Are the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals headed for a first round series?

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The most accurate and immediate way to describe tomorrow’s Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals SuperBowl Sunday game is as a rematch of the 2011 Winter Classic. That being said – and forgive us for being dreamers* – but could that early game also be a preview for a captivating first round series?

If the 2011 playoffs began at this moment, the Penguins would host the Capitals in a fourth vs. fifth seed series. There are justifiable reasons why each team might stay in second place in their divisions, too.

Odds are that you know that Pittsburgh will likely be without Evgeni Malkin’s services for the rest of the season while Sidney Crosby’s return is indefinite, two huge losses that may eventually wound them in their neck-and-neck run against the Flyers. Even after finally besting the Southeast-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, the Capitals also have the deck stacked against them. They play six of their last seven February contests on the road and face a six-game road trip in March while the Lightning still have eight games left in their mammoth homestand.

(Really, the biggest threat to this first round series might be the sixth-ranked Montreal Canadiens, who only have one less point than the Capitals while owning two more wins.)

With this possibility in mind, here are a few thoughts on this hypothetical series.

Would a first round series be a good thing for the league?

A Pens-Caps first round series would be a great “glass half-full vs. half-empty” barometer for league executives. The optimistic side would be obvious: the league would receive a guaranteed pay-off from the 24/7 documentaries and the years of buzz created by this budding feud. On the other hand, a pessimist will point out the fact that the stakes aren’t as high in a first round match as they would be in, say, the Eastern Conference finals. Of course, an even deeper Debbie Downer would say that the playoffs would lose one of its marquee teams after four to seven games.

How would the Capitals handle the pressure of facing an ‘underdog’ Penguins team?

Even if the Penguins hosted the series, Alex Ovechkin & Company would have to deal with the fact that Pittsburgh would probably go in with a “nothing to lose” attitude since they would play without Malkin. Pundits would likely quip that the Caps just have to win this series and would likely call them “gutless” if they lost. Washington would skate with some added weight on their already-burdened shoulders.

Would HBO’s cameras return?

The NHL would have a lot to gain if they permitted a behind the scenes look of such a playoff series. Surely the two sides would be a little more secretive – and the typical two week shelf life of a playoff series would introduce some interesting obstacles – but can you put a price on the kind of buzz a 24/7 sequel would generate? Obviously, this is the purest of speculation, but it’s a fun thing to think about, isn’t it?

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Anyway, those are a few things that come to mind while pondering the tantalizing possibility of a Pens-Capitals first round series. Feel free to share your two cents in the comments.

*- Don’t get us wrong, it’s beyond-early to say that the Penguins won’t win the Atlantic Division title and the Capitals are out of the hunt for the Southeast crown in 2010-11. Both teams are only three points behind their respective division leaders, which are far from insurmountable margins. In other words, don’t call HBO to set up 24/7: playoff edition just yet.

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.

Dumoulin agrees to six-year contract with Penguins

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Brian Dumoulin won’t need his arbitration hearing today.

The Pittsburgh Penguins announced this morning that the 25-year-old defenseman has agreed to terms on a six-year contract with a $4.1 million cap hit.

From the press release:

Dumoulin, 25, has been a key component to the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, as he played in all 49 playoff games in that span, and recorded 14 points (3G-11A). In the 2017 playoffs, Dumoulin had an average ice time of 21:59 minutes, the most of any Penguins skater, and his plus-9 paced all team defenders. He assisted on Carl Hagelin‘s empty-net goal that sealed the 2-0 victory in the decisive Game 6 of the Cup Final against Nashville. 

Dumoulin is coming off of a contract that paid him just $800,000 in each of the past two seasons.

With Dumoulin signed, Pittsburgh now has five defenseman under contract for at least the next three seasons, the other four being Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and Matt Hunwick.

The Pens still have one more arbitration case in forward Conor Sheary. His hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4.

Related: Without Letang, the ‘simple bunch’ gets it done for Penguins