Three (News) Stars of the Week: Kessel, Blue Jackets and Luongo

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“Three (News) Stars of the Week” will run every Friday. It’s our way of acknowledging the week’s big NHL stories that gave us lots of page views, thereby increasing PHT’s attractiveness to advertisers.

source: Getty Images

Third star: Phil Kessel is playing well

Toronto’s top sniper leads the NHL with seven goals and 12 points. Not coincidentally, the Maple Leafs are 4-1-1, second in the Northeast division – a good start for a team that hasn’t experienced the playoffs since 2004. Kessel was even a big story in Toronto’s 6-2 loss Thursday night in Boston. The TD Garden faithful chanted “Thank you, Kessel” following a goal by the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin, one of the players the Bruins drafted with the three picks Toronto sent Boston for Kessel. Predictably, this caused everyone to look back on the trade and debate it all over again.

source: AP

Second star: Columbus is bad

The Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest early disaster. Still winless after six games following a summer that saw the club jack up the payroll by millions and millions of dollars, the team president has already been forced to give a public vote of confidence to the general manager and the coach, and the general manager has been forced to give a public vote of confidence to the coach. The fans, meanwhile, have confidence in nobody. Now veteran forward Vinny Prospal is angry at how the young Blue Jackets are playing, and things don’t get any easier tonight when Columbus takes on the undefeated Red Wings in Detroit.

source: Getty Images

First star: Roberto Luongo is a polarizing figure among Canucks fans

Tuesday night at Rogers Arena, Vancouver’s all-star goalie surrendered four third-period goals in a 4-0 loss to the Rangers. The game featured a spectacular 40-save shutout by Henrik Lundqvist at the other end of ice, a contrast in goaltending success that didn’t sit well with a handful of Canucks fans who jeered and Bronx cheered Luongo. The fans’ discontent overshadowed the actual game and the next day Luongo was asked by the rabid media how it felt to be booed on home ice. He replied that it didn’t bother him because he was used to it by now. The Canucks, it should be noted, are one of the best teams in the NHL and came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in June. Starting goalies don’t typically get used to being booed on teams like that. Then again, all-star goalies don’t typically have as many disastrous playoff games as Luongo has had with the Canucks. Then again, hockey is a team game. Then again, when you’re being paid like Luongo’s being paid, you have to bail your team out once in a while. Then again…you get the point.

Poll: Will the Caps finally make it to the Stanley Cup Final?

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

If you’re a fan of the Washington Capitals, you’re used to having a lot of fun between October and April. Once mid-April hits, things become a little more frustrating.

There’s no denying that the Capitals have been great in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re now coming off back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy titles, but they still haven’t found a way to get to passed the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Heading into 2017-18, they’re still expected to be a quality team, but the salary cap has forced them to make a few significant changes over the summer. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk are all gone. There’s no doubt that those losses will hurt the overall depth they’ve accumulated over the years.

As much as those guys will be missed, general manager Brian MacLellan will be pleased that he was able to lock up key figures like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to long-term contracts. With both players still in the fold, the Caps remain one of the deeper teams in the league. Other squads would kill to be able to come at you with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky.

The departures of Alzner, Schmidt and Shattenkirk have left them a little thin on the blue line. Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are still around, but the only other players on one-way contracts are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney.

If some of their defensemen struggle during the season, they should be able to compensate for that with arguably the best goalie tandem in the league. Both Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are back, and they should provide the team with some solid performances between the pipes.

It’s pretty clear that the Capitals still aren’t over last spring’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins. Now, it’s all about how they respond this coming season. No one will care about the type of regular season they have (unless it’s bad) until they show they can get over their issues in the playoffs.

Will they overcome this mental hurdle?

Alright, it’s your turn to have your say. Feel free to vote in the poll below and leave your opinion in the comments section.

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.