Caps coach thinks Ovechkin has ‘a lot of room to grow’

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Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is the reigning Hart Trophy winner, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get better. At least, that’s the view of head coach Adam Oates, which he expressed to CSNWashington.com on Thursday.

I think he’s got a lot of room to grow,” Oates said “He’s obviously a fantastic hockey player and all it did [moving from left wing to right wing] was allow him to touch the puck more. I think if he gets used to that he’s going to want the puck more and that’s going to help his linemates.”

When asked how he’d feel about Ovechkin possibly moving back to left wing when he plays for Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Oates provided a mixed message. He said “they’d be crazy not to” keep the 27-year-old on the right side, yet he also said he’s fine with “whatever their coach thinks.”

Even if Oates believes that the thing that coach thinks is crazy.

Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

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After a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold has given GM Chuck Fletcher a vote of confidence.

Per the Star-Tribune, Leipold confirmed on Sunday that Fletcher’s job was safe, potentially to quiet speculation about the longtime GM’s job security in the wake of a disappointing finish.

But Leipold’s vote of confidence also provides an interesting backdrop for when Fletcher meets with the media this week.

There’s no denying that, after a 49-win and 106-point campaign, crashing out in five games to St. Louis — and former head coach Mike Yeo — is unacceptable. But how Fletcher positions this will be telling. There’s a chance he could pin the Wild’s lack of success on the tremendous goaltending of Jake Allen, much like head coach Bruce Boudreau did. He could also argue Minnesota was, by nearly every metric, the better of the two teams over the course of the series, and chalk up the loss to a lack of puck luck.

But that won’t be easy.

This marks Minnesota’s second consecutive first-round exit, having been bounced in six games by Dallas last year. And it comes after Fletcher went big at the trade deadline, acquiring Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from Arizona in exchange for a bevy of draft picks.

“We’re just putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Fletcher said at the time, per NHL.com. “We like our group and we think our players deserve the best chance possible to compete [and want to] see what we can do. Again, nothing’s promised and we know it will be tough, but I think our thought is we may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

More: Fletcher went all-in at the deadline, and now… this

At this stage, the GM has some serious questions to ask of his team. How much longer can things revolve around the aging core of captain Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter? All have been quality players during their time with the Wild, but two facts cannot be ignored: 1) Koivu just turned 34, while Parise and Suter turn 33 later this year, and 2) the trio has never made it past the second playoff round.

Interestingly, Leipold has suggested the current group might not be championship caliber. “I don’t know, they could surprise me,” he said in January. “But I don’t think we’ve got that type of team. We haven’t built it yet.”

And to be fair, the Wild do have building blocks in place for the future.

Four of Fletcher’s draftees starred on the international stage at the 2017 World Juniors — Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin — and it has to be exciting that a pair of young skaters, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, took significant leaps forward this season.

Granlund, 25, led the team in scoring with 69 points and emerged as one of the club’s most important players. Niederreiter, 24, posted career highs in points (57) and goals (25), suggesting he’s also ready to embrace a bigger role with more responsibility.

And to that end, Fletcher has huge decisions to make on both players, who are pending RFAs. The Wild don’t have a ton of financial flexibility, and it’s fair to suggest Granlund (who made $3M last season) and Niederreiter ($2.66M) will both need significant raises.

There’s a lot of work for Fletcher to do this summer.

But at least he’ll get a chance to do it.

Pending free agents, Radulov and Zaitsev won’t play for Russia at Worlds

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Montreal’s Alexander Radulov and Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev will not play for Russia at the upcoming World Championship, even though the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Both Radulov and Zaitsev are pending free agents, and it would be a risk to play ahead of contract negotiations.

Zaitsev just recovered from an upper-body injury, possibly a concussion. It may, in fact, have been the Leafs who refused to let him go.

Radulov, 30, can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Zaitsev, 25, will be of the restricted variety, assuming he doesn’t sign an extension first. 

Read more: Radulov denies he wants eight-year extension

They aren’t the only players skipping the Worlds due to their contract situations. Chicago’s Richard Panik and Vancouver’s Bo Horvat will not be taking the risk either.

Longtime Berenson assistant Pearson named new Michigan coach

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Michigan went the familiar route in replacing legendary head coach Red Berenson.

Mel Person, who spent 23 years as Berenson’s assistant before taking the head gig at Michigan Tech, has been named the ninth head coach in UM Hockey history, the school announced on Monday.

“I am thrilled to select Mel to lead our hockey program and for him to return home to U-M following tremendous success in leading the Michigan Tech program,” said director of athletics Warde Manuel. “I’ve known Mel for years and experienced his leadership ability when I was the sport administrator for hockey and he was an assistant under Red (Berenson).

“Mel’s qualifications are well known throughout the hockey community and reach far beyond his ability to coach. Simply put, I couldn’t have selected a finer person to lead our ice hockey program into the future.”

Pearson, 58, took Michigan Tech to a pair of NCAA Tournaments during his six years on the job. Several players advanced to the NHL on his watch including Chicago’s Tanner Kero, Edmonton’s Jujhar Khaira and New Jersey’s Blake Pietila.

Two weeks ago, Berenson stepped down from his post at Michigan after 33 years on the job. Together, he and Pearson captured two national championships together.

Backstrom believes Caps are ‘underdogs’ against Pens

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The Washington Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy by seven points over the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, but someone forgot to tell Nicklas Backstrom.

Heading into their second-round matchup against Pittsburgh, Backstrom believes the Capitals are the underdogs in the series, per beat reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Well Nicklas, that’s one way to look at it.

Backstrom is clearly trying to take some of the pressure off of his team’s shoulders, but maybe he’s onto something.

As you may remember, a similar situation arose last year. The Capitals had more points than any other team in 2015-16, but that didn’t stop them from being eliminated by these same Penguins in the second round. Eventually, Pittsburgh went on to hoist the Stanley Cup.

This time, the Capitals won’t have to worry about star defenseman Kris Letang, as he’s out with an upper-body injury. Pittsburgh was able to overcome the Letang injury (Matt Murray too) in round one against Columbus, but Washington is a different animal.

Even without Letang, getting by Pittsburgh won’t be easy, especially when stars like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby are rolling.

Malkin finished the first round with two goals and an incredible 11 points in five games, while Kessel and Crosby had eight and seven points respectively against Columbus.

Things were a little more difficult offensively for Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, as they posted six, three and three points in six games against the Leafs.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who has the most points and it doesn’t matter who the underdog is in the series either. All that counts is advancing through to the next round.