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Capitals GM under pressure to keep core together

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

While Brian MacLellan certainly had a hand in putting together the Capitals’ core as an assistant, he also followed a path similar to Stan Bowman in Chicago: his job has been to maintain a supplement an established group, and deal with the salary cap headaches that arise from that juggling act.

In my opinion, MacLellan has done a mostly masterful job.

Sure, there were some gutters (*cough* Brooks Orpik *cough cough*) to go with the strikes, but MacLellan’s proven to be a strong hire after George McPhee’s extensive run ended. Saving money while possibly making the team better in certain areas isn’t the splashiest work, but he’s done well.

Yet, heading into next season and a bit beyond that, MacLellan will face probably his biggest pressure yet as Capitals GM.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Three Questions]

PHT has tackled this topic before, including in part today, but the Capitals face some truly monumental decisions about their future.

Most directly, both Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom enter contract years, and both stand to enjoy significant raises after being bargains for quite some time.

It’s fascinating enough if you oversimplify it to an either/or question: if the Capitals could only bring back one, which would make sense? Holtby’s been solid as a rock for the Capitals at the league’s most important (and unreliable) position, yet with Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price setting a $10M+ market for what a top goalie can make in unrestricted free agency, Holtby also stands to make a lot more money than his current $6.1M cap hit. It’s also difficult to put a price on Backstrom, but $6.7M is far too low, and while Holtby’s age (29) is a factor particularly considering the term Price and Bob received, Backstrom is 31 already.

If that wasn’t already complicated enough, Alex Ovechkin‘s seemingly eternal contract becomes mortal soon. His approx. $9.54M cap hit only runs through 2020-21, and his situation opens up a slew of questions, especially since he’s already 33.

This is all quite the riddle for MacLellan, and it’s not just about making objective hockey decisions. These are players who’ve meant a lot to the team and its fans, and have been instrumental in great successes. Merely having uncertainty surrounding Holtby and Backstrom could create headaches.

MacLellan faces some fascinating questions surrounding all of that:

  • How much should the Capitals work goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov into the mix? Might MacLellan be bold enough to roll the dice with far cheaper options in net? There’s evidence that the Capitals are reasonably analytics-leaning (see: Panik, and the continued employment of Tim “Vic Ferrari” Barnes), and some would argue that the savvy move is to go younger and cheaper in net. There’d be a lot of pressure on MacLellan either way: scorn if they move away from Holtby and the bottom falls out, and ridicule if they keep Holtby, Holtby falters, and the Capitals have to lose other key pieces because of the expense of re-signing Holtby. Tough stuff, right?
  • The Capitals are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but if there’s some breathing room around trade deadline time, is this a year to go all-in, even if it means coughing up a first-rounder or more? After all, you’re saying goodbye to some of your surplus of talent either in seeing one or more of Holtby/Backstrom leaving, or whoever must be moved out to accommodate new contracts. Maybe that’s your cue to swing for the fences?
  • Oh yeah, things could also get tricky with Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Overall, this is a Capitals team that still carries Stanley Cup expectations. MacLellan’s mostly wise decisions helped push them over the top for that elusive first ring, but the tests only seem to get harder from there.

How would you handle this pressure-packed predicament?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
• One deeper look at Holtby/Backstrom
• Adam Gretz’s take

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 Morning Skate: Neely on Return to Play; NHLers on extended downtime

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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.

• Bruins president Cam Neely on the Return to Play format: “With what the team was able to accomplish in the first 70 games and then the point spread we had — not only with the teams in the league, but also with the teams in our division and conference — to kind of have three games dictate where we fall in the conference standings is somewhat disappointing.” [NBC Sports Boston]

• Why did St. Louis fail to land on the NHL’s list of potential hub cities? [Post-Dispatch]

• The NHL and NHLPA will be pushing back the June 1 signing date for players whose contracts begin next season. [TSN]

• NHL players look to manage uncertain injury risks after extended downtime. [Sporting News]

• This playoff will allow the Avalanche a real good chance to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL.com]

• Columbus’ strong defensive DNA will be important to slow the Maple Leafs’ offense. [Sportsnet]

• The expanded playoff format will only be “a one-time thing.” [The Hockey News]

• How USA Hockey hopes to bring kids back to the ice after the pandemic. [ESPN]

• When free agency opens, the Coyotes should be bold in improving their roster. [Five for Howling]

• Finally, here are the five worst players in EA Sports’ NHL series, according to Operation Sports:

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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.

Sabres fans are fed up with losing, and so is Jack Eichel

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While 24 NHL teams aim to return to play, the Buffalo Sabres will not. Despite seeing a league-leading playoff drought extend to nine consecutive seasons, the Sabres confirmed that GM Jason Botterill will be back. This all translates to deeply frustrating times for Sabres fans — not to mention star Jack Eichel.

And both Eichel and those Sabres fans made some waves with the way they aired their grievances.

Eichel and other Sabres are “fed up with losing”

Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other Sabres vented during recent days. In Eichel’s case, he admitted that he’s “fed up with losing.” When you listen to Eichel, you can hear that mixture of fatigue and anger.

Eichel carries a lot of the burden as the Sabres’ biggest star. Yet, as much as Eichel’s suffered through five years of failures, Rasmus Ristolainen absorbed even more over seven. Rumors circulated that Ristolainen wanted out last summer, and he only (kind of) calmed things down later on.

Maybe that sets the stage for some eyebrow-raising comments? Ristolainen told reporters that he realizes that if someone gets traded, he might be the first to go. The defenseman also acknowledged how comments about building toward the future must make everyone sound like a broken record.

No doubt, missing the postseason in such an embarrassing way has to sting Sabres players like Eichel and Ristolainen. The angst also makes it more awkward for Botterill to try to say all the right things.

With cap space opening up and huge needs still lingering, this is a huge offseason for the Sabres. It also could be a long one in a more literal way, if the 2020-21 season starts in, say, December. Clearly, plenty of Sabres players won’t be feeling very patient if the team suffers through another stretch of setbacks.

Fans share discontent — sometimes creatively

It’s clear — and it’s been clear for a while — that Sabres fans are out of patience, too. (Remember Duane?)

Sabres fan Jill Thompson put the team “up for sale” on Craigslist. While the listing was not very surprisingly removed, Thompson shared a screenshot of it on Twitter:

Thompson wrote this in the listing:

For Sale: NHL Hockey Franchise
Team: Buffalo Sabres
Available: ASAP

*Lost team with diehard fanbase looking for wealthy owner who actually understands hockey*

Organization on the cheap. Could be flipped. Major structural damage but few core pieces still in tact.

Non-Negotiable Terms:
-Franchise must stay in current city and is ineligible for relocation.
-Immediate family (i.e. wife) is not eligible for internal position within the organization
-Must provide “team puppy”

Not crazy about the “immediate family” barb personally, but otherwise? Pretty good. Really, all 31 NHL teams should have at least one puppy.

Thompson explained the listing to the Buffalo News, and capturing the mood of many Sabres fans in the process:

“When I post about the Sabres on Twitter, it’s sadly in a negative light and that is because I am upset for the level of disrespect/lack of accountability/neglect of everything down to the smallest details that we are shown from the owners,” Thompson wrote to the Buffalo News. “As one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports, we deserve better.”

With serious questions lingering regarding goaltending, defense, and forward depth, the Sabres have a long way to go to turn things around. And they might not have a ton of time to win back fans like Thompson.

More on the Sabres

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Beleskey helps Ducks’ winning ways in 2015

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This week’s Hockey Happy Hour on NBCSN will feature four notable milestone and record performances.

In the first-ever playoff meeting between these two teams, the series was tied at two games apiece heading into Game 5. Jonathan Toews of Chicago forced an overtime period when he scored two goals with under two minutes left in regulation, but Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey scored the winning goal in overtime for the 5-4 win. With the victory, the Ducks improved to 11-3 in the 2015 postseason, tying the NHL record for the most consecutive games to begin the playoffs without a regulation loss.

Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti and Brian Engblom had the call from Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.

Thursday, May 28 on NBCSN
• Blackhawks vs. Ducks (2015 Western Conference Final, Game 5) – 5 p.m. ET

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

LA Kings hope late-season surge indicates brighter future

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings were the NHL’s hottest team before the coronavirus pandemic ended the regular season prematurely. They’re hoping they can eventually build on that success whenever they get back on the ice.

The team with the NHL’s longest active winning streak won’t get a chance to extend it this season, thanks to the league’s decision this week to limit its playoff tournament to 24 teams. The Kings’ seven straight victories before the stoppage comprised the franchise’s best stretch since December 2017, and it had even pulled them out of last place in the Pacific Division.

The Kings haven’t lost a game since Feb. 23, and their 10-3-1 surge prior to the pause suggests coach Todd McLellan’s work was finally paying off after Los Angeles mostly struggled through the first four months of a rebuilding season. The Kings’ only public comment on the abrupt end came in a statement from team President Luc Robitaille.

”It’s unfortunate that our season has concluded, but we fully understand this was necessary and support the decision,” Robitaille said. ”At the time of the pause, we had made considerable progress in the second half and were seeing positive results and encouraging signs for the future. We’ll now turn our attention to the NHL draft and player development so that we can continue building our organization for long-term success.”

Despite their late success, the Kings already were all but certain to miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009.

Even after two straight disappointing seasons, Robitaille, general manager Rob Blake and McLellan all appear to be secure in their jobs and locked in on a long-term plan to return the Kings to Stanley Cup contention.

Los Angeles won the trophy twice in three years before entering a slow decline caused by massive veteran contracts and unimpressive talent development, culminating in the struggles that finally showed signs of ending before the coronavirus upended everyone’s plans.

”If we had a chance to finish the season, we’d want to finish the season,” Robitaille said earlier this month. ”Especially the fact that we have a lot of young players, it’s always good experience for them to play.”

CORE GUYS

A championship-winning veteran core remains in Los Angeles, but the Kings must decide whether to keep it together for another year. Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter are all still-productive players locked into big contracts, but Blake knows it’s time to repair the foundation of his franchise to rebuild a winner. Blake values the leadership and experience of those veterans along with longtime depth forward Trevor Lewis, who is the Kings’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agent. Los Angeles already parted ways with stalwart supporting players Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford in February, and while it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect big changes given the contract obstacles, Blake would be foolish not to consider more ways to get younger and more financially flexible.

FIND THE NET

The Kings were among the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams again this season, with Kopitar’s 21 goals and 41 assists easily leading the roster in both categories. Los Angeles had only five 10-goal scorers, while only Kopitar and Alex Iafallo topped 40 points. Despite their offensive struggles, Blake saw progress in the Kings’ implementation of McLellan’s system. ”Clearly we wanted to be a strong-shooting team, a team that got pucks to the net, recovered pucks well and generated offense off that,” Blake said. ”I think the year-end review showed that.”

PING PONG BALLS

The Kings have a 9.5% chance of winning the top pick in the complicated draft lottery this summer. For a franchise that hasn’t drafted a star since Doughty in 2008, a high pick would be an enormous boost. The Kings’ draft carries an added degree of difficulty with the departure of assistant general manager Michael Futa, whose contract expires in June. Still, Los Angeles is in prime position to add another elite talent to a solid pool of prospects including first-rounder Alex Turcotte, Gabe Vilardi, Arthur Kaliyev, Samuel Fagemo and Tyler Madden.

HIGHLIGHTS

Iafallo’s transformation from an undrafted free agent to a consistent NHL scorer in less than three years has been a rare bright spot for the Kings’ recent record of player acquisitions. Ditto for Sean Walker, an undrafted defenseman who played his way into a regular NHL role. Walker’s 24 points this season nearly matched the prolific Doughty, who had 28.

LOWLIGHTS

Carter has two more years left on his 10-year contract extension, but Blake said earlier this month that the 35-year-old veteran scorer wouldn’t have been able to return from his mysterious core injury even if the NHL season had continued for the Kings. And though Adrian Kempe was the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer, his inconsistency aggravated the front office and coaching staff. The Swede will strive for steadier production in the years ahead.