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.

Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been ejected from a game for spitting on a player from the Anaheim Ducks.

Hathaway spit on defenseman Erik Gudbranson during a brawl late in the second period Monday night with referee Peter MacDougall standing a few feet away. Officials reviewed video before confirming the five-minute match penalty that triggers a game misconduct.

Tempers flared during the first 40 minutes between Washington and Anaheim and boiled over with 33.4 seconds remaining in the second. Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic bulldozed the Ducks’ Derek Grant behind the net, sparking several fights between the teams’ fourth lines.

Hathaway was involved with Grant, Gudbranson and Nick Ritchie during the scrum before being thrown out.

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.