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.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi making late push up draft boards

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Throughout the season, many draft experts mentioned that the top end prospects available in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft were wingers and defensemen. Teams looking for a center were out of luck. But that opinion seems to have shifted in the final few days leading up to the event.

That’s where Jesperi Kotkaniemi comes into play.

The 17-year-old was always going to be a first round draft pick, but his performance in the Finnish first division with Assat Pori (10 goals, 29 points in 57 games) as a teenager is pretty impressive.

Another reason why Kotkaniemi is getting so much positive press late in this process, is because he was one of the standout-players on Finland’s team that won gold at the under-18 World Junior Hockey Championship. He had three goals and six assists in seven tournament games.

“Here’s a guy who has been playing the whole season with men and against men and has played extremely well,” NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb said, per NHL.com. “He has improved his skating. His skating was always OK, but he’s improved and this is a guy with a guy with a very special understanding of the game. He makes very intelligent decisions on the ice. He can shoot, pass, score and is a very nice young man too.”

The fact that the Montreal Canadiens own the third overall pick in this week’s NHL Entry Draft has also helped connect the dots between Kotkaniemi and a top-three selection. You see, the Canadiens have been lacking a true number one center for decades. They remain thin down the middle to this day.

The Habs took Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, so that added a bit of depth in the pipeline at that position. Adding Kotkaniemi to the mix would arguably turn the center position into a strength when it comes to prospect depth. Every team that wins the Stanley Cup seems to have quality down the middle. Montreal needs to develop a franchise player there if they’re going to be competitive again.

“I think Kotkaniemi is the best center of the draft, I think he’s superb, I think he has a game reminiscent in style to (Los Angeles Kings center) Anze Kopitar,” former NHL GM and TSN’s Craig Button said. “I don’t know where you get (centers) if you don’t draft them. (Montreal Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin has been looking for a center, he’s trying to take wingers and making them centers or take third line centers and make them first line centers. So now you have a guy sitting right there and maybe you can use the third pick to take him at No. 3.”

If Kotkaniemi ends up being one of the biggest risers on Friday night, it’ll be interesting to see what that means for Halifax winger Filip Zadina, who is still in play for the Canadiens at third overall.

For a while, Zadina was considered as the favorite to be selected third after Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, but all this chatter about Kotkaniemi has taken some steam out of the Zadina hype train.

Even if the Canadiens opt to pass on Kotkaniemi, he could still end up going to Ottawa at four, Arizona at five or Detroit at six, which would be higher than most expected him to go.

But as we all know, it’s hard to trust anything anyone says about prospects and their stock at this time of year. Teams won’t be honest and the players won’t reveal their true thoughts about where they think they’ll end up, so all most of us have to lean on are Youtube clips and independent scouting services.

Ahhhh you’ve gotta love this time of year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Paralyzed Humboldt player’s family preparing for next phase

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AIRDRIE, Alberta (AP) — The parents of a paralyzed Humboldt Broncos hockey player are preparing for the next phase of his recovery – his return home.

Ryan Straschnitzki is undergoing physiotherapy at the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia after being paralyzed from the chest down in a crash between a semi-trailer and a bus carrying the junior hockey team at a rural Saskatchewan intersection in April.

The 19-year-old is expected to return home to Airdrie, just north of Calgary, in a matter of weeks.

His father, Tom Straschnitzki, says he’s already gone through six training programs on how to care for his son once he’s no longer under the constant watchful eye of medical personnel.

The programs include basics of day-to-day care, medication his son is taking and warning signs if something goes wrong.

”Because he can’t feel anything, if there’s a wrinkle, he’ll turn all red and his blood pressure will drop. We’ve got to figure out the signs and try and fix the problem,” Tom Straschnitzki said in an interview at his home with The Canadian Press.

”It’s scary. Hopefully we’ll know what to do and they’ve trained us pretty good.”

Tom Straschnitzki says the family home is about to be renovated to accommodate his son. An elevator is being installed, walls are being knocked down, doorways widened and bathrooms adapted. The reno could take up to six months and, during that time, they’ll need to find a new place to live.

”It’s daunting,” he said. ”It’s a lot of work, like building a brand new house.”

The basement where his son will be living is crammed with souvenirs he collected growing up and a lot more that have come in since the accident.

”That’s Connor McDavid‘s stick over there,” he said as he pointed to a corner in the basement. ”There’s boxes and boxes of letters and we ran out of room here so we put the rest in his room.”

Two books on the floor included ”99” by Wayne Gretzky and ”Against All Odds”, the untold story of Canada’s university hockey heroes.

A fundraiser to help with the family’s costs was scheduled for Saturday night at the Genesis Centre in Airdrie.

Cody Thompson, Ryan Straschnitzki’s former trainer and the event’s organizer, said it’s important the young man have access to treatment and resources.

”Any time you talk to anyone with a spinal cord injury, the first thing they will tell you is the younger you are, the more expensive it becomes, because of the longer time you will live with that injury,” he said.

”If you have the financial wherewithal, the likelihood of you coming out of this with more meaningful movement, mobility and strength to lead a normal life is exponentially higher (than) if you don’t have that ability.”

This time last year, Thompson said, Ryan was focused on playing with a junior A hockey team.

”Now he’s focused on gaining his ability to walk again and gaining full control over his body.”

Sixteen people died, including 10 players, and 13 others were injured as a result of bus crash.

PHT Morning Skate: How to create more offer sheets; Who will win Hart Trophy?

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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.

• Andrew Berkshire breaks down the Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi trade that the Canadiens and Coyotes made on Friday night. Their skillsets are different, but both players can become valuable contributors to their new teams. (Sportsnet)

• Also on Friday, the Bruins re-signed defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to a two-year contract extension. (Boston Globe)

• Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen struggled to produce at different times last season, but his advanced metrics show that he’s an incredibly useful player for his team. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Caps forward Devante Smith-Pelly is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but his goal is to re-sign with Washington. “On the ice and off the ice I feel like this is the best situation I’ve been in. Obviously, never know what’s going to happen but I found a place and I want to be back.” (NBC Sports Washington)

• Top 2018 draft prospect Quinn Hughes has been shaped by his relationship with his brother, Jack, who could be the top pick in the 2019 draft. (Sportsnet)

Taylor Hall, Anze Kopitar and Nathan MacKinnon are all up for the Hart Trophy this year, so the NHL.com staff debated who they thought should win the award. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Marlies came away with the AHL’s Calder Cup this year, so Pension Plan Puppets break down which players on the Marlies roster they think have a chance of cracking the NHL. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Offer sheets could be a fun way to make the NHL offseason even more fun, but general managers don’t seem to want to go that route very often. Sean McIndoe looks at how he would fix this broken system. (Sportsnet)

• If the 1998 NHL Entry Draft was to be done all over again, Vincent Lecavalier wouldn’t be the top selection. That honor would go to Pavel Datsyuk. (NHL.com)

• Lightning forward Ryan Callahan has been talked about as a buyout candidate, so Raw Charge looks at the difference between buying him out this summer vs. next summer. (Raw Charge)

• In the latest edition of his “Off-season Game Plan” series, TSN.ca’s Scott Cullen breaks down what the Capitals have to address during the upcoming offseason. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL Entry Draft gives struggling teams a chance to turn their fortunes around in the future. Toronto Sun writer Micheal Traikos writes about the potential for turnaround and he answers some of the hot topics surrounding this year’s draft. Will the Sens make a trade or two on Friday night? (Toronto Sun)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Domi’s passing skills impress Habs’ Gallagher

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If you want to paint the grimmest picture for the Montreal Canadiens’ side of Friday’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, consider goal stats for Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk.

It’s been noted that Galchenyuk scored almost as many goals in one season (30 in 82 games during the 2015-16 campaign) as Max Domi has during his entire NHL career (36 in 222 games). Brutal, right?

Yes, but it probably oversells the gap between the two as overall players, even if Galchenyuk has undoubtedly enjoyed the superior career.

For one thing, Domi’s enjoyed his moments. He scored 18 goals during his impressive rookie season, the only year he’s enjoyed a respectable shooting percentage (11.5 percent).

As you zoom out, the comparison gets less lopsided. Glance at overall points and things get closer. Domi’s generated 135 points over his 222-game career, good for an average of .60 points per contest. Galchenyuk, meanwhile, comes in at .61 (255 points in 418 games). So, if those averages stood during an 82-game season, Galchenyuk would score 50 points while Domi would generate … a fraction less than 50 points.

Now, you can counter those observations by fairly noting that goals come at higher premium than assists. Again, it’s clear that so far, Galchenyuk’s been more dynamic.

But that’s not the point. Instead, one should realize that Domi is a superior threat as a passer, not a shooter. (Galchenyuk, meanwhile, can be a deadly sniper.)

Domi’s teammates seem to notice that distinction, especially Brendan Gallagher, who won gold with him at the 2016 World Championship.

“He plays extremely hard, he competes hard, but he’s a pass-first kind of guy. It was shocking at times, the way he sees the game,” Gallagher said to Dan Braverman of the Canadiens website. “If you’re out on the ice with him, you have to be ready to shoot the puck, because he’s looking to feed his linemates, which is always nice to play with.”

In a fascinating breakdown for Sportsnet, Andrew Berkshire points out that playmaking has been an issue for the Canadiens for quite some time, even with the addition of a creator like Jonathan Drouin. Berkshire wonders if Domi (who Berkshire deems a “borderline elite playmaker”) could make a big difference in that regard.

Domi spent a huge chunk of last season playing on a line with Christian Dvorak, and he shot 9.9 per cent after scoring on 17 per cent of his shots last season, so his presence doesn’t guarantee anything, but the playmaking ability Domi displays is absolutely something the Canadiens are trying to address here, and I think they’re banking on adding that playmaking ability to a group of shooting forwards making a bigger impact on team goals than Galchenyuk’s style of play would.

Again, this isn’t to say that Domi is more valuable than Galchenyuk. (Berkshire ultimately describes Galchenyuk as “the better, more talented, more dynamic player,” for example.)

Instead, it’s merely important to recognize that this might not be as egregious as the Shea WeberP.K. Subban trade.

Interestingly, it’s easy to imagine both Galchenyuk and Domi enjoying improved results in 2018-19, at least if healthy. Domi might not be much of a goal threat, but it’s tough to imagine him suffering through another six shooting percentage. Galchenyuk fell off his typical goal pace thanks in part to an 8.9 shooting percentage in 2017-18 (versus 16.3 percent in 2016-17 and 12.4 for his career).

There’s also the matter of Domi’s cap hit ($3.15 million) coming in cheaper than that of Alex Galchenyuk ($4.9M), but you can dive deeper into those aspects here.

Does this mean that the Canadiens won the trade? Right now, the answer seems to be “No.”

The point is that this might not be remembered as the sort of head-shaking disaster that the Subban – Weber trade ended up being and the Mikhail Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin swap looks like after the first year.

That said, it’s still worth giving Marc Bergevin a hard time about, because “maybe not as bad as it looks” isn’t the ideal peak for a GM’s recent trades.

More on the Domi – Galchenyuk trade

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.