Capitals ready for challenge of defending Stanley Cup title

The summer of celebrating is over and on Wednesday night the Washington Capitals will raise a Stanley Cup banner to the Capital One Arena rafters. The distributing of their rings and the pre-game ceremony signifies the turning of the page from the 2017-18 season for the defending champions.

The Capitals’ players know that a slow start can have dire consequences in April and the focus must be on the now and not what happened that June night in Las Vegas. But for Lars Eller, his goal that broke a 3-3 tie in the Cup-clinching Game 5 is a memory he probably won’t stop looking back on this season.

“I don’t have a number,” Eller said earlier this month when asked how many times he’s called the goal up online, “but I’ll keep watching. If I’m in a bad mood I’ll put it on.”

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As the Capitals go about defending their title this season, they know they have the target on their backs. Every night, teams will want to knock down the champs and they’ll be on the receiving end of opponents’ best games. They feel ready to accept that challenge. T.J. Oshie recalled that when they played against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seasons after their most recent Cup wins, it was used as a measuring stick game. You want to see how your team, with all of its changes from the previous year (or in Washington’s case, the lack of changes), stack up against the team who had it all go right for them. 

That’s the expectation the Capitals will have for every game this season.

“It’s going to be a different scenario when we walk into the first game,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “At the same time, we have so much to build off of. This gave us confidence. If we can keep that going I think it’s going to be a good year again.”

[How will Golden Knights follow up historic first season?]

When asked during training camp last season, captain Alex Ovechkin stated his goal for the season quite simply: “We’re not gonna be suck this year.” He ended up being quite right. So how do the Capitals follow that up in 2018-19?

“Not suck back-to-back,” Ovechkin said at the start of training camp.

The Capitals’ Cup win also doubled as the removal of a monkey from Ovechkin’s back. Since entering the NHL in 2005, he’s had to watch Sidney Crosby and the Penguins win three titles as his team felt short of expectations numerous times, unable to to even get past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But when Evgeny Kuznetsov backhanded a shot through Matt Murray’s legs in overtime of Game 6, demons were exorcized and the series-clinching goal opened up the opportunity for them to finally get over the hump.

Now the 33-year-old Ovechkin won’t have to worry about ending his magnificent NHL career without a championship.

“It’s gone,” he said. “Right now, we have to think of different questions.”

The question now facing Ovechkin is whether the Capitals can repeat. They have a new coach with former assistant Todd Reirden stepping in for Barry Trotz and a very similar roster to the one that was on the T-Mobile Arena ice in June passing the Cup around. Gone is goaltender Philip Grubauer and forward Jay Beagle and back are key pieces to their championship run in Tom Wilson, John Carlson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Michal Kempny, and Brooks Orpik.

Repeating comes with its own set of challenges. Only three teams since 1990 have been able to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, with the Penguins achieving the feat twice in 1992 and 2017 and the Detroit Red Wings repeating in 1998. Three other defending champions have lost in the Cup Final, while another five fell in the conference final.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Of the 28 champions since 1990, nine have been booted in the first round and three missed the playoffs completely the following season. The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover with a short summer full of celebrating has affected plenty of teams. Having a target on your backs every night and knowing opponents will really get up for your games is another hurdle to overcome. Personnel losses in free agency have made major impacts on repeat opportunities, as well as injuries derailing the quest for another title.

The Capitals will be reminded of last season often in 2018-19. The repeat talk will come up if they’re having another successful year and find themselves back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in April. But that can be a distraction.

The best way to approach it? Take Kuznetsov’s advice.

“That’s history already,” he said. “I already forgot about that. If you keep talking about that, keeping thinking about that, we’re going to be bad. You have to focus. The league gets better every day… We’ve got to get back to that mentality when we get hungry, when we want to win every game.

“It’s not going to be easy. The way we finished last year people are going to expect us to start in the same way, right?”

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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.

Brooks Orpik retires after 15 seasons, two Stanley Cups

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Forwards around the NHL will have one less bruising defenseman to worry about heading into next season.

On Tuesday morning, Washington Capitals blueliner Brooks Orpik announced his retirement from the NHL. After being drafted in the first round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik went on to play 15 seasons with the Pens and Caps.

The 38-year-old scored 18 goals and 194 points in 1035 games. He also added 972 penalty minutes during that time. Orpik skated in 156 more games in the postseason and he won two Stanley Cup titles (one with the Pens and one with the Caps).

After missing just four games in two seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18, the veteran managed to skate in just 53 contests last season because of a lower-body injury.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have the best job in the world for many years, but my body is telling me it is time to move on to something new,” Orpik said in a team release. “I’m excited for more family time and to experience a lot of the things that being a professional athlete forces you to miss out on. Thank you to the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for giving me the opportunity to play against the best athletes in the world. I’ll be forever grateful for the memories and relationships that hockey has given me.”

On the international stage, he also represented Team USA on several occasions. He played for his country 2000 World Junior Hockey Championship, the 2006 World Hockey Championship and at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic Games (he won a silver medal with that 2010 team).

“I had the great opportunity to see up close how impactful Brooks was for our team. Spending time as his defensive partner and playing alongside Brooks was something that I will always cherish,” said Caps defenseman John Carlson. “He showed his teammates the importance of hard work, accountability and always being there for your team every time he stepped on the ice. We all learned from Brooks; he was our role model and he made us better. I wish him and his family all the best!”

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Waiting on Marner; Marleau wants to play past 40

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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.

• With Marner unknown, Maple Leafs won’t be in ‘big-game market’ come July 1, GM Dubas says. (NHL.com)

Patrick Marleau, 39, believes he can play past the 2019-20 season. (NHL.com)

• For the Rangers, it may come down to Chris Kreider or Artemi Panarin, and not both. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Trying to decipher Jim Rutherford’s offseason messages. (Pensburgh)

J.T. Miller trade the result of Vancouver’s past draft failures. (TSN.ca)

• It’s time for the NHL to expand it’s 3-on-3 overtime rules. (Oilers Nation)

• Evaluating where things stand for Blackhawks as negotiating window opens for NHL free agents. (NBC Chicago Sports)

• The trade market and Subban: the Flyers’ impatience may have cost them this offseason. (Broad Street Hockey)

• Seattle’s coming NHL has its first sponsor. (Seattle Times)

• Re-imagining the 1994 NHL Draft 25 years on. (Puck Junk)

• In Lou Lamoriello. you should trust, Islanders fans. (Eyes on Isles)

• Growing the game… in Montana. (Daily Inter Lake)

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.

Trade: Blackhawks continue defense overhaul, get de Haan from Hurricanes

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Defense was a huge issue for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2018-19 season and they are already making some moves this summer to try and address it.

That continued on Monday evening when the team announced it has acquired Calvin de Haan and forward Aleksei Saarela from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for Gustav Forsling and goalie Anton Forsberg.

The Hurricanes signed de Haan to a four-year, $18.2 million contract in free agency a year ago. Known more for his defensive play than anything offensively, he played in 74 games for the Hurricanes this past season, scoring one goal to go with 13 assists. He underwent shoulder surgery after the season and is facing a four-to-six month recovery time, so he may not be ready at the start of the season.

His addition to the Blackhawks’ blue line comes a little more than one week after the team traded forward Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Olli Maatta.

de Haan and Maatta join a Blackhawks team that was one of the league’s worst defensive teams at 5-on-5, finishing in the bottom-10 in goals against, shots against, shot attempts against, scoring chances against, and high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, via Natural Stat Trick.

In several of those categories they were among the bottom-three teams in the league. It is obviously an area that needed to be addressed as longtime staples Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook continue to age and their younger prospects continue to get their feet wet in the NHL.

Maatta and de Haan are not superstars, and neither one is going to provide much in the way of point production, but they can definitely help in their own end of the ice.

As for the Hurricanes side of this, clearing salary cap space appears to be the name of the game (perhaps the sign of another move coming?) as moving de Haan sheds more than $4 million in cap space over each of the next three seasons.

Forsberg and Forsling are both restricted free agents this summer.

Forsling, 23, has spent three years in the NHL with the Blackhawks and recorded 27 points in 122 career games. Given the state of Carolina’s blue line even after trading de Haan he still probably only figures to be, at best, a third-pairing defender.

Forsberg is the player that could get the biggest opportunity. The Hurricanes could buy out the remainder of Scott Darling’s contract at any time, while the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney from this past season are both eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

The 26-year-old Forsberg has appeared in 45 NHL games with the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, recording a .901 save percentage.

Related
Penguins trade Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun, draft pick

Hurricanes get Marleau from Maple Leafs, could buy him out

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.

Blue Jackets at center of attention as NHL free agency looms

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Where many express concern, Jarmo Kekalainen says he sees only opportunity regarding the uncertain state of the Columbus roster a week before NHL free agency.

To Kekalainen, the fear of possibly losing stars such as Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on July 1 is offset by the knowledge that their departures would open significant space under the salary cap.

That would put the Blue Jackets general manager in prime position to fill those holes through trades or free agency at a time when the newly announced $81.5 million payroll maximum for next season is forcing various cap-strapped teams to shed salary.

”I think every $100,000 or every $1,000 counts at this point for some teams that are going to be squeezed,” Kekalainen said shortly after the new cap number – $1.5 million lower than initially projected – was announced. ”They’re going to have to sell their problems. We could be a solution.”

Kekalainen won’t rate the Blue Jackets’ chances of re-signing one or all three players.

”I’m sure we’ll get some answers shortly if it starts looking like they’re moving into another direction. But we thought this could happen,” he said, referring to the bold gamble Columbus made in choosing to acquire Duchene in a trade with Ottawa, and retain Panarin and Bobrovsky at the trade deadline in February knowing they were in the final years of their contracts.

”If it happens, we’re not going to be shocked,” Kekalainen added. ”If it is the case, then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

The 27-year-old Panarin is considered the top free agent on the market. The NHL’s 2016 rookie of the year has topped 70 points in each of his four seasons and scored 116 goals in 322 career games. Duchene, a center, has topped 20 goals seven times in 10 seasons and coming off a year in which he had a career-best 31 goals.

And then there is the 30-year-old Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy-winner. The Blue Jackets could also lose center Ryan Dzingel, whom they acquired in a separate trade with Ottawa.

Other notable free agents set to hit the market are San Jose captain Joe Pavelski, Winnipeg defenseman Tyler Myers and Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner.

The list of top-end talent has dwindled with defenseman Erik Karlsson re-signing with San Jose, forward Jeff Skinner re-signing with Buffalo, and Philadelphia acquiring and signing center Kevin Hayes.

According to Spotrac.com, only nine of 31 teams are projected to be $20 million or more under the cap, and led by Colorado at $35.5 million. At the other end of the spectrum is Vegas, currently projected to be $1.6 million over the cap, and will have to be in compliance by the start of the season in October.

Some teams may resort to the rarely used option of poaching from the restricted free agent pool. This would require a team issuing an offer sheet, which would lead to the player’s team having to decide to match the offer or receive draft picks as compensation.

The Calgary Flames, in 2013, were the last team to issue an offer sheet in a bid to acquire then-Avalanche center Ryan O'Reilly, only to have Colorado match the contract.

Speculation has focused on talented Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner being a candidate to receive an offer sheet, something Toronto GM Kyle Dubas acknowledged without committing to whether the team would match it.

”It’s kind of hanging over everything now,” Dubas said last week. ”It’s our intention they’re here for as long as we can possibly keep them. But if the dollar amount doesn’t make sense as far as our internal economics, it will be a decision as to what we might do.”

The Maple Leafs are at least better positioned to re-sign Marner after freeing up $6.2 million of cap space by trading veteran forward Patrick Marleau to Carolina over the weekend. Cap constraints were behind the Nashville Predators’ decision to trade P.K. Subban to New Jersey, with the Devils easily affording the play-making defenseman’s $9 million annual cap hit over the final three years of his contract.

Devils GM Ray Shero might not be done adding talent with nearly $26 million in space still available.

”We’ll see where it goes, and we want to be an improved hockey team,” he said. ”Our fans deserve that, certainly our players deserve that, and this is a great opportunity in time to do it.”

It wasn’t lost on Dallas GM Jim Nill of how Subban’s trade provides room for the Central Division rival Predators to add players.

”I know that David Poile’s a very good general manager and he’s looking at something else he’s got planned,” Nill said, referring to the Predators GM. ”But that’s the intriguing part of the game now.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports