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Capitals have some huge decisions to make with key players

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have one of the more complex juggling acts in the NHL over the next year.

His team is just one year removed from its first ever Stanley Cup and is still, as currently constructed, a championship contender that should be one of the best teams in the league this season. They still have their core of stars in place, and they have worked to improve the depth around them with the recent additions of Carl Hagelin (before the trade deadline this past season), Richard Panik, and Garnet Hathaway.

For this season, everything is in place right for another run at a championship.

It is what happens after this season when things will get complicated as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Alex Ovechkin will be set to enter the final year of his contract.

Those are three of the most important players in the history of the Capitals franchise and the backbone of the team that finally brought the Stanley Cup to the district.

It is almost kind of hard to believe that Backstrom and Ovechkin are so close to the end of their deals given how long those contracts were. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that began during the 2008-09 season, while Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract for the start of the 2010-11 season. Given how much the Capitals have received in return from those two they might be two of the best contracts signed during the salary cap era (honestly, the only other contenders are the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo in Pittsburgh).

Now they are starting to reach their end because father time is a relentless monster that is always chasing after each and everyone of us. Time really does fly.

MacLellan’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep them, and which one to let go if it should come to that.

Let’s start with the obvious one: As long as he wants to play in the NHL it is almost impossible to believe that Ovechkin will ever wear a sweater that is not the Capitals. He is one of the “one team” icons in the sport, and there is no way Ted Leonsis is going to let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (and perhaps even reach it) with another team. That is just not going to happen. He stays.

But there is nothing the Capitals can do with Ovechkin’s contract until next July. They can, however, sign Backstrom or Holtby at any point starting right now.

This is where the big decision might have to come in, because given the constraints of the salary cap it is hard to see how they can fit all three on the team beyond this season.

The Capitals have a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, and already have 15 players under contract for 2020-21 and 13 players under contract for the 2021-22 season. Trying to figure out what the salary cap is going to look like in either of those years is nearly impossible right now, but the Capitals already have $62 million committed to their 2020-21 roster and nearly $50 million for the year after.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a lot, and they not only have to worry about re-signing their superstars, but also filling out the remainder of the roster around them.

When it comes to prioritizing between Backstrom and Holtby the most sensible investment would seem to be Backstrom. He is a No. 1 center, still one of the best players in the world, and should continue to be a top-line performer into his 30s.

Will he decline some? Almost certainly. But what he gives the Capitals will still be better than the alternatives they might realistically be able to acquire.

That leaves Holtby. The problem the Capitals will have with Holtby is you already saw what his next contract might look like this summer when Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers. That is going to be a massive contract to squeeze in under the cap when taking into account Backstrom’s next deal (which will probably be a raise, and maybe a significant one, from his current contract) and the eventual extension for Ovechkin (almost certainly $10 million-plus per season).

The only real to realistically do that is going to be shipping out another significant player in a trade.

Tom Wilson? T.J. Oshie? Dmitry Orlov? Or perhaps a combination depth players that are signed to term. The Lars Eller, Hagelin, and Panik trio will combine for $9 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons, all for depth players well into their 30s. Will that be the best use of salary cap space? (This is the risk with signing depth players to long-term contracts.)

But that is IF the Capitals want to make that sort of a commitment to Holtby.

He has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career and is still capable of shining in big moments and carrying the team when he is on top of his game. But over the past two seasons (and including the Stanley Cup year, when he did not even enter the playoffs as the starter) those moments have not been as frequent. He has started to shown signs of slowing down, and investing a seven-or eight-year contract into a goalie that will be 31 years old in the first year of his next deal could be too big of a risk.

If the Capitals have to move on from one of their big-three, Holtby is the most logical choice. He is the one that is probably least likely to retain most of his current value in future seasons, and even though he has been a top-tier goalie for so many years he is also probably the one they have the best chance of replacing.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby era has been an incredible success in Washington, winning two Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup all in the past four years.

But with their current contracts coming to an end it is entirely possible that one of them — probably Holtby — will be finishing their career in a different uniform barring some other significant change elsewhere on the roster.

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.

2020 NHL All-Star Skills: Winners, fun moments, Hertl as Bieber

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All-Star Skills competitions bring about memorable moments in plenty of years. Yet, when Tomas Hertl donned a Justin Bieber mask, fans received something truly unusual: nightmare fuel.

Luckily, that (honestly chilling) vision was just one memorable image from the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills competition. Let’s go over the events, winners, and other fun stuff.

Keeping the St. Louis (and surrounding areas) faithful happy

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Ryan O'Reilly rocked a Chiefs helmet during warm-ups, while Jordan Binnington also supported the Super Bowl-bound team. The Chiefs did the Blues a solid during their Stanley Cup run, so why not pay it forward? Most importantly: it looked funny.

Matthew Tkachuk also went for a cheap pop from the St. Louis crowd by taking off his jersey to reveal St. Louis Cardinals garb during the Shooting Stars competition.

The greatest fan service came during appearances by big names of old. Wayne Gretzky — announced, accurately if amusingly, as a former Blue — really kicked things off. Brett Hull took a shot during the Shooting Stars event, and Keith Tkachuk also joined in alongside Matthew and Brady Tkachuk.

Personally, though, the best moment of all of those cameos came when Al MacInnis showed that he could still provide one of the hardest shots of any human.

Dude is 56. Allegedly.

Shea Weber ended up reclaiming his Hardest Shot title, while Patrick Kane won Shooting Stars.

Hertl wears the Bieber mask, creates nightmare fuel

As great as Hertl was at playing off of Jordan Binnington’s feud/friendly wager with Jordan Binnington (the Blues can fill you in on that), the actual execution of the mask makes me think of Michael Myers. You know, the creepy-masked slasher movie villain guilty of untold fictional executions in the “Halloween” series.

It’s still funny stuff, so enjoy the video above. Just maybe don’t let those images of Hertl as Bieber sink into your soul.

*Shudders*

Hertl explained after the Skills competition that the mask slipped, which made it difficult for him to put a decent shot on Binnington. That slip might also explain why it made it look like Bieber was the face for the rebooted “Shape,” which would make Bieber the next William Shatner.

Anyway, Binnington made that save, and also made the St. Louis crowd happy by winning save relay with 10 saves.

Binnington also got to chirp “Biebs,” saying he expected more. Nicely done.

Who won 2020 NHL All-Star Skills events, including Elite Women’s 3-on-3

So, the strangeness was mostly contained in those moments above. Granted, the Shooting Stars seems like it needs some fine-tuning, and I personally prefer styrofoam or otherwise breakable targets to the digital ones in this year’s accuracy competition.

But beyond those quibbles, the rest of the action was straightforward enough that we can breeze through the winners in one convenient spot.

Winners of Elite 3-on-3 Women’s Hockey: Canada 2-1

Hardest Shot: Shea Weber (106.5 mph)

Fastest Skater: Mathew Barzal (13.175 seconds) upset Connor McDavid (13.215)

Accuracy Shooting: Jaccob Slavin (9.505 seconds)

Save Streak: Jordan Binnington (10 saves)

Shooting Stars: Patrick Kane (22, then 2 in tiebreaker)

Itching for more All-Star Skills fun? Check out the 2019 edition.

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.

NHL All-Stars enjoy ‘really hard’ and ‘unique’ Shooting Stars event

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ST. LOUIS — If it were up to Patrick Kane the NHL All-Star Skills would bring back events like the Puck Control Relay. So despite winning the first ever Shooting Stars challenge Friday night, he yearned for the past.

“I’m a fan of the original Skills stuff, like Puck Control Relay and the actual [Accuracy] targets, the foam targets that blow up,” Kane said. “But I understand where they’re is trying to go with it, where they’re trying to create something different and use technology to their advantage. I think it was a pretty fun night all around.”

The 10 players stood on a platform behind one of the nets in the lower bowl of Enterprise Center. Their goal was to hit targets on the ice, including one that was in the shape of The Gateway Arch. Kane and Mitch Marner each scored 22 points before the Blackhawks forward won after a tiebreaker.

“It’s a little gimmicky, but at the same time you try to have fun with it and enjoy the event,” Kane said. “I think we all had a little pact between that we were going to shoot for the Arch and try to get as many points as we can. It was fun to win it.”

[NHL All-Star Game 2020: Rosters, schedule, jerseys, how to watch]

“Bad preparation by me. I never practiced that,” joked Bruins forward David Pastrnak, who finished with 10 points. “Should’ve built a 30-feet high [platform] and practiced that before All-Star. Unfortunately, I was a bad pro and didn’t do it. That way I can’t deserve a win.”

Now that NHL players got a taste of how the event works they’ll know what to expect next year if they’re All-Stars again. Some, like Pastrnak, can even build a platform in their backyards to practice if they desire.

“I don’t remember them being that small yesterday when we just had a few practice shots,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “Today, it was tough. You can see the winner had 22. So at 22 that means you hit two of the arches — put two in the netting — and then you probably miss the Arch and you get two points. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, but it’s fun.”

The crowd was engaged and not just because Matthew Tkachuk wore a Yadier Molina Cardinals jersey or that Keith Tkachuk had a try. It was a fun, new event introduced by the NHL. Yes, some tweaks are definitely required before the 2021 event in South Florida — adjust the points system, start the targets at center ice — but it definitely beats previous events that killed the energy in the rink.

“It was a little different. Pretty unique,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel. “It seems like the crowd had a good time with it. They were trying to do something new to try and spark the fans’ interest a little bit. I thought it was cool.”

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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.

Patrick Kane beats Mitch Marner in tiebreaker to win first Shooting Stars event

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To jeers from the St. Louis faithful, Patrick Kane won the first rendition of the “Shooting Stars” competition at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Event.

Now, the crowd wasn’t booing just because Kane plays for the Blues’ rival Blackhawks in the Central Division. Some might have been grumbling because of some rules confusion. In particular, shooters going for 10 points often felt like they hit the mark, only to realize that they were foiled by the arc. That happened most dramatically when Mitch Marner thought he hit 10 during the tiebreaker round against Kane (and Ryan O'Reilly?). Once it was clear Marner got nothing, Kane pulled off the equivalent to getting a field goal to win in NFL overtime.

Shooting Stars brings some fun. It also is the sort of activity where you can get a pop from the crowd by bringing in retired stars. The audience received two such treats, as Keith Tkachuk joined his ragamuffin sons Brady and Matthew Tkachuk for an attempt. Brett Hull also took to the stage on behest of Ryan O’Reilly.

People worked the crowd beyond that. As often as Matthew Tkachuk plays the role of pro wrestling villain, he drew some easy cheers by showing off a Cardinals jersey. (To be fair, Matthew spent plenty of time in the area, so he might be a “shoot” Cardinals fan, to use pro wrestling parlance.)

So … maybe this one needs some fine-tuning, but it was really fun, including strong showings from Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. Hockey combining Dude Perfect trick shot videos with Skee-Ball seems like a winner. Now they just need to print out tickets so people can earn worthless nicknacks.

Results

Patrick Kane – 22, “2” in tiebreaker

Mitch Marner – 22, narrowly missed 10 in tiebreaker
Matthew Tkachuk – 20
Marie-Philip Poulin – 15
Hilary Knight – 14
Ryan O’Reilly – 14
David Perron – 14
Tyler Seguin – 14
David Pastrnak – 10
Brady Tkachuk – 6

Shea Weber reclaims NHL Hardest Shot title

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ST. LOUIS — Shea Weber won the 2020 Hardest Shot title with a slap shot of 106.5 mph during Friday’s NHL All-Star Skills event.

“I think I knew all along that we were all just a part of the show,” said defending champion John Carlson, who finished second with a 104.5 mph shot, about going up against Weber.

The Montreal Canadiens captain won the event three straight times from 2015-2017 but did not participate the last two years. Weber topped the field of six players, which also included Elias Pettersson, Mark Giordano, Seth Jones, and Victor Hedman, with a 105.9 mph first shot.

Weber then topped his first attempt with the 106.5 mph blast.

Weber’s two best results in his Hardest Shot career remain the 108.5 mph from 2015 and the 108.1 mph the following year in Nashville.

Before the event got under way Blues legend and seven-time Hardest Shot champion Al MacInnis stepped on the ice, wood stick and all, and blasted one 100.4 mph. That shot tied his best result from the 1998 event, which he won.

FINAL RESULTS
Shea Weber 106.5 (winner)
John Carlson 104.5
Elias Pettersson 102.4
Mark Giordano 102.1
Victor Hedman 102.1
Seth Jones 98.8

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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.