It won’t be pretty, but Capitals can still contend

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Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan admitted that his team is experiencing a championship “hangover” without the benefits of a Stanley Cup, which sounds even worse than a headache without the party.

And, no doubt about it, this last swing for the fences was the mightiest they could muster.

MORE: MacLellan on the championship hangover without the championship

Still, it’s easy to linger on this letdown and forget that sports can be pretty strange. Sometimes a big run happens well after people expect it.

Who, in their right mind, expected Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks to shock LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2011? Hockey has plenty of examples of surprise runs, including the Predators going from the 16th-ranked playoff team to two wins from a title.

No doubt about it, the Capitals will feel the sting in losing Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt, and maybe a little confidence in Barry Trotz.

Even so, the very Pittsburgh Penguins team that torments them can also be a beacon of hope: you don’t need a perfect regular season to win it all.

The Capitals are no longer in a position to run away with the Presidents’ Trophy each year. Instead, they just need to make the best of things like … you know, just about every salary-cap era contender.

An aging core … but not an old core

Look, the most important members of this team no longer qualify as spring chickens. Alex Ovechkin‘s gray hair stands as a reminder of our mortality, really.

via Getty Images

Rather than being a reason for panic, the ages of their most important players emphasize the notion that they need to keep hammering away:

Andre Burakovsky: 22
Evgeny Kuznetsov: 25
John Carlson: 27
Braden Holtby: 27
Nicklas Backstrom: 29
Matt Niskanen: 30
T.J. Oshie: 30
Alex Ovechkin: 31

Sure, some of those important contributors might slip, but that’s still a core group most franchises would envy. They still have an elite goalie, dangerous scorers, two strong centers, an experienced head coach, and some capable defensemen.

Promotions?

One key development might be the rise (or fall?) of Jakub Vrana.

The 21-year-old has enjoyed solid – though not spectacular – success in the AHL, and also got his feet wet at the NHL level. He didn’t go wild for Washington, but with that first-round pedigree (13th pick in 2014) and solid numbers in Hershey, there’s some reason to believe that he could at least be a meaningful contributor.

Vrana could ease the sting of losing one of those key forwards.

In defending keeping Brooks Orpik around, MacLellan points to a similar possibility among Washington’s defensive prospects:

Diving into the bargain bin

Here’s some advice for MacLellan: as painful as times are now, don’t go on vacation just yet. The Capitals should take advantage of a free agent market that is low on stars but potentially high on value.

The Capitals could go with veteran forwards such as Jaromir Jagr,* Thomas Vanek, or Jiri Hudler. All three of those guys aren’t that far removed from success.

They can also take on some interesting “reclamation projects.” Nail Yakupov and Brandon Pirri are just a couple of players who could be this year’s answer to Sam Gagner.

And, yes, the pickings are slimmer on the blueline, but Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles could provide solid depth help.

MacLellan seems aware that these options are out there, at least broadly speaking.


Is this situation perfect? No, not really.

Still, the Capitals have suffered despite seemingly boasting championship rosters on paper. Maybe they can win ugly after all these painful times losing with the prettiest roster?

* – Yes, he had a bad stay in Washington, but that was approximately a billion years ago.

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.