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A Midsummer's Look at the Caps

With Jakub Vrana signed, we look at the Caps' last couple of months of roster building and take a peek ahead to '19-20 before embarking on summer vacation

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps /

Now that the Caps have signed left wing Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract, virtually all of the offseason's heavy lifting is finished. Only two Caps - restricted free agent defenseman Christian Djoos and RFA forward Chandler Stephenson - remain to be signed ahead of the 2019-20 season, and both of those deals will get done one way or another; both have arbitration hearings slated to be heard in the next couple of weeks.

But before we duck out of here for a few weeks for some much-needed summer fun and relaxation, there are a few items we've had rattling around in the attic for a while now. I've done this before because it's a good format and it works well at times like this where you've got a number of nuggets and tidbits that aren't necessarily related on one another, but which are all worthy of putting forth, but I'm going to borrow from the inimitable Elliotte Friedman and his always compelling "31 Thoughts" format. But there won't be 31 of them, because he's Eliotte Friedman and I'm not that thoughtful.

  1. With the departures of Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly from Washington's bottom six, and with the additions of Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic to that group, and with the signing of Carl Hagelin as well, the Caps' bottom six has a much different complexion than it had at the outset of last season. While Burakovsky and Connolly both have a great deal of offensive skill, and both still have some offensive upside at this stage of their respective careers, the Caps' newly minted bottom six should have more dimension to it.

"In theory, that would be the case," says Caps general manager Brian MacLellan. "We saw Hagelin at the end of last year. He is a solid five-on-five player. He tilts the ice in our favor all of the time. He is solid defensively, good on the PK. Lars [Eller] has been that, too. And then with Panek, I think in theory it's a good line. It should be a line you can use at any time of the game and in any situation. All three have the ability to move up; Lars has shown it, and Hagelin and Panik have played up, too. It's going to give us some flexibility that way. Hathaway - strong forecheck. Leipsic - strong forecheck. Hopefully, this is going to add a dimension to our game that we didn't have. Connolly has good finish and a good release. Burakovsky has the ability to turn the offense on. He might not be as good of a two-way player, but there is always that threat that he can score. So I think our team has shifted a little bit to be more of a two-way focused team."

  1. In the wake of the offseason departures of Matt Niskanen (traded to Philadelphia) and Brooks Orpik (retired), the Washington defense will also take on a new look. The Caps will rely on Michal Kempny rebounding from major surgery, a return to form from Dmitry Orlov, an improved comfort level for Nick Jensen after coming over at the trade deadline and being moved to the left side when Kempny got hurt, a motivated Radko Gudas in his contract year, and continued growth from Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos. John Carlson, who turns 30 in January, is now the dean of the Washington defense in terms of both age and experience (688 games).

"The addition of Gudas and more ice time for Siegenthaler, both are good defenders," cites MacLellan, in noting blueline improvements. "And then we'll see how Jensen or Gudas works with Orlov. We can try a number of things there, too. So I think we are situated well."

  1. With Hagelin here for the full season, and with the additions of Panik and Hathaway, the Caps should also be able to cut back on the penalty-killing workload of both Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

"Yeah, definitely," says MacLellan. "They're both getting up there in age. We used them at certain times last year out of necessity, but I think this year we're deeper and roles will be more defined in our bottom six. We have quite a few guys who can kill penalties now, and we've got [Nic] Dowd, who did a decent job last year, and Hathaway has done it. I think the distribution of minutes to our bottom six will be higher going forward."

  1. Right from his first offseason on the job in the summer of 2014, MacLellan has had a vision of what he wants to do with his roster, and he has been able and willing to clearly elucidate his plans. But there are 30 other teams out there, so you don't always get your man when July 1 rolls around. The Caps have been able to be creative in adding term to entice free agents, because as a team near the cap ceiling, they can't always sway with money. I wondered how this offseason played out, in terms of how the Caps' hockey operations braintrust hoped it would at this most critical stage of the roster-building season.

"This year played out pretty much as we planned it," answers MacLellan. "And a lot of things had to fall into place for that to happen, so I think we feel very fortunate that they did, and that we did execute a lot of different things to create the possibility that we could get those guys. We identified those players early, and pretty much had a plan as to what it would take to get them. We did our research on the UFA market, we knew what we had to do to get Hagelin signed up, and our projections and evaluations were pretty much correct, and things worked out for us.

"It's really tough to improve your roster after this [Fourth of July] weekend. It's really hard to make an impactful trade or get someone you like, even for your bottom six. I think it's tough to fill holes after free agency is over. You can add depth or fill in around the edges, but you build your roster right at the end of free agency or through free agency. I don't think we thought we had a player [in the system] who could fill the roles that we brought guys in for, and that's why we signed Panik and why we signed Hagelin. If we had young guys who were ready to get to that level and to play a good game on the third line, we would have gone with them. We would have created a spot for them."

  1. Washington will undoubtedly miss the leadership and the voices of Orpik and Niskanen, who were bedrocks of the blueline for the last half decade here. It was the twin additions of those two players that helped shift the culture in the room and ultimately led to that elusive Stanley Cup championship in 2018. But having Hagelin for the next four years should help some in that regard. In the two months he spent here last season - from late February when he was obtained from LA through late April when the Caps' season came to an end - Hagelin developed a strong bond with Vrana. The two drove to home games together, and the erudite and experienced Hagelin was able to have a positive effect on the still evolving Vrana.

"Me and Carl, he came in and right away you can see how he fits in pretty good with this group," says Vrana. "We spent some time together by driving to the games, and we are kind of similar skaters. I played in Sweden and he is Swedish; I know a little bit of Swedish and we kind of clicked a little bit with that and by driving to the games, too. He is a great guy and a great teammate, and since day one when he came here he has been proving that.

"We drive to every game together and we always talk about using our speed and stuff. He works really hard and he is a really fast player, and he knows how to use his speed. Defensively, he is very responsible in the defensive zone. There are definitely things I can learn from him. When you are as fast as he is, you can beat players wide, you can beat the defense wide, you can get the puck first [on the forecheck], which is really important. He has been a really important player since he came here."

  1. It's a time-honored NHL tradition; older more experienced players are expected to help guide and nurture younger players, even those who might one day take their jobs and push them aside. Orpik was always a shining example in that regard. I asked Hagelin about his relationship with Vrana, and who helped him adjust to the NHL when he came up with the Rangers back in 2011.

"For myself, coming into the league it's important to have those older guys who you can just kind of follow and listen to, and to pick their brains. I was fortunate to come to a Rangers team with a lot of veteran players. Marian Gaborik drove me to the rink every day. At the time, that was his second team after starting in Minnesota. He was obviously a great pro. We had [Henrik] Lundqvist there, too. He became a good friend too, even though he was six years older than me. Brad Richards was there, too, and he had won a Stanley Cup before. Those were certain guys that were older than me that I could just follow. I didn't have to ask too many questions. I'm a guy who just likes to listen and learn, and just follow whatever they were doing. I think that's important. V is a guy who likes to ask questions, and he likes to find out stuff about people and about life. So I try to help him out as much as possible."

  1. A player's career can turn in any number of different ways based on his environment, which includes - but is not limited to - staff (coaches, trainers, etc.), opportunity, teammates, comfort level and any number of other elements both on and off the ice. In my final conversation with Niskanen before his departure, I asked him to reflect on nearly a decade as Orpik's teammate (they were together in Pittsburgh before coming to DC).

"Everyone knows about Brooksie's professionalism and doing the right things at all times and stuff like that, and that's really important. Especially for young players, to see a respected guy like that and the way he carries himself and how professional he is, that's really important. But Brooksie being such a good person and he has so much integrity, and that presence really resonates with me. When he speaks, when he does something, it's for a purpose and you know it's the right thing. You might not want to hear it or you might not want to believe it, but at the end of the day you know it's the right thing - the things he believes in and what he preaches and how he carries himself. He is such a good person, and I think his integrity rubs off on people in a really good way. I've used him as a sounding board for talking about ideas and his views on certain ways we go about our business, day-to-day stuff, and philosophies of playing the game. It's all about the team, and it's all about team first, having success and doing the right thing to give yourselves the best chance to win. If you have a group that thinks that way, you have the best chance for team success. He has that attitude and he spearheads that effort, and that's really important."

  1. It is really important, which made me wonder who the go-to guys were in that regard before Orpik and Niskanen came on the scene. Tom Wilson filled me in.

"You have time to reflect on all of your years of being in the league, and all of the guys you've played with," says Wilson. "And you realize how fortunate you are to play and to be part of a room with a guy like Brooks Orpik. He is pretty much second to none in the game of hockey for what he brings to the table. As a friend and as a teammate, that guy is just across the board one of the best individuals. He is a great leader.

"Coming into this team, there was a great group of guys that welcomed me and made me feel at home, and kind of showed me the way, starting with [Joel Ward] who showed me so much on and off the ice. I still remember [Eric Fehr] pulling me aside and saying, 'Hey, you don't go on the elevator first; you've got to wait.' Stuff like that, they were good about it, they were nice about it, but they made sure they showed me the way, too. Another guy - and it hurts to say it now - is Justin Williams. He always said, 'Want the puck, play with the puck, take ownership of your game, don't depend on the next guy to get it done for you.' He was good like that and he rubbed off on me a bit in those ways. Playing every night with Nicky and Ovi is pretty good, too. You just try and pick up what you can, and you try to be a sponge when you're playing with some world class talent. The thing for me was you've just got to get the job done when you're going out there and you're playing with those guys. You've got to find a way to chip in and to complement them. It's been a fun ride, and I just want to continue to learn."

It's worth listing Wilson and Carlson as guys who have come up through the ranks here in the District and are now veteran leaders themselves, guys who will be expected to help show the next generation of Caps hopefuls what it takes to be a good pro.

  1. Last summer, the Caps lost Philipp Grubauer, Jay Beagle and Alex Chiasson from their Stanley Cup championship team. This summer, they bade farewell to Niskanen, Orpik, Burakovsky and Connolly. That's roughly a third of the team, and a peek ahead to next summer shows two cornerstone pieces heading into unrestricted free agency for the first time in their careers, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. The Caps were able to free up some salary cap space with the Niskanen trade, and they may be able to squeeze both Backstrom and Holtby onto their roster for the 2020-21 season. With no heir apparent in the system ready to replace Backstrom, getting him re-signed is critical. He and Holtby are both arguably the best players at their respective positions in franchise history, but the Caps do have some young goaltenders who may be able to take the reins after next season. The other thing to keep in mind: teams can only protect one goaltender for the Seattle expansion draft, which happens in the summer of 2021. Washington already has both Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek under contract beyond the summer of 2021, and Samsonov will reach RFA status at that point. If the Caps do choose to retain Holtby for a number of years next summer, they might be swimming in goaltending assets.

"I think our focus this year is we want to win," says MacLellan, when asked about a potential goaltending logjam. "We want to be one of the top teams in the league going into the playoffs, and we want to contend for a championship. So whatever the outcome is of all of this stuff, we are going to ice our best lineup and go from there. We will work out things after the fact, whether we have to get rid of a guy or let a guy go. We have no idea what Samsonov is going to be; hopefully he gets games this year. I think we just have to play it out and make our decisions at the end of the year."

  1. Reading between the lines of the above response, those who advocate for moving soon-to-be UFAs at the trade deadline are likely to be disappointed. There is a faction of folks out there who believe that a GM simply must extract whatever value he can from all impending UFA players. "You can't let them walk for nothing," they typically say. But does anyone believe that the Caps would have won the Cup in 2018 if they traded Carlson - who was months away from UFA status - at the deadline, just to get "something" for him? If a team with legitimate Cup aspirations has a desirable UFA or two (or more), it has to retain those players and go all in for the playoffs, at least that's what I believe. MacLellan agrees.

"As of now, yeah," he says, when asked about keeping both Backstrom and Holtby through then trade deadline if they're not signed for 2020-21. "We're trying to go for it, again. What's the message to your team first of all, or to Ovi and Backy, or to ownership, or to the fans? We're not going for it? Or, we're 'kind of' going for it? I want them for another year. If we get to the deadline and it's a disaster or things just aren't working, then I guess you shift and try to find something that works for us. But if we're a good team and we are in the top eight or 10 teams, then we're going for it, just like Columbus did."

  1. The game of hockey is teeming with great people at all levels, but I have always been personally partial to scouts. They're the lifeblood of a good organization, they're tireless, their travel itinerary puts ours to shame, they tell the best stories, they know every player everywhere (including the ones that don't get drafted and the ones who never "make it"), and they seemingly know every rink on the face of the earth and where to get some good food and a beer nearby. Among my favorite times of the year are training camp and free agency and the draft, because all the scouts are around and you can glean so much from them, merely by shutting up and listening - although the odd well-phrased question can help, too. At this point of the program, I'd like to raise a glass to Ed McColgan, an NHL scout for more than three decades, and a Caps scout for more than two decades; he came to Washington with George McPhee in 1997. A year after his name was eternally etched on the Stanley Cup, Ed is hanging up his notebook and his suitcase and we wish him his family all the best in his retirement. Soon after the Caps finished their 2019 Draft in Vancouver, assistant GM Ross Mahoney presented Ed with a watch from the Caps as all of his colleagues looked on. Godspeed, champ.

Like Nigel Tufnel's amp, this one goes to 11. I can't say I'm surprised. See you in September.

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