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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Bo knows goals; Avalanche, Islanders take control

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  • Bo Horvat shines again as the Vancouver Canucks take a 2-0 series lead.
  • The Montreal Canadiens win big against the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • Cam Talbot shines for the Calgary Flames.

Colorado Avalanche 3, Arizona Coyotes 2 (Avalanche lead series 2-0)

It was not easy, but the Avalanche were able to get a 3-2 win over the Coyotes to take a 2-0 series lead in their First Round matchup. Andre Burakovsky scored the game-winning goal with just under three minutes to play in regulation to break a 2-2 tie. Nathan MacKinnon also scored a spectacular goal (see it below) to open the scoring in the first period that showed off his incredible gamebreaking speed. The Avalanche are now 4-0-1 in the return to play.

Montreal Canadiens 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0 (Series tied 1-1)

The Canadiens absolutely dominated the Flyers in their first game without head coach Claude Julien to tie their First Round series at one game each. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Tomas Tatar both scored two goals for Montreal, while Carey Price stopped all 30 shots he faced for his second shutout of the playoffs. The Canadiens angered Flyers coach Alain Vigneault by putting their top power play out on the ice late in a 5-0 game, but hey, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. No mercy here.

Vancouver Canucks 4, St. Louis Blues 3 (OT) (Canucks lead series 2-0)

The Canucks young stars shined again on Friday as they beat the defending Stanley Cup champions to take a stunning 2-0 lead in their First Round series. Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson were the driving forces behind the offense, with Horvat scoring a pair of goals including the game-winning goal in overtime. The Blues might be considering a goaltending change going into Game 3 of the series this weekend.

New York Islanders 5, Washington Capitals 2 (Islanders lead series 2-0)

Alex Ovechkin finally got on the board this postseason with a pair of goals, including one in the first minute of the game on the game’s first shift, but it was not enough for an otherwise lackluster Capitals offense. The Islanders shut them down for the second game in a row and took a commanding 2-0 series lead. The Islanders are in complete control of the series and have completely turned their season around from the way they were playing during the stretch run of the regular season. The Capitals are still trying to find that next level.

Calgary Flames 2, Dallas Stars 0 (Flames lead series 2-1)

There is nothing wrong with the way the Stars played in this game. They just happened to run into a white hot goalie in Cam Talbot that played out of his mind. Mikael Backlund and T.J. Brodie scored goals for the Flames while Talbot stopped 35 shots to record his second shutout of the postseason. The Flames were able to get this win without the services of star forward Matthew Tkachuk who did not play after being injured in Game 2 on Thursday night.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks. Another huge game for the Canucks’ captain as he scored two more goals. He already had six goals this postseason, including four in the first two games of their First Round series against the Blues. His two goals on Friday were highlight reel goals, scoring a ridiculous shorthanded goal to start the game and then getting the game-winner in overtime.

2. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. Goaltending was one of the big issues for the Flames a year ago, and it has turned into one of their biggest strengths this postseason thanks entirely to the play of Talbot. He was a wall on Friday night in stopping all 35 shots he faced to help steal Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars. Without him this game could have gone very, very differently.

3. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. The Max Pacioretty trade has become one of the rare win-win trades for both teams involved. The Golden Knights get an impact player. The Canadiens got an outstanding two-way veteran in Tatar and an outstanding young player to build around in Nick Suzuki. Both have been excellent at times this postseason, and on Friday it was Tatar’s turn to shine. He scored two goals in the Canadiens’ 5-0 win and was a huge part of their series-tying victory.

Highlights of the Night

Horvat’s first goal of the game was a highlight reel play as he flew through the Blues’ power play to score a shorthanded goal.

Nathan MacKinnon got things started early on for the Avalanche, showing off his speed to beat Darcy Kuemper for the game’s first goal.

Ovechkin scored two goals for the Capitals but it was not enough because of sequences like this from Brock Nelson and the Islanders.

Factoids

  • Horvat is the third different player in Canucks franchise history to score at least two goals in consecutive playoff games. [NHL PR]
  • The New York Islanders are 12-1 when they hold a 2-0 series lead in their franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Carey Price has seven career postseason shutouts, trailing only Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden (10 each) for most in Montreal Canadiens franchise history. [NHL PR]

Saturday Schedule

Game 3: Boston Bruins vs. Carolina Hurricanes, 12 p.m. ET, NBC (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Colorado Avalanche vs. Arizona Coyotes, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC (Avalanche lead series 2-0)
Game 3: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Columbus Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 8 p.m, ET, NBC (Golden Knights lead series 2-0)

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Talbot shuts out Stars as Flames take 2-1 series lead

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The Calgary Flames may not have had Matthew Tkachuk in the lineup for Game 3 of their First Round series against the Dallas Stars on Friday night, but they did have Cam Talbot.

Turns out, that was all they needed.

Talbot turned aside all 35 shots he faced to record a shutout in a 2-0 Flames win that gives them a 2-1 series leads.

Mikael Backlund‘s shorthanded goal goes in the books as the game-winner for the Flames, while T.J. Brodie added a late insurance marker on a booming slap shot. But even with those two goal scorers, Talbot was the star of this game for Calgary in what was a big bounceback performance for the starting goalie.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Talbot got the start in the Flames’ Game 2 loss on Thursday, surrendering five goals in what was probably his worst game of the postseason so far.

Despite that, Flames coach Geoff Ward decided to stick with his starter in the back-to-back situation (sometimes a risky call) and Talbot was more than up to the task by recording his second shutout of the playoffs (and the fourth of his career).

It continues what has been an outstanding performance for him in the NHL return to play. Outside of Game 2 on Thursday he has been one of the Flames’ most valuable players and has played his way into the (very) early Conn Smythe discussion.

It is not an exaggeration to say he was the single biggest difference maker on Friday.

Even though the Flames ended up getting the upper hand on the scoreboard, they were probably not the better team overall as the Stars carried the play for much of the night. Dallas held a pretty commanding territorial edge and seemed to get the best of the chances. But sometimes all you need to get a win in the playoffs is to have the better goalie, and that is what the Flames had on Friday.

They also should not apologize for it. This was a tough spot to be in playing a back-to-back without one of their best players. Maybe it was not their best overall effort, but if you are going to go on a deep run into the playoffs you sometimes need to find ways to steal games where you do not have your “A” game.

Tkachuk did not play for Calgary after being a game-time decision. He was injured on Thursday when he was hit by Jamie Benn and Jamie Oleksiak. There is no word on his status for Game 4 on Sunday.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Flames lead series 2-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Flames 2, Stars 0
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Islanders take 2-0 series lead as Capitals look flat again

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The New York Islanders look to be in complete control of their First Round matchup with the Washington Capitals following their 5-2 win in Game 2 on Friday night.

The win gives the Islanders a commanding 2-0 series lead, as they have completely shut down the Capitals’ offense through the first two games of the series.

For the second game in a row the Capitals scored first — Alex Ovechkin scored his first of the playoffs on the game’s first shift — but were unable to hold on. The Islanders received goals from five different players (Nick Leddy, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson, Cal Clutterbuck, and Anders Lee) and played their frustrating brand of defense that at times rendered the Capitals’ offense completely useless.

That was pretty much the story of this game.

Other than a great showing Ovechkin — two goals, a near-miss in the third period, and six total shots on goal — the Capitals’ offense looked like it was skating in mud all night. They struggled to get to dangerous scoring areas, they could not get any kind of a consistent push in the offensive zone, and when Ovechkin was not driving things there was nobody that even looked to be a threat to score.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Not having top center Nicklas Backstrom certainly hurt, and the other team on the ice absolutely has a role in the outcome, but the Capitals have not yet been able to find their game since the 2019-20 season resumed.

They won only one of their three Round-Robin games and so far have not scored more than two goals in any of the five postseason games they have played. It has been a carryover from the way they played during the stretch run of the regular season.

What has to be especially frustrating is that this is the second game in a row they started off with the lead only to allow the Islanders to later take over. In Game 1 they held a 2-0 lead until the final minute of the second period, only to watch Braden Holtby allow a soft goal and the Islanders pour in four unanswered goals for the win.

On Friday, they got the early goal from Ovechkin and allowed the Islanders to strike for two goals to take the lead. When Ovechkin tied the game in the second period, they allowed the Islanders to reclaim the lead just 15 seconds later when Jakub Vrana turned the puck over at the Islanders’ blue line, giving Nelson a clear breakaway.

For the Islanders this entire postseason remains a complete 180 turnaround from the team we saw at the end of the regular season. That team was a sinking ship trending in the wrong direction as they had lost 11 of 13 and seven in a row. Since the restart they have gone 5-1 and have put themselves in a great position to advance.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 2-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Islanders 5, Capitals 2
Sunday, Aug. 16: Washington at NY Islanders, 12 p.m. ET – USA Network
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.

Matthew Tkachuk out for Flames in Game 3

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Some bad injury news for the Calgary Flames going into Game 3 of their First Round playoff series against the Dallas Stars.

Matthew Tkachuk will not play on Friday night after being listed as a game-time decision earlier in the day.

He will be replaced on the second line by Tobias Rieder.

Tkachuk was injured early in the third period of Thursday’s game (a 5-4 Stars win) when he was sandwiched between Jamie Oleksiak and Jamie Benn. It was the third different time during the game that Tkachuk had to exit the game and go down the tunnel. That time, he did not return to the game.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There is no easy way to replace a player like Tkachuk. While he has the reputation for being a pest that always plays right on the line (and sometimes over it) to infuriate his opponents, he is also a legit first-line player and one of the Flames’ go-to offensive players.

He finished the regular season with 61 points (23 goals, 38 assists) in 68 games.

So far this postseason he has a goal and an assist for the Flames.

No. 3 Dallas Stars vs. No. 6 Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1)

Tuesday, Aug. 11: Flames 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 13: Stars 5, Flames 4 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Dallas at Calgary, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Dallas at Calgary, 2 p.m. ET – CNBC
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Calgary at Dallas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Dallas at Calgary – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Dallas at Calgary – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.