Welcome to the Thanksgiving edition of the mailbag! This week, we examine the Capitals' first quarter of the season. Readers also asked if General Manager Brian MacLellan is working on any in-season extensions, if captain Alex Ovechkin might get some rest days down the stretch and what healthy scratches do during games. To submit questions, send a tweet to @ikhurshudyan with #izzymailbag or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
U.S. Thanksgiving tends to be when the playoff picture comes into focus; since the 2013-14 season, at least 11 of the 16 teams in postseason position at Thanksgiving have gone on to qualify. The good news is the Capitals' three-game winning streak has them at 11-7-3 with 25 points, good for third place in the Metropolitan Division and in playoff position.
Perhaps more important than the results, we’ve seen Washington inch closer to the identity it had during the Stanley Cup run, suffocating opponents with a commitment to team defense that then fostered offense. Goaltender Braden Holtby said the Capitals' 4-2 win against Edmonton on Nov. 5 felt like an early season turning point, and Washington has allowed just 2.44 goals per game over its past nine games. The Capitals allowed 3.83 goals per game in their first 12 games.
But even when things weren’t going well for the team, players were pretty Zen about it. At this time last season, the Capitals were 11-9-1, and what it taught them was that some early adversity can be a good thing. Defenseman Matt Niskanen admitted that there was some doubt during the struggles last season, but after winning the Stanley Cup with a roster very close to this one, the Capitals are a pretty confident bunch.
Here’s something forward T.J. Oshie said the morning the Capitals beat the Oilers:
“I think after we won, you kind of see the big picture and you understand that it takes time to build something. It takes time to get your game and get everyone where we need to be. I think you’re more mature and more aware to the process that goes into winning a championship. Though we’re not playing great, I still think we’re poised enough to keep working at it and try to grab this thing.”
Under MacLellan, the Capitals have typically waited until after the season to work on extensions, though there have been some notable exceptions. Washington extended center Lars Eller in February, before his breakout postseason performance, and had MacLellan waited until after the Stanley Cup run, Eller might have been too expensive to keep. But an in-season extension isn’t always the wise route; I remember hearing that defenseman Karl Alzner’s camp was hoping for any early extension when his unrestricted free agent summer was still more than six months away, and the Capitals smartly waited until after the season to see how he’d respond after offseason sports hernia surgery. Both sides ended up moving on, with Alzner signing a five-year deal in Montreal, where he’s been a healthy scratch for most of the season.
I suspect MacLellan will want to wait until the end of the season to get to work on Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky’s deals. A full season is better to evaluate, especially if a long-term deal is a possibility. Both players will be restricted free agents, which means the Capitals own their negotiating rights, and there’s typically not as much rush with those contracts. That’s unlike unrestricted free agents, who hit the open market on July 1, and the biggest pending-UFAs for the Capitals are bottom-six wingers Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly. MacLellan was already thinking about Vrana and Burakovsky’s next contracts when he purposefully didn’t award any contracts of longer than one year to depth players this past summer, giving himself some roster flexibility to sign his skilled young forwards.
I’m more interested to see how the Capitals handle Holtby and center Nicklas Backstrom, who both have deals that expire after the 2019-20 season. That means Washington can sign them to extensions as early as July 1, 2019, and we’ve seen other teams use that early date for their superstars. Backstrom and Holtby are arguably underpaid at their current cap hits, so they’ll command big-money deals two years from now.
We haven’t talked enough about Ovechkin’s ice time this season. He’s skating an average of 21:03 per game, which is roughly a minute more than last season and the most he’s played per game since the 2010-11 season, when he was 25. Unlike the NBA and MLB, NHL players don’t take games off just for rest — and that’s usually their choice. I think as the league becomes more progressive, we might see that change in the future, but we’re not there yet. If Coach Todd Reirden wants to give Ovechkin a break later in the season, I imagine we’ll see a reduction in his ice time. If he plays just a couple minutes less per game, it could go a long way, though we know Ovechkin certainly prefers to play as much as possible.
For some teams, scratches sit in the press box. On others, they go through an off-ice workout during the game while keeping an eye on the television. I’ve heard of a little bit of everything from the Capitals' scratches. When defenseman John Carlson was hurt during the 2015-16 season, he watched games with the video staff and helped them clip certain shifts because it helped him appreciate what coaches were evaluating. Defenseman Taylor Chorney then did the same when he was often a healthy scratch last season.
Recently, Reirden mentioned how being out of the lineup and just watching games might have helped forward Tom Wilson when he finally returned from his suspension.
“I think sometimes when you have to watch some games for a while, you’re able to pick up some different things you can add,” Reirden said. “I think the fact a lot of the players asked him [advice], when we were going through a number of different [wingers] for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov at the time, I think it got him to really focus on what he does that makes him special on that line. I think sometimes some time away and people asking him about it allowed him to really understand the importance of his role and how difficult it is.”