Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

4 Comments

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.

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

Leave a comment

There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

NBC

Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

————

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.

Alex Ovechkin scores 700th goal vs. Devils with a blast

2 Comments

He did it. Alex Ovechkin scored his 700th career goal on Saturday as the Capitals faced the Devils.

Ovechkin scored his historic goal from the opposite faceoff circle from his typical “office.” It was a significant goal, tying Washington 2-2 with New Jersey a few minutes into the third period. Ovechkin reaching his 700th goal with such gusto really adds to the experience.

(Watch video of Ovechkin scoring his 700th goal in the video above.)

Ovechkin makes history with 700th goal

It marks his second goal in as many games after sitting at 698 goals for five agonizing contests. Well, they were agonizing for those anxiously awaiting number 700. Ovechkin’s response was basically “Whatever.” Ovechkin scored 30 of his 700 career goals against the Devils.

Ovechkin joins an illustrious group including Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Jaromir Jagr (766), Brett Hull (741), Marcel Dionne (731), Phil Esposito (717) and Mike Gartner (708). Ovechkin became the second player to score 700+ goals with a single team, as Howe scored 786 with the Red Wings before continuing a hockey journey that eventually included playing alongside his sons.

Jagr was the most recent player to reach 700 on March 1, 2014.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

Ovechkin, 34, became the second youngest and fastest player (1144 games) to score 700 goals, trailing Gretzky who was 29 years old (886 games) when he scored his 700th in January 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

Earlier this month, Ovi also became only the second player to score 40 goals in 11 seasons, trailing Gretzky’s record of 12. Ovechkin now has 42 goals in 60 games this season, giving himself a shot at another Maurice Richard Trophy.

The Devils ended up beating the Capitals 3-2. Maybe Washington can get back on track now that Ovechkin got this 700th goal out of the way? Their struggles aren’t on Ovechkin, but the Caps are struggling as a team nonetheless. (They have to be pleased with Pittsburgh losing to the Sabres on Saturday, though.)

Ovechkin’s quest for 700th goal:

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.

Islanders honor John Tonelli by retiring his No. 27

AP Images
1 Comment

John Tonelli’s No. 27 has been raised to the rafters at Nassau Coliseum, joining some of his former teammates from the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty.

Tonelli, known as a gritty player who worked to get the puck in the corners, became the seventh player to have his number retired by the team when he was honored before Friday night’s 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings.

“Tonight is not about me,” Tonelli said. “It’s all about giving thanks to my extended family, each and every one of you here and at home tonight. All of you have played a starring role in the journey that has brought this extremely honored and humbled man before you. Tonight is about my teammates, some of whom are standing with me. … I feel incredibly honored to have skated alongside each of you and to be part of the success that we achieved as a team.”

Tonelli is the first Islander to get his number retired since Bryan Trottier (19) in 2001. Dennis Potvin (5), Clark Gillies (9), Mike Bossy (22), Bobby Nystrom (23) and Billy Smith (31) had their numbers retired previously. They were all part of the teams that won four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83.

Five of the six were in attendance for Tonelli’s big night. Bossy was unable to make it, but a congratulatory video message was played in the arena.

The 62-year-old Tonelli also was joined by his wife, Lauren, sons Jordan and Zach, and his mother, Joy. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was in attendance as well.

Tonelli, who had 206 goals and 338 assists in 594 games over eight seasons with the Islanders, was shown a bronze plaque that will be displayed in the team’s Hall of Fame. Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin presented him with a framed No. 27 jersey and painted portrait by Tony Capparelli among other gifts.

In a speech that lasted about 15 minutes, Tonelli thanked coaches from his WHA and juniors days, as well as former teammates for sharing in his success. He also praised Al Arbour, the late longtime coach of the Islanders, who has a banner with 1,500 – the number of games he coached the team – also hanging in the rafters.

“Thank you Al for believing in all of us,” Tonelli said. “Thank you for making us all feel important, to be proud of our roles, for knocking us down when were too cocky and for picking us up when we were down.”

Tonelli referenced the goal in overtime of Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers that gave the Islanders their first championship, when he sent a pass through two defenders to a streaking Nystrom for the win.

“Bob, that magical moment on May 24, 1980, will live with me forever,” he said.

He also spoke glowingly about Butch Goring, who will have his No. 91 retired on Feb. 29 before the Islanders’ game against Boston.

“Prior to his arrival, we were a pretty good hockey team but we were missing something,” Tonelli said. “Butch you were an inspiration to play with and I’m truly looking forward to standing at ice level next Saturday and watching this tremendous honor bestowed upon you.”

Tonelli had a frosty relationship with the Islanders after he was traded to Calgary on March 11, 1986. It began to thaw the last few years after Malkin and Ledecky took over control as majority owners and began actively honoring former players. It’s part of the buildup to the team’s planned move to a new arena at Belmont Park for the 2021-22 season.

“Jon and Scott, thanks for bringing me back home,” Tonelli said. “This barn is the place where I came prepared to play the game with the responsibility to play it hard for my family, my teammates, my coaches, the training staff and most of all my extended family – all of you, the fans.”

Tonelli said he had “trust” in general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, and thanked the current Islanders – all of whom watched the ceremony wearing No. 27 Tonelli jerseys on the bench – for “the pride you bring to us alumni.”

He also singled out team captain Anders Lee, who currently wears the number that was retired for Tonelli.

“I am so proud and so honored you will continue to wear our No. 27,” Tonelli said. “I also look forward to the day we can share it all the way to the top of the rafters.”

How Al Michaels ended up calling the ‘Miracle on Ice’

Getty Images
4 Comments

Hockey was not alien to Al Michaels before he became ABC Sports’ hockey announcer for the 1980 Olympic Games. Growing up in Brooklyn, he would attend New York Rovers and later New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden. He knew the game, that was no question.

But Michaels’ resume of calling hockey prior to Lake Placid consisted of one single game: USSR vs. Czechoslovakia at the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. The Soviets would win 5-2 for their third of what would be four straight Olympic gold medals.

When Michaels was preparing to cover the ’80 Olympics, he wasn’t sure what his assignment would be. ABC had an announcing roster highlighted by Keith Jackson, Jim McKay, and Howard Cosell and covering Eric Heiden’s quest for five speed skating golds was a coveted gig.

Michaels’ one game of experience was enough for ABC Sports head Roone Arledge to put him on hockey.

“I was pretty happy about it because among other things, when you’re doing a Winter Olympic sport, you want to be inside,” Michaels said on a conference call with reporters this week. “So I was staying nice and toasty and warm, and of course as it progressed, there was never any opportunity for anybody else to come in and do those games, because again, at that point, by the time the Soviet game had taken place, I had done six games, and none of those guys had done any still. 

“So I was fairly confident we would roll down to the end of the tournament and away we went. But you talk about getting fortunate. As I tell people to this day, there were not a lot of miracles on the biathlon course. I could have been assigned to that. So it all worked out.”

Miracle on Ice celebration Al Michaels
Getty Images

No time to script the final call

It all worked out and resulted in one of the biggest upsets and most legendary calls in sports history. The Soviets pressed as the U.S. led 4-3, leaving Michaels unable to script a final call.

“To think about what would be said at the end of the game or how it would be said never could enter my mind as the Soviets are putting pressure on,” he recalled. “I’ve got to call it, I’ve got to call it pass by pass, shot by shot.

“And then just serendipitous that with six or seven seconds to go, the puck comes out to center ice, and now the game is going to be over. The Soviets have no time to mount a last rush. The puck is in the neutral zone. And the word that popped into my head was miraculous. That’s just the word that popped in, and it got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went.

“But all I’m trying to do at that point is call the game, don’t blow a call. But the Soviets could have tied the game. How insane would that have sounded if I would have said that as the Soviets tie the game with one second to go? 

“It was from my heart. It had nothing to do with what it meant to the country or anything beyond sports, but as somebody who’s loved sports since I was five years old, this was an upset. This was a gigantic, gigantic upset, and so that’s why the word miraculous came into my brain, and I said what I said. But that had everything to do with what an incredible moment this is, and not something that I ever thought would live in posterity, because remember in those years, too, nobody had a home video machine, videotape machine, so this is not something you think lives forever.”

(Even 40 years later, the ties to the home of the “Miracle on Ice” continue for Michaels. His 13-year-old grandson plays travel hockey in Southern California and his team won an October tournament in Lake Placid.)

The better line, according to Eruzione

The American public didn’t hear Michaels’ call live because the game was on tape-delay and aired in primetime. Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal, didn’t hear the legendary line until weeks later. After “Miracle” game, the rest of the team watched it on television as he and goaltender Jim Craig did interviews.

While “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” lives on, it’s a different line from the Finland game that’s stuck with Eruzione.

“You know, I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said. “I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland, because it was an impossible dream, and I’m not talking about the Red Sox. I’m talking about this was a dream that we had as players to go to the Olympic Games and win a medal, let alone have a chance to win the gold medal.

“Everybody gets caught up in ‘Do you believe in miracles? Yes,’ but I thought ‘This impossible dream comes true’ was even greater, and Al and I have played some golf together in some celebrity events, and we’re talking down the fairway and we always hear it, ‘Hey, Mike, hey, Al, do you believe in miracles? Yes.’ I walk through an airport and somebody will say, ‘Hey, Mike Eruzione, do you believe in miracles?’

“So it’s the catch line that everybody talks about, and it was spectacular, and that’s why Al is such a great commentator. He captured the moment and what it was. But I still think the second line after Finland kind of got lost in the shuffle because I thought that was spectacular as well.”

————

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.