Is the pressure getting to Alex Ovechkin?

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Ovi4.jpgAside from the story of how Tomas Plekanec actually backed up his big
words — something you don’t see everyday in professional sports — the
story this morning is surrounding Alex Ovechkin and his zero shots on
goal.

The Capitals were foiled by much more than just Ovechkin
being a non-factor for much of the game
, but for their captain — and
someone who is supposedly Hart Trophy worthy — to disappear for long
stretches has to be concerning. It’s much more so than just looking at
the numbers and determining that he didn’t have a good game; anyone
watching could see that Ovechkin had a tough time being his normally
high-energy, dominant self.

Bruce Boudreau pulled no punches,
saying after the game “He didn’t play good. The gapped on real well on
him but I don’t think Alex played very well.”

So what was it? Was
Ovechkin just not good, or did the Canadiens just do one heck of a job
taking away the Capitals’ best player?

Jaroslav Spacek is happy
with how his team played Ovechkin, but had nothing but praise for the
man everyone is asking about today. From
Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Blog
:

“He was playing good,” Spacek said. “His shots didn’t
get through,
that’s the problem, but I think we did a great job against their first
line all night long. We didn’t give them too much space. If he will be
shooting from the blue line, he’s probably not that effective. And we
had the guys to step up on him all the time. So when you see the third
guy, fourth guy coming back, that’s even better for our defensemen.”

It’s
worth noting that Ovechkin wasn’t exactly shotless. He had five blocked
shots and three that missed the net, the most total attempts on the
team aside from Mike Knuble and Alex Semin.

That being said,
there’s no doubt that something just isn’t right. He had the second most
ice time on the team last night (26:26), but it certainly didn’t seem
like he was on the ice for that amount of time while watching the game.
He wasn’t pushing the play, wasn’t aggressively attacking the defense up
the wing like we’ve seen time and time again, and instead seemed intent
on trying to continuously take the puck across the slot as he looked
for an opening. There never was one.

Is Ovechkin hurt, or is this
something mental? He just hasn’t been the same since the Olympics
disappointment, and you have to wonder if the pressure is starting to
get to him. He’s no longer the free wheeling, aggressive, fun-loving
hockey player that has dominated so many games. He was calm, quiet and a
bit off during practice leading up to last night’s game, stating he was
saving his emotions for the game; that emotional side of him never
showed up.

This isn’t to pin the loss on Ovechkin; far from it. As
David Getz of Japers’ Rink noted last night
, Ovechkin, Semin and Mike
Green all had off nights with just eight shots on goal between the
three. The Capitals will need the entire team to step up, but in the end
it’s Ovechkin that can make the difference.

He’s supposedly the
best player in the NHL, one who has the ability to completely take over a
game. If the Capitals are to avoid one hell of an upset, they’ll need
him to find that emotional core that he’s used all season long.

Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

As of this posting in the middle of August, Max Pacioretty is still a member of the Montreal Canadiens.

He is still a member of the team after speculation that he could be dealt leading up to the trade deadline at the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is still a member of the team after reports surfaced in mid-July (subscription required) that the team was not going to negotiate a new contract extension with him and would look to trade him as soon as possible.

How long he will actually remain with the Canadiens is anybody’s guess at this point, but given that he only has one year left on his current contract and the team seems to be on a collision course with another disappointing season, it certainly stands to reason that he may not be on the team before the end of the season. Almost certainly not at the start of next season, barring some unforeseen change in the Canadiens’ approach.

No matter where he finishes the upcoming season there is one thing you should expect from Pacioretty, and that is a bounce back year in the goal-scoring department.

Among the many things that went wrong for the Canadiens this past season, a down year from Pacioretty was one of the more damaging developments. After being one of the league’s top goal-scorers over the previous six seasons (when he was a lock for at least 30 goals every year and averaged 35 per 82 games played) Pacioretty suffered through one of his worst seasons as a pro, managing only 17 goals in 64 games.

From a traditional box scores numbers outlook, it was an ugly season, at least by the standard Pacioretty had set for himself.

But it was not as bad as it seemed, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it will not happen again.

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Breakthrough | Under Pressure

Pacioretty’s season went south early in the year when he went through a 22-game stretch starting in mid-November where he scored just a single goal. It was an eye-opening slump because it’s not what we had come to expect from Pacioretty throughout his career, and on a team that was already desperate for offense it stood out even more. The Canadiens needed him to carry the offense, and it was not happening.

It certainly was not for a lack of effort or chances.

During that slump he was still averaging more than 3.10 shots on goal per game and had managed to score on just one of his 69 total shots on goal during the slump, a shooting percentage of just 1.4 percent.

If you want to find little faults in his game during that stretch you could probably certainly do that, but the biggest issue for an All-Star level player during that sort of slump is often times just a lot of bad luck. Every top goal-scorer in the league is prone to that sort of stretch, and it is usually just as simple as the puck isn’t going in the net. As much as nobody ever wants to admit it, sometimes it just happens.

Given Pacioretty’s career shooting percentages (which are usually around 11 percent) you would expect him to score at least seven goals on that same number of shots, and if even just four or five more end up going in the net we’re probably look at his season (and that stretch) in a totally different light.

Even though Pacioretty is entering his age 30 season and has probably already played his best hockey, there was enough in his 2017-18 performance to suggest that he still has some big hockey ahead of him, and there was not much of a change in his actual play or usage. His ice-time was identical to what it was the previous year. His underlying numbers, including his possession numbers and his ability to generate shots, attempts and chances, were still strong and among the best on the team. The biggest drop came from his shooting percentage, and even that was largely due to that 22-game slump in the middle of the year.

At a $4.5 million salary cap Pacioretty is still set to be one of the biggest bargains in the NHL for at least one more season, and for right now the Canadiens are going to be the beneficiary of that.

Where he is playing at the end of the season is still up for speculation, but no matter where it ends up being (Montreal or somewhere else) that team is going to get one of the league’s best goal-scorers.

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.

Connor McDavid betting favorite to win MVP, even though he’s still on Oilers

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Connor McDavid was the best player in the NHL during the 2017-18 season.

He won the scoring title for the second year in a row (the first player in more than 15 years to win it in consecutive years), he topped the 100-point mark for the second year in a row, he was voted by his peers in the league as the most outstanding player for the second year in a row, and had he played on a team that was anything other than a raging season-long dumpster fire he probably would have been a lock to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP for the second year in a row.

At the very least he would have a finalist.

But because he did play on a team that was a raging season-long dumpster fire, we were treated to another season-long debate on what value means and he ended up finishing fifth in the MVP voting behind Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Anze Kopitar and Claude Giroux.

Even though the Oilers are bringing back largely the same roster that finished with the fourth worst record in the Western Conference and was nearly 20 points out of a playoff spot, McDavid is set to enter the 2018-19 season as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award this upcoming season.

The folks at Bovada issued some preseason MVP betting odds on Thursday, and McDavid at 10/3 was at the top of the list.

As long as he stays healthy he is probably going to be the best player in the league once again and, quite honestly, the only thing that can probably stop him from winning the MVP is if the Oilers stink again.

Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby is second at 13/2, while Toronto Maple Leafs teammates Auston Matthews and John Tavares and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin round out the top-five, each at 10-1.

The reigning MVP winner, New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall, has the sixth best odds at 15/1.

Here is the complete list that Bovada released on Thursday:

Connor McDavid — 10/3
Sidney Crosby — 13/2
Auston Matthews — 10/1
Alexander Ovechkin — 10/1
John Tavares — 10/1
Taylor Hall — 15/1
Nikita Kucherov –15/1
Nathan MacKinnon — 15/1
Mark Scheifele — 15/1
Anze Kopitar — 18/1
Evgeni Malkin — 18/1
Patrick Kane — 20/1
Claude Giroux — 25/1
Brad Marchand — 25/1
Steven Stamkos — 25/1
Vladimir Tarasenko — 25/1
Jack Eichel — 33/1
Jamie Benn — 40/1
Patrik Laine — 40/1
Nicklas Backstrom — 50/1
Filip Forsberg — 50/1
Johnny Gaudreau — 50/1
Ilya Kovalchuk — 50/1
Evgeny Kuznetsov — 50/1
Artemi Panarin — 50/1
Tyler Seguin — 50/1
Blake Wheeler — 50/1
Logan Couture — 66/1
Phil Kessel — 75/1
Joe Pavelski — 75/1
Aleksander Barkov — 100/1
Jonathan Marchessault — 100/1
David Pastrnak — 100/1
Alexander Radulov — 100/1

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.

Under pressure: Carey Price

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

If the Montreal Canadiens are going to have any chance of being anything resembling a competitive team this season they are going to need a massive year from starting goaltender Carey Price.

Probably not just a good year. Probably not even a great year. But probably the type of season he had a couple of years ago when he won the Vezina and Hart Trophies and pretty much single handedly carried the team to the playoffs.

In other words: The Canadiens are going to maybe need an all-time great year from their goalie to have a chance to compete.

For the better part of the past five seasons the Canadiens’ success or failure has largely ridden on whether or not Price is healthy and on top of his game. When he has not been one or the other, they have been a colossal disaster. As unfair as it is to put that much on one player — and it’s terribly unfair, and even totally unreasonable — that alone is enough reason for Price to be facing some pressure this season.

It is not the only reason.

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Breakthrough

Not only is he the most important and impactful player on the roster, and the one player that might be capable of turning them into something even remotely interesting, he is also coming off of what was perhaps his worst season in the NHL and is in need of a bounce back year. Not only for the short-term, but also because Price is entering the first year of an eight-year contract that is going to carry a salary cap hit of $10.5 million per season through the end of the 2025-26 season. That is an absolutely enormous investment for a goalie. It is $2 million more per season than the second highest paid goalie (New York Rangers starter Henrik Lundqvist at $8.5 million), while Price and Lundqvist are the only two goalies in the league to carry a cap hit north of $7.5 million this season.

Combined with defenseman Shea Weber — who will not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery — the Canadiens long-term foundation is built around two players on the wrong side of 30 that will account for nearly $19 million in salary cap space through the end of the 2026 season. There is no other team in the league that has a salary cap structure quite like that at the top of its lineup, and the success or failure of the team centered around that duo will largely define general manager Marc Bergevin’s tenure with the franchise.

Given how much of an impact Price can make on the Canadiens he is probably worth every penny of that salary when he is at his best. There are only a handful of players in the NHL that can single-handedly change a team’s success as drastically as Price can, and in recent years we have seen both sides of that impact, from him carrying the team to an Atlantic Division crown in 2014-15, to the way the team self-destructed the following year when he was injured for all but 12 games of the season.

With the way the rest of this roster is looking right now the Canadiens are probably going to need a repeat of 2014-15 from Price.

Anything less than that will probably result in another poor season on the ice.

Another way of looking at it: It probably won’t be Price’s fault if the Canadiens miss the playoffs again, but he is probably their only chance to get back there.

That is pressure.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Brendan Gallagher

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Montreal Canadiens.

The 2017-18 season was pretty much a nightmare for the Montreal Canadiens. They finished as one of the worst teams in the league, pretty much every move they made seemed to backfire in their faces, and the long-term outlook for the team seems … let’s say bleak.

The one exception to all of that was the play of 25-year-old forward Brendan Gallagher who was probably the one consistent bright spot throughout the season.

On a team that at times seemed lost, disjointed and just plain bad, Gallagher brought an unmatched energy and effort almost every single night and delivered the best season of his career, finishing with 31 goals and 54 points, both of which were not only new personal bests, but were also top on the team.

His 31 goals not only paced the team, he was one of just two players on the roster to top the 20-goal mark on the season (Paul Byron, who scored exactly 20, was the other).

[Canadiens Day: Looking back | Under Pressure

Since arriving in the NHL Gallagher has always been an important player for the Canadiens, while every line he plays on seems to get a boost from his play. He can be a pest, but he is also a really good two-way player that has consistently posted great possession numbers despite playing on teams that have, at times, been caved in on the shot chart. And while he’s never been a big-time point producer you could always pencil him in for around 20 goals and 40 points, and when combined with everything else that he brings to the team that is a pretty valuable player. This past season the production spiked.

Given the way the rest of the roster looks, the Canadiens are going to need him to do it again. With Alex Galchenyuk now in Arizona, and Max Pacioretty‘s future with the team very much in doubt, the Canadiens are woefully short on players that can put the puck in the net. Keep in mind this is a team that finished the 2017-18 season 29th in the league in goals scored, while their big offseason move was to trade Galchenyuk (19 goals) for Max Domi (18 goals … in 141 games over the past two seasons).

Gallagher, it seems, is going to once again be one of their best options and a player they are going to have to lean on.

The good news for the Canadiens is that there is reason to believe Gallagher can at least come close to matching his production because there was nothing to indicate that his 2017-18 performance was much of a fluke. Entering his age 26 season he is still right in the middle of what should be his peak years in the NHL, and still signed for three more seasons at a salary cap hit of just $3.75 million he should be one of the most valuable assets the team has both now and in the near future.

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.