Nate Schmidt

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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.

Wild dominate lethargic Golden Knights in 5-2 win

It was always going to be a tough ask for the Vegas Golden Knights to come into Minnesota after playing nearly 65 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets 24 hours earlier and give the Wild a run for their money.

Thursday’s game eights hours north of Minneapolis was a battle between two of the top three teams in the NHL. And it didn’t disappoint as Vegas set a new NHL record for wins by an expansion team in its inaugural season.

What it did do, however, was empty Vegas’ tank.

So it wasn’t surprising, then, when the final score at Xcel Energy Center read 5-2 after 60 minutes, with the host Wild taking advantage of a cumbersome team unable to leave the starting post.

Vegas appeared flat from the get-go. Eric Staal scored his 21st on a nifty finish (which included this goal call on NBCSN https://twitter.com/NHLonNBCSports/status/959601903134040065) and Charlie Coyle doubled the score to lead 2-0 after 20 minutes.

The Wild managed 19 shots in the first.

By the time the second period was 1:11 old, Minnesota led by three through Tyler Ennis.

Erik Haula continued a trend of Golden Knights players smashing former career highs.

Haula recorded his 20th goal of the season in the second period, Vegas’ first of the game. Haula’s previous best was 15 last year with the Wild.

Vegas has shown plenty of resiliency in their inaugural season, and the goal may have sparked them to further markers on another night, but Jared Spurgeon put them right back into a three-goal hole 10 minutes later.

Minnesota limited Vegas to just five shots in the second.

Nate Schmidt would add his fourth of the season in the second half of the third period. Minnesota’s lead never really look in jeopardy, however, and Staal sealed the deal with his team-leading 22nd into an empty net — quite possibly the easiest of his career — with 89 seconds left.

Devan Dubnyk turned aside 22-of-24 he faced for his 20th win of the year. Malcolm Subban gave Marc-Andre Fleury a night off, allowing four goals on 35 shots.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Midseason Report Card: Metropolitan Division

PHT Report Card

Now that the All-Star break has arrived it’s time to look back at the first half of the 2017-18 NHL season. Our team-by-team report cards will look at the biggest surprises and disappointments for all 31 clubs and what their outlook is for the second half, including whether they should be a trade deadline buyer or seller.

  • Carolina Hurricanes

Season Review: A lot of what we are used to seeing from the Hurricanes in recent years. They have a lot of exciting young talent, they play hard, they do a lot of things well, they always seem to be just on the cusp of making some noise … and then the goaltending falls apart. Grade: C-

Biggest Surprise: Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise at this point because they are always one of the top teams in this category, but the Carolina Hurricanes are the top possession team in the NHL at a 53.5 shot attempts percentage heading into the All-Star break.

Biggest Disappointment: It has to be Scott Darling. After being one of the top backups in the NHL during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks the Hurricanes acquired him over the summer and immediately signed him to a long-term contract extension to hopefully solve their long-standing issue in net. So far he has managed only an .892 save percentage and has played fewer games than Cam Ward.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Probably stand pat. They are not out of the playoff race by any means, but they are not really close enough to being a contender where it makes sense to be significant buyers. They also don’t really fit the profile of a seller because it is still a very young team while the only upcoming UFA that fits the profile of a rental for another team is Lee Stempniak.

Second half outlook: They enter the All-Star break four points out of a playoff spot with three teams ahead of them. They dominate possession, they are great at keeping teams away from their end of the ice, and they have some talent. If they can get even competent goaltending they could make a second half push. If not? It will just be more of the same in Carolina.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets

Season Review: They stormed out of the gate and looked like one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference but after winning 17 of their first 26 games have mostly been a .500 team over the past two months and find themselves on the playoff bubble. Grade: B

Biggest Surprise: Probably the fact that their offense has dropped so much. The Blue Jackets were sixth in the NHL in goals scored a season ago and then went out and picked up Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s most productive forwards. Panarin has been outstanding but the Blue Jackets as a team are only 25th in the league in goals scored.

Biggest Disappointment: Aside from trading William Karlsson before the expansion draft and watching him blossom into a top goal-scorer, it might be captain Nick Foligno for his drop in offense. After scoring 26 goals and finishing with 50 points a season ago he is currently on a 14/35 pace this season, while his possession numbers have also taken a hit. Given the contract he is signed for they need more.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are almost certainly going to look to add, and they could probably use a little more offense up front. They also have to figure out a way to handle the Jack Johnson situation following his trade request. What sort of value he has, though, remains to be seen, and it is unlikely he is going to find a spot that is going to give him increased playing time over what he is getting in Columbus.

Second half outlook: They should be a playoff team, and they could still be a dangerous one, but that is all going to come down to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league since arriving in Columbus but his career playoff performances have been a nightmare. If they are going to make any kind of a run they are going to need him to solve those postseason demons.

  • New Jersey Devils

Season Review: They have cooled off considerably after their start, but they are still one of the bigger surprises in the NHL and look to be on the verge of ending their current playoff drought. Taylor Hall has been great and their young core has mostly taken a big step forward. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: There are no shortage of surprises on this team, from Jesper Bratt emerging as one of the team’s top scorers, Will Butcher making an immediate impact, to the entire team itself. But there is no bigger surprise than Brian Gibbons already having 12 goals. He scored five in 66 career games before this season.

Biggest Disappointment: While Bratt, Butcher and No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier have all played extremely well, one young player that probably hasn’t taken the step the Devils would have liked is Pavel Zacha, the No. 6 overall pick from 2015 hasn’t taken that step yet. Granted, he is still only 20 years old so it is way too soon to write him off, but his production has regressed from where it was a year ago.

Trade Deadline Strategy: Ray Shero tends to be pretty bold when it comes to the trade deadline — or any time of year, honestly — and you can be certain he is going to be browsing for rentals.

Second half outlook: The Devils have a great opportunity to end a five-year playoff drought, but even if they don’t this season should be seen as a pretty big step forward if for no other reason than so many young players have stepped forward and shown they can be long-term pieces to build around.

  • New York Islanders

Season Review: Say this for the Islanders, they are not boring. They can score and they can’t really stop anybody from scoring. Is it a recipe for success? Well, probably not but they are right in the thick of the playoff race, even if they are entirely unpredictable.  Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Josh Bailey has always been a pretty good player, but he is on the verge of shattering just about every career high he has ever had in the NHL. He is two points away from matching his personal best and only four goals away. He never topped 16 goals and 54 points in a season before this year and is currently on pace for 22 goals and 96 points this season. Nobody saw that coming. It is also perfect timing for Bailey as he is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Biggest Disappointment: You could point to the goaltending but no one really had high expectations for that position. Andrew Ladd is currently two years into a seven-year, $38 million contract and has nine goals in 42 games. That is … not great.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are one of those teams that is in a really tough spot. They’re not really in a position to be heavy buyers because they’re not even guaranteed to be a playoff team. They have some major potential free agents but because they are still in the race they are not going to want to sell them. They should look to find a goaltender because with better play at the position they could be an intriguing team.

Second half outlook: A lot of it just comes down to what type of goaltending they can get. They are not going to trade Tavares or Bailey, so they are going to keep filling the back of the net like one of the top teams in the league but they have to find a way to keep other teams off the board.

  • New York Rangers

Season Review: The Rangers’ defensive strategy seems to be the same as it has been the past few years — give up a lot of shots and hope for Henrik Lundqvist to steal a bunch of games. The Rangers’ underlying numbers point to a bad team, but because they have one of the best goalies of his generations they are still in the playoff race. Grade: D+

Biggest Surprise: Michael Grabner, for the second year in a row, is one of the top even-strength goal scorers in the NHL. Sure, he has that aided by a ton of empty net goals, but he is still a fascinating — and extremely underrated — player.

Biggest Disappointment: Kevin Shattenkirk has had a really disappointing season, mostly due to injury. When he is healthy he can still be an impact player and a strong top-four defenseman, and given his contract the Rangers are going to need him to be the focal point of the blue line for a long time. They need him healthy.

Trade Deadline Strategy: If we are to believe a report from the New York Post on Friday they could be on the verge of blowing it all up, and not just potential free agents like Rick Nash and Michael Grabner, but perhaps even Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh.

Second half outlook: Henrik Lundqvist is always going to give them a chance, but it really all depends on what they do at the deadline. The Rangers bleed shots against like a bad team, but Lundqvist is always going to keep them in games and mask those flaws. If they stand pat, they could always sneak into a playoff spot. But if they jettison players like Nash, McDonagh, Zuccarello and/or Grabner it would almost certainly end their run of consecutive postseason appearances.

  • Philadelphia Flyers

Season Review: A completely bizarre team. The Flyers lost 10 games in a row at one point and looked like a team that was potentially on the verge of firing their coach. Since then they have been one of the better teams in the league and have some of the top offensive players in the league. Which team is the real Flyers? Who knows. Grade: C+

Biggest Surprise: The offensive breakthrough for Sean Couturier, easily. He has always been one of the best defensive centers in the league and a decent offensive player, but this season has offensive game has taken a massive step forward and made him one of the league’s best two-way forwards.

Biggest Disappointment: Brian Elliott has been extremely hit-and-miss throughout his career, sometimes performing like one of the league’s best goalies and sometimes like … well … just an ordinary goalie. The Flyers have gotten both versions this season, and overall his .908 save percentage would be his lowest since the 2012-13 season. The Flyers need more consistency from him.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They could easily be a playoff team and they have the top-line players (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov) to cause a lot of headaches once they get there, but they could probably use some additional depth everyone on the roster. Definitely go into the deadline as buyers.

Second half outlook: Which Flyers team are we going to get? The one that lost 10 in a row, or the one that has gone 16-6-1 since then?

  • Pittsburgh Penguins

Season Review: The Penguins were, to say the least, a massive disappointment throughout a large portion of the first half but over the past month-and-a-half have started to kick it into gear and look like the Penguins again. Their stars are really dominating right now and have been unstoppable for a few weeks now. Grade: C

Biggest Surprise: Matt Murray has struggled a bit this season and has missed some time recently due to the passing of his father, but backups Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith have stepped in admirably and shown that the Penguins have some pretty incredible depth at the position, and all of it is young.

Biggest Disappointment: This is a weird one to say because he is at the All-Star game, but Kris Letang has just not looked like himself this season. It is not that he has been entirely bad, because he can still play at a high level and is producing points, but he just does not look to be anywhere near as dynamic as he has been in the past. Still recovering from the injury that ended his season a year ago? Just a rough half season? Either way, he has another level he can get to.

Trade Deadline Strategy: They are certainly going to buy. They have some salary cap space and they still have a glaring hole at third-line center. If they can find one this team is going to be one that nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

Second half outlook: They are kicking it into gear at the right time. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel are all climbing the scoring leaderboards, they are starting to find some answers to some roster questions (Riley Sheahan seems to be the answer at fourth-line center; Jamie Oleksiak has been a nice depth addition on defense), and they probably have one or two more trades to make that will further solidify the roster. The first half was a disappointment, but they are setting themselves up for a great second half.

  • Washington Capitals

Season Review: Even after losing Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt the Washington Capitals are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and have a pretty solid hold on the Metropolitan Division. Will they win a third consecutive Presidents’ Trophy? No, but they are still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Grade: A

Biggest Surprise: Can it just be the simple fact they lost five pretty significant players in one offseason, have had a couple of returning players take a small step backwards, and are still multiple points ahead of every other team in the most competitive division in hockey? Every time we think the Capitals window is starting to shut they always find a way to keep showing up at the top of the league.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s not a huge concern at this point, but some of the Capitals’ top offensive players have gone a little cold recently with Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Andrey Burakovsky have combined for just six goals over the past 14 games.

Trade Deadline Strategy: As long as the Capitals have Alex Ovechkin and are near the top of the standings they are going to be buyers, especially as they keep going without actually winning the Stanley Cup. The pressure keeps building to get there and there is no doubt they will look to add. The salary cap situation will make it tough, but there is always a way to make it work.

Second half outlook: They have the best goal-scorer in the league, an elite playmaking center, a solid defense, and one of the best goalies in the NHL. They are going to win the Metropolitan Division and probably, at some point, have to face their long-time nemesis — the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the playoffs. Will this be the year?

Previous: Atlantic Division

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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.

Golden Knights’ defense coming into focus with signings

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As the Vegas Golden Knights’ success gradually goes from shocking to accepted, there’s still the question of what this team might look like next season and beyond. Such questions are only natural when you consider all the key players who still need contract extensions.

Golden Knights management is chipping away at those questions regarding their defense in 2018-19, particularly this week.

On Monday, the Golden Knights signed local favorite and rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to a one-year extension worth $1.5 million. (That deal includes $1M in potential performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.)

One day later, the team announced a two-year extension for Jon Merrill (pictured). The deal is for $2.75M overall, so it will make for a $1.375M cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The Golden Knights now have five defensemen on their current roster who are signed through 2018-19, if not longer: Engelland, Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Brad Hunt. McNabb is locked up the longest, with a $2.5M cap hit kicking in next season and expiring after 2020-21.

The most interesting remaining defensemen to sort out are Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, both pending RFAs. The Golden Knights have been buying up blueliners at bargain rates, but Theodore and Miller could be tougher nuts to crack contracts-wise. (Two UFA defensemen Luca Sbisa and Clayton Stoner on IR.)

Quick look at Engelland and Merrill

Engelland, 35, has been one of the Golden Knights’ ice time leaders with 19:39 per night, collecting 13 points while limiting his time in the penalty box (16 PIM in 41 games) compared to his usual numbers. He’s not perfect, but it’s conceivable that he’ll be worth that minimal cost to Vegas, especially since he’s an ambassador for the still-new franchise.

While Vegas hopes Engelland can bring that veteran presence for another year, they’re likely banking on Merrill to be more effective at a cheap rate.

The 25-year-old has been dealing with injuries and other issues, limiting him to 14 games played.

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These defensive signings aren’t as important as locking up Jonathan Marchessault, nor is it as crucial as making the right call with the likes of James Neal and David Perron. With Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury seeing their deals expire after 2018-19, management will need to make some goaltending decisions not that long from now.

A little bit of greed can inspire players to go that extra mile and stay that much hungrier, yet it’s also comforting to sometimes have some answers. After this week, there’s some clarity on the blueline, even if some decisions still need to be made.

And, hey, the Golden Knights haven’t really locked themselves into bad contracts yet. Old teams could probably learn a thing or two from these new kids.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights vs. Kings on NBCSN

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WATCH THE GAME LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Vegas Golden Knights

Forwards

David PerronErik HaulaJames Neal

Reilly SmithJonathan MarchessaultWilliam Karlsson

Brendan LeipsicCody EakinAlex Tuch

Oscar LindbergPierre-Edouard BellemareTomas Nosek

Defense

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt

Deryk EngellandShea Theodore

Jon MerrillColin Miller

Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury

NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Bruins vs. Capitals; Golden Knights vs. Kings

Los Angeles Kings

Forwards

Tanner PearsonAnze KopitarDustin Brown

Alex IafalloAdrian KempeTyler Toffoli

Marian GaborikNick ShoreTrevor Lewis

Andy AndreoffTorrey MitchellJonny Brodzinski

Defense

Jake MuzzinDrew Doughty

Kurtis MacDermidAlec Martinez

Derek Forbort — Kevin Gravel

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick