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Japers' Rink Mailbag: Ranking the Metro, Hauntings and Tire Fires

Predicting the Division, Trotz's third line preferences and much more in this week's edition of "you ask, we answer."

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a month with actual hockey. Let's 'Bag:

I'll start by ranking the other teams in the Division, and with the reigning champs, the Rangers - until someone gives me a compelling reason to think otherwise, I'm going to have the Presidents' Trophy winners as the Metro favorites.

The Penguins and Isles fall in behind the Rangers, and the Blue Jackets are next in line, followed by the Flyers, Hurricanes and Devils (though those last three are in a somewhat interchangeable lower tier and the first four could shake out differently as well).

So where do the Caps fit? They're in that top tier and could certainly challenge for the Division title... or be fighting for a playoff spot. That's a tight grouping and a lot is going to depend on good health and good fortune. For now, I'll slot the Caps in third, just ahead of the Isles, and just behind the Rangers and Pens.

I think Trotz's preference is to have a shutdown line (typically the third line, nominally at least) that he can lean on when the situation calls for it (i.e. opposing top lines, late leads, defensive-zone draws, etc.). Take a look at the Caps' forwards' ice-time deployments last year when tied at home (because that's where you'll see a coach's preferences most clearly, given that he gets the last change), with the players' percentage of ice time on the y-axis, relative zone starts on the x-axis, and colored according to the competition they faced (via war-on-ice):

F Deployment

That's a lot of Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom facing tough competition and getting favorable zone starts, and Joel Ward and Eric Fehr (a.k.a. the "third" line) getting less ice time and facing tough competition in less-favorable zone starts. The "second" and "fourth" lines are further down in ice time and faced weaker competition in mixed deployments.

Now, here's that same chart for when the Caps were leading by a goal:

F Deployment 2

A bit less ice for the top line, a bit clearer separation for the "third line" and Evgeny Kuznetsov was hardly allowed on the ice at all (and was sheltered when he was). To me, these two charts show Trotz's preference for having a defensively responsible line available to play those tough minutes behind the top line. It's conceivable that a fourth line could be constructed that way... but if it was, I'd bet a shiny nickel they wouldn't get the fewest minutes. More likely, Trotz will want a line he can lean on as a shutdown line, and if that will probably be the (nominally) third line.

No need to overthink these - the answer to the first one is Sidney Crosby, the second is Evgeni Malkin.

Okay, maybe I could be convinced to go with Duncan Keith on the first one. Maybe.

Hmmm. Could it be Vezina finalist Braden Holtby? Selke finalist Nicklas Backstrom? Norris finalist John Carlson? Lady Byng finalist Marcus Johansson? Calder finalist teammates Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey? (Okay, I'm getting a little carried away.)

Smart money is probably on Holtby, though Carlson should have a big year. But don't sleep on Jack Adams finalist Barry Trotz. I could see it.

Free agency is easy, so let's knock it out first - letting Scott Stevens go via (restricted) free agency will haunt them forever. As to free agents they've signed that might haunt a former club, they really haven't gone big in free agency, historically (last summer's splash on defense notwithstanding), so it's hard to come up with good answers here. But I'll go with Joel Ward - Nashville never should've let him walk.

On to trades, and I know what you want me to say, but I'm not going to say it. Not yet, at least. For my money (which is fitting, since this trade was mostly about money, perhaps another thing, and then hockey), the haunting trade is when the Caps moved Dino Ciccarelli for Kevin Miller after the 1991-92 season. Ciccarelli was pretty great for the Caps (fourth in franchise history in regular-season goals-per-game and first in playoff goals-per-game) and still had plenty of hockey left in him, as evidenced by the 400-plus games he played after leaving Washington. Miller, on the other hand, played all of ten games for the Caps and was traded less than five months after he was acquired. Terrible trade that still makes me angry.

And the trade that haunts an opponent most might well be when David Poile stole Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller (yes, Kevin's brother) from the Rangers for Bobby Carpenter on New Year's Day, 1987. Ridley and Miller were integral parts of Caps teams for years, playing more than 1,500 games for Washington, while Carpenter lasted two month in Manhattan before being shipped out to L.A.

And here's an added bonus - a trade the Caps didn't make that would have haunted them. Look no further than Harry Sinden, who, when given the choice of which young Caps goaltender to include in the swap that brought Adam Oates to D.C. (as a player), chose Jim Carey, leaving the Caps with... Olie Kolzig.

Guess? Let me tell you a little story. In this space nearly a year ago, a reader asked (in pertinent part), "where are you putting the team goal total for the season?" to which I replied, "I personally have the Caps finishing with 238 goals this season." So where'd they end up?

2014-15 GF

#nailed it

They'll score 241 in 2015-16.

We touched on this question a bit earlier in the summer and concluded (hopefully) that neither Evgeny Kuznetsov nor Andre Burakovsky is likely to hit the skids in his second full season. As to how common an occurrence the "sophomore slump" is, I'd think it's more anecdotal than actual, and where it does appear, it can probably be attributed to some external factors outside of simply a drop-off in performance.

They're already about as big a tire fire as one could imagine and there's more interest in them than the other four pro teams combined, so it's never going to happen. Ever.

With the aforementioned tire fire in Ashburn/Landover and a dumpster fire on the banks of the Anacostia, the Caps have a great opportunity to take a bit of the local sports spotlight (at least the portion that shines a positive light), and the city sure could use a winner. But do dudes from Moscow, Sweden, Saskatchewan, San Francisco and elsewhere who live in Virginia and Maryland really get motivated to win "for D.C." as opposed to for themselves or for Caps fans? I doubt it. It's certainly nice to embrace the community, though.

Within the realm of reality, two guys come to mind immediately. One is Peter Forsberg. I'd have even taken broken-down old Foppa, as was kinda sorta rumored to be a possibility at one point. What an unbelievable warrior of a player he was.

The other was a player I adored from afar for a long time... then actually did get to see lace 'em up for the Caps: Sergei Fedorov. Every once in a while, I think back on his brief time here and recall the otherworldly class and skill he had, even at that age (and I'll cop to being starstruck by him in the locker room in a way I've never been by any other player, Ovechkin on down). He's the second-line center against whom all second-line centers since have been measured... and come up short. Heck, he could probably still center the Caps' third line. (Kidding... I think.)

So those are my two. Now a question for you (that we asked a half-dozen years ago, but will ask again) - who was better?


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.