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Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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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.

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.

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.

PHT on Fantasy: Power play points, ponderings

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Earlier this week, I pondered Patrick Marleau‘s scoring slump, which a) really struck a nerve with Toronto Maple Leafs fans and b) spotlighted some debatable lineup choices by Mike Babcock.

One thing that sticks out with Toronto is how they handle power-play minutes, and it got me to thinking: what are some other power play tidbits that might be interesting, particularly to fantasy hockey obsessives?

Let’s dive in.

The Maple Leafs are pretty much locked into the third spot in the Atlantic, so Babcock should use the next two months to experiment with different alignments. The Athletic’s Tyler Dellow makes a fascinating argument for why Auston Matthews isn’t used on the top power-play unit, but why not use this as a chance to test a variety of scenarios?

  • Another power-play time decision that makes me scratch my head a bit: Dougie Hamilton only ranking third among Flames defensemen (and eighth overall) with an average of 2:10 per night. Mark Giordano‘s great and T.J. Brodie is quite effective, but I’d probably want Hamilton to be either tops or 1a/1b with one of those two. If that changes, it could make Hamilton that much more effective. He’s fine with 27 points in 53 games, but more reps would open the door for greater fantasy glory.
  • Now, moving onto a sensible factoid: Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL with 4:20 PPTOI, and he’s making great use of that time.

Ovechkin’s fired a league-leading 83 SOG on the PP, and he’s also missed 33 additional shots. Really, his nine PPG and 20 PPP are almost modest, at least compared to other upper echelon producers. For example: Patrik Laine (52 PP SOG) and Evgeni Malkin (56 PP SOG) lead the league with 13 PPG apiece.

  • The only power play trigger in Ovechkin’s range is Tyler Seguin, who’s fired 72 SOG on the PP, along with 22 misses. Fittingly, he only has nine PPG and 16 PPP. Even if some of Ovechkin’s and Seguin’s shots might be relatively lower-quality than others, you’d think that both forwards could be even more dangerous toward the last two months of the season (if you’re looking into high-level trades).
  • Kudos to Jeff Petry for being one of the most productive defensemen on the PP. He’s likely to cool off a bit (five PPG on 26 PP SOG is a bit much for a blueliner), so just be careful. Nice to see an underrated player get some bounces, though.
  • As long as John Carlson is healthy, he should be a strong bet to be a great fantasy find, and the power play explains some of his value. He’s been a useful volume guy before, and with a lot of money on the line in a contract year, this could be really something. Carlson already has eight goals and 41 points, his second-best output (55 is his peak) with two months remaining.

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As the fantasy season goes along, sometimes you need to look for granular advantages, and sometimes it’s helpful to note players on cold streaks who have a better chance to turn things around. Power-play time should be one of those things you monitor, especially if you notice a player who’s caught his coach’s eye and is getting better and better chances.

We might revisit this later in the season, possibly taking the monthly (or at least couple month) approach.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What’s wrong with the Blue Jackets?

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After putting together a solid campaign last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets came out of the gate strong in 2017-18. They won five of their first six games and it looked like they were going to be a shoe-in to make the playoffs again. But after a good start, things have fallen apart in a hurry.

As of right now, they’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re tied with the Islanders for that spot, but they do own a game in hand. The Hurricanes, who have also played one more game than the Jackets, are one point back.

So, it’s safe to suggest that Columbus is far from a lock to make the playoffs at this point.

“You pick up the standings today, we’re right in the middle of it,” head coach John Tortorella said on Wednesday, per the team’s website. “That’s where we’re going to look to the next day. I’m going to show ’em stuff [Thursday], as far as some of the things that I think we’re getting more consistent at, as I’ve talked about some inconsistencies with our team, and just get it ready for our next game.

“Like I was talking to the coaches today [about], I’m excited about the challenge of the struggle that we’re in right now, by where we could go if we just stay within [ourselves]. That’s when you become a better team. So, it’s going to be a grind. I’m not sure where we come out at the end, but it’s certainly an opportunity to find out something about yourself as a coach, an individual coach and a coaching staff; individual player and team concept as a team, to find out what you can do here.”

It’s good to see that Tortorella is embracing the struggles and using them as an opportunity to improve his team, but why are they having such a hard time of late? Let’s take a deeper look.

Where are the goals?

In 2016-17, only the Penguins, Wild, Capitals, Rangers and Leafs scored more than the Blue Jackets, who had 249 goals. Cam Atkinson (35) and Nick Foligno (26) led the way in that category last year. But they also got double digit goal totals from 10 other players.

Their top scorer in 2017-18 is Josh Anderson, who has 16 goals in 51 games. Artemi Panarin, who was acquired from Chicago for Brandon Saad, leads the team in points with 42 in 53 games. Those are respectable totals, but the players who were big contributors last year just haven’t been able to replicate the same offensive totals.

Atkinson has been a shell of the player he was last year. Even before he missed 11 games with a foot injury last month, he was already struggling badly. The 28-year-old has just eight goals and 17 points in 37 contests. That’s not enough production from a guy that signed a seven-year, $41.125 million extension at the beginning of the year.

Foligno, who had 51 points in 79 games last season, is on pace to 15 goals and 34 points over 82 games this year. Again, it’s easy to see why the team’s offensive totals have dried up.

In 13 games since the start of 2018, the Blue Jackets have scored two goals or fewer in 10 of those outings (Not counting goals they got for winning the shootout). Clearly, that’s not a recipe for success.

Special Teams struggles

It’s no secret that the Blue Jackets power play has been abysmal for most of the year. Even when things were going well for them in terms of wins and losses, they couldn’t score goals on the man-advantage. They’re the only team in the league that has converted on less than 15 percent of the power play opportunities. Yes, that part of their game has been better lately, but they still have a long way to go.

To make matters worse, their penalty killing has also struggled pretty badly of late. Their PK ranks fifth from the bottom at 75.2 percent. Columbus has dropped four games in row and six of their last seven. In those seven games, they’ve given up power play goals to Erik Haula and Brad Hunt in a 6-3 loss to Vegas, Brendan Perlini in a 2-1 win over Arizona, Jason Zucker in a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc in a 3-1 loss to San Jose, Nick Leddy in a 4-3 loss to the Islanders and John Carlson in a 3-2 loss to Washington.

Outside of the ugly loss to the Golden Knights, all the other games were decided by one or two goals. Executing on special teams is the difference between winning and losing tight decisions right now.

Thankfully for the Jackets, they can continue to lean on one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite their recent struggles, they still rank 11th in the league in goals against with 146. Even though his numbers have dipped from last year to this year, he’s still managed to keep them in a lot of games. What would happen if they didn’t have him between the pipes?

Deadline Outlook

It’s become increasingly clear that the Blue Jackets need someone that can put the puck in the net. Many have mentioned a possible reunion with veteran winger Rick Nash. That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad idea. He spent many years there, which should benefit him when it comes to making the adjustment to his new team. Also, three of Nash’s 16 goals have come on the man-advantage with New York this season. Panarin (five) is the only Blue Jacket that has more than three this year. Nash is just one possibility. If they don’t want to pay for a rental, they could also look to acquire Mike Hoffman from Ottawa.

When it comes to improving the penalty kill, they could look to add a veteran two-way forward. One name that comes to mind is Tomas Plekanec out of Montreal. The Canadiens are out of the playoff picture, so they could be willing to deal the 35-year-old pending unrestricted free agent. Plekanec’s offensive game has deteriorated over the last couple of seasons, but he’s still a useful player.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.