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: Patrik Laine ends 15-game goal drought

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Three Stars

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine entered Friday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights stuck in one of the worst slumps of his young career. He had not scored a goal in 15 consecutive games and recorded just four assists during that stretch. Consider the slump now over. He scored a pair of goals for the Jets in their 6-3 win over the Golden Knights to reclaim the top spot, for now, in the Central Division by jumping back ahead of the Nashville Predators. The Jets still have two games in hand as well. Even with Laine’s goal drought he still has 27 goals in 61 games, which is still a 36-goal pace over 82 games. Just shows how good he is when he is at his best that he can go 15 games in a row without scoring a goal and still have a good chance to score more than 35 goals in a season. He was not the only Jets player to snap goal drought on Friday. Adam Lowry also scored to snap what had been a 17-game goal slump, and they ended their droughts by scoring just 27 seconds apart.

2. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche picked up two huge points and won for the fourth time in their past five games by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night. J.T. Compher was one of the stars of the night for Avalanche and was one of two players (Carl Soderberg being the other) to score a pair of goals. Compher’s second goal was the big one as it went in the books as the game-winner with just under six minutes to play in regulation, giving the Avalanche their third win in a row and fourth win in the past five games.

3. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames increased their lead in the Pacific Division to three points over the San Jose Sharks thanks to a 2-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Defender T.J. Brodie played a pretty big role in the win by contributing to both goals, scoring one and assisting on the game-winner.

Highlights of the Night

The save of the night belongs to Minnesota Wild forward (Yes! Forward!) Mikael Granlund for stepping up in net after this turnover by Devan Dubnyk. It helped lead to a huge win for the Wild in the Western Conference Wild Card race.

In more traditional saves, this stop by Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller was also pretty impressive.

Matt Duchene did not record a point in his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets but he did play extremely well in their 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. He also received a video tribute and a standing ovation from Senators fans. His time with the team may not have gone as planned on a team level, but he was still very good in parts of two seasons with the team.

Factoids

  • Sergei Bobrovsky recorded the shutout for the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, giving him 16 since the start of the 2016-17 season, tying him for the most in the NHL during that stretch with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. [NHL PR]
  • It came in a losing effort but Patrick Kane extended his point streak to 20 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, making him the seventh player in NHL history to have multiple 20-game point streaks. [NHL PR]
  • Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice won his 685th regular season game on Friday night and moved into sole possession of eighth place on the NHL’s all-time coaching wins list. [NHL PR]
  • Carl Soderberg of the Colorado Avalanche became the ninth player in NHL history to record his first 20-goal season after their 33rd birthday. [NHL PR]
  • Speaking of which, this is the first time since the 2006-07 season that the Colorado Avalanche have had at least four 20-goal scorers in a single season. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the other three this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Ottawa Senators 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Minnesota Wild 3, Detroit Red Wings 2

Calgary Flames 2, Anaheim Ducks 1

Winnipeg Jets 6, Vegas Golden Knights 3

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.

Tough night for Blackhawks in playoff race

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Even though the Western Conference Wild Card race is a jumbled mess where nobody seems determined to want to secure the two spots, and even though the Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the past month, they still have very little margin for error the rest of the way.

That is the punishment for a terrible start to the season and the challenge that is trying to gain all of that ground back in the second half. No matter how well you play in the second half, a bad first half can make it all irrelevant.

That is why Friday was such a tough night for the Blackhawks.

First, they had a head-to-head meeting with the Colorado Avalanche, one of the teams they are in direct competition with for a playoff spot in your classic four-point game in the standings. A regulation win either way would be massive for whatever team ended up getting it, and in this case it turned out to be the Avalanche who came away with a 5-3 win in what was a back-and-forth game.

J.T. Compher‘s goal with just under six minutes to play went in the books as the game-winner for the Avalanche while Carl Soderberg put the game away with his second goal of the game (and 21st of the season) with an empty net goal while the Avalanche were killing off a 6-on-4 disadvantage in the final minutes of regulation.

That leaves now leaves the Avalanche two points ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings while Colorado still has a game in hand.

As if that was not bad enough for the Blackhawks, while they were losing to Colorado the Minnesota Wild were picking two important points against the Detroit Red Wings to move back into the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, sitting one point ahead of the Avalanche and three points ahead of the Blackhawks.

With all of that in the books on Friday night, here are where things stand for the Blackhawks…

They are obviously not out of it by any means because, well, you can see standings and what the current field looks like, but that is not an ideal spot to be in.

The Blackhawks have done well to try and salvage their season and get back into the race, thanks in large part to an incredible run by Patrick Kane (who extended his point streak to 20 games on Friday) and some great play by Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome (all of whom also contributed to the offense on Friday), but there are a lot of signs that it is not really a sustainable run and that this team still has a lot of holes.

Elsewhere in this race, this was a huge night for the Avalanche who have now won three in a row and four out of their past five. Their season started to spiral away from them after a white-hot start and it is a near miracle they are still this close to a playoff spot considering they only went 8-17-6 between Dec. 1 and Feb. 12.

The Wild, meanwhile, have lost their captain Mikko Koivu to injury for the rest of the season, have made two trades involving veteran players that have almost certainly made them worse in the short-term, and have only won three of their past 12 games and are still currently in a playoff position.

The Western Conference Wild Card race, folks. It is … something.

Related: Blackhawks are back in playoff race, but are they a serious threat?

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.

Strong debut for Duchene as Blue Jackets dominate Senators

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On Friday morning Matt Duchene took a short walk down the hall from the home locker room in Ottawa, leaving behind the remnants of the Senators roster, and joined his new team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the visiting locker room to prepare to be in the lineup later in the day.

For the Blue Jackets, it was a sign that they are trying to push all of their chips to the center of the table and attempt to go all in with what they have this season, perhaps trying to take advantage of what little time they have left with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky before they hit unrestricted free agency this summer.

For the Senators, it was a continuation of their scorched earth rebuild that is only likely to continue in the coming days with the inevitable trades of Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel.

On Friday night, both teams played as one might expect given all of the circumstances as the Blue Jackets rolled to a 3-0 win and, for the time being, returned back to a playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

It was not really a competitive game, either, as the Blue Jackets doubled up the Senators on the shot chart, scored a shorthanded goal, and just completely dominated a young, overmatched lineup.

The Senators, who have already scratched Stone and Dzingel for precautionary reasons in an effort to protect their most valuable trade assets, have been stripped of almost all of their most dangerous offensive weapons over the past year and are a shell of the team that was in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final not even two full years ago. The result in the short-term has been a skeleton roster that has been shutout twice over the past 24 hours and has been outscored by a 7-0 margin during those two games.

Overall it was a successful debut for Duchene with his new team, even if it did not result in him recording a point on the stat sheet.

He spent the night playing on the team’s top line alongside Panarin and Cam Atkinson, while his 19:12 of ice-time was third among Blue Jackets’ forwards. He recorded five total shot attempts, three of which were on goal, while Blue Jackets also held a commanding 16-8 shot attempt advantage and a 12-4 scoring chance advantage when Duchene was on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

Next up for the Blue Jackets will be Duchene’s home debut on Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks. He seems ready for what is ahead of him, telling Brian Hedger of the Columbus-Dispatch on Friday that the Cannon used to celebrate Blue Jackets’ goals “scares the sh*t out of me every time.”

Related: Blue Jackets power up for playoffs by adding Matt Duchene

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.

Penguins ready to enjoy Stadium Series, but focus is on two points

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

PHILADELPHIA — For a number of the Penguins, they can claim “outdoor game veteran” status. Twelve of them have played in at least one Winter Classic or Stadium Series game, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way with four experiences outside.

But Saturday’s Stadium Series meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers will be a business trip for the Penguins, as is most outdoor games for the road team. There are fewer family members around and not as big of a demand for tickets as it was two years ago when these teams played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. 

The Penguins’ can’t be too concerned with the pomp and circumstance that comes with being involved in an outdoor game. There are two big points on the line as they find themselves tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets on 71 points and relegated to the second Eastern Conference wild card spot due to a tiebreaker.

“We have to approach it the same way we approach every game right now,” said defenseman Kris Letang, who’s played in two outdoor games. “We have 21 games left. Every one of them are really important.”

“This team especially, they’ve had plenty of big games in their time,” said forward Nick Bjugstad, who will be an outdoor game first-timer on Saturday. “You can’t just really look at it as such a big spectacle. Obviously, enjoy the moment, enjoy being lucky enough to be able to play an outdoor game in front of all these people, but at the same time it’s just the same mentality of every game, and the same focus that you should approach. The adrenaline will be going pretty good with all these fans, especially in Philly. I’m sure they’ll be nice and rowdy for us. It’ll be pretty fun.”

After a 4-0 trouncing by the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at home, the Penguins are eager to get back out there and erase the memory of that defeat. The loss put them at 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and flirting with the notion of a playoff-less spring for the first time since the 2005-06 season, Crosby’s rookie year.

The Penguins are aware of their current situation in the standings and head coach Mike Sullivan sees it as an opportunity for his team to embrace. The players certainly understand every game is a chance to clean up the finer details, which could help them in the consistency department going forward.

“We just have to find ourselves. Last game was not our best and we all know it,” said Patric Hornqvist. “I think this is a great opportunity for us to actually have some fun and embrace this atmosphere. [If we] make sure we do the little things right we’re going to come out on the right side.”

MORE 2019 STADIUM SERIES:
Why Scott Gordon chose Elliott over Hart for Stadium Series start
Rain could be an issue for Penguins-Flyers Stadium Series game
Scott Hartnell Q&A

Six-time Emmy Award-winner Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on-site in Philadelphia alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, and Jeremy Roenick.

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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.