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Japers' Rink Mailbag: First-Line Right Wing, Free Agency and the Future

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Questions abound heading into a busy offseason in the summer's first edition of "you ask, we answer."

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

The 'Bag is back for another summer of your Q's and our A's, so let's get right to it with a question about the team's top offseason priority - finding a right-wing for the top line:

Do the Caps need a first-line right wing? Unquestionably (and not just because it beats the hell out of playing four-on-five at even strength, though there were nights when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom seemed to be doing just that). But the more important question is whether or not the Caps need to go outside of the organization to find their guy, and I'm not sure that they do. Joel Ward was terrific there in the playoffs, but he's not a long-term solution, even if he does come back. Andre Burakovsky, on the other hand, may well be. He's fast enough and a skilled enough playmaker and shooter to work on the top line. To wit, when Burakovsky skated on the top line at five-a-side, the Caps took more than 55% of the shots that were attempted and notched more than 68% of the goals that were scored. That's some pretty awesome production, and, while the sample is small (182 minutes), there's certainly enough there to make me want to see more.

And if the first-line right wing solution is already in-house, that means the team can focus on acquiring a second-line wing. They clearly need an upgrade in the top six, and a second-line wing should, in theory, come at a more reasonable price (unless they're planning on playing a first-line-caliber wing on the second line, which wouldn't be a terrible idea).

As for the players mentioned, Phil Kessel doesn't strike me as a great fit here for a number of reasons, but the Caps aren't on his list of acceptable trade destinations, so that's a non-starter anyway. Patrick Sharp would be an upgrade over the last right wing the Hawks moved to the Caps in a salary dump in the wake of a Cup win, Troy Brouwer... but with Chicago likely looking for a first-round pick and Brian MacLellan vowing to keep his, not to mention the two years and nearly $12-million left on the soon-to-be 34-year-old's current deal, it's tough to see Sharp as a great fit either (contrary to some beliefs). The Caps might be better off not pushing their chips into the pot this summer and seeing what needs persist through the first half of next season or so (but here's another name to keep an eye on: Radim Vrbata).

Oh, and in terms of Sharp (or anyone) making "a tangible difference to the Caps' Cup chances," by one estimate, "the average NHL team has a 1% chance of winning a title — [a superstar like Alex Ovechkin] only raises it to 2%." Whether or not you buy those numbers, the underlying point that a single player's impact on Cup chances is pretty small in hockey is a valid one - the Caps need to get a bit better, with or without a new first-line right wing.

Overall scoring depth up front, possibly adding a right-handed veteran defenseman on the cheap for depth to rotate in on the third-pair (though pickin's be slim), and maybe reshaping the bottom six, depending upon what happens with...

Ask me again in two weeks.

I'd think both players would be sign-able for the Caps, in part due to Beagle's established upside and Fehr's latest injury, but the Caps need to get Braden Holtby signed and figure out what they're going to do about adding that top-six wing first.

On Beagle, Vogs noted Torey Mitchell and his three-year/$1.2-million cap hit as a comparable. To me, that's at the upper edge of what I'd like to see the team pay a fourth-line center with third-line fill-in upside in terms of salary, and a year too long for that type of player. On Fehr, it's hard to guess what he might be looking for, but every team in the League has passed on him already, and while he's reinvented himself nicely, it's doubtful he'll hit a homerun in free agency (or perhaps that's wishful thinking - I'd love to see him return to D.C.). Then again, on either of these guys, all it takes is one overzealous general manager to toss reasonableness right out the window.

So no, I don't think they're necessarily both gone - and if they are, coupled with a possible Joel Ward departure that would be a dramatic shake-up in the bottom-six. There are some other things that have to get sorted out first, though, as these two are dealt with at appropriate priority levels.

You could probably make a case for any of the four. Jakub Vrana has the highest upside of the group, and if the Mac strikes out in his search for a top-six wing, Vrana could get a sniff (if you'd asked a similar question at this time last year, you'd have included Burakovsky and he'd have seemed like an implausible longshot, but we know how that turned out). Riley Barber may be the best fit in a bottom-six role, and the bottom-six could have some openings (see above). Stanislav Galiev may be a bit of a late bloomer who continues his improbable ascension and adds some needed scoring. And Liam O'Brien could fill a fourth-line pugilist slot if Tom Wilson and Michael Latta are asked to do less of it.

I'm still not sold on Galiev, so I'll go with Vrana for impact; when in doubt, bet on skill. But Barber seems like the most likely to be a Trotz favorite of the quartet, so he's my "most likely to make the team"...I'd think they're all long shots, though.

Just about everything you hear about Madison Bowey is effusive praise for the young puck-moving blueliner (Hockey's Future, for example, has him ahead of Burakovsky as the team's top prospect), and the glowing reviews aren't solely for his play in the offensive zone by any means. He's skilled and physical, but he just turned 20 and hasn't played a minute of professional hockey yet. With a long line ahead of him on the Caps' defensive depth chart, I'd be surprised if Bowey doesn't spend the majority of 2015-16 in Hershey, unless things go incredibly well for him... or horribly wrong for the Caps.

I'm sure the door in question has been fixed, but I see no reason to expect the ice to be any better next year than it has been in recent years. Then again, these aren't Bruce Boudreau's high-flying Caps (who were hindered by bad ice), and maybe ice that's "as bad as it gets" levels the playing field a bit against faster teams.

Tough call, but since I have both sweaters in my closet, it might just be me who's the best...



Agree? Disagree?

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. As always, there are always a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.