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Japers’ Rink Mailbag: First-Round Focused

You asked, we answered!

Washington Capitals v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Okay, first things first: the Caps aren’t missing the playoffs. MoneyPuck has them at 92.8% likely to get in, HockeyViz has them above 90%, Bulsink has them at 97.5%, Hockey-Reference has them at 97.8%... you get the point: this team is going to the postseason for the eighth-consecutive year and 14th time in the last 15 seasons.

Now, things get far less rosy once the big dance starts. MoneyPuck gives them a 27.5% chance of winning a round, Bulsink is slightly more optimistic at 31.0%, but the point remains that the Caps will almost certainly be heavy underdogs in Round 1, and it’s easy to see why: if they finish fourth in the Metro (certainly a strong possibility, given the current standings and games in hand), they’ll likely draw one of Carolina, Florida, Toronto or Tampa Bay (depending on whether they finish in the first or second wild card spot, so watch Boston closely down the stretch). Those are arguably four of the five best teams in hockey.... and the fifth ain’t the Caps. If the Caps can claw their way to the three-seed in the East (also very possible), they’ll likely face the Penguins, which is probably a better match-up than any of the other four, but no cakewalk and the Caps would still be sizable underdogs. It’s truly an East full of beasts, especially at the top of the Conference.

So, yeah, let’s say the Caps go out meekly in the first round. Again. It’ll be the fourth-straight year they’ve done so since winning the Cup, and Alex Ovechkin will be at least 37 before he gets back there for another chance - the sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

What would I do? To start with, I’d double-down on what I wrote last year:

So the Caps are what they are right now - older and slower, capped out and over-committed. Unless the Caps are willing (and able) to take 60 cents on the dollar to move the guy who finally exorcised so many franchise demons with an overtime goal in Pittsburgh or let the NHL’s newest franchise take the guy whose on-ice moment with his father moments after winning the Cup had us all choked up (or get even more creative), they’re pretty locked into their current roster. There are no easy answers here, and, barring something unforeseen, it’ll likely get worse before it gets much better. The Caps’ last three years have been based on misplaced hope; the next three need to be based on a solid plan.

Here’s the thing about windows: whether they’re opened or closed, you should be able to see what’s on the other side. It doesn’t appear as if the Caps have. And now the view isn’t so great.

To be honest, I’m still not sure I see the plan. Granted, many of the younger players that have gotten opportunities this season have looked as good or better than expected, from Connor McMichael to Martin Fehervary to Aleksai Protas to Joe Snively. Even guys like Brett Leason and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby look to be serviceable. But is this a team that’s going to play fast or heavy? Are they a sound counter-striking defensive team or a pressuring offense capable of playing most of the game in the opponent’s end? Perhaps the bigger (biggest) question is whether the team has the head coach and vision to maximize the players they have (and vice versa). We can talk all we want about getting younger and faster, but that’s really a two-pronged issue: having the “right” players and having a system that utilizes those traits.

Right now, the Caps’ systems and personnel are conspiring to look a little, well, dated. If they go out again in the first round, they’ll need to address and refresh both, which won’t be easy with more than $53 million in 2022-23 cap hit committed to players over the age of 30.

The question may be moot (and I’m not convinced that Marc-Andre Fleury is markedly better than what the Caps currently have in net), but after this, I think we’d be ready for anything:

Ugh.

As alluded to above, I think that at this point the Caps are more likely than not to do exactly that - go into the playoffs with Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek in net - the rental goalie market just isn’t that impressive, and non-rentals that may be available could carry a very hefty price tag (though would potentially be worth exploring).

We’ve spent a lot of time (like, a lot a lot of time) discussing the goaltending this season, and it’s still as clear as mud. On one hand, Vanecek has clearly been the better goalie of the two, by just about any metric:

via Evolving-Hockey

Just about any metric, that is, except wins (Samsonov is 17-7-3, Vanecek is 10-6-5). Samsonov just “feels” more likely to steal a series or go on an epic playoff run, doesn’t he?

Vanecek has been really great on the road (where the Caps will almost certainly play more of their games, including their first two), and the more consistent of the two. But here’s the thing about consistency: when you’re the underdog (as the Caps will be), you might prefer the variance.

Ultimately, I’m sure Peter Laviolette is hoping the situation sorts itself out down the stretch and that one of them is the proverbial hot hand at season’s end (or that he has two good options, rather than just a choice to make). If things continue apace, though, I’d probably start Vanecek provided there’s nothing wild in the match-up that would steer me off of that, but give him a short leash. Sometimes the guy that starts your playoffs isn’t the one who finishes it... spectacularly.

The importance of surrounding yourself with smart and hard-working people who you get along with. I hope to find that some day. ;-)

[Editor’s note: Same!]