New system, same results? Caps new defense-first approach under scrutiny if they lose

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From the moment Bruce Boudreau took over the Capitals they were a team that exemplified the excitement that NHL hockey could be all about. They were free wheeling, run-and-gun hockey and with Alex Ovechkin leading the way and scoring upwards of 50 goals per season, that brand of hockey reinvigorated Washington, D.C. The Caps were winning games, winning big, and winning in a way that drove the fans wild.

After seasons of coming up short in the playoffs and fans eager for the team to go deep but the Caps seeming unable to get over the hump in the postseason playing firewagon hockey, coach Bruce Boudreau made a change this season to switch things up to a more defensively responsible approach. Now with the Caps down 2-0 heading into Tampa Bay for Game 3, some are wondering what good it was for the team to make a change up like that only to end up with the same results.

With Boudreau’s tactical abilities being put under the microscope with the team being in such a hole, John Keeley of On Frozen Blog points out the area of the Capitals’ game that’s their undoing so far in these playoffs.

Behind the bench, there is the obvious subplot related to Bruce Boudreau. All seemed reasonably well for Gabby a week ago, but when his club was gifted a lengthy break with which to rest and repair, they came out of it unable to meet the underdog’s challenge. That story is growing old here. Boudreau’s beaten an under-manned John Tortorella set of Ranger clubs twice in the postseason over the course of four springs . . . and no one else. Losing to the rookie, Guy Boucher? At some point (potentially soon) Capitals’ fans are going to ask: where is our Bylsma, our Tortorella, our Babcock, our . . . Boucher?

The team’s power play futility is a flashpoint in this discussion of tactical leadership. Its cumulative results last postseason and this are beyond nightmarish and nauseating: four for sixty. That’s four goals . . . in 60 opportunities. Tampa would bank in 9 or 10 off our dmen with 60 extra man opportunities. The power play personnel is a mish-mash of a mess, their attack ethos uncertain. Confusion and hesitancy reign supreme. The team had all of last week to work on it and get it fixed. Instead, it’s regressed. The head coach has to get it fixed, pronto. The Capitals will either achieve a competent power play this series or they will lose it. Tampa took out the Pens by achieving a glaring special teams discrepancy.

The Caps’ inability to generate anything on the power play isn’t on the same level of failure as the Bruins, but they’re setting the bar lower and lower with each game. These Caps could use a boost and a change in strategy on the man advantage. They could also stand to see some other players standing out and playing to their potential.

One such guy is Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom was a sensation last year, but with the Caps transition to more defensive hockey he’s looked lost this season and he’s disappeared completely in the playoffs. Through seven playoff games, Backstrom has zero goals and just two assists. It’s not that he’s been bad, he’s been non-existent and a non-threat both against the Rangers and more so against the Lightning.

The focus on offense is always going to be on Ovechkin regardless of what happens. He’s the captain and that’s all part of the territory, but he’s got to get help elsewhere on the ice. Mike Knuble’s rapid return to action was a boost but they need their top playmaking center to play to the best of his abilities and he’s not doing that. If the Caps don’t get it figured out tonight, they’re staring a summer of hard questions right in the face and there’s a lot of answers that won’t be readily available. After all, if they’re not winning it all when their offense is given free will to do as they please and they’re not winning when they’re buckling things down defensively as a playoff team is supposed to, then what’s next? Those answers could end up pretty grim.

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

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Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

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Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

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Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.