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Japers’ Rink Mailbag: Time Machines, Over/Under on Ovi Goals and Kuzy Trades/Buyout

We go back in time to warn the Caps not to do... something, predict Alex Ovechkin’s 2021-22 goal total, touch on Evgeny Kuznetov exit scenarios and more in this week’s edition of “you ask, we answer.”

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Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game One Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

With a(nother) disappointing end to the season in the rear view and a pivotal offseason ahead, let’s dive into the Mailbag to see what’s on your mind...

Wow, a biggie right off the top (and full credit, as noted, to DGB for the idea). We’re going to be literal here and only consider warning the team not to do something (no “I’d tell them to draft Alex DeBrincat instead of Lucas Johansen”), but not too literal (no “I’d tell them not to not draft Alex DeBrincat instead of Lucas Johansen”). Also, we already told them to do that.

There are a handful of seemingly regrettable decisions over the last decade that come to mind instantly. Maybe we warn them not to trade Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Or tell them not to hire Adam Oates. Or even caution them against giving Evgeny Kuznetsov term on his current contract. But the problem with all of those is that they’re from The Before Times, the pre-Cup days. Screw with any of those, and you risk messing up the entire timeline that led to the championship. If not for the Forsberg trade and the Oates hire, does 2014 end with the dismissal of Oates and George McPhee and the hiring of Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan? If they opted to give Kuznetsov a higher salary as a tradeoff for term, do they have room to add Michael Kempny at the 2018 trade deadline? After waiting nearly 45 years (worth the wait, by the way), I’m not taking a chance that my well-intentioned advice might make it all go away.

So that leaves about three years (to the day) of decision-making to undo, and there are two obvious and related candidates here: don’t let Barry Trotz walk, and don’t promote Todd Reirden (even that option, though, would result in either not making or breaking a presumed pre-Cup promise). My thoughts on the former are well-documented, which leaves the latter as my answer. The Caps made a bet on Reirden and they were wrong, wasting two years in the twilight of Alex Ovechkin’s career along the way. Who the other options were to replace Trotz is unclear, but what is clear is that they picked the wrong one.

Let’s math.

As we all know, Alex Ovechkin is a “volume” shooter, meaning his strength is more in shot creation than in finishing, relatively speaking (obviously he’s one of the great finishers of all-time as well). Last season, his rate of shot creation was down across the board; here are the all-situation numbers for the last 14 seasons:

data via NatStatTrick

Why? We can reasonably assume there are two primary contributing factors here: age (Ovi will be 36 in September) and Peter Laviolette’s impact. Neither of those things is particularly likely to change for the better going forward (though Ovechkin saw a bit of an uptick in expected goals after a slow start, so there’s that). So we can probably expect similar, slightly lower numbers going forward (the one big variable here - for better or worse - could be the power play, but that remains to be seen).

Another piece here is that Ovechkin has consistently outscored his expected goals (in part because a lot of his goals, including shots from “his office” aren’t considered by the models particularly dangerous... because they’re not, for most shooters). Over the 14-year sample, he’s scored around 1.4 goals for each expected goal (over the last four seasons, that number is nearly 1.5). No real reason to think that’s going to change either.

If we (conservatively, hopefully) drop his ixG/60 to 1.1 and say that he’s going to score 1.3 (conservatively, hopefully) actual goals per each expected goal, that gives him an actual goal rate of 1.43 per sixty minutes of ice time. Take that number and to get to 38.5 goals, he’d need to skate 1,616 minutes, something that he’s done in each of his last two 82-game seasons (1,695 and 1,652)... but not the two before it (1,506 and 1,604). That’s 19.7 minutes per night if he plays all 82, and more if he doesn’t (duh). He played 19.5 minutes per night this past season.

So with conservative estimates of production and optimistic projections for ice time, he’s right at about that 38.5 goals number. A rejuvenated power play and/or a reasonable uptick in shooting percentage and he might clear it comfortably; more of the same from the power play and further impacts of Father Time and he might fall a good bit short.

But I think we all know better than to go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line Alex Ovechkin when goals are on the line. Put me down for the over.

With better health and a little bit of luck, this core group of players absolutely could make another deep playoff run. The problem is that the further down the road we get with this bunch, the better health and the more luck they’ll need for that to happen.

To make a deep run, teams need to be both lucky (including in health) and good. You could think of it as a bar that teams need to clear with that combination of luck and play and it doesn’t matter how they get there as long as they do - a great team might rely less on luck, a lesser team needs more of it. To me, the Caps have slipped from the tier of top contenders (a tier that includes Colorado, Tampa, Carolina and Vegas) and are firmly in a group of clubs that are still good enough that, with a heap of good fortune, could make it to the third or fourth round.

Would I bet on the Caps making it to the third or fourth (or second) round next year? Not necessarily. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have in 2018 either.

How’d these two questions end up together? Weird.

On the first question, it’s hard to guess at the return for a consistent star in this League, much less... whatever you’d call Kuznetsov. But you can bet that the return would be disappointing. Could the Caps get 60 cents on the dollar for him? What would that even look like? Frankly, if the Caps could move Kuznetsov without having to eat some of his salary and/or send a sweetener along with him to make the deal happen, I’d be surprised. The talent is tantalizing, but the results haven’t been and his professionalism and commitment are lacking. Who wants to sign up for four more years of running towards Lucy holding the football at nearly $8 million per season? The real question is how badly the Caps want to cut their losses on him and what they’re willing to do to make that happen.

Oh, hey, buyout you say?

First off, buyouts are bad business. Yes, they’re part of the game, and yes, the players are compensated, but how an organization treats players matters and it matters when you’re trying to sign free agents, among other things. But to answer the question, I’ll assume that there’s no cap penalty associated with the buyout, and it’s simply the team paying out the remainder of the contract (or some portion of it), and further that the size of the buyouts don’t impact the team’s operating budget going forward (by no means a realistic assumption, necessarily).

To me, the most concerning contracts on the team in the long-term are Kuznetsov, John Carlson (five more years at $8 million per) and Nicklas Backstrom (four more at $9.2 per), and I’d love to play a “get out of jail free” card on them in two or three years. But those moves aren’t realistically compatible with where the team is right at this moment (cutting them loose doesn’t make the team better now), so this summer I’d probably look at Brenden Dillon (three years left at $3.9 million per year) and Carl Hagelin (two at $2.75 million).

If you take Brian MacLellan at his word that the Caps are “going to give [Ilya Samsonov] another opportunity to grab [the No. 1 role] and run with it” next season, the Caps will have him and Vitek Vanecek under contract for a great price as a tandem (Vaneck at $716,667 and Samsonov, a restricted free agent needing a new contract after making $925,000 last season during a year that didn’t exactly scream “give this guy whatever he asks for”). As a point of reference, Frederik Andersen and Pekka Rinne had $5-million cap hits last year, and even David Rittich was at $2.75M (likely north of what the Caps’ duo will cost).

As tight as the Caps will be against the salary cap and as unpredictable as goalies are (how many of those guys are you absolutely confident will outperform Samsonov and/or Vanecek next year?), I’d be surprised if the Caps add a goalie in the offseason. And with the market as flooded as it is, they can probably wait it out and see if they need to add someone at some point down the road. That would all change if they move on from Samsonov, of course, but the Caps believe they have at least two NHL-level goalies already with at least one still having big upside, which is probably more than they thought they had when they signed Henrik Lundqvist (and even Craig Anderson). It’s hard to see them adding another without moving one of those two.

Assuming the Division is back to normal (i.e. no Boston or Buffalo, welcome back Carolina and Columbus), I’d go Carolina, Pittsburgh, Washington, Islanders.

Alex Ovechkin and Alex Ovechkin, respectively.