Our first question this week focuses on the Caps' slow start:
It's an interesting question, and the easy answer is that people would've noticed and cared because that's what people do.
On the one hand, bad stretches happen. Often. To everyone. Heck, last year's Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks lost three in a row... in the playoffs. The last time the NHL played a full season, the Kings had an 0-3-2 stretch in October/November, an 0-5-0 streak in December and a 2-6-2 span in February, and won the Cup. The Caps have had several streaks over the years, including that 0-6-2 run in December of 2010, and they still finished first in the Conference. You get the point.
On the other hand, there's not the body of evidence yet this season that the Caps' start is just a mediocre stretch and not a product of actually being a mediocre team. And if you want to point to last season as that evidence, recall that the Caps weren't a good possession team, but rather one that got by on an otherworldly power play (which has carried over) and great even-strength puck luck (which has most definitely not).
To the point of the question, if the Caps hit a skid like this in mid-December, whether or not folks got worked up would depend on the two months that preceded it. That there's more concern right now is a product of having very little reason to not fear something close to the worst... while still hoping for the best.
Our second question is about being fiscally responsible, so naturally we'll let Rob handle this one, since he always spends wisely. Take it away, Rob.
In general, I think the best positions to save money are the positions where the players are going to see the least amount of ice time. That rules out the second-line right and left wing spots. While those positions are the ones that are behind the stars, they are also the guys that have to step up to replace the stars in case of injury, and you don't want to cheap out there. They are also the positions that create the depth that separates good teams from great teams, and the second line is frequently made up of players that handle lots of special teams time around the League.
The positions where you see guys getting the least amount of ice time are obvious: the backup goalie, bottom pair defense, and fourth-line forwards. Backup goalie is an easy choice since they don't even play most games, but they are one awkward movement or one Milan Lucic burst of rage from having to play every game. How much do you want to cheap out and risk having an AHL-caliber goalie in the net?
The bottom pair defensemen are also interesting targets, but given how often defensemen get hurt, and given the fact that successful teams need to be able to trust their bottom pair defensemen with important minutes, I'd caution against that route. Obviously, teams shouldn't usually be investing heavily in the bottom pair defense, but trying to go bargain bin can have serious repercussions (look at what has happened to the Rangers the last couple playoffs).
That leaves the fourth-line forwards as the best places to save some money. These players will rarely be forced to move too far up the depth chart, won't be asked to play too many minutes on special teams (though good fourth liners are usually also used on the penalty kill, a not unimportant factor), and play the fewest minutes per game of anybody on the team. Teams should be able to find fourth line players for cheap, frequently under a million dollar cap hit. If a fourth-liner goes down, AHL replacements can usually fill in without much detriment to the team.
That's all in a vacuum, but there are two more important considerations. First, let's return to the goalies. The goaltending market is extremely deep, and the percentage differences between very good and average goalies is not a whole lot; certainly not enough to justify the salary difference between what an average goalie (or even a very good one) makes and what the elite goalies make. I wouldn't advocate going cheap on your starting goalie, but I would also advocate staying away from the high-dollar/high-term contracts that the elite goalies get. For example, Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask are incredible goalies, but I think their respective teams could be improved more by going with a more moderately priced goalie and investing in the skater corps.
Finally, using players on entry-level contracts is a great way to save money. Teams that win Cups almost always have entry-level players that outperform their contracts, giving their team top-six players on bottom-line cap hits. If teams can find impact players on their entry-level contracts, it vastly increases their flexibility in the roster and their ability to spend on other areas of need. When a team has a player that could potentially be an impact player on their entry-level deal, they should think long and hard before unnecessarily burning an entry level contract year.
Not that anyone would ever do that, right, Caps?
If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. There are still a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.