Nashville Predators

Capitals’ biggest question: Is this finally the year?

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Of the 12 NHL teams that have never won the Stanley Cup, there may not be a more optimistic one heading into 2015-16 than the Washington Capitals. 

Here’s why:

— Alex Ovechkin just won his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. At 29, he remains the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer. On top of that, the Caps appear to have found the right coach for the Russian superstar in Barry Trotz.

— The Caps also appear to have found a second-line center in young Evgeny Kuznetsov. If the 23-year-old continues to progress — and there’s no good reason he shouldn’t — Washington could have quite the 1-2 combo at center in Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

— Defenseman John Carlson is emerging as one of the top blue-liners in the NHL. And at 25, he may get even better.

— Goalie Braden Holtby continues to post strong numbers. His .923 save percentage last season was tied with Pekka Rinne and one point better than Tuukka Rask.

Now throw in the additions of veterans T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to go with youngsters Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson, and what emerges is a roster where a glaring weakness is pretty tough to find.

OK, sure, there are concerns. Like maybe the Caps will miss Mike Green more than they think. Ditto for Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and/or Eric Fehr. If Washington’s young players don’t step up next season, it’s hard to picture this team hoisting the Cup.

But that’s true of any team, really.

“I’d say the next three or four years is the window,” GM Brian MacLellan said in May.

Given how quickly the landscape of a young man’s league can change, it may turn out to be a shorter window than that.

The Caps have a real opportunity in 2015-16. Can they finally get it done?

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’

Poll: Will the Caps miss Mike Green?

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Mike Green only averaged 19:06 of ice time last season, down more than three minutes from his previous season.

But that reduction wasn’t really a reflection of his play. It was the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in free agency. There are only so many minutes to go around, and the Caps also had to give John Carlson and Karl Alzner their time.

Despite Green playing less, he actually saw his production increase, from 38 points in 70 games in 2013-14 to 45 points in 72 games last season. Only 15 NHL defensemen had more points than Green did. Shea Weber and Duncan Keith also had 45 points, and they played more games and received far more ice time.

But the Caps had to make a tough decision. If Green wasn’t a top-four d-man on their team, they couldn’t pay him like one. So he signed with Detroit for three years and $18 million.

Green’s departure leaves the Caps with a top four of Orpik, Carlson, Alzner and Niskanen, with a potential bottom pairing of 24-year-olds Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. (KHL veteran Ilya Nikulin could reportedly be on his way to D.C., too.)

OK, time to vote:

Related: John Carlson is under pressure

St. Louis Blues ’15-16 Outlook

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Do something in the playoffs, maybe?

That’s certainly the Blues’ objective next year, something that’s been made abundantly clear by everyone in the organization — but, quite frankly, that topic has been done to death.

So how about a new angle? Consider what GM Doug Armstrong told Sportsnet in May:

“There’s the Bell Curve of a career. The data is being redefined. Age brackets pre-expansion were older… The slower game allowed longer careers. Now, the maturity of young players, with strength coaches at age 15. It’s tending to a younger man’s game every year.

There’s anomalies to all of this; every player says they are the anomaly… That’s what makes them great. But young players are driving the bus at an earlier age of their career.”

Translation: It’s time to go young, and St. Louis is ready to embrace it.

The trend began this summer when the Blues made 23-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko its highest-paid player with an eight-year, $60 million extension; in explaining the deal, Armstrong called the Russian sniper a “great building block” that could “help lead us now.”

Those were telling words from a franchise often identified by its veteran leaders.

And Tarasenko isn’t the only youngster looking at an increased role.

Gone from last year’s team are Chris Porter, Zbynek Michalek, Marcel Goc, Olli Jokinen and, most notably, two of the most prominent Blues — Barret Jackman and T.J. Oshie. If there’s one thing that linked these guys together, it’s age; Oshie is the youngest of the crew, and he turns 29 in December.

St. Louis has been stockpiling draft prospects for years, and this could be the time for some to break through: Ty Rattie, Robby Fabbri, Jordan Schmaltz and Ivan Barbashev, all top-35 picks, will get their looks to varying degrees, and Dmitri Jaskin — the 22-year-old Czech winger that scored 13 times last year — and Finnish d-man Petteri Lindbohm will try and take stronger holds on roster spots.

In fact, the development of some of these kids could have a profound impact on another Blues veteran — team captain David Backes.

“I think where we play David now depends on (Dmitrij) Jaskin, (Ty) Rattie and (Robby) Fabbri,” head coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “How they do in camp and what level of play we think they can arrive at will determine how much we play David on the right wing.

“I can tell you right now, (Backes) is going to play more right wing than he’s played since I got here. Whether he’s a full-time player there or not, we don’t know yet. That depends on those three young kids.”

Under Pressure: Doug Armstrong

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In five seasons as general manager of the St. Louis Blues, Doug Armstrong has seen his team win a grand total of one playoff series. That lone victory came in 2012, over San Jose, before getting swept by the Kings. Since then, the Blues have been eliminated three straight times in the first round.

Not that Armstrong’s been a total failure at the job — far from it. The Blues have been an excellent regular-season team. In 2011-12, Armstrong was named the NHL’s GM of the year. And such is his stellar reputation that he’ll be Team Canada’s architect for the 2016 World Cup.

But after yet another postseason disappointment in St. Louis, Armstrong recognized that changes needed to be made.

“We entered a window four years ago, and the window doesn’t stay open forever,” he said in April.

Hence, the decisions to trade T.J. Oshie and let Barret Jackman go to free agency. Next season, the Blues will rely more on their younger players like 23-year-olds Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

“We’re trying to meld two generations into one,” Armstrong told Sportsnet radio in July, “but we’re also asking that younger generation to no longer to sit in the back seat and to jump up and grab the wheel.”

So, expect to see those younger players in more key situations next season, whereas before it would’ve been up to the David Backes era to close out one-goal games with a minute left.

You can guarantee that Armstrong discussed as much with Ken Hitchcock before bringing the head coach back for another season. Hitchcock, of course, is also under immense pressure to get the job done, just as he was going into last season.

But listening to the Sportsnet interview, it wasn’t hard to feel Armstrong’s mounting frustration at having so much regular-season success, with so little playoff glory.

“That’s one of the things I like about the European football or soccer. They put a lot of pride in their regular-season championship as they do in their playoff championship,” he said.

“But that’s not the world we live in here in North America. You can be the L.A. Kings and finish seventh and finish eighth and win Cups and thought of as a great team, or you can be the Blues with the best record in hockey over the last four years and lose in the first round and people quite honestly think you’re bums.”

“In our society, championships are what we’re judged on and that’s what we have to try and win.”

Related: ‘Let’s live to fight another day’

It’s St. Louis Blues day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The St. Louis Blues day.

Another strong regular season followed by an early playoff exit. Business as usual for the St. Louis Blues, right?

Well, maybe. You get the sense that the 2015-16 season is an ultimatum, with the T.J. Oshie trade being a warning: this might be the last shot for many, perhaps including head coach Ken Hitchcock.

On paper, there’s still a lot of promise in St. Louis.

Vladimir Tarasenko tore onto the scene as a true elite sniper in 2015-16, and he was paid handsomely for it. Jaden Schwartz lacks some of the sizzle, but he’s a blue chip of his own. There’s some uncertainty for the likes of David Backes, but let’s not forget that St. Louis scored 248 goals last season, more than any other Western Conference playoff squad.

Of course, a Hitch-helmed team is expected to be stout defensively, and the Blues boast two fantastic blueliners in Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo.

The two-headed dragon setup remains in net with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, but hey, at least they like each other.

Off-season recap

As mentioned above, the Blues re-upped with expected cornerstones Allen and Tarasenko. They also parted ways with Oshie and Barret Jackman.

St. Louis actually looks pretty similar heading into 2015-16, but young players could up the ante quite a bit. Could someone like Robby Fabbri and/or Ty Rattie become difference-makers for the Blues? Training camp might help decide that, but their development is one of the more important aspects of this off-season.

If fear isn’t enough of a motivator, there’s also avoiding sights like these in the future: