesn’t grind it out well in front of the net or in the corners, and doesn’t seem to use his size to knock around opponents. It seems that they’re just hoping that if they make the playoffs, he’ll have a breakout like last year-- Thoughts?

— Tarik: I think Joel would tell you that he’s not playing as well as he would have hoped, particularly after signing such a lucrative contract. Right now, he’s on pace for eight goals and 23 points – both of which would be career lows. (He had 10 goals and 29 points in Nashville last season. So a hot streak could get him back on track.)

That said, the Caps need more from him – a message Dale Hunter has sent via his reduced ice time in recent games. Ward played 7:39 vs. Pittsburgh and 9:08 vs. Boston. Unless there’s an injury we don’t know about, those were Ward’s two lowest ice time totals this season.

It’s important that Ward finds his groove after the all-star break and hits the postseason healthy and on top of his game. Because, after all, that’s why the Caps spent so much to get him.

Update, 11 a.m.

— Question from FrankM73

Something to chew on regarding MP8.5’s productions wrt his ice time :
In games he’s skated less than 10:00 minutes of ice time:

17GP, 1G, 1A, 2PTS, -5, 8PIM’s, 1 GWG, 5SOG, 20%

In games he’s skated greater than 10:00 minutes of ice time:

12GP, 6G, 5A, 11Pts, +9, 8PIM’s, 1GWG, 20SOG, 25%

Granted MP’s been productive the last 2 games buuuut is it possible that all he needs is steady 10+minutes (or more) a game to be nearly a point per game player??
— Katie:
Mathieu Perreault acknowledges exactly the type of correlation you’re talking about. After scoring his hat trick against Boston, he reiterated that the more ice time he gets, the more comfortable he feels and thus the better he performs – it was the same in Hershey. In the early part of his career – in the AHL and juniors – Perreault was always viewed as a more skilled forward and he benefited when receiving those minutes and being placed on the top two lines.

Unfortunately, his struggles with consistency and the amount of talented forwards on the Capitals roster regularly push him to the bottom six, where his minutes dwindle. It’s something of a double-edged sword; until he can demonstrate consistency, he won’t get the minutes, but the ice time helps him show that consistency.

With Nicklas Backstrom out (and Marcus Johansson for a game) he’s had the opportunity to squeeze back in that role of a top-six center, with more than table scraps of ice time. If he can make the most of it – which means contributing consistently once the season resumes from the All-Star break – he will likely stay there while Backstrom is out and might give the Capitals something to think about when the top centerman is nearing a return.

— Question from Twitter: @viennamic Michael Brennan

Vokoun one and done with the #caps?

Katie: I could see this happening. Tomas Vokoun was looking for a larger deal last summer during free agency, but when his value on the market dropped he settled for his one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Capitals – he carried a salary cap hit of $5.7 million each of the past four years. That’s not a minor pay cut and one would imagine he hopes to get closer to that previous number when he’s in search of a new deal this offseason. That alone could price him far out of the Capitals’ range.

This season has also been taxing on Vokoun because he’s been away from his family. Granted, he and his wife made the decision that the family would stay in Florida so they wouldn’t have to uproot their school-age daughters for one year, but it’s been tough on Vokoun, who was accustomed to being a daily part of his children’s lives. That makes me think that Vokoun would also value some security with a longer-term contract in his next deal, so if the whole family moves to a new city they won’t have to worry about picking up and leaving too much.

With Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby waiting in the wings, the Capitals have options should Vokoun decide to move on after this season.

— Question from johns2dp:
I’d love to hear your reaction to whether Joel Ward has been a positive acquisition for the team to this point, given his current production and salary cap hit.
— Katie:
Joel Ward is a tough case to evaluate and I’m sure he’d be the first to say he’s not happy with how things have gone this year. His current production is low – one goal in the past 10 games and only three total points in that stretch – but he’s also seen his ice time diminish under Dale Hunter.

When looking at the four-year contract worth $12 million that Washington signed him to this offseason, the fact that he’s on pace for what would be a career-low 24 points is certainly hard to stomach. GM George McPhee told reporters at the time that the Capitals had overpaid in order to land Ward. A big reason why they did that was for his production in the second half of the year and the playoffs so it may take a little longer to evaluate whether the overpayment was worthwhile.

While his overall ice time has dipped under Hunter, Ward’s shorthanded ice time has plummeted since the coaching change. He played an average of 1:33 shorthanded under Bruce Boudreau and more than that each of the three previous seasons, but under Hunter Ward’s shorthanded ice time is around 30 seconds per night. Ward is the type of blue-collar player who takes a lot of pride in killing penalties and it’s always been a part of his identity in the NHL. To answer another question that was posed, his role on the penalty kill is the major reason why he uses such a long stick – makes it easier to poke-check opposing forwards on the power play.