Where does Laich fit in? Will we see Kuznetsov?

Where does Laich fit in? Will we see Kuznetsov?
December 13, 2013, 6:30 am
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Caps week in review: 12.12.13

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Penn Quarter Sports Tavern Six Pack of Questions

Welcome to our weekly edition of Penn Quarter Sports Tavern’s 6-Pack of Questions, where we aim to keep it real while answering your most pressing questions regarding the Washington Capitals.

Let’s get started.

@Robostop10 The lines are starting to gel and to produce, where could [Brooks] Laich be inserted into the lineup without disrupting progress?

Let’s first provide an injury update. Laich [groin pain] is skating on his own and appears to be ready to begin practicing with the team. That could happen as early as Saturday when the Caps prepare for a big home-and-home against the Flyers Sunday at Verizon and Tuesday in Philly. Considering his injury history, which before last season was non-existent, the Caps are likely to force Laich to practice at least a week before turning him loose. That pushes his return to maybe Dec. 21 against New Jersey or Dec. 23 against Anaheim, or maybe even Dec. 27 against the Rangers. To your point, the Caps first need to decide where Marty Erat fits into the picture. If he’s traded before the Dec. 19-26 holiday trade freeze, there will be a spot in the lineup for Laich. If not, I would imagine Laich will return to the third line between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and Erat would go back to the fourth line. The other option is to use Laich on the left side of center Mikhail Grabovski and right wing Troy Brouwer, but that line was given plenty of opportunities to produce and didn’t. This might sound like a bad idea to many, but what if Laich returned to the lineup as a fourth-line center in place of Jay Beagle? Or as a fourth-line left winger in place of Aaron Volpatti? I like the way the fourth line of Volpatti, Beagle and Tom Wilson has played, but could Laich cut his teeth there while working his way back into game shape? That will be left up to Adam Oates.

@jerrycollender1 Down the road are you worried about the goaltending of Braden Holtby?

Actually, yes. I’ve been told that the changes Olie Kolzig has made are fairly significant, but not enough to give the goalies a free pass on soft goals. Holtby has allowed more long-range and short-side goals this season than he did all of last season and that is a concern. I’m not going to hang the blame on him for an of the three goals he allowed on eight shots against the Lightning Tuesday night and I commend him for saying he wanted to stay in that game. But Oates had every right to replace him with Philipp Grubauer and the pressure clearly is on Holtby to put together a string of strong performances. If you asked me who I would start if the playoffs started tomorrow, it would be Holtby. I think he has the talent and constitution to win in the playoffs. But in my opinion he has not done enough to make the Canadian Olympic team and has a lot to prove between now and the post-season.

[ICYMI: Capitals make Christmas video]

@Robostop10 What is the prognosis on [Evgeny] Kuznetsov coming over to the Caps this year? Do you think he will? Why or Why not?

I think he will, but he’ll have to take a pay cut and that’s where things get dicey. Kuznetsov, 21, is off to an unspectacular start with seven goals and seven assists in his first 21 games with Chelyabinsk Traktor of the KHL. As a result he was left off the 33-man preliminary roster for the Channel One Cup that will be played in Sochi beginning next week. He remains in contention for the Russian Olympic team, his primary reason for remaining in Russia this season, but he’s no sure bet to play in Sochi. Kuznetsov has repeatedly told the Caps that he intends to play for them at the conclusion of Traktor’s season. He is a left-handed shooting right wing, which means he would be a left-handed shooting left wing under Oates. To make room for Kuznetsov, the Caps would need to clear a roster spot and enough salary space for whatever his prorated salary would be under his entry-level contract [likely $200,000]. Because Kuznetsov does not turn 21 until May 19 he is eligible for a three-year entry level contract with a maximum salary of $900,000 per year. A signing bonus cannot exceed 10 percent of a player’s entry-level contract. Therein lies the problem. Kuznetsov is reportedly earning $3.8 million to play for Traktor this season and is making almost as much in endorsements. He would need to accept significantly less to play in Washington and would not be able to break the bank as an unrestricted free agent for five years.

@YngveHusdal How is it looking for a trade for [Marty] Erat or possibly any others [Neuvy]? What would Caps seek? Top 4 leftie D-man?

In a perfect world, the Capitals would package Marty Erat, Michal Neuvirth and Dmitry Orlov and send them to Nashville for Shea Weber. We all know that’s not happening. Some fans would take almost anyone resembling a No. 4 defenseman -- Andrej Meszaros, perhaps – but Caps general manager George McPhee is a very shrewd negotiator and he’s not ready to give away his disgruntled players for anything less than what he thinks they are worth. [By the way, Neuvirth is not disgruntled, but he would like to be an NHL starter and Philipp Grubauer looked pretty good this week in relief of Holtby]. I’m curious to see if McPhee looks at the Dec. 19-26 trade freeze as his own personal trade deadline. Orlov has been solid in his five games with the big club, which will make for an interesting decision for Oates over who should sit out when Erskine returns. If I’m McPhee I don’t trade anyone until I’m convinced both Laich and Erskine are capable of handling a full NHL season. If McPhee trades Erat now and Laich breaks down, he’s weakened the Caps considerably. Same goes for Erskine’s health and Orlov’s value as a depth defenseman. So I see the Caps holding firm, maybe all the way until before the Olympic trade freeze that begins Feb. 7 and runs through Feb. 23.   

[RELATED: Erskine ready to bring his snarl back to Capitals]

@Robostop10 What are we doing to make sure to bring in a top 4 D so we can play Mike Green in the last pairing so he doesn’t hurt our team?

Mike Green has struggled in all three zones this season but he won’t be logging time on the third pairing anytime soon. Oates knows his success as a coach is tied to Green and it’s his job, and that of assistant coach Calle Johansson, to get the 28-year-old blue liner back on track. I’m interested to see how Green responds after Tuesday night’s debacle against the Lightning. He’s been given a pretty long rope by Oates this season but I get the feeling it’s getting shorter by the game. If the Caps are able to land a No. 4 defenseman, he will be placed alongside Green and both will be asked to log 20-plus minutes a night. With one year remaining on a contract that pays him close to $6.1 million a season, Green is virtually untradeable and will remain with the Caps at least up to the 2015 trade deadline.  

@Robostop10 Is Ted [Leonsis] going to extend [George McPhee]? If he does, when would he do it during the season?

The Capitals do not make public the length of general managers’ contracts and if the team extended McPhee very few would know. I do believe Leonsis is well aware of the impatience of his team’s fan base and I suspect he will base his decision on McPhee’s future on the Capitals’ performance in the playoffs. I also think Leonsis is very happy with McPhee’s hiring of Oates and understands that if he brings in a new general manager, Oates is suddenly standing on thin ice. It’s a very good question, but it’s one only Leonsis can answer.