NHL on NBCSN: Capitals’ crazy week and the questions ahead

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Capitals-Rangers stream coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals enter Wednesday’s game against the Rangers with a chance to move back into a tie for first place in the East Division with a win. Somehow, though, that seems to be taking a backseat to all of the wildness that has transpired over the past few days.

So let’s just dig into all of that and try to examine it and all of the questions ahead for what has suddenly become one of the most bizarre teams in the league.

All Tom, All The Time

As you’ve probably already heard, Tom Wilson did something this week and the NHL responded by doing, well, not enough to satisfy anybody outside of Washington. It has now become the story in the NHL, and all eyes will be on him tonight as he faces the Rangers again.

The NHL is taking (much deserved) heat for allowing things to escalate the way they have in Wilson’s career, but there has to come a question as to when the Capitals will start to reach their breaking point.

It is clear that Wilson does not know where the line is and when not to cross it.

He plays a reckless style and it has already cost him 30 games in suspensions and more than a million dollars in salary throughout his career. None of that has delivered the message.

[CAPITALS-RANGERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Most teams that have a player like that eventually get tired of dealing with it. When Raffi Torres got his 41-game suspension (after multiple other suspensions) the Sharks finally stopped defending him (as they fiercely did the year prior following one of his other suspensions). The Penguins eventually told Matt Cooke he had to change or he could not play for them. After multiple postseason suspensions the Maple Leafs traded Nazem Kadri.

How long can the Capitals keep playing the victim before they themselves try to step in and change the behavior of their player?

The argument in Wilson’s favor is that he is a very good player and every team in the league would love to have him. That may very well be true. And if it is true, wouldn’t it be in the Capitals’ best interests to keep him in line so he actually stays in the lineup? Because if he continues to go unchecked he is going to cross the line again. And when he does the next suspension might take him out of the lineup for a lot longer than any of the previous lengthy suspensions did.

The Evgeny Kuznetsov situation

The latest Wilson fiasco has kind of allowed this one to slide under the radar a little bit.

But earlier this week the Capitals benched Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov for a game because they were late for a team function. The next day it was revealed they could miss even more time and that the team was “working through things” in the locker room.

Then came word on Tuesday that Kuznetsov was being added to the NHL’s COVID-19 list for the second time this season. Given that he already tested positive for COVID earlier this season that certainly creates a lot of speculation as to what happened. It is not the first time he has missed time for off-ice incidents, as he was one of four Capitals players that were sidelined for breaking COVID protocols and he was also suspended three games back in 2019. With all of that happening, as well as his sometimes inconsistent play on the ice, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun mentioned on the latest “Insider Trading” that he believes the Capitals could (emphasis on could) be willing listen to trade offers on Kuznetsov this offseason.

Given Kuznetsov’s contract, role, and impact he has made over the years that would be a rather seismic change to the roster.

That is not a change you make lightly. If you do consider it, and then ultimately do go through with it, you better be right or it is the type of move that can set you back a couple of years.

[Your 2020-21 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Goalie questions for the playoffs

Now for a short-term question that could have major implications within the next couple of weeks.

Which goalie is going to end up starting the playoffs?

Imagine it is the preseason, and you are a Capitals fan, and some wild eyed doctor with crazy hair and a young kid show up telling you they are from the future and that Vitek Vanecek is going to be your Game 1 starter for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Pretty heavy, right?

Well it could happen! Neither Vanecek or Samsonov has really done anything to secure the starting job, and it is the single biggest question the team is facing for this year’s playoff run. Neither goalie has been bad. But neither one has really done anything to say “this is my job,” either.

Alex Ovechkin‘s status

After all of that you also have the fact that Ovechkin has played 39 seconds of hockey since April 22. He missed four consecutive games, returned for one shift on Monday, and then exited the game and did not return.

It is not really a huge concern until his status for the playoffs is in question, but given how healthy he has been throughout his career and how few games he has missed seeing him out of the lineup this late in the season has to be concerning for the Capitals.

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.

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    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.