Alex Ovechkin overcame plenty of heartbreak to become a Stanley Cup champion

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LAS VEGAS — During Alex Ovechkin’s first year in the NHL he was swimming at the house of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. As the boss and his newly-drafted future superstar hung out, Leonsis told Ovechkin that one day they would be celebrating a Stanley Cup together. 

Ovechkin was still new to the league, didn’t quite know the entire organization just yet, but he shared that dream with Leonsis. Little did they know it would take nearly 15 years from Ovechkin’s draft day for it to finally become a reality.

“I knew he wants it so bad and this organization wants it so bad. It’s nice to be part of it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s nice to be in this organization, all 13 years or 14, whatever. It was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get results.”

[Capitals end DC championship drought with first Stanley Cup win]

From 2007, when Ovechkin’s Capitals first made the playoffs, through 2017, they won three Presidents’ Trophies and seven division titles. But the most important number was zero, as in the number of times they advanced beyond the second round. Six times they were ousted by either the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins. Twice they blew 3-1 series leads. It became an inevitability: Regular season success would lead to crushing playoff defeat.

The lack of success and the burden to carry the Capitals to a championship would fall on Ovechkin’s shoulders. He was the superstar. He was the one making the most money. The team’s biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, won three Cups since 2005-06, when Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entered the league. As the expectations soared, the disappointments kept piling up until this season when many gave up hope of them ever winning.

This was a different season, for sure. The Capitals cruised to another division title. Ovechkin scored 49 goals. But the pressure wasn’t there entering the postseason. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and even the surprising Vegas Golden Knights were the sexy picks out of the Western Conference, while some backed the Penguins for a three-peat or even the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The only expectation some had with the Capitals was that they would fail again. When they fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, a familiar feeling was creeping in. But this team didn’t wilt facing the task of regrouping and pulling off a comeback. Ovechkin, with help from Evgeny Kuznetsov, helped carry the team offensively and change a lot of narratives.

“I think there were a lot of series where maybe Washington got eliminated, [Ovechkin] had great series,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who joined the Capitals from the Penguins in 2014. “He probably took the brunt of the criticism just because he’s the captain and the highest paid guy. I think a lot of guys feel for him in that situation. If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, that speaks volumes about how guys feel about him. He’s a very unique captain — probably never find a guy like him. But he’s a guy who leads in a very unique way, but he definitely pulls guys into the fight.”

The desire to do everything possible to win was evident in every Ovechkin shift this postseason. When he wasn’t scoring one of his 15 goals, he was playing a committed defensive game, even dropping down to block shots. Whatever it took. Every goal, even if it didn’t come off his stick, resulted in a release of emotion never seen before — emotions that grew stronger and stronger as the win totals moved toward that special No. 16.

“When your captain is doing everything it takes, guys follow the leader. He’s not the only one,” said defenseman John Carlson. “There’s plenty of others that have stepped up and done amazing things at big points in time. But when your leaders does those things, it gives a huge morale boost to the rest of us and we all want to win for each other.”

“It’s a huge statement by him. This is one of his better years that he’s played overall,” said Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. “I think he’s played a better team game the whole year. He’s been more of a leader the whole year. You see him in the playoffs this year, he’s our best player — blocking shots, playing good in the D-zone, playing good in the neutral zone. When he’s doing them it makes everyone else want to do them, too.”

***

Now the NHL story of Alex Ovechkin is now complete. He has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup to go along with his three Hart Trophies, three Ted Lindsay Awards and seven Rocket Richard Trophies. There’s no more He’s a great player, but… to follow him around for the rest of his career, one that will see plenty of records shattered and maybe even another title.

Ovechkin wanted this victory for himself and for his team. It’s been a long road to get there and it showed each time he raised the Cup over his head and showed off that big, toothless smile.

The weight is off his shoulders. He’s a Stanley Cup champion.

“It’s even better. It’s just like a dream,” said Ovechkin. “It was a hard, long season. We fight through it. We worked so hard through all the years and we were together. It was a whole one team, stick with the system and it doesn’t matter what happened, even after the [second] period, we knew we just have to push it and get the result done. That’s it.

“I can’t explain the way I feel. It’s unbelievable.”

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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.

Canadiens make a good move: Solid deal for Danault

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Unanimously good moves haven’t happened regularly for the Montreal Canadiens these days, so it’s worthwhile to appreciate even what would seem like easy calls.

With that in mind, signing useful forward Phillip Danault to a nice three-year contract ranks as one of Marc Bergevin’s best decisions in some time, whether you can chalk up the value to RFA leverage or not. The Canadiens confirmed that the cap hit is a reasonable $3.083 million per season.

Danault, 25, has essentially been a point-every-other-game player for Montreal. He scored 25 points in 52 games this past season after a relative breakthrough in 2016-17, when he collected 40 points in 82 contests. Not too shabby.

It’s conceivable that Danault could maybe chip in a bit more if leaned upon in a bigger way, as he averaged 16:35 minutes per game, with a touch less than a minute (56 seconds) of that average happening on the power play.

Now, it’s not as though the Canadiens are being foolish in playing him in his current role, as it’s plausible that he’s best served as a supporting cast sort of asset. The point is that Danault seems to make good use of his time, might be able to do a tad bit more, and tends to check out reasonably well from a possession standpoint. He’s not the type of player who will win you a Stanley Cup, yet he’s also the sort of guy who wouldn’t take much off of the table, either. In other words, this is a justifiable contract and could even be a nifty value.

Faint praise? Pretty much, but it’s better than the usual reaction for Bergevin & Co. (laughter, mockery).

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.

Former NHL goalie Ray Emery passes away at age 35

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Terrible news on Sunday: former NHL goalie Ray Emery passed away at age 35.

Toronto photojournalist Andrew Collins first reported the sad news, which was confirmed by Hamilton Police. Multiple reporters, including Collins, indicate that drowning was the cause of death.

The Ottawa Senators drafted Emery in the fourth round (99th overall) in 2001, and some of Emery’s best moments happened with the Sens, including a run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. Emery played in 287 NHL regular-season games and 39 playoff contests, also suiting up with the Anaheim Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Chicago Blackhawks. Emery last played in the NHL in 2014-15 with the Flyers, while his last hockey season came in 2015-16, when he split that campaign between the AHL and Germany’s DEL.

In 2012-13, Emery and Corey Crawford were awarded the William Jennings Trophy, which is handed to the goalie (or in that case, goalies) who produced the lowest GAA during the regular season. He also enjoyed a moment with the Stanley Cup during his time with Chicago:

via Getty

Emery stood out thanks to his personality as much as his goaltending, with his one-sided fight against Braden Holtby ranking as one of his most memorable moments in the NHL.

While his NHL career was brief, Emery made an impact, as you can see from an outpouring of emotion from fans and former teammates, including Daniel Carcillo and James van Riemsdyk. Plenty of people around the hockey world also shared their condolences, including Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, who was familiar with Emery during his stint with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk released a statement in memory of Emery.

“On behalf of the Ottawa Senators, I wish to express my sincere condolences on the passing of Ray Emery. Ray was instrumental in our run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, and at his best he brought a competitive edge and combative mentality to the game. On behalf of our entire organization, I wish to extend my deepest sympathies to Ray’s family, friends and loved ones.”

Blue Jackets get nice value with Bjorkstrand; Panarin meeting looms

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With agitating uncertainty surrounding the long-term futures of Sergei Bobrovsky and especially Artemi Panarin, it’s probably wrong to say that the Columbus Blue Jackets wrapped up their “to-do list” on Sunday.

They’ve at least taken care of the matters that are more in their hands this weekend.

On Saturday, defenseman (and potential-gone-wrong) Ryan Murray accepted Columbus’ qualifying offer in something of a shoulder shrug signing. The next day, it was more of a fist bump, as intriguing forward Oliver Bjorkstrand agreed to a friendly three-year deal.

The team didn’t confirm this in its release (because reasons), but the cap hit is a thrifty $2.5 million per season, according to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline and others.

During his first season in the NHL, the 23-year-old showed promise, scoring 11 goals and 40 points despite modest ice time (an average of 14:18 TOI per game). The Athletic’s Alison Lukan notes that Bjorkstrand checks many of the analytics boxes – rarely a bad sign – so there’s some very genuine optimism that the Dane will deliver strong value.

Personally, it’s also nice to see that he’s hungry to score more goals.

Speaking of the to-do list regarding items they might not have the power to address, Panarin announced that he and his agent will meet with Blue Jackets brass on Monday. Maybe a contract extension actually could happen? Maybe a different sort of resolution is coming?

A lot rides on that situation, yet it doesn’t hurt to land good values at a nice price. That’s absolutely the case with Bjorkstrand.

Really, value might be one of the themes of this Blue Jackets summer, as Bjorkstrand joins Anthony Duclair and Riley Nash as potentially wise bets. Cap Friendly notes that Columbus has its RFAs signed with $5.6M in cap space remaining, so perhaps they have more up their sleeves?

Jets might need to pay Trouba like a star, and that’s OK

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It’s been nearly two years since Jacob Trouba’s agent released a statement that shook the Winnipeg Jets and its fanbase.

Kurt Overhardt, Trouba’s agent at KO Sports, needed just four paragraphs to send Jets fans into hysteria. He began telling the hockey world that his client wouldn’t be heading to training camp that fall and that both he and the Jets had been working on finding an appropriate trade since that May, not long after the Jets missed the playoffs four the fourth time in five years since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta.

Overhardt wrote that it wasn’t about the money. Instead, he relayed that his client only wanted to realize his potential as a right-shot defenseman in the NHL. The Jets had been playing him on the left side, one part necessity given the team’s lack of depth on that side at the time, and another part, well, necessity, because the right side had all of the talent, Trouba was too good to be wasting away on the third pairing on the right and wasn’t happy with being more than serviceable and getting big minutes on the left.

By November, Trouba gave in, just days before he would have had to sit out the season.

He had no leverage at the time, and after missing 15 games, he signed a two-year bridge deal, rescinded his trade request, and went about his business.

The Jets, in turn, gave him what he wanted: a spot on the right side. And in the two seasons since being a wantaway, Trouba has realized his potential as one-half of one of the best shutdown pairings in the NHL with Josh Morrissey and the Jets.

Time, coupled with his wishes being granted and playing on a team with a window of opportunity open to take a run at Lord Stanley a couple times has seemingly offered Trouba a new lease on the outlook of his career.

This summer is about the money for Trouba. It’s time he gets paid, and with a July 20 arbitration date set, the term and the dollar amount could be public knowledge sometime in the next few days.

The only question at this point, barring the Jets trading him or letting it get to arbitration, is how much and for how long. The latter is likely obvious. Trouba will likely get the max eight years.

The question of what Trouba is worth, what he should make, etc., has been the talk of the town in Winnipeg. Everything from low-ball numbers that would surely get Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff locked up for grand larceny to numbers that rival the league’s top paid rearguards.

Sniffing around the surface isn’t going to turn up a good argument for P.K. Subban money. But put those paws to work, do a little digging, and what’s underneath starts to get quite interesting.

Despite playing just 55 games due to injury in the regular season, Trouba put up his third best point total (24) during his five-year NHL career. Keep digging and you’ll see that Trouba’s production numbers are in an elite category among NHL defenseman.

Trouba set career highs in assists/60 at 1.03, first assists/60 at 0.64 and was just short of his career-high in point/60 at 1.22. Trouba also averaged more shots/60 (7.31) than he had in his previous four seasons.

And he did all of this averaging 17:01 time-on-ice at five-on-five.

Compare this to, say, Victor Hedman, the league’s Norris Trophy winner this past season, and you see Trouba is keeping the same company.

Hedman had a higher goals/60 but trailed in assists/60 at 0.67 and first assists/60 at 0.34. Hedman edged out Trouba in points/60 at 1.25, but also consider that Hedman also played 1:29 more per game at 5-on-5 than Trouba.

The story is consistent when comparing Trouba to Drew Doughty, who played nearly 2:30 more per game, and P.K. Subban, who played a similar number of minutes as Trouba.

Here’s a handy-dandy spreadsheet:

Those are the three finalists for the 2017-18 Norris Trophy. Trouba may not have received a single vote for the NHL’s best defenseman award, but his name is in the conversation with the league’s best regardless of it being engraved on a piece of hardware.

Doughty is making $11 million a year on his new deal with the Los Angeles Kings.

Eleven. Million. Dollars.

Subban is hitting the Nashville Predators for $9 million per annum after the Montreal Canadiens went over the top to reward him, while Hedman’s taking home $7.875 million from the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The argument that Trouba’s numbers are suppressed can also be made. He’s not a focal point on the Jets power play, and sees half the ice time his contemporaries do with the man advantage.

• Hedman 3:24/G
• Doughty 3:09/G
• Subban 3:05/G
• Trouba 1:28/G

Trouba might not have the Norris nominations or other accolades at this stage in his career, but he has the stats to prove he’s worthy of them. And if he’s able to keep pace with the elite while being elite himself, why wouldn’t he get paid like his fellow elite counterparts?

Perhaps the most curious case for Trouba making bank in Winnipeg would be when you compare his numbers to that of Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg’s bruising d-man whose cap hit comes in at $7.6 million.

The same trend continue when comparing the two, with Trouba doing more with less than his aging teammate.

Of course, Trouba isn’t without fault.

Durability may be his biggest question mark.

Trouba has never played a full 82 games, and outside of one 81-game season, he’s never suited up for more than 65 in any of his five NHL seasons. It’s worth mentioning, given that per/ 60 numbers can be skewed by fewer games played, and teams pay their big-name defenseman big money to play big minutes (and the majority of games).

He’s not a prolific goal scorer on the back end either and he’s been criticized for his puck management skills.

Trouba has hit double digits in that category just once, scoring 10 times in his rookie season with the Jets. The argument can be made that if he played a full 82-game season, he could get there again, but that would mean, well, playing a full 82-game season.

What Trouba signs for, financially speaking, is going to be of interest across the league. He’s a premier defenseman in many categories even if the goal totals don’t reflect that.

He’s coming off a career-year in several departments and this brief glimpse seems to suggest that anything less than $8 million per season might be a steal for Cheveldayoff.

— stats via NaturalStatTrick


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