Alex Ovechkin embraces leadership role in Washington

When Alex Ovechkin was named captain of the Washington Capitals last season, there were many around the league that wondered aloud about whether or not the young Russian phenom was ready for such an important leadership role with the Capitals. After all, the team had just traded then captain Chris Clark to Columbus and Ovechkin was in the middle of a season that would see him ultimately score 50 goals. Ovechkin helped lead the Caps to the Presidents Trophy and the top seed in the East.

When the Caps dreams of making the Stanley Cup finals were dashed in the first round of the playoffs against Montreal, those doubts grew in number and the doubters voices would grow louder. This season, the Capitals rough start to the year, their slump just before the Winter Classic that saw them lose eight straight games, and the seeming lack of offensive production from Ovechkin helped compound the problems.

A funny thing happened though. The Capitals started to get what coach Bruce Boudreau had been stressing all season about defensive responsibility. Washington’s defense tightened up and now that comfort level has been reached there, Ovechkin’s game has shaken off the frets and worries to the point the Caps are on fire now with a seven game win streak of their own. The catalyst behind that streak has been none other than Ovechkin himself.

Since the Winter Classic, Ovechkin has scored 14 goals and added 17 assists. Those 31 points over 29 games may not seem like the Ovechkin numbers of old we’re used to seeing, but with how seemingly lethargic the Caps offense has been this season, Ovechkin has continued to be the best they have.

Over the last seven games alone, Ovechkin has four goals and seven assists good for 11 points. On the season, Ovechkin’s goal numbers are down as he’s got just 28 headed into Sunday’s game. His 45 assists, however, are best on the team and he’s the Caps leading scorer by 18 points ahead of Nicklas Backstrom. Those 73 points also put him in a tie for fifth best in the NHL with Corey Perry of Anaheim. His 45 assists tie him for fifth best in the NHL there and his 28 goals has him in the top 15 in that category.

Those who have stressed out about Ovechkin’s lack of production may have been playing the role of Chicken Little in that regard. While his numbers are astronomically high like we’ve seen in the past, his ability to help set up his teammates and help make the Caps a more well-rounded team have flown under the radar. Only now that Ovechkin is scoring the clutch goals or making the key plays to set his linemates up are people taking notice. Fact is, Ovechkin has been there all along.

With that sort of blue collar work coming from Ovechkin it’s not likely to earn him much favor as far as the major individual awards go. After winning three straight Hart Trophies before giving way to Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin last year, people wondered what Ovechkin could do to find a way to get back into the spotlight. If the Capitals are able to continue building off what they’ve done of late and Ovechkin keeps finding ways to score, perhaps captaining a Stanley Cup champion will be his ultimate feat of strength.

Blackhawks adjust to returns of Saad, Sharp (and no Hossa, Panarin)

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The Chicago Blackhawks’ summer conventions are a time for fans to get a look at players, and sometimes, for people to get adjusted to new arrivals and departures.

Even with that in mind, that theme seemed to play a big role in Friday’s proceedings, as the Blackhawks wondered how Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp would fit back into the lineup … thanks to holes caused by Artemi Panarin being traded and Marian Hossa being unavailable.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville rattled off a long stream of possibilities, as CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers reports.

“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”

Yes, that’s a versatile set of options. It’s also plausible that Jonathan Toews could enjoy a nice boost with Brandon Saad back on his wing, yet let’s not assume that it’s a slam-dunk victory in everyone’s eyes.

Who knows how things will ultimately shake out, but at the moment, you wonder if Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov suffer a bit with Panarin out of the mix.

Still, as explosive as Kane + Panarin was at times for Chicago, they ultimately couldn’t get the job done. Kane acknowledged as much on Friday.

Can they do better next time around? Well, with Sharp and Saad back in the mix, at least they have more players who’ve cleared those playoff hurdles before.

Myers has more at CSN Chicago.

Red Wings’ cap future after Tatar signing: should they buy out Ericsson?

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In a vacuum, the Detroit Red Wings handing Tomas Tatar a four-season deal that carries a per-year cap hit of $5.3 million makes a lot of sense. Tatar ranks as one of their deadliest scorers, and at age 26, the contract likely takes up the final years of his prime.*

Still, it must be mentioned that Tatar’s contract reminds us that the Red Wings may no longer stand as an obvious contender, yet they sure spend like one.

Yes, Johan Franzen‘s near-$4 million will go to LTIR, but this Cap Friendly reading still stands as a reminder that there isn’t much breathing room, especially with Andreas Athanasiou needing a contract. Detroit figures to have a little less than $1 million minus Franzen:

OK, so there are a few options. Winging it in Motown brings up an intriguing idea: what if the Red Wings buy out defenseman Jonathan Ericsson‘s contract?

They used Cap Friendly’s tool to show that a cap hit of $4.25 million would be spread out over six seasons in this setup. Each year, the actual cost would be a bit less than $1.39 million.

The bright side is that, for the next two seasons, the Red Wings would see real savings:

2017-18: save $2.61 million
2018-19: save $2.86 million
2019-20: save $2.86 million
2020-21 and 2021-22: would cost them about $1.39 million

Naturally, that would be quite the price to pay to get a player to not play for the Red Wings, yet it would also help Detroit squeeze under the cap. More on that conundrum here.

Let’s leaf through most of the Red Wings’ structure to see which deals are good, bad, and ugly.

(Note: As usual, Cap Friendly was highly helpful in putting this together.)

Dicey defense

  • Obviously, Ericsson’s health issues and struggles make him a tough guy to keep around at 33 and with a $4.25M. He’s merely the most obvious defensemen who’s an issue for this team.
  • Mike Green presents an interesting situation. He still has his use, yet at 31 and with his $6 million cap hit to expire after next season, the Red Wings must ponder his future. If they don’t want him back, could they send him somewhere else, whether that be now or in-season? Salary retention would likely need to be a consideration, especially if they wanted to move him earlier. That said, their already dicey defense would experience a painful loss if they traded Green.
  • Danny DeKeyser‘s $5 million cap hit through 2021-22 would be very difficult to move. At least he has … some proponents in the organization?
  • Niklas Kronwall‘s been a great solider for DRW, and the positive news is that his $4.75 million cap hit will evaporate after two seasons. Much like Ericsson, health is really hampering what he can do in the present, though.
  • Trevor Daley was just signed this summer. While he brings some strengths to the table, you have to wonder if the 33-year-old will slip enough that the $3.16 million could be an annoyance rather soon.

Forwards

  • Tatar ($5.3 million) becomes the second-highest-paid Red Wings forward behind Henrik Zetterberg, who makes just over $6 million. Zetterberg quietly enjoyed a strong 2016-17, and you can bet that he delivered at far higher a value than $6 million through the earlier years of his contract. Still, he’s 36 and that cap hit runs through 2020-21, the same year Tatar’s ends. Not ideal.
  • That Franzen headache expires after 2019-20.
  • Frans Nielsen is a nice player, and he had a strong debut season for Detroit. Still, he’s somehow already 33 and his $5.25 million cap hit won’t expire until after 2021-22. One would think that, if the Red Wings wanted to move him, now would be one of the better times since his value is probably still reasonably high. Of course, savvy teams will balk at that term. Maybe, like DeKeyser and some other players, the Red Wings would need to move a “problem” (Nielsen’s term) for some other team’s issue.
  • Moving on, there are bit players getting too much. Justin Abdelkader‘s term (2022-23) and $4.25M cap hit give off an albatross vibe. Darren Helm, already 30, at $3.85M per year seems shaky. Even Luke Glendening‘s reasonable but maybe unnecessary $1.8M cap hit argues that Red Wings management might be overvaluing supporting cast members.
  • Then you have young players who may cost more soon. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha could see big jumps with breakthrough contract years as their ELC’s expire. Will Athanasiou be on a shrot deal, too?

Goalies

The netminder situation is pretty cloudy as well.

Jimmy Howard‘s contract is worrisome, although at least that $5.3M only runs through two more seasons. Petr Mrazek‘s a baffling situation, though maybe a team would take him from Detroit if the Red Wings retained some of that $4M? Would that even be a smart move considering Mrazek’s still-considerable potential?

***

Yikes, that entire outlook is almost entirely dismal. It’s not easy to say what the Red Wings should do next, especially if you’re not in the “blow it all up” camp.

(Note: Ken Holland doesn’t seem to be in the “blow it all up” camp.)

* – Of course, he could defy the general odds by having a longer run of prime years.

Marcus Foligno aims for 20 goals in first season with Wild

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Marcus Foligno has left the leap behind in Buffalo.

That doesn’t mean his offensive production can’t or won’t continue to rise in Minnesota.

Coming off a career-high 13 goals for the Sabres last season, the 25-year-old was acquired by the Wild to bring some needed grit and strength to the left wing position on the third or fourth line. He’s capable of putting the puck in the net, too, though he has so far been more of a sporadic scorer in the NHL.

“Definitely, 20 goals is something I envision myself to reach, and I hope to do that in a Wild jersey,” Foligno said. “Playing with some big centermen, playing on a well-rounded team, I think I can do that. I felt last year that my offensive side was getting there, and I’m looking to improve on that this season.”

Foligno was acquired with right wing Tyler Ennis and a third-round draft pick next year from the Sabres for right wing Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella, the only significant move made by the Wild this summer. General manager Chuck Fletcher said the day the deal was done he’d been pursuing the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Foligno for two years.

Foligno had his inconsistencies during five-plus seasons in Buffalo, but his 2016-17 performance was promising. He played in a career-most 80 games, with a minus-1 rating and 73 penalty minutes.

“It’s great for the confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Foligno said on Friday, his first appearance in Minnesota since the swap. “You’ve got to realize that Buffalo traded you, but you’re going to a team that really, really wants you and wants you to succeed. I’m put in a great position now.”

Foligno’s family is a small hockey factory . His older brother, Nick, is a 10-year veteran of the league and captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets. His father, Mike, tallied 247 goals over 15 seasons in the NHL, including a full decade with the Sabres. His goal celebration was a two-legged leap straight up in the air from the ice, a signature move that Foligno adopted once he arrived in the league in the same city where his dad’s career took off.

The next time Foligno scores a goal, however, he’ll settle for a simpler move.

“I’ve just got to put the puck in the net and put my hands up. That’s how I’ve got to make sure I do it,” Foligno said. “If I do that 20 times, it’s a good thing.”

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Flames ink first-rounder Juuso Valimaki to rookie contract

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The Calgary Flames signed Finnish defenseman Jusso Valimaki to a three-year, entry-level contract on Friday.

Valimaki, 18, was the 16th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. He was selected in that spot after a nice year with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans, scoring 61 points in 60 regular-season games and then added an assist in four playoff contests. He also played for the Tri-City Americans in 2015-16, putting up 32 points in 56 games.

Apparently he’s capable of at least one nifty shootout move, too:

People are pondering how Valimaki may fit into the Flames at the end of a three-year window Johnny Gaudreau recently cited. That seems a little far-reaching, although this nugget makes you wonder if Calgary might want to drag a little extra value out of his rookie deal:

Interesting. Either way, the Flames locked up a future piece, whether he can make an NHL impact sooner or later.