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.

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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 on NBCSN: Will Blashill be part of Red Wings’ future?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When you start the season with one win in your opening 10 games and you’re Jeff Blashill, your seat will be quite warm. Blashill’s future with the Detroit Red Wings was already in jeopardy, even going back to the end of the last season, but since that slow start they’ve won 13 of their last 21 games and taken points in 15 of them. That run has put them three points out of a wild card spot in a jumbled Eastern Conference.

With the way the Red Wings have played and the way some of their younger players like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Dennis Cholowski, Tyler Bertuzzi, and a pre-injury Anthony Mantha have taken strides forward through 31 games, the hot seat talk around Blashill has quieted for now. But as he coaches in the final year of his current contract, who’s behind the Detroit bench in 2019-20 still remains a big question.

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Blashill wanted his team to be “miserable” to play against on a nightly basis, hence the “sixty minutes of hell” t-shirts that the players have worn this season. The Red Wings have 10 fighting majors so far, so there’s a definite toughness bred into the current roster. They’re getting balanced scored up front, a healthy Mike Green (3 goals, 16 points) is producing like the old Mike Green, and Jimmy Howard is upping his trade value (.936 even strength save percentage) with every start.

Those are all encouraging signs for a franchise in a transition phase. The playoffs may not be the end game this season, but when you consider the Red Wings’ current state, seeing those young pieces develop shows there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There are still decisions to make which could affect the “re-tooling” of the roster. Nyquist, Howard, Niklas Kronwall, and Thomas Vanek can all become unrestricted free agents this summer. They would certainly be able to bring in assets that general manager Ken Holland can use for the future if some of them waive their no-trade/movement clauses. But those are decisions that can be made closer to the February trade deadline barring some complete drop-off.

How this season ends for the Red Wings will ultimately determine Blashill’s fate. Should Holland feel the need to make a change, it could be an easy search for a successor with Dan Bylsma already there as an assistant — an assistant that Blashill wanted after they worked together at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

For now, the progress is there under Blashill, and what once was a hot seat has now cooled considerably.

John Walton (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Unique pucks for Winter Classic; Caps’ Cup beer

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• There will be some unique pucks used during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. ET, NBC) when the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. The biscuits used during the game and other NHL “tentpole events” this season will feaure thermochromic coatings that will change from purple to clear to indicate the puck’s temperature is above freezing, telling the officials it should be replaced. [NHL.com]

• Pierre Dorion is in unique territory trying to sign two star players — Matt Duchene and Mark Stone — to eight-year extensions. [TSN]

• Would the Philadelphia Flyers take a run to bring Sergei Bobrovsky back to town? [NBC Philadelphia]

• A Baltimore brewery is coming out with the perfect beer in honor of the Washington Capitals. Fans will soon be able to enjoy some Cup Stand Pilsner. [RMNB]

• Which Pittsburgh Penguins defense pairings are working and which ones need to change? [Pensburgh]

• The time is right for more people of color to get the call from U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. [Color of Hockey]

• Has anyone not named Rantanen, Landeskog or MacKinnon picked up the pace in production this season for the Colorado Avalanche? [Mile High Hockey]

• Carter Hutton should be back in net for the Buffalo Sabres this week after missing Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• Apparently it’s not too early for headlines like this: “Pettersson building early case as greatest Canuck in team history” [Sportsnet]

• “This fragile style of play is a contagion infecting everyone on this team and needs to be cured immediately.   The first step of the cure has been accomplished:  identification of the problem.  Now for the hard part the treatment, is Coach Berube part of that cure?” [Bleedin’ Blue]

• Why the NHL Department of Player Safety needs some fixing. [TXHT Hockey]

• We’re in the midst of a pretty enjoyable NHL scoring boom. [Featurd]

• Josh Ho-Sang is back up with the New York Islanders, but Barry Trotz says he feels “zero pressure” to insert him into the lineup. [Islanders Insight]

• Things look bleak now, but with the way that Adam Boqvist is playing for the OHL’s London Knights there’s some hope down the line for the Chicago Blackhawks. [NBC Chicago]

• Calgary Flames defenseman Oliver Kylington is showing he’s here to stay in the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Finally, if you missed it over the weekend, one week after Eeli Tolvanen scored his first NHL goal for the Nashville Predators, his brother Atte became the 11th goalie in NCAA history to score:

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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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos gets 700th point with hat trick; Howard sensational in win

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos eclipsed the 700-point milestone in style on Monday as he scored a hat trick in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers — the ninth of his career and first since 2014.

Stamkos has 701 points now in 696 games (363 goals and 338 assists). He’s the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the 700-point plateau and third in franchise history to do so after Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

2. Jimmy Howard, Detroit Red Wings

Beating the Los Angeles Kings isn’t too tough a task these days, but the Kings didn’t lose this one quietly.

And a big reason why they picked up the ‘L’ was Howard, who made 42 saves. The Red Wings are lucky he did and are fortunate they were able to score on three of their 18 shots on goal.

Howard improved his record to 10-6-4 with a .923 save percentage — the latter which ranks in the top 10 among starters.

3. Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks

Meier scored twice on Monday in a 5-2 win for the Sharks against the New Jersey Devils.

Meier now has 16 goals on the season, just five back from his career high of 21 set last season. He’s also up to 30 points, which is six back of his career high of 36, which was also set last season. He had those 21 goals and 26 points in 81 games last season. He’s up to 16 goals and 30 points with 53 games to go.

He’s going to shatter last year’s numbers, it would seem.

Highlights of the night

Drew Doughty‘s ankles hurting after this one:

Stamkos’ hat trick, including one of the goals where he’s falling over and still manages to roof it:

Passing, it’s a good thing:

Factoids

Scores

Penguins 2, Islanders 1

Red Wings 3, Kings 1

Lightning 6, Rangers 3

Sharks 5, Devils 2


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

Isles’ Clutterbuck injured after punch from Pens’ Letang

MSG
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This is a weird one, so let’s start from the beginning.

With the Penguins on the power play, Evgeni Malkin‘s one-timer deflected off Leo Komarov‘s stick and into the head of Thomas Hickey.

There was a quick bit of confusion amongst players before the referee came in to stop the play to make sure Hickey, who had blood on his visor, was OK.

While that was happening, Cal Clutterbuck, who was shadowing Kris Letang at the blue line, apparently didn’t hear the whistle or was upset that Letang, correctly, stopped playing and decided to cross-check him in the arm.

Letang, displeased with the cross-check, returned the favor with a punch that caught Clutterbuck high, sending rhe latter crumbling to the ice.

Clutterbuck struggled to get back up before skating hunched over off the ice. He was called for cross-checking on the play while Letang received a roughing minor.

Clutterbuck did not return to the game.

Hickey, meanwhile, left the game for a brief time before returning.


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