Capitals have some big questions after fourth straight First Round exit

Washington Capitals
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In the end it was Carter Verhaeghe, and not Jonathan Huberdeau or Aleksander Barkov, that the Washington Capitals did not have an answer for in their First Round playoff series.

When he scored two minutes into overtime of Game 6 on Friday night, sending the Florida Panthers to the Second Round for the first time in 26 years, it also sent the Washington Capitals to their fourth consecutive First Round exit.

It is certainly a disappointing end for Washington, not only because it is a team that is another year older and closer to the end of its run than the beginning, but also because it was a series where it had plenty of opportunities to win. The Capitals did not get run out of the building by the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers, and it was certainly not the one-sided mismatch many expected it to be at the start. They mostly kept the Panthers in check and had leads (including a three-goal lead!) in each of the last three games of the series (all losses).

That, combined with the fact they have not advanced in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, is going to lead to a lot of questions this offseason about what this team is and where it can still go.

Let’s try to tackle some of those questions now.

Just how good is this team as currently constructed?

The Capitals are clearly not where they were back in 2016, 2017, and 2018 when they were either winning the Presidents’ Trophy or the Stanley Cup every season. But they are still good.

They may have been the eighth playoff team in the East, but they still finished with 100 points in a very tough division. They also got there while Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha (literally half of their top-six forwards) each missed half of the season due to various injuries. That also does not include the five games they played without Tom Wilson in the playoffs.

They also spent the year getting average at best goaltending from Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov as the duo finished 16th in 5-on-5 save percentage and 23rd in all situations. They were one of just three teams to finish below 18th in all situations save percentage to actually make the playoffs (Los Angeles at 19th, Toronto at 22nd, and the Capitals at 23rd), while no playoff team was lower than them. So even getting there with that level of goaltending is an accomplishment in itself.

Unfortunately, that position did not get much better in the playoffs.

There are a lot of flaws there, but the results were still pretty good. And that makes it easy to get sucked into the belief that better health and better goaltending could produce better results.

They have to find a goalie

The Capitals have used the Samsonov-Vanecek duo for two years now, finishing 19th and 23rd respectively in all-situations save percentage and not being close to good enough in the playoffs.

That is a problem.

Also a problem is the fact none of their goalies are currently under contract for next season (they are both restricted free agents). Is there anything that should make you think they should make a significant investment in either of them? Or that a “prove it” contract will result in a different outcome?

If the Capitals still have sights set on seriously competing this position has to get better. A quick look at the potential free agent options shows Darcy Kuemper and Jack Campbell as pending UFAs. Kuemper will be pricey and have no shortage of suitors if he hits the open market. Marc-Andre Fleury is also set to be available, but him playing in Washington does not seem to be in the cards.

In the end the Capitals received some of the worst goaltending of any playoff team in the NHL this season and no matter what else happens with the rest of your team that can be difficult to overcome. Is it the biggest problem in Washington? That is certainly debatable. But it might be the quickest fix.

Will everybody be back?

Aside from the goaltending question, the Capitals have a couple of pending UFA’s on defense (Justin Schultz, Michal Kempny, Matt Irwin) and still need some improvements.

They do not have a lot of salary cap space to play with because they have some significant contracts on their books.

Alex Ovechkin is not going anywhere. Unless Nicklas Backstrom decides to walk away and retire he is not going anywhere.

Evgeny Kuznetsov spent most of the 2021 offseason on the trade rumor mill, so it is worth pondering if the Capitals would explore that possibility again. But he also had a great bounce back year and was their best center this season. Trading him now seems counterproductive.

Anthony Mantha has a significant contract number and has not quite been what expected in Washington, but a lot of that has been due to a lack of availability. When healthy I still think he can be a really good player here and one that will ultimately be worth his cap number (and the price they paid to trade him).

Two names that should be in play? Oshie and Lars Eller. Oshie has been a fantastic Capital, but I do not know that he is going to age as well as players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, or Kuznetsov, and at a $5.75 million cap number for another three years, that might be one you try to get out of.

Eller is intriguing because his cap number is fair, he can still play his role pretty well, and the Capitals could use an extra $3 million to play with. There is also the fact Connor McMichael needs a bigger role and still only costs $863,000 against the cap for the next two seasons. You lose four years in a row you have to expect some changes, especially when you still have holes to fill.

The Capitals have been near the top of the NHL for a decade-and-a-half and been one of the league’s elite teams. When you are on top that long, and have a core that is getting onto the other side of their 30s, it is inevitable that a decline will arrive. That decline has definitely started to arrive. But it is not yet a cliff dive and it is clear this team can still be a playoff team, and a pretty good one. A full-blown rebuild will need to happen in time, but that time is not here yet. But some changes still need to be made if they are going to be more than a team that simply gets to the playoffs without being able to do anything once they get there.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.