Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

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It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

John Carlson gets $64M payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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The Washington Capitals cleared salary cap space for a big reason and it paid off on Sunday as they’ve agreed to a long-term deal with defenseman John Carlson.

It’s a $64 million extension over eight years for the 28-year-old. According to Pierre LeBrun, within the details of the contract are $2 million signing bonuses that land on July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2022, a.k.a. Possible Lockout Seasons.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime. As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams. We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

Carlson, who would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1, picked the right time to have a career season and lead all NHL defensemen in scoring. In playing all 82 games during the regular season, he posted career highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68), ice time (24:47) and power play assists (28). The production continued in the playoffs with five goals and 20 points as the Capitals claimed the 2018 Stanley Cup. He would finish fifth in the Norris Trophy voting.

The Capitals and Carlson’s camp had not come to an agreement as of Sunday morning, so his agent began taking calls from other interested teams as the free agent interview period opened. MacLellan did a good job of clearing cap space for an extension, shipping Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit to the Colorado Avalanche along with restricted free agent goaltender Philipp Grubauer on Friday.

Carlson’s priority was to remain in Washington.

“This has been my home. I’ve lived here every summer since I’ve been here,” Carlson said during locker clean out day. “This is my home base and obviously the guys that I’ve been around, the experiences we’ve had. I love the area and this is all I know.”

In other Capitals defenseman news, the team has an offer out to Carlson’s defense partner Michal Kempny, who was acquired in February from Chicago and turned into a valuable piece en route to the Cup. And then there’s Orpik, who was waived after being acquired by the Avalanche. Once his buyout from Colorado becomes official, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent, setting up the possibility of a return to Washington.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Could Capitals be on verge of losing John Carlson?

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(UPDATE: No, he’s staying. Eight-year, $64 million extension for Carlson.)

While the sweet aroma of winning the Stanley Cup isn’t likely to fade any time soon, the brief stench of the business side of hockey could once again crop up in Washington.

Already having lost Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz last week, the Capitals could be on the verge of losing top-scoring defenseman John Carlson from the 2017-18 season as well.

Maybe.

With no deal in place to extend the skilled rearguard, Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, said while they’re still trying to hash out a deal with the Capitals, his client, who led all NHL d-men with 68 points this past season, is going to listen to other teams after the interview period commenced at 12:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.

On Friday, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said a deal with Carlson was “close” to being achieved.

“Hopefully we can get it done here over the next few days. We’re really close,” he said.

But as of Sunday morning, there’s still no deal in place for the man who set a Caps franchise record for most points by a defenseman in the playoffs with 20.

MacLellan has made room for Carlson. Needing the necessary cap space to give him his raise, MacLellan dealt backup netminder Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche — the later of which had a $5.5 million cap hit attached to him.

For now, the savings account hasn’t been touched.

For Carlson, he has earned the right to test the free agent waters, and Washington obviously hasn’t met whatever demands 28-year-old has for his new deal.

It’s important to point out, as the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno did Sunday, that Washington is the only team that can give Carlson eight years of term in a new deal. As Whyno said, this shouldn’t be overlooked.

Losing Carlson would be a big blow, so it’s kind of surprising it’s gotten to this point from the Capitals side, although Carlson could be doing what he’s earned — looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side — and using this time as leverage in talks with Washington.

A simple formula: Player wants the team to meet demands, the team isn’t there yet, forcing the player to play hardball, in turn forcing the team’s hand, or something like that, roughly speaking.

Caps beat writer for the Washington Post Isabelle Khurshudyan wrote Sunday that despite the noise surrounding Carlson, she still expects the d-man to re-sign in the nation’s capital.

#CarlsonWatch continues for now.

Have your say here:


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

Hurricanes have much to do, but headed in right direction after blockbuster deal

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There’s a long way to go to rebuild the Carolina Hurricanes into a contending hockey team, but they took a nice step in the right direction on Saturday.

The hockey world has had 24 hours to digest that five-player blockbuster trade on the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft — one that included defenseman Dougie Hamilton heading to the east coast once again and defenseman Noah Hanifin heading to Cow Town.

The verdict? That we won’t know for some time yet (as with any trade in its immediate infancy), but for a Hurricanes team desperate for a sheet of ice in the playoffs, the move certainly turned their aim in that direction.

Calgary got younger with 21-year-old Hanifin and 23-year-old Elias Lindholmbut the move broke up one of the league’s premier defense pairings in the process. Carolina added one-half of that pairing, and it seems more clear that the Hurricanes — who also used their second overall selection on Andrei Svechnikov earlier in the day — got better.

Worlds like “elite defenseman,” “career-year” and “highly-touted” were all uttered to help explain the three players — Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox, respectively — that Carolina snatched up in Saturday’s wheeling and dealing.

Not too shabby, right? The Hurricanes got immediate help on defense and forward with a quality prospect on the backend developing (if he eventually signs).

Winning trades has been something of a foreign concept when attached to Don Waddell during his tenure as an NHL general manager. His exploits as the GM of the Atlanta Thrashers meant years of needed repair after the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011, for instance.

So Saturday’s deal was a win-win for Carolina fans, who had to fear what Waddell might do to their team after being handed the reigns earlier this year.

“We’ve gone nine years missing the playoffs… we’re going to try to change up the culture a little bit,” Waddell said from the draft. “We feel that all three pieces are going to make our hockey club better not just today but going into the future.”

The Canes received a beefy, skilled defenseman in Hamilton who’s good for 40 points a year and can play big minutes. He’s also still just 25 and comes in at a nice price point at $5.75 AAV with three years left on that deal.

With Jaccob Slavin, captain Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk also in that rearguard, it became all the more formidable with the arrival of Hamilton.

Hamilton seems to carry around an aura of split opinion on his ability (and personality, apparently). But his underlying numbers suggest he’s among the best defenseman in the game. Elite, even.

Carolina also acquired fellow d-man Adam Fox in the deal, a promising 20-year-old prospect who’s been showing great signs playing at Harvard in the NCAA.

And they got Micheal Ferland, a physical terror on the ice who found his scoring punch this past season with 21 goals.

(It should be noted that Bill Peters — now the coach in Calgary — coached Hanifin and Elias Lindholm in Carolina. He knows the duo like the back of his hand.)

What’s next?

This bit is critical now.

With one issue squared away, the Hurricanes can now turn to other areas that need addressing.

The futures of the aforementioned Faulk (UFA ’20) and Jeff Skinner (UFA ’19) need attention, of course. Both have been churning in the rumor mill and would likely command a nice haul in return. Keeping Faulk in that now-formidable backend might seem like a no-brainer. Or maybe not…

If Faulk is expendable, then he’d be best used in a deal that shores up Carolina’s most pressing issue — its goaltending.

Scott Darling hasn’t worked out and Cam Ward isn’t coming back.

With Philipp Grubauer going to Colorado (perhaps, in part, by design), the list of unrestricted free agent goaltenders capable of being starters is slim at best.

Carter Hutton has shown flashes, as has Anton Khudonbin (who already had one stint in Carolina). With Grubauer out of the picture, those are the two best options with UFA status

Skinner and/or Faulk could be the carrot dangled in a potential move that would see a goalie in return and Waddell told reporters in Dallas on Saturday that he intends on landing a netminder.

A trade involving either could also be used to help Carolina find a left-handed defenseman. They have a glut of right-hand shots now with the arrival Hamilton and the departure of Hanifin on the backend, so perhaps something that turns Faulk into another top LHD helps Waddell pull the trigger.

For the moment, Hurricanes fans can rest on the fact that their team got better over the weekend. And they can hope that the direction from this weekend will filter down into next when the free agency window opens up on July 1.


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

Liam Kirk 1st born-and-trained Brit selected in NHL draft

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DALLAS (AP) Liam Kirk has become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL draft.

The Arizona Coyotes picked the 18-year-old left wing 189th overall on Saturday with their seventh-round pick.

Kirk was home, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean about 4,600 miles away from Dallas, when he was drafted.

The 6-foot, 161-pound Kirk played this season for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of competition in the United Kingdom. He had nine goals and seven assists in 52 games for the Steelers in his second season with the team.

When Kirk attended this year’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, he became the first player born and trained in Britain to attend that annual pre-draft event.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey