Braden Holtby

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Are the Capitals as good as their record?

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Let’s talk about the Washington Capitals for a little bit because it seems like we’re not doing that enough.

Entering play on Tuesday they own a four-point cushion for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They are on track to finish with 100-plus points for the fourth year in a row and win their division for the third-year in a row. Impressive stuff. But that success doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.

Maybe it’s because we’ve taken their regular season success for granted a little bit over the years because it hasn’t resulted in a championship.

Or maybe it is because we really do not have a sense for how good this team actually is, even with its strong record.

On paper there is still an awful lot to like about the roster.

Alex Ovechkin has roared back from a “down” year to once again lead the league in goals and make a strong push for another 50-goal season, defying the usual aging curve for goal scorers in the process.

They still have high-end, front-line forwards around him in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and what should be a pretty good support cast around them that includes T.J. Oshie and defensemen John Carlson and Matt Niskanen.

Behind all of that they still have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Braden Holtby, and they’ve made sure he’s been tested a bit more than usual this season.

But when you look below the record and look at how that roster is actually playing it paints a somewhat concerning picture.

Entering play on Tuesday the Capitals are 25th in the NHL in terms of shot attempt percentage, attempting only 47.8 of the shot attempts during 5-on-5 play.

They are dead last in the NHL in shots on goal per game, averaging just 28.6. They are the only team in the league that is not averaging at least 29 shots per game.

They are also giving up more than 32 per game on the other end of the ice.

Of the teams in the bottom-10 in shot attempts percentage and shots on goal per game, the only two teams that currently occupy a playoff spot are the Capitals and Minnesota Wild, who are barely clinging to a wild card spot in the Western Conference. It’s pretty simple: Teams that don’t generate a lot of shots on goal and get outshot on a regular basis tend to struggle to win games. It’s not impossible, but the odds of sustained success are greatly reduced if the other team is controlling the majority of shots and chances.

The Capitals will argue they are looking for quality over quantity (Brett Connolly, who has 14 goals on only 49 shots this season, was featured prominently in a recent Washington Post article talking about this). But every team in the league that ever finds short-term success thanks to high shooting percentages says the exact same thing and almost none of them can maintain it.

When it comes to finding success in that sort of environment it really comes down two different kinds of teams: Those that are lucky and catching lightning in a bottle, whether it be due to a hot goaltender or a couple of career seasons from forwards that are shooting the lights out at at the same time; and those that have the kind of high-end talent that don’t need to generate huge shot volumes to score. When it comes to the latter, those teams are very few and far between. Back in the spring I argued that the Penguins were the rare team that could outperform their shot metrics because of how much natural talent they had up front.

The Capitals could also be that kind of team.

To a certain degree, they have been in recent seasons.

Even when the Capitals were winning the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years they were never really a team that dominated possession or relied on heavy shot volumes to score goals.

Over the previous three years (all 100-point seasons; two Presidents’ Trophies) they finished higher than 13th in shot attempts percentage only once. They never finished higher than eighth in shots per game (they were 15th and 20th the other two years). Hockey analytics website Natural Stat Trick keeps track of “high danger chances” and the Capitals have consistently rated among the bottom half of the league in terms of their share of those chances. In 2014-15 they generated 50.9 percent of the high-danger chances during 5-on-5 play in their games, that was 14th in the league. In 2015-16 they were 11th (50.8 percent). They were 20th a year ago (49.9 percent). This year they are dead last (only 43.5 percent).

Obviously this season almost all of their shot and chance metrics are worse than they have been, but the Capitals have always been a team that relied on pure shooting talent more than bludgeoning teams with a dominant possession game. And honestly, that shouldn’t be a surprise given the makeup of the roster. Players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and a lot of the players they have had over the years don’t need a ton of shots to score. Sometimes they only need one mistake from their opponents, one opening, or one good luck to find the back of the net.

They have consistently finished among the top teams in the league in shooting percentage, and their shooting percentage marks have remained pretty consistent the past few years, including this season.

Still, the decrease in shot volume has been a problem because even though the Capitals are the top shooting percentage team in the league they are still only 10th in the league in goals scored (they were second and third the past two years).

This is where a lot of the losses to the roster have probably hurt a bit. Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson were top-six forwards that walked out the door for no immediate return. No disrespect to Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson, but they aren’t Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. That does not even get into the departures on defense where Kevin Shattenkirk, Nate Schmidt and Karl Alzner left.

It remains an interesting team.

They have scary talent up front that can burn any team in the league, even in limited opportunities. They have an elite goalie that can mask a lot of flaws on the back end or when it comes to allowing too many high-danger chances and can carry a team when he gets hot. But even with that they are not quite as dangerous as they could be because they generate even fewer opportunities than they have in recent seasons, due in large part to losing a significant chunk of the roster without being able to replace it.

That brings up what has to be a concerning point for the Capitals and their fans: If better Capitals teams than this one could not break through the glass ceiling that is the second round, why is this group with the way it is actually playing going to be the one that is different? Even with a Metropolitan Division title staring them in the face there are still some nightmare matchups potentially facing them, perhaps even as early as the first-round where that top Wild Card team could be anyone from a Columbus team that is probably better than its record, to a Philadelphia team that has been dominating for two months now, or, perhaps worst of all, a Pittsburgh team that finally seems to be figuring it all out this season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: Flyers worth watching

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The Philadelphia Flyers did something that should have been nearly impossible a season ago by winning 10 games in a row and then somehow missing the playoffs. How does that even happen?

This season they are trying to reverse that performance.

After losing 10 games in a row earlier this season the Flyers now find themselves in a pretty good position to make the playoffs.

After their win in Vegas on Sunday night (only the fourth team to win a game in Vegas in regulation this season) the Flyers find themselves in third place in the Metropolitan Division, just one point behind the second place Penguins and five points behind the first place Washington Capitals. They also have a five-point cushion over the pack of non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

Since that 10-game losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 20-8-2 in the 30 games that have followed. That is a 115-point pace over 82 games.

How many teams have a better record over that stretch? Two. The Boston Bruins and the Vegas Golden Knights.

They have three of the top-17 point producers in the NHL in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier (Giroux and Voracek are both in the top-seven), a great power forward in Wayne Simmonds, and some really intriguing young talent in Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, and Nolan Patrick. They just need to get a little more out of Brian Elliott to really be on to something.

They have been on the rise in our power rankings in recent weeks and check in this week just outside of the top-10.

Here is the rest of the list.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — The Lightning have been the top team in the NHL from almost day one. Great group of forwards. One of the top defenseman in the NHL. A front-line starting goalie. Now try to imagine them with Ryan McDonagh on their blue line on top of all of that. It could happen.

2. Boston Bruins — Tuukka Rask went nearly two months between losses in regulation. With him playing like an elite goalie once again the Bruins look like they are going to be a force. Patrice Bergeron is having another wonderful season. Is he an MVP candidate? Maybe he should be. History is not kind to his chances though.

3. Vegas Golden Knights — The more I watch the Golden Knights the more I think they have a legitimate shot to win the Western Conference. Fast. Skilled up front. Good goaltending. They have a lot going for them.

4. Nashville Predators — How much will Mike Fisher be able to provide? Expectations should be kept within reason, but their center depth is ridiculous. That was their biggest undoing in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago. Should not be a problem this year.

The Strong Contenders

5. Winnipeg Jets — The fact they kept winning as much as they did without Mark Scheifele in the lineup is a great example as to how deep this team has become.

6. Washington Capitals — Are they as good as their record? Tough to say because they give up a ton of shots and their possession numbers are not great, but Braden Holtby is a game-changer. So is that Alex Ovechkin guy.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins — Their big three up front with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel is still on a roll right now. Also starting to get on a little bit of  a roll lately? Matt Murray. If he gets going again for this team, watch out.

8. Dallas Stars — Okay, maybe I undersold the Stars a bit in last week’s power rankings. Let’s try to correct that this week.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — Their defense stinks, but they have a ridiculous group of forwards that can score with anybody in the NHL and a goalie that is playing really, really, really well. They have a tough path through the playoffs, but it is still an exciting team. They have also won eight of their past 10 games entering play on Monday.

10. St. Louis Blues — They do not seem to get a lot of love but they have a really good record, one of the best players in the world in Vladimir Tarasenko, and have won eight of their past 12 games.

Close To Contenders

11. Philadelphia Flyers — At least they are never boring. They have been one of the best teams in the league over the past two months.

12. Los Angeles Kings — I really don’t know what to make of this team. They enter the week on the outside of the playoff picture … but they are also two points away from being in second place in the Pacific Division. They also have the fourth best goal differential in the Western Conference and are still tough to score against and control possession.

The Middle Of The Pack

13. San Jose Sharks — After a slow start to the season Brent Burns is once again one of the top scoring defenders in the NHL. They are going to need him to carry the offense with Joe Thornton sidelined.

14. Minnesota Wild — This is where things start to get a little bit messy in the West. A bunch of teams all thrown together, only separated by a handful of points. The Wild with a healthy Zach Parise and Nino Neiderreiter could be an intriguing team out of that group.

15. Calgary Flames — They better hope Mike Smith‘s injury is not serious. He has been really good this season and they can not afford to lose him.

16. New Jersey Devils — They are trending in the wrong direction. Fortunately they built themselves a nice cushion early in the season, but that cushion is getting smaller and smaller with each loss.

17. Anaheim Ducks — I keep thinking a healthy Ducks team could make a big move but it hasn’t really happened yet. Losses in four of their past six have not helped.

18. Carolina Hurricanes — They keep hanging around and are not going away. They open the week in a playoff spot and have a pretty good shot to end that postseason drought.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets — Really disappointing team right now. I thought the addition of Artemi Panarin was going to be a game-changer for them. He has been great, but the rest of the offense has gone in the tank lately. Now they are in a fight just to make the playoffs.

20. New York Islanders — They are dangerously close to wasting what has been a great offense and great seasons from John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Mat Barzal. The latter is having one of the best rookie seasons we have seen in the NHL in years.

21. Colorado Avalanche — After winning 10 in a row the Avalanche have now dropped six of their past nine. Losing Nathan MacKinnon has hurt a ton.

22. New York Rangers — They pretty much admitted they are going to be sellers and trade off anyone they can. They are still “in it” but once they start dealing players like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, and perhaps even Ryan McDonagh or Mats Zuccarello, it is hard to see them being in it for much longer.

Buy A Lottery Ticket

23. Florida Panthers — They had a nice winning streak to make things a little interesting, but it was probably too little, too late.

24. Chicago Blackhawks — After losing to the Minnesota Wild in regulation the Blackhawks sit 10 points out of a playoff spot with four teams ahead of them. That might have been it for the Blackhawks this season. Corey Crawford might be back soon but he can not save this season.

25. Detroit Red Wings — Having a 5-2 lead with six minutes to play and then losing by giving up four goals on a five-minute power play might have been one of the low points of the season.

26. Montreal Canadiens — The Canadiens current players are probably tired of hearing about P.K. Subban, but that’s too bad. Historically dumb trades that set a franchise back always get remembered and talked about.

27. Vancouver Canucks — They dominated the Dallas Stars to end what had been a pretty miserable four-game road trip. So they at least have that going for them.

28. Ottawa Senators — They did win four of their past six games but … this team is still not very good. Neither is the entire situation with the team. Like the Rangers they recently hinted that a rebuild is on the way.

29. Edmonton Oilers — There was a four-game stretch here recently where Connor McDavid scored seven goals and recorded 10 points. The Edmonton Oilers won only one of those games. That pretty much sums up what this team is right now. Connor McDavid then a bunch of guys just occupying the roster.

30. Buffalo Sabres — Jack Eichel was the only thing this team really had going for it right now. Now he is injured with a high ankle sprain.

31. Arizona Coyotes — It is not a matter of effort, it is simply a lack of talent. A ridiculously young team with too many holes to compete.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals sign Lars Eller to five-year, $17.5 million contract extension

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The Washington Capitals locked up one of their key depth players to a long-term contract extension on Saturday afternoon by announcing a five-year, $17.5 million deal with veteran forward Lars Eller.

Eller, 28, has been with the Capitals since the start of the 2016-17 season after coming over in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens.

In his time with the Capitals he has scored 23 goals and added 30 assists in 134 regular season games.

Over the course of his career his production has been remarkably consistent and can be counted on to score around 12-15 goals and record 25-28 points as a third-line center. The salary cap hit of $3.5 million per season is a pretty fair deal for what Eller provides (it is also identical to the salary cap hit he has on his current contract), but the term of the contract could be a concern in the future. The contract will run through Eller’s age 34 season and while he is a really good depth player now, will he still over that same level of production into his 30s?

That is a question the Capitals will find out the answer to in the future.

In the meantime the Capitals now have a lot of their key players locked in place for the next few years, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Braden Holtby all signed for at least the next three years (and some of them well beyond that).

They still need to come to terms with potential unrestricted free agent John Carlson if they plan on keeping him beyond this season. Forward Tom Wilson is also eligible for restricted free agency after this season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Wednesday Night Rivalry – Flyers at Capitals

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PROJECTED LINES

Philadelphia Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Jakub VoracekNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaMichael Raffl

Tyrell GoulbourneScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth

[Flyers look to take down Capitals for second time in January]

Washington Capitals

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson

Andre BurakovskyNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie

Chandler StephensonLars EllerBrett Connolly

Devante Smith-PellyJay BeagleAlex Chiasson

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen

Christian DjoosJohn Carlson

Brooks OrpikMadison Bowey

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

WATCH LIVE: NHL All-Star Game

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Atlantic Division

Forwards:

Steven Stamkos
Nikita Kucherov
Brayden Point
Auston Matthews
Aleksander Barkov
Brad Marchand
Jack Eichel

Defensemen:

Erik Karlsson
Mike Green

Goalies:

Andrei Vasilevskiy
Carey Price

[Best, funniest, most heartwarming 2018 Skills Competition moments]

Metropolitan Division

Forwards:

Alex Ovechkin
Brian Boyle
Sidney Crosby
Josh Bailey
John Tavares
Claude Giroux

[Alex Ovechkin fires hardest shot at 2018 All-Star Skills Competition]

Defensemen:

Zach Werenski
Noah Hanifin
Kris Letang

Goalies:

Henrik Lundqvist
Braden Holtby

[Brian Boyle ‘thankful’ to be a part of NHL All-Star Weekend]

Central Division

Forwards:

Patrick Kane
Nathan MacKinnon
Blake Wheeler
Brayden Schenn
Eric Staal
Tyler Seguin

Defensemen:

P.K. Subban
Alex Pietrangelo
John Klingberg

Goalies:

Pekka Rinne
Connor Hellebuyck

[NHL All-Star Game returns to thriving Tampa Bay market]

Pacific Division

Forwards:

Connor McDavid
Johnny Gaudreau
Brock Boeser
James Neal
Rickard Rakell
Anze Kopitar

[2018 NHL All-Star Skills Competition Fastest Skater: Connor McDavid]

Defensemen:

Drew Doughty
Brent Burns
Oliver Ekman-Larsson

Goalies:

Mike Smith
Marc-Andre Fleury

[Coolest hair wasn’t enough, Boeser wins accuracy competition]