Defense should top Capitals’ trade deadline shopping list

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With losses in nine of their past 10 games the Washington Capitals have hit a wall. That is probably to be expected at some point during an 82-game season, and especially one that followed up a deep Stanley Cup run. But it is still somewhat jarring to see a consistently great team playing like … this. 

As long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby are on the roster and even somewhat reasonably close to their prime you know the Capitals are going to be all in on winning and maximizing what is left of their productive years. They have to, and this, of course, is still one of those years.

And as the Capitals try to gear up for their title defense and play their way out of this slump you know general manager Brian MacLellan is going to be shopping for help.

It’s just a matter of what help he is looking for. The biggest area of need should be pretty obvious — goal prevention.

When it comes to what the Capitals need to accomplish that the easy answer is, quite simply, better goaltending from the duo of Holtby and Pheonix Copley.

Neither way has been great this season, and it should be a bit of a concern that for the second regular season in a row Holtby’s save percentage has dipped below the .910 mark. That is well below what the Capitals have come to expect from their franchise goalie and a potential red flag for a goalie that is nearing his 30th birthday.

He was able to get it together at the right time a year ago and return to form in the playoffs, and that would certainly fix a lot of what currently ails the Capitals. But there is no guarantee that happens again, and even if does, they still have some issues they need to work out. Especially when it comes to their defense.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Objectively speaking, the numbers are not good.

The only team in the league that gives up more shot attempts during 5-on-5 play is an Ottawa Senators team that has been stripped down to its bare bones. The team just ahead of them is an Anaheim Ducks team that is just … well … the less we say about the Ducks right now, the better it will be for everyone because they might be the worst team in the league at the moment.

So that is not an ideal position to be in defensively.

At the top of the defense John Carlson has been outstanding individually and his pairing, which usually involves Michal Kempny, has been pretty good. Not great, but certainly not hurting them and definitely good enough to win with at the top of your roster.

After that, things start to take a dive. A big dive.

The biggest problem pairing, just due to its importance and the minutes it gets, might be the Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov duo whose play has just fallen apart after last year’s Stanley Cup run.

The table below takes a quick look at the year-to-year tumble that duo has experienced in shot attempt percentage (CF%), goal differential, scoring chances against per 60 minutes and scoring chance differential, as well high-danger scoring chances against and high-danger scoring chance percentage.

 

All of that is bad. Very bad. Very, very, very bad.

The Capitals are creating fewer shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances with this duo on the ice and giving up way more than they were a year ago. And it is burning them. They have really struggled over the past 10 games where they have been outscored by a 9-2 margin and their high-danger scoring chance percentage drops all the way down to a ghastly 30.5 percent (11 high danger chances for, 25 against).

It is really difficult to win when your second defense pairing is getting dominated to that degree.

They have to find a fix because there really isn’t anybody else on the roster that can help fix this.

Brooks Orpik isn’t a player at this stage of his career that you want to rely on for top-four minutes, and the rest of the blue line after Carlson and Kempny is probably best suited for third-pairing duty on a championship team.

The obvious trade chip at this point is forward Andre Burakovsky, whose name has been in trade rumors for much of the season. But given how much his play has regressed this season and the fact he has seemingly taken up permanent residence in coach Todd Reirden’s doghouse his value is probably at its lowest possible point. That is always a risky sell, and it probably will not bring a significant return. At least not enough of a return that can fix the second-pairing on defense. There is always the option of flipping him for picks and then using those picks, in addition to the picks the Capitals already own, and trying to fill the need that way, but again, that carries some risk.

They are still a playoff team and with the talent they have at the top of the roster are always going to be capable of putting it all together at any moment. ut the more this season goes on the more it is becoming clear their defense is not playing up to the level it did a season ago.

The lack of assets to deal from and the fact they are already pushed against the salary cap doesn’t give MacLellan a lot of options at the moment.

If he can’t find a fix, the Capitals’ only hope for a repeat party on the National Mall is that Holtby goes on another one of his postseason superman runs.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

More trade deadline: From Anisimov to Seabrook, examining Blackhawks’ options

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.

Jay Bouwmeester will not play again for Blues this season

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Jay Bouwmeester met with the media on Wednesday for the first time since suffering a cardiac episode during a Feb. 11 game in Anaheim.

The defenseman, who began the press conference by thanking the training staffs of the Blues and Ducks, will not play again this season, according to general manager Doug Armstrong. While a comeback this season is out of reach, Bouwmeester has not closed the door on his future.

“There’s been a lot going on,” he said. “I think that’s something I’m going to definitely have to evaluate, but to say I’ve done that, I wouldn’t say fully yet. There’s decisions I’m going to have to make. That’ll come later.”

“We talked about longer term things that may or may not happen and both feel that it’s February,” added Armstrong. “You don’t have to make long term decisions at this point. He’s going to take time and again back in with his family and get around the team and he’ll address those things as the summer progresses.”

Bouwmeester, who will turn 37 in September, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He was revived with defibrillator and quickly taken from Honda Center to a local hospital. He later had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator procedure to restore the normal rhythm of his heart.

“I’m at the point now where I feel pretty good,” Bouwmeester said. “That’s kind of the weird thing about this is you go from something that happened totally out of the blue and unexpected to being in the hospital for a couple of days and then now there’s some restrictions as to what I can do.”

The Blues-Ducks game was postponed and rescheduled for March 11.

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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.

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
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A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

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.

Laviolette to coach Team USA at world hockey championships

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Peter Laviolette is returning to the bench after being selected as the coach of the United States men’s national team competing at the world hockey championships in May.

The move was announced by USA Hockey on Wednesday, and comes seven weeks after Laviolette was fired by the Nashville Predators.

Laviolette ranks 16th in NHL wins with 637 covering four teams over 18 seasons, including the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes. He also coached the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers.

From Massachusetts, the 55-year-old Laviolette also has extensive experience representing the U.S. as a coach and player on the international stage.

The tournament being held in Switzerland will mark the fourth time Laviolette has coached the U.S. at the world championships, and first since 2014, when the Americans lost to Czech Republic in the quarterfinals in Belarus. He was also U.S. coach in 2004, when the team won a bronze medal, and ’05.

Laviolette also coached the national team to an eighth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics.

As a player, Laviolette was a two-time Olympian in representing the U.S. in 1988 and 1994, when he served as team captain.

”Peter is a terrific coach and someone who has had success wherever he’s been,” said USA Hockey’s John Vanbiesbrouck. ”We’re thrilled to have him back as head coach of our men’s national team.”

Team USA’s roster will begin being stocked once the NHL’s regular season concludes during the first weekend in April. The Americans have been limited to winning just six bronze medals since a silver-medal finish in 1950.

The world championships are scheduled to run from May 8 to 24.

Canadiens’ Mete out for season with broken foot

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MONTREAL (AP) — Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot.

Mete suffered the injury during the game in Detroit on Feb. 18.

The 21-year-old Mete had four goals and 11 assists in 51 games this season. He has four goals and 27 assists in 171 games with Montreal.

Mete was a fourth-round pick of the Canadiens in 2016.