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Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

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.

PHT Face-Off: Kovalchuk’s trade value; Who hits 1,000 points next?

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It’s the start of a new week, which means it’s time for the PHT Face-off. We’ll look at numbers and trends around the NHL ahead of all the action coming your way over the next seven days.

Let’s go!

Who will hit 1,000 points next?

On Sunday, Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane hit the 1,000-point mark for his career. The 31-year-old did it pretty quickly, as it only took him 953 games to reach the milestone. But which active players are scheduled to hit that number next?

Assuming good health, Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf should be the next one to 1,000. He currently has 956 points, which means he should reach 1,000 sometime next season. Again, it depends how healthy he is, but it should come sooner than later.

Leafs forward Jason Spezza has 933 points, but he appears to be running out of steam. Will he play long enough to accumulate 67 more points? He’s on pace for 34 this year. That means he’ll get 16 more than he already has, which would leave him 51 points away. Is he going to play two more seasons?

Kings center Anze Kopitar is right behind Spezza with 931 points. The 32-year-old has 43 points in 50 games in 2019-20. That would put him on pace for 71 points this year. Like Getzlaf, if Kopitar stays healthy, he should find a way to reach this milestone sometime next season.

And considering Nicklas Backstrom just signed a new extension with the Washington Capitals, he should have plenty of time to hit 1,000. Backstrom has 911 points in his career and he’s currently at 38 points in 41 games this season. The 32-year-old has been pretty healthy during his career, so he should be able to get to that number in short order.

Merzlikins on quite a roll

Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins has turned his season around since Joonas Korpisalo was injured on Dec. 29. The 25-year-old is 8-2-0 in 10 games since Korpisalo went down, and he’s given up two goals or fewer in seven of those outings. The Jackets have one more home game (Wednesday against Winnipeg) before they get to enjoy their lengthy break.

What has this recent run meant for the Blue Jackets?

Well, as of right now, they’ve found a way to put themselves in the first Wild Card spot. There’s several reasons they’ve been able to overcome the losses of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but the recent play of their goaltenders is near the top of the list.

Whether or not Merzlikins can keep this up remains to be seen.

Are the days of the $9-million (or more) goalie done? The Blue Jackets sure seem to be poking holes in the “pay big money for a goalie” theory.

What’s Kovalchuk worth on trade market?

Earlier this month, not many teams were willing to roll the dice on Ilya Kovalchuk. The Montreal Canadiens did, and the move has paid off in a pretty significant way so far. The 36-year-old has looked nothing like the player that suited up for the Los Angeles Kings over the last two years. He’s been quicker than advertised and he’s found ways to put up points.

In eight games with the Habs, he’s scored four goals and four assists. He also added a goal in the shootout against the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.

Now, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has to decide whether or not to keep Kovalchuk or trade him before the Feb. 24 deadline. With the Habs seven points out of a playoff spot, you’d think that they may look to get an asset or two in return for the veteran winger. Maybe there’s a trade and a side deal reached for next year, but it’ll be interesting to see what the market him is at this point.

Three weeks ago, nobody was willing to touch him. Now, could there be a bidding war for Kovalchuk? If he can keep rolling at this pace (that’s a big “if”), teams will be interested. What makes him even more of an intriguing addition, is that his cap hit is for $700,000. He’s only going to play half a season, so in reality he’ll make just $350,000 this year.

Teams looking for secondary scoring could do worse than Kovalchuk. Bergevin has the opportunity to turn this into a home run move.

What will Penguins do in goal?

What are the Pittsburgh Penguins going to do with their goaltending situation in the second half of the season? It’s an interesting question. Tristan Jarry has carried the load for the last little while, but Matt Murray appears to be played himself back in the picture recently.

Murray has started and won back-to-back games. Now, those games haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been encouraging. After he stopped 28 of 29 shots in a win over Detroit on Friday night, head coach Mike Sullivan went to him again on Sunday afternoon against Boston.

The 25-year-old and his team got off to a rocky start in the first period. They went down 3-0 and the Pittsburgh faithful even gave their starting netminder the Bronx cheer. But Murray settled down and the Pens eventually came back to win the game.

So, who gets the start against Philadelphia on Tuesday night? Do they go back to Jarry or do they give Murray a third straight opportunity right before the break?

Here’s an interesting stat:

What’s coming up this week?
• Afternoon Hockey: Red Wings vs. Avs, Mon. Jan. 20, 3 p.m. ET.
• Islanders vs. Rangers for the third time in eight days, Tue. Jan. 21, 7 p.m. ET.
• Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville is back in Chicago for the first time since his firing, Tues. Jan. 21, 8:30 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Penguins vs. Flyers, Tue. Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m. ET.
• NHL Skills Competition, Fri. Jan. 24, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

NHL on NBCSN
• NHL All-Star Game, Sat. Jan. 25, 8 p.m. ET. (NBC)

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Red Wings vs. Wild, Wed. Jan. 22, 8 p.m. ET. (NBCSN)

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.

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bjorkstrand, Dvorak highlight this week’s top adds

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: Eberle had a disappointing first half of the campaign, but he’s picked up the pace lately with four goals and six points in seven games. He’s a tough one to gauge. Certainly when he’s at his best, he’s worth owning and he had some very strong seasons earlier in his career. The last two seasons though have featured stints of strong play from Eberle, but he’s been more miss than hit over that span. There’s the hope that his recent play will be the start of a second half turnaround, but that’s far from a safe bet. What I will suggest is that you should be weary of him. Pick him up for now and hope for the best, but be prepared to drop him in a couple weeks if things aren’t playing out as you wished.

Tanner Pearson, Canucks – LW: Pearson’s first full season with Vancouver got off to a quiet start. He had just two goals and six points in 18 games through Nov. 10th. He’s found another gear since then though with 12 goals and 31 points in 31 games. He’s been playing alongside Bo Horvat and that combo has worked well together. With Pearson still only owned in 37% of Yahoo leagues, you should check on his status in your league and pick him up if he’s available.

Phillip Danault, Canadiens – C: Danault is on a three-game point streak with a goal and five points over that span. That’s a solid start to what will hopefully be a longer hot streak, but even putting that aside, he’s had a great campaign with 12 goals and 36 points in 50 contests. His center-only eligibility means that he’s still something of a borderline option in standard leagues, but he’s worth taking a chance on while he’s off and he’s good enough to hang onto even when he’s not.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: Bjorkstrand scored five goals and seven points in four games from Dec. 16-21, but in the last game during that stretch he suffered a rib/cartilage contusion and an oblique strain. He made his return from those injuries on Sunday and picked up right where he left off with another two goals. It helps that he’s been averaging 17:18 minutes this season, which is a huge leap from the 12:20 minutes per game of work he got in 2018-19 when he finished with 36 points in 77 games.

Mike Smith, Oilers – G: Smith has certainly not been an ideal goaltender this season, but he’s been great lately and has asserted himself as the Oilers’ starter in the process. So far in January he’s 5-0-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .924 save percentage in six games. I don’t trust him to stay strong for the rest of the second half, but if you’re in need of goaltending help, Smith is probably your best option right now among those who are available.

Anthony Cirelli, Lightning – C: Cirelli had a hat trick on Friday, which gives him six points in his last three games. Immediately following the break might be a good time to bet on the Lightning in general. They’ll kick off with a four-game road trip that takes them to Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose. The Stars are a tough team defensively, but the other three teams in the trip are pretty vulnerable and that could lead to some high scoring games for Tampa Bay in the near future.

Radko Gudas, Capitals – D: If you want help offensively, Gudas isn’t a great bet. He has contributed two goals and 14 points in 49 games, so he’s not a pure stay-at-home defneseman, but he’s very useful in other fantasy categories. He’s tied for sixth in plus/minus at 22 and ranks fifth among defenseman with 135 hits. He’s also been taking a lot of shots lately, accumulating 19 in his last seven games. He’s more of a situation pickup to grab if you’re hurting in categories that are a bit easier to neglect than the more eye-catching offensive statistics.

Alexander Steen, Blues – LW/RW: Steen had a terrible start to the season with five assists in his first 24 games. He may have turned a corner though with four goals and nine points in his last nine contests. This might just be a hot streak and if that’s the case then he’s only worth a short-term pickup. However, Steen’s a good enough player that he might end up having a strong second half of the campaign.

Christian Dvorak, Coyotes – C/LW: Dvorak has 13 goals and 30 points in 51 games in 2019-20, which puts him in that borderline range where he could conceivably be on a fantasy squad year round without looking out of place, but in many cases there are better options out there. For now though he’s hot, having recorded a point in each of his last four games, so if you’re looking for a short-term pickup, he’s an option worth considering, especially given his left wing eligibility.

Zach Parise, Wild – LW: Parise isn’t the star he once was, but the 35-year-old is having a great season with 18 goals and 30 points in 48 games. Right now he’s on a goal scoring streak with four markers in his last three games, so he’s worth considering right now, to ride for as long as he’s hot. It’s worth adding that aside from a bad start to the season where he scored three goals and had no assists in 13 games, he’s been a pretty stable contributor in 2019-20, so he’s also not a bad player to grab simply as an injury replacement if you have a hole to fill on the left wing.

Players You May Want To Drop

Antti Raanta, Coyotes – G: Raanta made his return from a lower-body injury on Saturday, but was chased from that contest after allowing six goals on 18 shots. That’s not the primary reason I’m recommending dropping him though. The All-Star break is just around the corner and Darcy Kuemper will likely return shortly after it. Once he does, Raanta will be relegated to backup duties and won’t have much value as a result.

Dougie Hamilton, Hurricanes – D: Hamilton is still owned in 86% of Yahoo leagues and unfortunately, I’d advise that you drop him unless you’re in a keeper league. Hamilton has had an amazing season, but after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left fibula, he’s likely to miss most if not all of the rest of the campaign. To be fair, we don’t know exactly how long Hamilton will be out because Carolina didn’t provide a timetable, but this is a major injury and half the season is already done so the situation is rather bleak.

Esa Lindell, Stars – D: Lindell had a five-game point streak from Dec. 29-Jan. 9, recording eight assists over that span. He’s been held off the scoresheet over his last four games though, with the lone silver lining being his goal on Jan. 14th. He’s a solid defenseman, but not quite good enough offensively to warrant holding onto at all times unless you’re particularly hurting for blueliners or you’re in a deep league.

Jared McCann, Penguins – C/LW: McCann had a good run from Jan. 5-14 with four goals and five points in his last five games, but he’s been held off the scoresheet in his last three contests. He’s a solid secondary scorer for the Penguins, but isn’t good enough to hold onto outside of his hot streaks. For that reason, I’d recommend dropping him for now and just keeping an eye on him if you’re interesting in grabbing him again once he starts to heat up.

Rasmus Sandin, Maple Leafs – D: Sandin was called up on Jan. 13th and made a great first impression with two assists on Jan. 14th. That excited some fantasy owners given the 19-year-old’s potential, but Sandin was held off the scoresheet in the two games that followed. I think Sandin will eventually be a great defenseman, but right now he’s mostly with the Leafs to fill a hole. He’s only averaged 16:03 minutes over his three games since being summoned. I don’t think he’s going to have much use to fantasy owners in standard leagues in the near future.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

PHT Morning Skate: Metro deadline preview; Should Sharks trade Thornton?

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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.

• Craig Berube is looking forward to taking part in his first All-Star game. (NHL.com)

• Which coach will be the next one to get the axe? (The Hockey News)

• Here’s a trade deadline preview for the Metropolitan Division. (Nova Caps Fans)

• Sportsnet takes a deeper look at the relationship between defensemen in the NHL. (Sportsnet)

• Find out how Zach Hyman‘s father bankrolled a hockey empire. (Toronto Star)

Cory Schneider might be on his last legs with the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

• Has Ryan Dzingel been a good pick up for the Carolina Hurricanes? (Cardiac Cane)

• The Rangers will probably be sellers at the deadline, but how trade-able are all their players? (Blue Line Station)

Bo Horvat had a really good month of January. (Canucks Army)

• The San Jose Sharks may have to give Joe Thornton his Ray Bourque moment. (Fear the Fin)

• The Ducks need to make some moves if they’re going to improve, but who should they get rid of? (Anaheim Calling)

• B.C. police officer Meghan Agosta will be participating in this weekend’s All-Star Game. (Kelowna Now)

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.

The Buzzer: Meet Matiss Kivlenieks; Booming Blackhawks and Blue Jackets

Matiss Kivlenieks Blue Jackets Blackhawks Buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Oliver Bjorkstrand, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bjorkstrand played a big role in the Blue Jackets’ fifth consecutive win. The Rangers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period, where Bjorkstrand scored both of Columbus’ goals for a 2-1 win. The first one was unassisted, while Bjorkstrand generated the game-winner with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Blue Jackets sit in the East’s first wild-card spot … for the time being.

Bjorkstrand now has 14 goals, putting him in range of last season’s career-high of 23. He finished Sunday at 25 points in 37 games this season.

2. Matiss Kivlenieks, also Columbus Blue Jackets

Don’t blame hockey fans if they say, “OK, now the Blue Jackets are just inventing European goalies.” At least we can latch onto the funny name and prolonged hot streak of Elvis Merzlikins.

Kivlenieks, 23, made a splash during his NHL debut on Sunday. The Latvia native stopped 31 of the 32 shots he faced against the Rangers, nabbing a win. Here are a few facts about Matiss, who might draw a few Henri Matisse references from an extremely select group of hockey fans:

  • Kivlenieks wend undrafted.
  • He didn’t exactly set the AHL on fire so far in 2019-20, going 7-7-2 with a weak .896 save percentage.
  • Kivlenieks didn’t really put up very good stats in the AHL in 2018-19 or 2017-18, either. He fared better during eight ECHL appearances in 2018-19, though, managing a .923 save percentage.
  • The “Joker” mask indicates that there’s a chance he is corny.

Numbers at lower levels guarantee little, but they’re better than nothing. Kivlenieks doesn’t really check that box, but then again, neither did Andrew Hammond. So who knows? Goalies: they’re odd.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks

Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blackhawks have won five in a row. To some degree, that boils down to hot play from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (who reached 1,000 points on Sunday).

Don’t discount Lehner’s role in helping Chicago persist in the playoff bubble, though. Despite a significant drop-off in defensive play around him compared to his Islanders run, Lehner continues to look strong in net. He made 36 saves on Sunday to improve to 15-7-4 with a strong .924 save percentage. That’s really not far off from last season’s outstanding .930 mark, which helped Lehner become a Vezina finalist.

Sunday presented some solid honorable mentions. Sidney Crosby collected two assists during the Penguins’ surprising comeback against the Bruins. (Check out Crosby’s no-look pass.) Lehner’s teammate Alex Nylander collected a goal and an assist, and so on.

Highlights of the Night

Justin Williams did more than just return to the Hurricanes and NHL on Sunday. He also scored the shootout-deciding goal and led a “Storm Surge.” (Read this for more on Williams’ triumphant return.)

Patrick Kane didn’t just reach 1,000 points. He did so in style:

Factoids

  • Kane became the youngest U.S.-born player to reach 1,000 points. Consider this post to be its own factoids section on Kane’s milestone.
  • The Penguins joined the Panthers in generated three comeback wins from down three goals or more, according to NHL PR. (Pittsburgh also pulled that off in 2008-09.) The league notes that only three teams have generated more comeback wins from such deficits, all at four: the Red Wings in 1989-90, and both the 1983-84 Oilers and 1983-84 North Stars.
  • Uh oh. Connor Hellebuyck sports a troubling .897 save percentage over his last 16 games after managing a .933 mark during his first 16, according to TSN’s Statscentre. Hellebuyck grabs my current hypothetical Vezina vote in part because he’s carried such a burden for the Jets. Maybe he’s starting to wear down?

Scores

PIT 4 – BOS 3
CAR 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 2 – NYR 1
CHI 5 – WPG 2

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.