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.

***

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.

The Buzzer: Crawford comes up big for Blackhawks

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Three stars

1. Esa Lindell, Dallas Stars

Lindell scored his second and third goals of the season on Sunday, with the latter being the game-winner as the Stars demolished the New York Islanders 6-2.

This spot could have easily gone to either Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn, each who came away with three-point nights in the win. Dallas has won two straight and are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games.

Gotta love on the defensemen sometimes though.

2. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Crawford was struggling pretty bad prior to this past week after losing five straight. Since then, Crawford is 2-0-1 and has allowed just two goals in those three games.

Crawford’s recent surge was highlighted on Sunday after he stopped 39 shots on Sunday en route to a 3-1 Blackhawks win against the Minnesota Wild. The Hawks are just 2-5-3 in their past 10, so a better Crawford could go a long way as they try to position themselves in a tough Central Division.

3. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. 

It looks like every game in the Pacific Division is going to have deeper meaning this year with how poor those teams can be at times.

Marchessault, with two goals and an assist, ensured that Vegas got back to winning ways with a three-point night in a 6-3 win against the Edmonton Oilers. Marchessault was riding a three-game pointless streak coming into Sunday.

Other notable performances: 

  • Nathan MacKinnon had two goals and an assist and Mikko Rantanen padded his stats with two more apples and the game-winner on the power play in overtime. That line is just silly.
  • Three-point night in a losing effort for Ducks defenseman Brandon Montour.
  • Leon Draisaitl had a goal and an assist in a losing cause himself.
  • Curtis McElhinney steered aside 33 shots to help the Hurricanes to a 2-1 win.

Highlights of the night

Tremendous:

Slick feed:

Factoids

Scores

Stars 6, Islanders 2

Hurricanes 2, Devils 1

Blackhawks 3, Wild 1

Avalanche 4, Ducks 3 (OT)

Golden Knights 6, Oilers 3


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

The Buzzer: Jarnkrok, Atkinson post hat tricks; Karlsson gets first for Sharks

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Three goals for the hat trick and an assist to cap off a four-point night for Atkinson in a 4-1 win for the Blue Jackets against the Carolina Hurricanes. Not too shabby. Atkinson helped Columbus to its second-best start through 20 games in franchise history. The Blue Jackets have won three in a row and are sitting in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Atkinson is rocking a four-game point streak now with six goals and nine points during that time. He’s currently on pace to eclipse the 40-goal mark, which would be a career-high. He had 35 two years ago.

Atkinson is now tied with Rick Nash for most hat tricks in franchise history at five.

2. Calle Jarnkrok, Nashville Predators

Jarnkork scored quite the hat trick himself on Saturday.

One of his goals came at even strength, another on the power play and one shorthanded. There should be a special name for that, like the hat-hat trick or something (terrible, right?) or maybe the three-phase hatty? I’m striking out.

Whatever ever way you slice it, it was no small feat. Since 2013-14, only seven players — including Jarnkrok — have done it. Not bad for your first hatty.

3. Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks 

San Jose got a Dell on Saturday night, and it stopped 30 shots for his fourth career shutout in a 4-0 win against the St. L

Not a bad purchase.

Dell exacted a bit of revenge after he was between the pipes on Nov. 9 when the Sharks were blanked by the same Blues team 4-0 on Nov. 9.

Other notable performances:

  • The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames can both take a bow. What a game.
  • We almost need to create a ‘Mike Hoffman Streak Watch’ section or something like that. Regardless, the man pushed his point streak to 15 games on Saturday with a goal and an assist, extending the franchise record.
  • Carey Price is taking a beating in the media but he’s been solid over his past two games, including stopping 36-of-38 in a 3-2 win.
  • Henrik Lundqvist captured win No. 438 to pass Jacques Plante for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list.
  • Mark Stone had two goals in a 6-4 win for the Ottawa Senators over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Chris Kreider is a big reason why the New York Rangers are near the top of the Metropolitan Division. He had a three-point night, scoring and adding two assists.
  • Speaking of the Metropolitan, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30-of-31 and has now won in his past four appearances. His Blue Jackets are in first place.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are good. Rasmus Dahlin is also good and he had a goal and an assist to help the Buffalo Sabres to their fifth straight win.
  • Elias Pettersson scored again, so Vancouver can breathe again.
  • Erik Karlsson finally scored his first of the season in his 21st game, so San Jose can also stop holding its breath.
  • Jaroslav Halak continues to defy anyone and everyone’s expectations. He stopped 31 shots for his seventh win of the season. He’s got a .935 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.

Highlights of the night

Erik Karlsson dropped his first goal with the San Jose Sharks. It was quite the rocket.

Jarnkrok’s hatty:

And Atkinson’s:

Factoids

Scores
Lightning 6, Flyers 5 (OT)
Red Wings 3, Devils 2 (OT)
Sabres 3, Wild 2
Canadiens 3, Canucks 2
Senators 6, Penguins 4
Rangers 4, Panthers 2
Blue Jackets 4, Hurricanes 1
Bruins 2, Coyotes 1
Predators 5, Kings 3
Flames 4, Oilers 2
Sharks 4, Blues 0


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

Saturday’s Battle of Alberta was gloriously epic

Associated Press
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Hate.

At times on Saturday night at the Saddledome in Calgary, it seethed.

And it was glorious. Mightily, brilliantly, glorious.

Saturday night was alright for mayhem and the Battle of Alberta had it in droves.

A great game of hockey bookmarked massive hits, fights and hate. Did I mention hate?

The montage above was just first-period highlights.

Let’s recap:

  • The Leon Drasaitl hit on Matthew Tkachuk knocked the latter out of the game for a while
  • Nurse clearly threw another bomb after the linesmen go in between him Sam Bennett
  • Nurse was telling the linesman to let him and not in those exact words
  • Connor McDavid and Mikael Backlund wrestled

The hit that led to Nurse and Bennett scraping is here:

The hate resumed in the second period, because of course it did.

Milan Lucic was engaged in this game, a sight for sore eyes for Oilers fans.

Here’s a sample of that engagement:

Now, if Lucic can bottle that and take some sips before each game going forward…

Oilers Twitter seemed quite pleased with No. 27 during the game.

Calgary prevailed in the game, winning 4-2 after scoring four unanswered as the Oilers squandered a 2-0 lead.

Neither team started their struggling No. 1 netminders. David Rittich for Calgary was the better of the two backups in the game, stopping three breakaways in the game. Edmonton simply couldn’t douse the Flames, who kept it coming in the third frame when the Oilers started to fizzle out.

Bonus: For old times’ sake, here’s the scrap of all scraps in the Battle of Alberta:

John Tortorella would have been proud.

Let the hype begin for the next game in the famed series on Dec. 9 in Edmonton.


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

Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

Associated Press
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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


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