Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Kuznetsov climbs to the top

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For the second update in a row we have a new leader in the Conn Smythe race. This time it is Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov taking over the top spot with what has been, to this point, one of the most productive and impactful postseason runs we have seen in recent NHL memory.

He is not just recording points, he is taking over games.

Kuznetsov, of course, does not care about any of this right now because there is still a pretty big job to do before the award actually gets handed out to somebody. Following the Capitals’ Game 4 win on Monday night he was asked if he cared about winning the Conn Smythe and simply said “What’s that going to get you? Nothing, right?”

This does not mean that we can not talk about it.

To the rankings!

1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. His production has been insanely consistent for the Capitals this postseason with at least one point in 18 of the team’s 23 playoff games, including 13 of the past 14 games heading into Game 5 on Thursday night. The only game during that stretch where he did not record a point was the game where he only played four minutes before leaving with what seemed to be a pretty significant upper-body injury that seemingly put at least part of the series in doubt for him. Whatever it was, it was not significant enough to keep him out of the lineup for Games 3 and 4 where he combined for six points, including four in the Capitals’ 6-2 rout on Monday night.

His 31 total points are not only the most in the NHL this postseason, but also put him among the top-25 best performances in NHL history for a single playoff run. Considering the era he is playing in it is even more impressive. Among the players in the top-25 only four of them, including Kuznetsov, came after 1994: Evgeni Malkin had 36 in 2008-09, Sidney Crosby had 31 that same year, and Joe Sakic had 34 in 1995-96. Among players that have played in at least 20 playoff games in a single postseason his 1.17 point per game mark is tied for the 15th best all-time. The overall production does not even get into the big goals that he has scored along the way, including a series-clinching overtime goal in the second round and what proved to be a game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

It is not just the consistency or the “big moment goals” that is impressive. He has also had monster games where he has completely taken over. He already has four three-point games this postseason, including a pair of four-point games, two things that only a small handful of players have done in Stanley Cup Playoff history. Even though he did not actually score the game-winning goal in any of those games he still probably helped single-handedly created enough offense to get his team wins. In those four games he produced 14 of his 31 points this postseason, with 11 of them being primary points, meaning he either scored the goal or had the primary assist on another.

Why does that matter? Just consider that since the start of the 2000 postseason teams that have a player record at least three points in a playoff game win that game more than 90 percent of the time. When they have a player with a four-point game they win more than 93 percent of the time.

Game-winning goals. Driving the offense. Point totals that are nearly unmatched for this era. Dominating games. He is the definition of impactful.

[Related: Evgeny Kuznetsov’s impact on Capitals, Stanley Cup Final grows]

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. When I sat down to start writing this update I was prepared to keep Ovechkin in the top spot because, well, he has been absolutely phenomenal this postseason. But when I dug into the Kuznetsov performance a little more it was enough to change my mind. That does not take away from what Ovechkin is doing because right now, if the Capitals end up winning the Stanley Cup, it is probably a two-player race at the top. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are the two players.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. It is still somewhat baffling to look back at the start of these playoffs and remember that Braden Holtby, owner of the second highest postseason save percentage in NHL history, started the postseason on the bench. He has a .923 save percentage entering Game 5, recorded back-to-back shutouts to get his team to the Stanley Cup Final when they were facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Final and has a .920 save percentage through the first four games of this series, including .945 in the Capitals’ three wins to this point. He also made that pretty big save in Game 2.

4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. At the start of the series I argued that barring a collapse in the series Fleury might have a strong case to win the award whether the Golden Knights win it all or not. In four games he has yet to record a save percentage higher than .885 in any single game. 

5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. His point production has dried up in the Stanley Cup Final but he has been the one Vegas forward that has looked consistently dangerous in the series, already recording 20 shots on goal plus one shot off the post early in Game 4. Still, he is a big reason the Golden Knights are here and has been the the player driving their great first line.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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.

John Carlson gets $64M payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

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The Washington Capitals cleared salary cap space for a big reason and it paid off on Sunday as they’ve agreed to a long-term deal with defenseman John Carlson.

It’s a $64 million extension over eight years for the 28-year-old. According to Pierre LeBrun, within the details of the contract are $2 million signing bonuses that land on July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2022, a.k.a. Possible Lockout Seasons.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime. As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams. We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

Carlson, who would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1, picked the right time to have a career season and lead all NHL defensemen in scoring. In playing all 82 games during the regular season, he posted career highs in goals (15), assists (53), points (68), ice time (24:47) and power play assists (28). The production continued in the playoffs with five goals and 20 points as the Capitals claimed the 2018 Stanley Cup. He would finish fifth in the Norris Trophy voting.

The Capitals and Carlson’s camp had not come to an agreement as of Sunday morning, so his agent began taking calls from other interested teams as the free agent interview period opened. MacLellan did a good job of clearing cap space for an extension, shipping Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit to the Colorado Avalanche along with restricted free agent goaltender Philipp Grubauer on Friday.

Carlson’s priority was to remain in Washington.

“This has been my home. I’ve lived here every summer since I’ve been here,” Carlson said during locker clean out day. “This is my home base and obviously the guys that I’ve been around, the experiences we’ve had. I love the area and this is all I know.”

In other Capitals defenseman news, the team has an offer out to Carlson’s defense partner Michal Kempny, who was acquired in February from Chicago and turned into a valuable piece en route to the Cup. And then there’s Orpik, who was waived after being acquired by the Avalanche. Once his buyout from Colorado becomes official, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent, setting up the possibility of a return to Washington.

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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.

Could Capitals be on verge of losing John Carlson?

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(UPDATE: No, he’s staying. Eight-year, $64 million extension for Carlson.)

While the sweet aroma of winning the Stanley Cup isn’t likely to fade any time soon, the brief stench of the business side of hockey could once again crop up in Washington.

Already having lost Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz last week, the Capitals could be on the verge of losing top-scoring defenseman John Carlson from the 2017-18 season as well.

Maybe.

With no deal in place to extend the skilled rearguard, Carlson’s agent, Rick Curran, said while they’re still trying to hash out a deal with the Capitals, his client, who led all NHL d-men with 68 points this past season, is going to listen to other teams after the interview period commenced at 12:00 a.m. on Sunday morning.

On Friday, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said a deal with Carlson was “close” to being achieved.

“Hopefully we can get it done here over the next few days. We’re really close,” he said.

But as of Sunday morning, there’s still no deal in place for the man who set a Caps franchise record for most points by a defenseman in the playoffs with 20.

MacLellan has made room for Carlson. Needing the necessary cap space to give him his raise, MacLellan dealt backup netminder Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik to the Colorado Avalanche — the later of which had a $5.5 million cap hit attached to him.

For now, the savings account hasn’t been touched.

For Carlson, he has earned the right to test the free agent waters, and Washington obviously hasn’t met whatever demands 28-year-old has for his new deal.

It’s important to point out, as the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno did Sunday, that Washington is the only team that can give Carlson eight years of term in a new deal. As Whyno said, this shouldn’t be overlooked.

Losing Carlson would be a big blow, so it’s kind of surprising it’s gotten to this point from the Capitals side, although Carlson could be doing what he’s earned — looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side — and using this time as leverage in talks with Washington.

A simple formula: Player wants the team to meet demands, the team isn’t there yet, forcing the player to play hardball, in turn forcing the team’s hand, or something like that, roughly speaking.

Caps beat writer for the Washington Post Isabelle Khurshudyan wrote Sunday that despite the noise surrounding Carlson, she still expects the d-man to re-sign in the nation’s capital.

#CarlsonWatch continues for now.

Have your say here:


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

Hurricanes have much to do, but headed in right direction after blockbuster deal

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There’s a long way to go to rebuild the Carolina Hurricanes into a contending hockey team, but they took a nice step in the right direction on Saturday.

The hockey world has had 24 hours to digest that five-player blockbuster trade on the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft — one that included defenseman Dougie Hamilton heading to the east coast once again and defenseman Noah Hanifin heading to Cow Town.

The verdict? That we won’t know for some time yet (as with any trade in its immediate infancy), but for a Hurricanes team desperate for a sheet of ice in the playoffs, the move certainly turned their aim in that direction.

Calgary got younger with 21-year-old Hanifin and 23-year-old Elias Lindholmbut the move broke up one of the league’s premier defense pairings in the process. Carolina added one-half of that pairing, and it seems more clear that the Hurricanes — who also used their second overall selection on Andrei Svechnikov earlier in the day — got better.

Worlds like “elite defenseman,” “career-year” and “highly-touted” were all uttered to help explain the three players — Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox, respectively — that Carolina snatched up in Saturday’s wheeling and dealing.

Not too shabby, right? The Hurricanes got immediate help on defense and forward with a quality prospect on the backend developing (if he eventually signs).

Winning trades has been something of a foreign concept when attached to Don Waddell during his tenure as an NHL general manager. His exploits as the GM of the Atlanta Thrashers meant years of needed repair after the team moved to Winnipeg in 2011, for instance.

So Saturday’s deal was a win-win for Carolina fans, who had to fear what Waddell might do to their team after being handed the reigns earlier this year.

“We’ve gone nine years missing the playoffs… we’re going to try to change up the culture a little bit,” Waddell said from the draft. “We feel that all three pieces are going to make our hockey club better not just today but going into the future.”

The Canes received a beefy, skilled defenseman in Hamilton who’s good for 40 points a year and can play big minutes. He’s also still just 25 and comes in at a nice price point at $5.75 AAV with three years left on that deal.

With Jaccob Slavin, captain Justin Faulk, Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk also in that rearguard, it became all the more formidable with the arrival of Hamilton.

Hamilton seems to carry around an aura of split opinion on his ability (and personality, apparently). But his underlying numbers suggest he’s among the best defenseman in the game. Elite, even.

Carolina also acquired fellow d-man Adam Fox in the deal, a promising 20-year-old prospect who’s been showing great signs playing at Harvard in the NCAA.

And they got Micheal Ferland, a physical terror on the ice who found his scoring punch this past season with 21 goals.

(It should be noted that Bill Peters — now the coach in Calgary — coached Hanifin and Elias Lindholm in Carolina. He knows the duo like the back of his hand.)

What’s next?

This bit is critical now.

With one issue squared away, the Hurricanes can now turn to other areas that need addressing.

The futures of the aforementioned Faulk (UFA ’20) and Jeff Skinner (UFA ’19) need attention, of course. Both have been churning in the rumor mill and would likely command a nice haul in return. Keeping Faulk in that now-formidable backend might seem like a no-brainer. Or maybe not…

If Faulk is expendable, then he’d be best used in a deal that shores up Carolina’s most pressing issue — its goaltending.

Scott Darling hasn’t worked out and Cam Ward isn’t coming back.

With Philipp Grubauer going to Colorado (perhaps, in part, by design), the list of unrestricted free agent goaltenders capable of being starters is slim at best.

Carter Hutton has shown flashes, as has Anton Khudonbin (who already had one stint in Carolina). With Grubauer out of the picture, those are the two best options with UFA status

Skinner and/or Faulk could be the carrot dangled in a potential move that would see a goalie in return and Waddell told reporters in Dallas on Saturday that he intends on landing a netminder.

A trade involving either could also be used to help Carolina find a left-handed defenseman. They have a glut of right-hand shots now with the arrival Hamilton and the departure of Hanifin on the backend, so perhaps something that turns Faulk into another top LHD helps Waddell pull the trigger.

For the moment, Hurricanes fans can rest on the fact that their team got better over the weekend. And they can hope that the direction from this weekend will filter down into next when the free agency window opens up on July 1.


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

Liam Kirk 1st born-and-trained Brit selected in NHL draft

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DALLAS (AP) Liam Kirk has become the first player born and trained in England to be selected in the NHL draft.

The Arizona Coyotes picked the 18-year-old left wing 189th overall on Saturday with their seventh-round pick.

Kirk was home, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean about 4,600 miles away from Dallas, when he was drafted.

The 6-foot, 161-pound Kirk played this season for Sheffield Steelers in the Elite Ice Hockey League, the highest level of competition in the United Kingdom. He had nine goals and seven assists in 52 games for the Steelers in his second season with the team.

When Kirk attended this year’s NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, he became the first player born and trained in Britain to attend that annual pre-draft event.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/tags/NHLhockey