Why Maple Leafs-Capitals is a ‘measuring stick’ game for both teams

Chris Johnston joins Nikki Reyes to talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs moving Mitch Marner to the fourth line and more.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals will face off on Tuesday night in a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff series, which was won by the Presidents’ Trophy winners.

Since then, the Washington Capitals lost some key players, namely Justin Williams and Kevin Shattenkirk, in the off-season and various re-signings pushed them up against the salary cap limit. The Leafs, meanwhile, added Patrick Marleau and are not yet saddled with the expensive contracts coming to their best young players.

One team is trending up, while the other is at best treading water and at worst on the decline.

We’re still early in the 2017-18 season, but this game will act as a good barometer for both Toronto and Washington.

“The Caps see this as a little bit of a measuring stick for themselves right now,” said Washington Post Capitals reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan on the Jeff Blair Show. “I don’t think they really know where they are as a team right now.”

 
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Off to a 3-2-1 start, the Capitals seemingly have a different philosophy from the top, as GM Brian MacLellan takes a half-step back from the all-in approach of the past two seasons to have one eye on the future in any transaction. The GM said as much to Khurshudyan for an article on Monday.

“We’re making decisions based on now and in the future,” he told Khurshudyan. “Last year, it was, ‘What’s best for us now? What can we do to max this out and give our guys the best chance to win?’ Now it’s more reserved.”

But the fact remains Washington is the 11th-oldest team in the NHL this season, led by 32-year-old Alex Ovechkin and having just signed a 30-year-old T.J. Oshie to a long-term extension. Unlike the Leafs, there are no impact players on cheap deals in Washington as they try to keep open a Stanley Cup window.

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Already with questions surrounding their quality of depth, the Capitals will be without defenceman Matt Niskanen who was put on the LTIR. Orpik (37) is averaging nearly 22 minutes per night, while rookies Christian Joos, 23, and Madison Bowey, 22, will be tested again against the many waves of Toronto’s high-powered offence.

Washington is already allowing the fifth-most shots against this season and although the GM says the future is more of a factor now than it has been in recent seasons, Khurshudyan still thinks it’s hard to believe the team won’t look to make a trade that solves an early-season weakness and keeps the Cup hopes on track.

“The things you look at are Alex Ovechkin is playing as good as we’ve seen in a really long time. Evgeny Kuznetsov is playing great. Nicklas Backstrom is playing great. Oshie just signed that big deal (and) he’s off to his best offensive start. Knowing all those things and the age of this group, how do you waste another year of that?” she asked. “Collectively this group has been healthy over the past few years … How long is that going to hold up? If they have another injury on defence they’re in big trouble.

“I would expect a move.”

On Toronto’s side, the NHL’s best offence to this point is in a seemingly favourable matchup against a struggling defensive unit, although the Blue and White have lineup concerns of their own.

The team represses shots only marginally better than the Capitals and goaltender Frederik Andersen is off to his second consecutive slow start with an .880 save percentage. And with the James van Riemsdyk-Tyler Bozak-Mitch Marner line struggling at even strength, Marner was moved to the fourth-line in practice on Monday.

 
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The forward depth should create all sorts of hassles for Washington’s defence, just as the Capitals’ top scorers, who are all hot out of the gate, figure to give Toronto’s unit headaches.

A road win for the Leafs would be a huge statement against one of the East’s top regular season teams for the past decade. If Toronto is going to take a step forward this season, earning a win against a hurting, but still capable top team is a signal it’s coming.

The Capitals are hungry to bounce back from an ugly 8-2 loss to rival Philadelphia on Saturday night, but have to figure out a way to play better defensively even if the lineup isn’t optimally set up to execute it. Both of these teams are using the other to measure how they fit among the conference’s contenders this season, which could influence what lineup moves they make in the near future.

With this re-match looking like it will be a track meet pitting two of the league’s top-four offences and the top-two power plays against each other, the pre-game advantage goes to Toronto.

The Caps know that.

“Even Barry Trotz said yesterday, ‘If you try to trade chances with the Toronto Maple Leafs I know who is going to win,'” Khurshudyan said.

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