E.J. McGuire is missed as NHL Combine starts today

The NHL Combine officially kicked off today as the players started the week long interview process with all 30 teams at the Westin Bristol Place in Toronto. After a few days of being asked hard questions, seemingly mundane questions, psychological questions and repetitive questions, they’ll finally get to show what they can do physically on Friday and Saturday as they go through medical and physical testing on Friday and Saturday. The structure of the Combine is no different than it was last year, but the spirit couldn’t have changed anymore if they tried.

The central figure of the combine, former Director of NHL’s Central Scouting, E.J. McGuire won’t be greeting players, scouts, and media members this year as he passed away from Leiomyosarcoma on April 7th at the age of 58. But even though he won’t physically be at this year’s combine, his spirit is at the forefront of many attendees’ minds.

Two members of Central Scouting shared their thoughts with Mike G. Morreale at NHL.com:

Central Scouting manager Nathan Ogilvie-Harris:
“We want to honor E.J. by making this a great event this year. This was his centerpiece. He helped grow the Combine from the days of starting out in a hotel basement (at the then-Park Plaza Hotel) in a small room with not much media exposure, to where we are today where we’re spread out and holding the physical testing in a more conducive setting (Toronto Congress Center).”

NHL Central Scouting videographer and scout David Gregory:
“He looked at it as an opportunity to make sure people understood everything that the NHL was about and certainly what our department was about. The Combine was a great opportunity to talk to a lot of media, a lot of teams, and people that you usually don’t get to see too often during the year. He had so much passion for what he did and what he believed in. E.J. took the opportunity to solidify all the relationships with vendors and those who worked the Combine. He would set up shop at the hotel and talk and meet with anybody. That was one of the amazing things about E.J.; he made everyone that wanted to talk to him feel like the most important person in the building.”

With the explosion of interest and accessibility with the internet, hockey fans are paying attention to prospects like never before. In the middle of the boom was EJ McGuire—sharing his knowledge with anyone who showed a remote interest (and sometimes even with those who didn’t). His passion shone through with every interview, as he’d talk about the players who were expected to excel, as well as the borderline prospects with the same enthusiasm. His eagerness to share his knowledge spread to all types of fans all over North America—from the casual fan who wanted to know who his team could select, to the super fan who wanted to know everything there was to know about the hidden gems.

Make no mistake that McGuire and his staff were some of the hardest working people associated with the sport 365 days per year; but the NHL Combine and Draft were his Super Bowl and World Series. Since his passing last month, people in the hockey world knew the Scouting Combine was going to be tough without McGuire. But while the show must go on, it’s great to hear he’s still one of the driving forces to make sure the event is a rousing success.

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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Imagine having a hangover without the party.

That’s how some in the Washington Capitals organization felt during the off-season. It was bad enough that they fell – again – to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a second-round series, even with home-ice advantage thanks to their run to the Presidents’ Trophy.

As Brian MacLellan would say, they suffered the losses you’d normally see after a team went all-in and won it all. Kevin Shattenkirk is gone and Karl Alzner also left via free agency, while Nate Schmidt was scooped up by Vegas. Keeping Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie at hefty prices played a big role in Marcus Johansson being traded. Justin Williams won’t bring his clutch credentials to the Caps any longer, either.

Pretty brutal stuff.

Even so, there’s still some serious talent on the Capitals roster.

Braden Holtby ranks as one of the best goalies in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin, even at 31, remains an elite sniper. Washington boasts a great trio of centers in Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Lars Eller. Alex Burakovsky could be on the rise, there are still some nice defensemen, and the Capitals still have an experienced, respected head coach in Barry Trotz.

If you weren’t preoccupied with the surplus of talent from recent seasons, that would be the sort of group that plenty of teams would envy, especially if they somehow find a way to remain absurdly healthy once again.

It’s plausible that the Capitals could still find a way to run away in the standings even after all of these painful losses. There’s the remote chance things instead go sideways in a drastic fashion.

The most realistic scenario might be Washington drawing a middle or even lower seed in the playoffs, and that might not be such a bad thing. All things considered, we’ll likely learn a lot about this group (and Trotz as a coach) based on how they fare in 2017-18.

PHT breaks down the many factors heading into next season for the Capitals on Wednesday.

Months after falling to Penguins, Capitals work to move past playoff letdown

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Sometimes, when a team falls short in a playoff run, it feels a bit melodramatic to throw around words like “devastation.” In the case of the Washington Capitals falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins – yet again – during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a little melodrama almost seems appropriate.

Still, it’s been months since they couldn’t complete a full rally from a 3-1 deficit, ultimately falling to the Penguins 2-0 in what must have been a deeply frustrating Game 7.

NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti caught up with a number of Capitals to reflect upon the past and look to the future, and while one must credit Nicklas Backstrom and others for saying the right things, you could also tell that the wounds haven’t fully healed just yet.

“I think that when it comes to the playoffs it shouldn’t be about individuals,” he said. “It should be about the team and how we lose as a team. How we acted in Game 7, I think that’s telling everything. They absolutely outplayed us in Game 7 at home. That shouldn’t be the case.”

Personally, it seemed like the Capitals seemed to carry significant chunks of play in that contest before running out of gas. There are fancy charts to back up such thoughts, but Backstrom is right in feeling disappointed. How could he not when he’s experienced setback after setback?

Speaking of setbacks, Capitals such as Evgeny Kuznestov and Dmitry Orlov also emphasized to Gulitti that they believe that this team can still compete in 2017-18.

“I don’t like when people say we’re a bad team right now,” Kuznetsov said to Gulitti during the European Player Media Tour on Thursday. “That’s bull to me. It’s not about the names. It’s about the guys when they come together.”

Some of that is soaked in cliche-speak, but you get the picture. It’s something that PHT and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan both argue to certain degrees: although there have been significant losses, there are also plenty of quality players in the meat of their primes.

The difference in 2017-18 may be that, after a couple years of seemingly having their division/the Presidents’ Trophy locked up weeks before April, this time the Capitals might just need to scrape and claw just like most other teams.

Considering how hard you need to fight to win most playoff series, that might not be such a bad thing for this group.

Just ask them how being the heavy favorites worked out in the past.

Eichel on Sabres: ‘We think we can be a playoff team’

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This deep into the salary cap era, it feels like it’s generally easier to identify which teams are contenders and which teams need to rebuild. Things seem fairly “stratified” in the NHL.

That said, there’s still that murky middle class of teams that could either slip into the cellar or fight their way into the bubble. With a cleaner bill of health, a management shakeup, and some off-season tweaks, the Buffalo Sabres stand as one of those tough teams to peg.

So, some might snicker at Jack Eichel thinking big while discussing the Sabres’ outlook with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, but the rest of us might not be so sure that he’s totally off the mark.

“We think we can be really good,” Eichel said. “We think we can be a playoff team. That’s what’s important. We have to go into training camp with the right mindset, get the season off and running, put our best foot forward.”

(Hey, for what it’s worth, almost 70 percent of voters in a PHT poll leaned toward Buffalo making the playoffs.)

If the Sabres make a big push, just about everyone expects the 20-year-old to be a central figure in such a turnaround. With Connor McDavid‘s meteoric rise and the Sabres’ struggles in mind, it’s easy for casual fans to forget that Eichel is trending toward stardom in his own right. But he clearly is.

It can’t hurt that Eichel and some other key Sabres are approaching contract years, even if Eichel could very well sign an extension in the near future.

Even if Eichel does, both goalies (Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson) need new contracts, while Evander Kane, Benoit Pouliot, and others also enter seasons that could make a huge impact on their futures in Buffalo or elsewhere.

One would expect at least some improvement in Buffalo, but will the Sabres make the sort of leap that, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed in 2016-17?

It’s difficult to say, but Eichel sure seems happy about getting a clean slate.

Under Pressure: Chuck Fletcher

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This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

The Minnesota Wild have employed two GMs in their history: Doug Risebrough, the franchise’s architect, and Chuck Fletcher, who’s been in charge – somewhat startlingly – since 2009.

In that time, the Wild have spent a lot of money, particularly in landing local stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Even if you dismiss John Torchetti since he was interim head coach, Fletcher’s had plenty of opportunities as far as hiring coaches goes, as the franchise has gone through Todd Richards, Mike Yeo, and now employs Bruce Boudreau.

Fletcher deserves some credit for the fact that the Wild ‘s active playoff streak of five seasons, particularly since they missed the postseason from 2008-09 through 2011-12. Still, this team has peaked with two second-round trips and hasn’t ever won a division title under his watch.

It’s almost become a tradition in Minnesota: whatever happens during the regular season – and it seems, whoever’s behind the bench – the end result is always disappointment … and even so, Fletcher preaches patience.

Still, you wonder how much patience remains above Fletcher, particularly when you consider how Wild owner Craig Leipold regretted the bold move to land Martin Hanzal at the trade deadline.

“In hindsight, geez, I wish we wouldn’t have done that,” said Leipold, per the Minneapolis Tribune. “I supported that decision at the time, and I’m willing to live with it.”

Yeesh, how long is Leipold “willing to live with” Fletcher’s teams falling short of the mark, though? It had to cut deep for Leipold to see his former team, the Nashville Predators, come two wins short of a Stanley Cup before his own team even made a conference final.

(Leipold said he was happy for the Predators … but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t jealous.)

For years, the Wild have produced some mild results on the ice, though Boudreau’s 2016-17 edition finally pushed for something bigger. That underdog status doesn’t parallel the team’s spending, however, and you have to place some of the blame on Fletcher.

After all, the two constants since 2009 have been seasons ending in disappointment and Fletcher being the GM.

There’s a lot of pressure to change that in 2017-18, and that ultimately falls on him.