Caps in the Mailbox: April 5, 2023 (2023)

Mike Vogel answers questions submitted from fans before the final five games of the 2022-23 season. Submit your question atWashCaps.com/InTheMailbox.

Adeline C. from Great Falls, VA: Do you see hockey going to right way to include more girls/women? Do you think the future hold more space for them in this sport?

I do see hockey going the right way to include more girls and women in the sport, and that applies to both the game itself on the ice and to the population of front offices and seeing women in prominent media positions as well.

When I walk through our offices in Arlington these days, I see many more women working here than when I started working within these walls back in the late 1990s. And without exception, they're all here because they excel at what they do. In nearly a quarter of a century working here, the group of people I work with now is easily the best, best qualified, most accomplished and most hard-working group I've ever been part of here, and a large reason for that is the diversity of the group and the more representative presence of women within that group.

I do hope and believe the future holds even more space for them within the sport.

I would love to see a women's professional hockey league get off the ground to the point where it has a footprint that is similar to that which the WNBA has been able to carve out over the last quarter of a century, and I would love to see the NHL embrace such a venture as the NBA did in the nascent years of the WNBA. Hockey is a great game no matter who is playing it, and the more popular we are able to make the game with everyone everywhere, the more popular the NHL itself will be.

I see more women in press boxes around the League and on my television/tablet screens discussing and analyzing the game than ever before. I'm also pleased to see so many women making significant inroads in the hockey operations departments around the League. There are women in scouting and in assistant general manager positions around the League, and it's only a matter of time before some of those same women begin ascending to positions such as general manager and team president.

I would refer you to this Emily Kaplan-penned piece for ESPN and will also note that Emily is a shining example of someone who is thriving as a jack-of-all trades in hockey media. She is a great writer and storyteller, is very plugged in around the League, and is also excellent with her work on camera for ESPN.

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Todd K. from Fort Wayne, IN: What do you believe the capitals will do with Carl Hagelin next year? And any new news on his injuries?

Hagelin's contract expires on July 1 and he will become an unrestricted free agent. He will be 35 when training camp gets underway in the fall, and he is now in the midst of rehabbing from hip resurfacing surgery, the same surgery that sidelined Nicklas Backstrom for eight months within the last year.

Hagelin has won a couple of Stanley Cups and has had an excellent NHL career in which he has played 713 games over 11 seasons in the League, a great run for a sixth-round pick in the 2007 NHL Draft. That said, I think it's likely that Hagelin is interested in continuing his NHL career if he is able to regain enough vision in the eye which was injured in March of 2022.

I don't have anything in the way of "new news" on his injuries; he still has some months to go to get to the point where Backstrom is now. I would also add that Hagelin has a great mind for the game and if he is unable to resume his playing career, he could continue in a number of different areas of the game including development, coaching, player agent and/or a front office position.

Rachel S. from Frederick, MD: Why does Alex Ovechkin usually go to the bench first for fist bumps after someone else on the ice has scored the goal? Usually the goal scorer leads, and even ESPN announcers have seemed confused by it in the past. Is this just something he does as the captain, or is there another reason?

I have not noticed this, but it doesn't surprise me. From the day he entered the NHL in October of 2005, Ovechkin has displayed unbridled exuberance every time the Caps score, regardless of whether it's him or someone else lighting the lamp.

In the immortal words of the late, great Warren Zevon (but thankfully in as completely different context): "He's just an excitable boy.

Michele from New York, NY: Is there any idea on the Capitals' plan for Ivan Miroshnichenko? He seems like their most promising prospect in years and having MHL/KHL experience should be good for his development at 19. Is it possible he competes for a roster spot sooner than later or is it expected he's still years away from a spot in the lineup?

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My understanding on Miroshnichenko is that he has one year left on his contract in the KHL, so I'm expecting him to remain in Russia and fulfill that obligation next season. I'm guessing the soonest we could see him at a Caps training camp would be in the fall of Sept. 2024, ahead of the 2024-25 season, He will still be just 20 years old at that time, and for anyone to crack an NHL roster at that age is not a given, regardless of talent level. Once he is in North America and beginning his pro career here, his play will determine whether he starts in Washington or needs some seasoning at AHL Hershey.

Looking back at the Caps' first-round, high end Russian forward talent of the last generation or so, Alexander Semin (first round, 13th overall in 2002) was able to play in the NHL at the age of 19 and be reasonably successful, but he lacked maturity at that age and the Caps' organization had not yet fully established and staffed its player development department to its current levels. If a player such as Semin were to come along today, I think he would be better equipped to learn English, to deal with the media and to deal with day-to-day life away from the rink and the game.

Semin spent his age 20 season playing in Russia because of the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, and he also spent his age 21 season in Russia while fulfilling a military obligation. When he returned to the U.S. at age 22, he put up 38 goals and 73 points in the NHL at that age.

Semin was a supremely gifted and talented player, and he had an excellent NHL career. But he had his best NHL season at age 25, and he never came within 30 points of that age 25 seasons again. His best three seasons came in the first five years of his career. I've always believed he had Hall of Fame skills, talent and ability, and that both he and the organization bear some of the blame for his career flattening out during what should have been his prime seasons.

Alex Ovechkin was drafted first overall, two years after Semin. Ovechkin is in a league of his own, so not much sense in doing a comparison here. But Ovechkin was 20 years old when he debuted in the League, and he was clearly both physically and emotionally ready for prime time then, and he might have been able to thrive as a teenager in the NHL. The combination of a late birthdate and the aforementioned lockout made that a moot point.

Washington took Evgeny Kuznetsov with the 26th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, and he remained in Russia for the better part of four full seasons after being drafted. When Kuznetsov finally came to North America to start his career in March of 2014, he was just shy of 22 years old, but had five years of KHL experience - playing with and against men as opposed to boys - and clearly did not require any AHL seasoning. Even so, he spent some time on the fourth line and playing left wing before blossoming into a legitimate top six player in his second full season in North America, in 2015-16.

Everyone is different and everyone's environmental circumstances are different, and only time will tell how Miroshnichenko's career will unfold. He is one of the organization's most promising prospects, as you note, and he has obviously been through quite a bit at a young age, dealing with his Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis and the aftermath of treatment and recovery. If he is able to thrive in the NHL in his early 20s as in the three previous examples, the Caps will make room on the roster for him. They're very much in need of young, cost-controlled, and dynamic talent.

Indie from Maine: What are the Caps' free agency priorities? Are they more likely to pursue trades instead given the UFA market isn't all that impressive this year?

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To me, we can look at the team's depth chart and see two goaltenders and six defensemen likely to be here in September when training camp gets underway, so it appears the Caps will be looking to remake/remodel their forward corps in the summer ahead, seeking to add the elements of speed, youth, energy and dynamism, as much as they are able to do given the ongoing constraints of the flat salary cap and the high dollar players who are likely to remain on the roster from this season's group.

I believe they will absolutely explore the trade market, and it's much easier to make trades work over the offseason when salary cap constraints are looser, and teams can exceed the cap by as much as 10 percent up until opening night of the following season. Worth noting though that players acquired via free agency don't require assets going out the door; it's a matter of settling on term and dollars. The caveats are that the shelves of the NHL's Annual Free Agent Pop-Up Emporium are, as you note, haphazardly stocked come July 1. Supply and demand play a big role, and too often players are paid for what they've already done rather than what they'll do for their new employer.

All that said, I don't believe the Caps will be picky about whether they delve into the trade market, the UFA market or some combination of both.

Dean D. from Warrenton, VA: Knowing the Caps are going to be looking for a top-6 forward, do you believe Vladimir Tarasenko could be a target for them?

I wouldn't rule out any player who is capable of playing top six minutes and putting up top six numbers, as Tarasenko has done for a decade or so now. But it will come down to his asking price, both in term and in dollars, and I believe the Caps might be targeting younger players than Tarasenko, who will be 32 in December.

Vicki R. from Dillsburg, PA: Why doesn't Charlie Lindgren get more playing time?

My sense is that Lindgren has gotten the playing time he would have expected coming into this season, and perhaps even more. Although he is 29 years old, this is Lindgren's first full season in the NHL, and he has played in 29 games (matching the total he amassed over parts of six seasons before 2022-23) this season and has started 24 (four shy of the 28 career starts he had coming into this season) games.

The Caps signed Darcy Kuemper to be their No. 1 netminder for this season and beyond; he signed a five-year contract. Lindgren signed a three-year deal, a good indication of how highly the Caps thought of him going into this season.

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If you would have asked me before the season started, I would have guessed Kuemper would get anywhere from 55-65 starts and that Lindgren would get the other 17-27. That's how it's played out, and I think it's at the high end of that total because Kuemper has been out with injuries a couple of times, once in December and for a shorter period in March.

Thus far this season, Lindgren has a better record than Kuemper, but Kuemper's qualitative numbers are better than Lindgren's. I believe both goaltenders have played well, and that both have played better than their numbers and records would indicate. The never-ending spate of injuries to the team's defense corps hasn't helped (all six of the Caps' top six defensemen played at least 72 games last season; no more than two will do so in 2022-23), and Kuemper's record has suffered from a lack of offensive support; the Caps have averaged 2.71 goals per game with him in the crease. Among goalies with 50 or more appearances, only three - Nashville's Juuse Saros, Philadelphia's Carter Hart and Anaheim's John Gibson - have had less offensive support. The Caps are 18-3-2 when Kuemper is in the net and they do manage to score three or more goals.

Some teams operate with goaltending tandems where the organization's two primary goaltenders essentially rotate, and at season's end both have a roughly similar number of starts. The Caps had that sort of split over the previous two seasons with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. Most teams have a clear-cut No. 1 guy and the backup is primarily deployed in back-to-back sets of games with other starting assignments sprinkled in to keep them sharp. That's how the Caps operated during the prime seasons of both Olie Kolzig and Braden Holtby, and it appears to be the plan going forward.

Luke A. from Bowie, MD: You'd have to think MacLellan isn't going to mess around this summer and really try to make the last three years of Ovechkin worth it. Do you sense the Caps are in for a big summer with some big moves?

I'd pay close attention to MacLellan's words on exit day, the day the Caps clean out their lockers, speak to media and sift through the rubble of a season gone awry. MacLellan is arguably the League's most candid GM, and he isn't shy about sharing his shopping list every spring when the offseason gets underway. Personnel plans in the hockey operations department are already well underway, and a host of possibilities and potential moves and paths to take this summer are already being discussed.

When he took over this job nine years ago next month, MacLellan spoke of the need to add to the team's defense. A month or so later, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen were in the fold. MacLellan generally sets his objectives and then sets about achieving them, and I wouldn't expect this summer to be any different.

But yes, my sense is that the Caps are in for a big summer with some big moves.

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