Vancouver Canucks v Washington Capitals

Washington’s young goaltending thriving while offense struggles to find its way

It’s been talked almost to death how much the Capitals offense isn’t the same high-flying, run-and-gun brand of hockey that many of us grew up seeing in the 80s. After all, in past seasons we grew accustomed to seeing Alex Ovechkin score 50 or more goals in a season and figured that that trend could continue for years to come.

Fast forward to this year and with the Caps becoming a bit more focused on the defensive side of things, their offense is drawing attention to itself all over again. The difference being that it’s getting noticed for not being the prolific juggernaut it was in seasons passed. There is one part to their game that is decidedly better and yet it’s still not getting its proper amount of respect.

Goaltending.

Going into this season, the Caps and GM George McPhee steered clear of going after an experienced goaltender because they felt comfortable with who they had in place already. With Semyon Varlamov and up and coming fellow youngster Michal Neuvirth, fresh off back-to-back Calder Cup victories in the AHL, the Capitals management felt that investing precious cap space in a veteran goaltender was money poorly spent. Even in spite of injuries to both Neuvirth and Varlamov at different points this season, leading to the emergence of another youngster in Braden Holtby, their play is making Caps management look very smart.

We’ve seen Neuvirth and Varlamov essentially split duties this season. Neuvirth carried the Caps for the first two months of the season putting up a 15-6-4 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .911 save percentage and earning one shutout. That win total still leads the team and his other numbers are solid for a NHL starter.

Where Neuvirth seems to get the offensive support, Varlamov is putting up the flashier numbers. He’s got a 9-7-4 record, which is decidedly unimpressive but it’s not totally his fault. Varlamov has team leading goals against numbers 2.13 and save percentage with .928 as well as two shutouts. Varlamov since getting healthy has been outstanding for the Caps and evidence that their dedication to defense is paying off. If the offense was a bit better for him in his starts, that record would look a little nicer.  Even Braden Holtby’s limited action this year has yielded solid results with Holtby going 4-2-2 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Caps carousel of goaltending has done its job to this point in the season. They’re young (Neuvirth and Varlamov are 22 years-old, Holtby is 21) and they’re going to be prone to having the occasional bad game, but one area that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau seems to be handling well is how to juggle time and performances from his goalies.

It’s still a high-risk venture for the Caps to be counting on guys this young in goal to carry them deep into the playoffs and to win a Stanley Cup, but if last year’s playoffs showed us anything it’s that unknown goalies have as good of a chance to go deep as the franchise guys do. Look at the starting goalies that have been in the Stanley Cup finals the last few seasons:

2010: Michael Leighton, Antti Niemi

2009: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2008: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2007: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ray Emery

2006: Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson/Ty Conklin/Jussi Markkanen

Out of that list Fleury, Giguere, and Ward are the only big names and at the time, Cam Ward was but a young guy still relatively unproven. Osgood was a famous name but in 2008 he was playing backup to Dominik Hasek before seizing the starting job during the playoffs in 2008. We’re not about to say the playoffs are a crap shoot, but the Capitals plan of letting youth be their guide isn’t one without past results to back them up.

For now, Varlamov and gang are making life easier on the Caps and if they can continue to do that in the playoffs it’ll be a load off the minds of everyone in Washington.

Pavelec, Jets aren’t ruling out return next year

Winnipeg Jets v New York Islanders
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For the longest time, the talk in Winnipeg was how to move on from Ondrej Pavelec.

Amazing what a pair of wins can do.

Since being recalled from the AHL last week, Pavelec has backstopped the Jets to back-to-back victories — stopping 64 of 70 shots, for a .914 save percentage — and now, both he and the organization are being asked about a potential return next season.

From the Free Press:

In the fall, he accepted his demotion to the AHL with humility and class and has been a calming presence since returning to the Jets last week.

A scenario where Pavelec would serve as an experienced, lower cost No. 2 behind the anointed No. 1, Connor Hellebuyck, doesn’t seem completely far-fetched.

Pavelec told the Free Press he’s not thinking about next year, but did admit “I’m gonna be a free agent, I guess, for the first time.”

Head coach Paul Maurice was also vague about the future, but slightly more optimistic.

“Everything is possible,” Maurice explained. “There’s so much that’s transpired, there’s so much good for Ondrej to look forward to — that will be taken care of at that time.”

Maurice added that getting back into the NHL, and winning games, was the “start to the possibilities” for Pavelec’s future.

Look, there’s no denying Pavelec hasn’t been good and, accordingly, faced a ton of heat from fans and media over the last few seasons. But a significant chunk of that was fueled by his five-year, $19.5 million contract — a deal that was came under scrutiny the moment it was signed. As each year passed, the contract looked worse and worse, and things reached a fever pitch back in October, when Pavelec passed through waivers unclaimed and landed in the minors.

The contract expires in July and, without that financial albatross, the narrative around Pavelec changes. Especially if he puts together a decent run over the final three months of this season.

And this is why the aforementioned bring-him-back-on-the-cheap idea was floated. There’s little chance the Jets re-enter next season with the Hellebuyck-Hutchinson tandem, or putting Hellebuyck in tandem with another young, inexperienced guy.

The problem, though, would be location.

While it’s possible Pavelec will emerge as a inexpensive, useful veteran backup, there could be too much history for it to happen in Winnipeg.

No buyer’s remorse for Panthers after giving Yandle big money

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 07: Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers and Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight for the puck during a game  at BB&T Center on November 7, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers may be one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, but there’s no buyer’s remorse after trading for Keith Yandle and giving the puck-moving defenseman a seven-year, $44.5 million contract.

“He’s fit in terrific,” Panthers GM and interim coach Tom Rowe said Sunday, per the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s such a positive influence on our young guys and in our locker room in general. We targeted him as our No. 1 free-agent signing [because we] thought he’d really complement our forwards. We had figured if he could get the puck up to them on the rush and create more offense, that’s what we’re looking for. He’s on target with what we thought he could do.”

Yandle, 30, has three goals and 20 assists in 48 games. His 23 points are the fifth most on his team — a team that’s been ravaged by injuries to key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad.

Read more: Rowe says no timeline on Barkov, who could be out a while longer

Tonight in Arizona, Florida finishes up a four-game road trip against Yandle’s first NHL team, the Coyotes.

For the Panthers, it’s a prime opportunity to pick up two points — something they failed to do in the first three games of their trip. The only point they gained was in Edmonton, where they lost in overtime. They lost in regulation to Calgary and Vancouver.

Suffice to say, the Panthers really need to start stringing some wins together. Otherwise, the first year of Yandle’s big contract will pass by without getting to use him in the playoffs, and they’ll surely have some regrets about that.

Allen’s mental reset continues, as Blues will start Hutton in Pittsburgh

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen is slow to get up after giving up a goal to Washington Capitals' T.J. Oshie during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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St. Louis is giving Jake Allen more time to sort out his struggles.

Today, the club announced backup Carter Hutton will start tomorrow in Pittsburgh, while Pheonix Copley — the AHL call-up that allowed five goals in Saturdays’ loss in Winnipeg — will serve as the No. 2.

Allen, who didn’t even travel to Winnipeg so he could ‘reset’ mentally, will start on Thursday in Minnesota, which will be St. Louis’ last game prior to the All-Star break. Copley will again serve as the backup.

The decision to go back to Allen comes after a horrific stretch in which he was yanked from three straight games, and four of his past six.

It is noteworthy, though, that Allen isn’t getting the Pittsburgh game. Part of that could be the opponent — the Pens are a force offensively, and lead the NHL in goals per game — but it could also be that Allen needs additional time to sort out his issues.

Whatever the case, the plan may have changed. In explaining why he left Allen behind while the team went to Winnipeg, Blues GM Doug Armstrong suggested Allen could get right back in.

“I think taking a day way, getting a total reset — he could reset traveling with the team, but I wanted a complete reset — and then we come back on Sunday, he’s back in the net and he’s ready to go,” Armstrong said, per the Post-Dispatch. “To me, it’s not a huge story; he’s going to take a day to get a reset with his family — he just had a young baby — but the play needs to improve and I want to give him a fresh start.”

Allen’s struggles this year are well-documented (see here, here, here and here). Per the Post-Dispatch, his .897 save percentage ranks 43rd among 47 goalies who have appeared in 14 or more games this season.

Oshie’s contract status underscores urgency in Washington

Washington Capitals' Matt Niskanen (2) and T.J. Oshie (77) celebrate with Alex Ovechkin (8) after Ovechkin scored against the Dallas Stars during the third period an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Dallas. Stars' Jamie Benn (14) skates back to the bench. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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The way he keeps scoring, T.J. Oshie‘s next contract isn’t getting any smaller.

The 30-year-old winger was today named the NHL’s third star of the week, after racking up six points (3G, 3A) in three games for the red-hot Washington Capitals.

Oshie now has 31 points (17G, 14A) in 38 games. A pending unrestricted free agent, he’ll no doubt be looking for a raise beyond his current cap hit of $4.175 million.

One comparable contract is Andrew Ladd‘s seven-year, $38.5 million deal with the Islanders.

Loui Eriksson‘s six-year, $36 million deal with the Canucks is another.

And one more for good measure: David Backes‘ five-year, $30 million deal with the Bruins.

All three of those contracts have a cap hit of around, or exactly, $6 million. Ladd and Eriksson are a year older than Oshie, while Backes is two years older. They’re all reliable veteran wingers, just like Oshie.

Now, the Caps could always try and convince Oshie to take a home-town discount. They may even be able to keep him without a discount.

That being said, their No. 1 priority has to be getting Evgeny Kuznetsov, a pending restricted free agent, locked up. And they also need to keep in mind John Carlson, their No. 1 defenseman who can become unrestricted in the summer of 2018.

“We’re going to have some decisions to make as far as veteran players, and our young guys are going to be due for some pay raises,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said last season.

When he said it, MacLellan saw his team in a “two-year window.”

Alas, only one year of that window remains. Hence, the urgency to finally win the Stanley Cup this spring.

Like Oshie, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner are pending UFAs.

And like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Brett ConnollyDmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer are pending RFAs.

The Caps host Carolina tonight.

Related: Kuznetsov sets table for Jakub Vrana’s first NHL goal