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.

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Canucks reportedly give GM Jim Benning an extension

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If the Minnesota Wild – Paul Fenton fiasco reminds us of anything, it’s that as bad as a GM can be, a struggling NHL franchise usually comes down to more than one person flubbing major decisions.

That thought comes back to the forefront with Friday’s report from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that the Vancouver Canucks handed a contract extension to frequently (and usually justifiably) ridiculed GM Jim Benning. Rick Dhaliwal, also of Sportsnet, reports that the extension is believed to be for three years.

It’s important to note that, curiously, the Canucks have not officially announced that extension for Benning just yet. Some wonder if maybe the franchise realizes this sort of move isn’t something that will receive, um, unanimous support from Canucks fans, media, and other onlookers.

If there’s one silver lining even for Benning haters, it’s that Benning is no longer a “lame duck” GM, as he was slated to go into 2019-20 in the final year of his contract.

That’s relevant because a GM without job security can be a dangerous thing. Rather than focusing on the long-term future, an especially flawed GM might instead just focus on immediate returns, with a “that won’t be my problem anyway” attitude about drawbacks down the line. Such a prospect would absolutely be terrifying with Benning.

Unfortunately, Benning’s already running the team in that way, anyway.

Rather than taking a sober approach that the Canucks are better off with a steady rebuild, Vancouver’s instead taken one positive (Benning’s drafting netting them blue chippers in Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, etc.) and tried to accelerate to a level of contention by making highly questionable win-now moves.

The worst contracts really sting. Years after making a terrible $6M bet on Loui Eriksson, Benning showed how much he learned by making a terrible $6M bet on Tyler Myers. At best, spending $6M combined on Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel would be something a contender would do in hopes of getting over the top. Vancouver making that decision reeked of a delusional front office.

J.T. Miller‘s a fine player, but giving up a first-round pick for him is, again, something an obvious contender would do, not a team that could very well still miss the playoffs by a mile. As a true Benning trademark, it’s also a dubious value proposition, as the Lightning were looking to shed salary, yet they got Miller’s money off the books and got a first-round pick for their troubles.

(Conditions of that pick mean it is a 2021 first-rounder if Vancouver missed the playoffs in 2019-20, but who’s to say they won’t miss it in both of the next two seasons?)

Not every Benning signing or trade acquisition is a huge blunder, but the mistakes really pile up, and even more defensible ones (Micheal Ferland, keeping Alexander Edler) would make more sense if Vancouver’s contending chances weren’t so iffy.

All of these mistakes really start to stack up, to the point that they nullify Benning’s rare strokes of genius. Yes, he’s made some fantastic moves in the draft, but the Canucks aren’t in a great position to fully take advantage of strong players on entry-level contracts because of all of the bloated salaries around them.

That can be seen most clearly in the case of Brock Boeser still needing a deal as an RFA. The Canucks are, somehow, cap-challenged, with a bit more than $5M in room, according to Cap Friendly. That’s … honestly pretty inexcusable, and it all revolves around an inflated viewpoint of what this team is truly capable of at this time.

And this reported extension argues that it’s not just Jim Benning who has a faulty view of what the Canucks are capable of.

The Canucks haven’t spent their money very wisely lately, and they’ve missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. There are some reasons for longer-term optimism, but this remains a flawed roster, with contracts that could box Vancouver into a corner.

You would think the Canucks wouldn’t be thrilled to sign up for more of that, but clearly the Canucks think differently. Time will tell if they end up being right, but the early returns aren’t very promising — at least when it isn’t draft weekend.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Will Laviolette bring out best of Predators?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

In the grand scheme of things, I’d rate Peter Laviolette as a very good coach, if not a great one.

Even so, there have been times when the Predators haven’t felt optimized, and that inspires some questions about whether swapping out P.K. Subban for Matt Duchene will take this team to the next level. Here are a few areas where Laviolette’s coaching style and decisions become a big x-factor.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

Integrating the new guy: Nashville has experienced mixed results from David Poile’s many big trades.

Kyle Turris is facing a legit crisis of confidence. Mikael Granlund really didn’t move the needle, Wayne Simmonds barely produced any offense as a rental, and Nick Bonino‘s been a meh addition at best. Blaming Laviolette isn’t totally fair, but he must work to make sure that Duchene is placed in the best possible situation to succeed.

That might require some experimentation.

Would the Predators be better off with Duchene on a top line with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, or should Ryan Johansen remain between them? Should they try to find two different duos from those four? Might Duchene be better off as a winger with less offensive responsibility? Laviolette must find the right answers.

Rehabbing: It’s almost as important to get more out of Turris and Granlund.

Can Laviolette convince Turris to put struggles behind him? Don’t underestimate the power of a clean slate … unless Turris is simply done as an effective top-six or even top-nine forward.

Is Granlund better off as a center or wing, and where should he slot in the lineup? Nashville still needs to solve that riddle.

Powering up: The Predators’ power play was absolutely miserable last season, and while the team hired someone new to run the power play, it’s hard not to put some blame on Laviolette, too.

Their excessive reliance on point shots and far-too-defensemen-heavy focus was easy for even a layman to see, so why did Laviolette stand idly by? Did he learn from those issues, and if he didn’t, can his new PP coach Dan Lambert make up the difference?

Perhaps the Duchene – Subban roster swap will fix some of the problems for the Predators, as there should be an organic push to go for what works more (four forwards and one defenseman, forwards taking more shots) than before, when Nashville might have been trying to placate both Subban and Roman Josi. That said, as skilled as Josi is, if he’s still too much of a focal point on the power play, then the results may remain middling. With Subban out of town, Nashville may see a step back at even-strength, too, making better man advantage work that much more crucial.

Handling the goalies: On paper, Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros rank as one of the most reliable duos in the almost inherently unreliable goaltending position.

But there are still ways a coach can mess this up. Making the right calls regarding when to play Rinne or Saros – depending upon rest and possible playoff meltdowns – could very well decide a close series, or even a playoff push if things are bumpy at times in 2019-20.

Eeli’s struggling: Eeli Tolvanen is far from the only frustrating prospect, but it feels like the risks are increasing that he’s going to fall into the Jesse Puljujarvi Zone of Prospect Dread. Why not give him a little more room to breathe and see if Tolvanen can keep his head above water enough at five-on-five that his deadly release could be another weapon for Nashville’s offense?

It won’t be easy to ace all of those tests, but Laviolette’s proficiency is a huge X-factor as the Predators hope to compete for a Stanley Cup.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Duchene under pressure to make Predators Stanley Cup contenders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators. 

Few players enter the 2019-20 season with more to prove than Matt Duchene.

He’d be under pressure for his fat new contract in any context. Frankly, there’s plenty of room for debate that Duchene will be worth his $8 million cap hit next season, let alone as the 28-year-old ages out of his prime, since the hefty deal runs through 2025-26. His two-way flaws have been there for a while, but don’t be surprised if they’re discussed more regularly now that he’s making bigger bucks.

Things could get even dicier if P.K. Subban knocks it out of the park in New Jersey, too.

Sure, the Predators didn’t technically trade Subban for Duchene directly, as the former was moved while the latter was signed by free agency, but even GM David Poile admitted that this was functionally a trade, as The Tennessean reported.

“Let’s call it like it is,” Poile said. “If we don’t make the Subban trade and get rid of his money, it’s going to be much more difficult to get into the Duchene sweepstakes. … It took the pressure off. So Subban for Duchene sounds like a reasonable way to say it.”

And Duchene is no stranger to people being unreasonable when they’re grading a trade.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

It might be difficult to believe, but for a while there, a big reaction to the first Duchene trade was that Kyle Turris was outplaying Duchene. Things soured to the point that Duchene grew tired of the comparisons, and the narrative took quite a while to shift. By the time Duchene showed he was far and away the superior player, people basically just moved on.

Fair or not, the story shifted to Duchene failing to be the upgrade the Ottawa Senators hoped he would be, and there are uncomfortable parallels between Senators GM Pierre Dorion long coveting Duchene, and Predators GM Poile having the same long-time interest.

Could it be that teams have been overrating Duchene for all this time, right down to the Blue Jackets making the questionable decision to basically sell their 2019 NHL Draft to rent Duchene and Ryan Dzingel?

In a fairer world, most of the ridicule would go to the GMs. We don’t live in a world of nuance, though, which means players like Duchene catch most of the heat, even if they’re producing at about the level they always have.

It doesn’t help that team-wide failures have followed Duchene to a tragically comical extent, and his teams have only made the playoffs three times during his 11-season NHL career, with Duchene generating 16 points in just 18 playoff games.

Memorably, Duchene was traded out of a miserable Avalanche situation, only to see that Colorado team burst into the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Senators … well, ended up becoming even more miserable than the Duchene-era Avs were. Heck, the Blue Jackets almost missed the playoffs despite going all-in, too.

Maybe most awkwardly, Duchene could perform at the level any reasonable person would expect, and still receive merciless mockery.

Duchene carrying an $8M cap hit and $10M salary sets the stage for sticker shock because, as speedy and skilled as he is, he’s always been average at-best from a two-way standpoint.

It’s fair to question if he can be a 70-point player with consistency. He’s hit that mark before, including last season, yet he scored 59 points or less from 2014-15 through 2017-18, including languishing with just 41 points in 77 games in 2016-17.

If Duchene settles into a 25-goal, 60-65 point range while Subban reclaims his Norris form (he was a finalist as recently as 2017-18), and the Predators struggle to get to the next level, are people going to be fair to Duchene? Probably not.

This is arguably the first time that Duchene’s truly chosen where he wants to play, and he’s been linked to the Predators for years. Considering the pressure Duchene is under, this could end up being a “be careful what you wish for” situation.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.