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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.
1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?
Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin‘s been up to?
After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback – what with the whole “winning it all” thing – but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?
Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.
New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.
A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.
Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:
It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.
Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.
While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.
With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?
The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.
3. Will the veterans lose a step?
Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.
That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).
Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.
It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season – clearly – but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.
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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.
1. Build more for the future, or for now?
When you lose a player of John Tavares‘ caliber for nothing but cap space and a roster spot, people are going to pencil you in for a drop-off. After all, Mathew Barzal is one of the players the Isles will point to as a reason for optimism, yet the Islanders still missed the playoffs with Barzal and Tavares on their roster.
The smart thing would be to accept the reality of their situation – particularly after a promising draft including nice picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson – and maybe roll the dice for one more blue-chip prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft. Right? Maybe?
Well, the Islanders are sending some mixed signals.
Some of it stems from simple human nature. Lou Lamoriello is 75. Barry Trotz just won a Stanley Cup, was already part of a lengthy rebuild with Nashville, is 56 himself, and about to enter his 20th NHL season. These are front office members who probably don’t have the highest level of tolerance for growing pains.
The Islanders roster boasts some unsettling contracts, some of which were added by Lamoriello.
Leo Komarov is 31 and received a highly questionable four-year contract. Andrew Ladd, 32, somehow has five years left on his ugly deal. Cal Clutterbuck is 30, Johnny Boychuk is 34, and even slightly younger guys (Thomas Hickey at 29, Josh Bailey at 28) carry some risks. The Islanders have more than $19M going to six defensemen who were abysmal as a unit last season, and four of those contracts have at least four more years remaining.
Trotz’s schemes could conceivably help the Islanders at least wade into the East playoff bubble, as a better defense can beget better goaltending. Combine that with more magic from Mathew Barzal and a few other key forwards, and maybe you have a respectable season.
Is that really the best way to handle this situation, though? The Islanders may instead be better off selling off some of their riskier contracts, handing opportunities to young players instead of fading veterans, and generally living to fight another day. Being too good to possibly land a Jack Hughes but too bad to make a real dent is a bad place to be, and arguably more of the same for a franchise that just lost John Tavares.
Embracing reality late could save a lot of future anguish, and accelerate an ascent to levels not seen in decades. Ideally.
The 2018-19 campaign isn’t just a tug-of-war between players trying not to fade into the sunset versus young players hoping to see the dawn of NHL careers.
There are interesting, prime-age guys whose futures aren’t particularly clear with the Islanders, and the uncertainty should be mutual in some cases, as making the wrong calls regarding terms and money could really put the Isles in a bad spot.
It had to feel comforting for Jordan Eberle to silence many of his Edmonton critics by enjoying the bounce-back season many analytics-minded people anticipated. Maybe Eberle feels a drive to stick with this team, particularly if he can maintain a spot alongside Barzal. That said, Eberle is 28 and only made the playoffs during one season, struggling enough that the Oilers overreacted and traded him. Eberle probably doesn’t want to be stuck in another murky rebuild, and he’s never enjoyed the opportunity to choose exactly where he played NHL hockey. From the Islanders perspective, they must decide if a guy who probably won’t be cheap – why would Eberle take more than a small downgrade from his $6M AAV in a new deal? – is worth keeping around. Will Eberle exit his prime by the time the Islanders are in a more legitimate place to contend?
That’s far the only noteworthy contract year for the Islanders to consider. Anders Lee, 28, has been a wonderful producer, yet he has to prove that he can remain a prolific sniper without Tavares. Brock Nelson, 26, received a one-year “prove it” deal, as did 27-year-old goalie Robin Lehner.
The Islanders would be wise to see how things go with most, if not all, of the players mentioned.
For one thing, management can see where this team ranks, and how the pieces fit together under a new regime and without a foundational star (and with a still-new one taking over).
Lamoriello shouldn’t lag too much, though, as many of these players could command some really nice trade assets. While Eberle’s a little pricey cap-hit-wise and might warrant salary retention, Lee is a huge bargain at $3.75M, Nelson’s at least interesting at $4.25M, and a Lehner resurgence could be awfully appealing for a team wanting goaltending security, considering his mere $1.5M cap hit.
The Isles nailed it when they converted picks to Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom, and Noah Dobson. Imagine if they could pull off a few more strong deals if it’s clear that 2018-19 isn’t their year?
3. How will Trotz handle young players?
The good news is that Barry Trotz is no stranger to developing young players. He did it for years with the Predators, helping Nashville show how you can build a team from scratch (at least when the expansion rules made it way tougher to do so).
There are questions about some of Trotz’s preferences. Consider that at least a subset of Capitals fans were frustrated with Trotz’s occasional reluctance to give young players like Andre Burakovskythe green light, and accepting the risks that come with such a commitment. Is it a coincidence that Filip Forsbergwas demoted to the AHL late in Trotz’s Nashville days, while it seemed like he flourished overnight once Peter Laviolette took over? Maybe, but there are skeptics out there when it comes to this area of Trotz’s coaching philosophies.
The Islanders already possessed so-so, aging players who could stand in the way of younger players taking crucial next steps. They added more this summer in the form of Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Matt Martin.
Will this adversely affect players who need sink or swim opportunities very soon (if not now?), like Josh Ho-Sang? That could be a shame, as a lot of those veterans are unlikely to be a part of the big picture.
Losing Tavares is brutal, no doubt, but it’s up to the Islanders to bounce back in the best way possible, or really let the pain linger.
Summer summary: If your main complaint about the Hurricanes was about the franchise getting too stagnant – considering that they’ve missed the playoffs since being swept from the 2009 Eastern Conference Final – then the team has you covered. Ron Francis is out as GM, making way for Don Waddell. Rod Brind’Amour replaced Bill Peters as head coach. And the team will look different on the ice, too.
Cam Ward‘s finally gone, with Petr Mrazek coming in with the hopes of supporting Scott Darling after a disastrous first season as Carolina’s would-be No. 1 goalie. To avoid introducing too much change, Carolina maintained its status as analytics darlings by adding solid defenseman Calvin de Haan to an increasingly impressive group.
More to do?: The Hurricanes come into 2018-19 with a ton of cap space and an anxiousness to break the playoff drought, so you wonder if they might want to jump in, say, the Max Pacioretty sweepstakes.
That said, perhaps Jeff Skinner gets traded? The talented skater is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes might not want to cough up a new contract, so we’ll wait and see there.
Where they stand: In a familiar place, seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough, yet also with serious questions about goaltending.
(The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?)
The Hurricanes boast quite a bit of talent, but also a lot to prove, especially with a new coach and Hamilton stepping in as a prominent new defenseman. Will they fall short of the hype once again?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Summer summary: Generally speaking, the most prominent talk about changes in Columbus revolve around next summer.
Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are entering contract years, and Panarin in particular seems to be a tough nut to crack. The Blue Jackets might feel the need to trade Panarin rather than seeing him walk for nothing (except cap space) in free agency. It’s a disquieting situation, as Panarin showed signs of being the difference-maker the Blue Jackets have lacked ever since they climbed into relevance.
Columbus did make some nice low-risk, medium-reward plays, though. Anthony Duclair is an interesting addition considering his bargain rate, and Riley Nash could be a savvy pickup, too.
More to do?: Again, sorting situations out with Panarin and “Bob” should keep the Blue Jackets very busy.
Not much has been made of this, but Cap Friendly pegs their space at about $5.63 million, and that’s with an overstuffed roster. If the Blue Jackets decide to just roll the dice in 2018-19 and then let the pieces fall how they may when it comes to Panarin, maybe they’d be wise to try to land an expiring contract? Skinner, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson all could conceivably push this team over the top.
The Blue Jackets could justify a vacation before things pick up, generally, as most of their concerns are more forward-thinking.
Where they stand: No doubt, it must be beyond frustrating for Columbus to see the Stanley Cup winner come out of their division for three seasons in a row, yet they still haven’t won a single playoff series as a franchise. Such frustrations clearly boiled over when Torts beefed about Jack Johnson‘s perceived slights while joining the hated Penguins.
New Jersey Devils
Summer summary: If you count Taylor Hall winning the 2018 Hart Trophy, this was a solid-enough summer for the Devils.
New Jersey deserves credit for restraint, more than anything else, this off-season. Sure, it would be great to continue adding key pieces, as they’ve done for multiple summers now. Still, plenty of franchises overreact to an unexpected postseason surge by making reckless, shortsighted investments.
Instead, the Devils allowed Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, and John Moore walk rather than possibly giving them problem contracts. GM Ray Shero clearly prefers maintaining flexibility for the moments when he might be able to land another asset in a winning trade. Can you blame him?
More to do?: Unless the Devils are lurking on another big deal, it’s mostly smaller stuff, like signing RFAs Miles Wood and Steve Santini. It might not hurt to start battering around potential extension offers with Will Butcher, though, as he’s on a deal that expires after 2018-19.
Where they stand: Hall provided a Herculean effort to get the Devils into a surprise spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make a repeat appearance, he’d almost certainly need to be as good or better this season.
New Jersey heads into this campaign as an underdog once again, yet there’s quite a bit to like about what the Devils are cooking. They still need some help behind Hall to really scare other teams, though.
New York Islanders
Summer summary: *Cough* oh dear, this is awkward.
So, the Islanders began the summer on a relatively strong note. They enjoyed one of the best weekends at the 2018 NHL Draft and brought in Lou Lamoriello as GM, who then hired a reigning Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz. Pretty, pretty good.
All of that crumbled, of course, when John Tavares decided to leave the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lamoriello responded to that rebuke by clogging up an already expensive bottom-of-the-order with a blah contract for Leo Komarov, a mediocre signing in Valtteri Filppula, and trading for Matt Martin. Yikes.
At least their moves in net might help stem the tide in that regard. Jaroslav Halak‘s turbulent era is over, as volatile (but occasionally brilliant) goalie Robin Lehner comes in to compete with Thomas Greiss and others.
More to do?: The Islanders need to think long and hard about trading some valuable players entering contract years rather than risking losing them altogether, or signing them to deals that could end up being a waste of money. (Sometimes it’s better just to commit to a rebuild instead of taking half-measures.)
Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all see their current deals expire after 2018-19. Trading one or more of those useful forwards could give the Islanders’ rebuild another big boost.
Where they stand: Look, the dark times have outweighed the peaks for Islanders fans for decades now. Asking for patience won’t be the easiest sell.
That said, with a budding star in Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have a chance to – in a way – get the Tavares situation right this time. They merely need to look around their division to see teams that landed premium prospects in multiple drafts, made some smart moves on the periphery, and yes, enjoyed some good fortune to turn things around.
Finishing at or near the playoff bubble year after year did them very little good.
New York Rangers
Summer summary: Around trade deadline time, the Rangers embraced a rebuild much like the Islanders arguably should. They took another step in that direction by replacing polarizing head coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn. The Rangers’ logic all seemed sound here.
Still, as an “it” destination for free agents, there might have been a temptation to, say, throw a bunch of money at Ilya Kovalchuk as the latest quick-fix.
(After all, the Rangers have been seduced by headline-grabbing moves essentially since Glen Sather started chewing cigars at MSG.)
Instead, they stood pat, and time will tell if they made the most of three first-rounders and six picks within the first three rounds.
More interesting questions loom around some other players. Would the Rangers consider shopping beloved winger Mats Zuccarello, who’s entering a contract year and might not want to stick around for a rebuild considering he’s already 30? Also, if Artemi Panarin favors a market like New York, would the Rangers be able to move closer to competing close to 2019-20? Management needs to answer questions like these.
Where they stand: This team seems fairly transparent about pivoting for at least one season. Credit management for seeing the writing on the wall, though 2018-19 could be painful to watch as a result.
It’s fascinating to wonder how Henrik Lundqvist truly feels about all of this, and how many times he’ll snare victory from the jaws of defeat (maybe to the Rangers’ short-term detriment).
Summer summary: Spending $35M over five years is a bit pricey to be called a “mulligan,” but either way, the Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk after getting hosed in the Luke Schenn trade. GM Ron Hextall’s M.O. mostly revolves around being patient and either trading away lousy deals or letting them evaporate with time, so it should be fascinating to see how an old-fashioned, big-money Flyers signing works out in a more … stable era.
More to do?: Somewhat like Columbus, the Flyers’ biggest concerns rest on what to do after 2018-19.
Wayne Simmonds is due a big raise, and it’s plausible that JVR is penciled in to be his replacement. Both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are entering contract years, so the Flyers’ perpetual goalie questions seem likely to continue. Ivan Provorov’s about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, too.
Clearing up those situations – eventually – will play a big role in Philly’s future.
Where they stand: The Flyers are already translating promise to tangible results. Hyped players like Provorov are producing as advertised.
So it seems like the Flyers have “good” more or less locked down. The next step ranks as one of the toughest mountains to climb in sports: going from good to great. There’s a solid chance that the Flyers can make that leap, but it won’t necessarily be easy.
Summer summary: After falling short of a three-peat, the Penguins made some interesting choices.
The key subtraction was Conor Sheary while it seemed like the team’s machinations went into landing Jack Johnson. By just about any metric (beyond “third pick of the 2005 NHL Draft” and “Sidney Crosby‘s friend”), Johnson isn’t particularly effective. The Penguins’ front office obviously believes otherwise, and their off-season basically comes down to exchanging Sheary, Matt Hunwick, and others for Johnson.
More to do?: Pittsburgh doesn’t have any free agents left to deal with, but there are some pressing issues after this coming season. The biggest wild card is that Jake Guentzel is scheduled to become an RFA after his rookie deal expires. What to pay a player with solid stats in the regular season, but most noticeably, generating an excellent 42 points in 37 playoff games?
There are other smaller questions. There were also strange rumors about Phil Kessel being shopped (hot take: they probably shouldn’t do that). But, generally speaking, the big picture for Pittsburgh is the status quo.
Where they stand: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row, then finished last season in the second round. Despite such an impressive run, Pittsburgh seems poised to contend once again, as they still have Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray.
There’s always concern about hitting a wall, though, particularly since the Penguins’ core players have so much mileage on them between deep postseason runs, international play, and in many cases a decade-plus of intense NHL play.
Crosby and Kessel are 30; Malkin and Letang are both 31. The Penguins’ window should still be open, probably for a while. Even so, fates can turn on a dime in sports. There’s always the chance that this talented group slips.
Summer summary: The summer … you mean, one long hangover for the Capitals? After years of frustration, Alex Ovechkin & Co. won it all after it seemed like the best opportunities went out the window. Repeating won’t be easy, but it’s probably the No. 1 problem the Caps always wanted to have.
The Capitals saw some losses, though smaller than you might expect from a team that just won the Stanley Cup. Jay Beagle was well-liked, but ranks as an expendable “energy guy,” while Brooks Orpik left and then returned. The toughest loss is Philipp Grubauer, an excellent backup receiving his chance to transition into a top guy with Colorado. If Braden Holtby stumbles in the regular season again, the Capitals’ grip on the Metro crown may finally loosen.
Overall, Washington did a nice job keeping players at a reasonable clip, including somewhat unexpectedly managing to retain John Carlson‘s services. Rather than falling into the trap of giving playoff heroes way too much money, the Caps generally leveraged the “we just won” factor to sign Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly to perfectly reasonable contracts.
Of course, the biggest change of all ranks as quite unusual. You don’t see coaches leave teams they won Stanley Cups with very often (Mike Keenan comes to mind; Jimmy Johnson in the NFL), yet that is exactly what happened with Barry Trotz. Todd Reirden faces the tough task of attempting to repeat as a rookie head coach.
Interestingly, Washington might actually be in a halfway-decent spot to try to land a premium rental. While Wilson will eat up a significant chunk of the available space, Cap Friendly puts Washington’s room at about $6.27M right now.
Where they stand: They’re the defending champions and they didn’t lose a major piece of their roster. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Capitals won: they have two fantastic centers, the world’s most lethal sniper, a reliably excellent goalie, and some other very nice supporting cast members to buoy their chances.
Like their BFFs in Pittsburgh, there’s concern about the aging curve, though both teams are more likely to worry about tougher days on the horizon rather than next season.
Still, it’s worth noting that Ovechkin is 32, Nicklas Backstrom is 30, and T.J. Oshie is somehow 31. They aren’t ancient by any stretch, but some players hit the wall sooner – and harder – than others.
Considering the victory parade that may stretch (unofficially) through the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals see a slight dip through the dog days of 2018-19. It’s most likely that they’ll place themselves in a strong position to defend their title once the games start to matter quite a bit more.
T.J. Oshie is one of the many celebrities – NHL players included – participating in the American Century Championship this weekend, so he kindly shared some “cup confessions,” which you can enjoy in the video above this post’s headline.
Oshie’s confessions get off to a bit of a tepid start – you’re not going to believe this, but many Washington Capitals didn’t sleep the night they won the Stanley Cup, quite shocking – yet things get better. Mainly when he’s ragging on Andre Burakovsky.
As someone who can’t grow a beard, allow some sympathy for the 23-year-old:
The PHT Stanley Cup tracker will keep tabs on how the Washington Capitals spend their summer celebrating
Last time in the chronicles of the Cup, Alex Ovechkin had taken the mug home to Russia, where it visited the World Cup and where Ovechkin’s dad, Mikhail, got to lift Lord Stanley for the first time.
Of course, no trip to Russia would be complete without a trip to Red Square. Ovechkin, obviously aware of this, showed up to the iconic setting unprompted with the Cup.
It’s not certain what the most expensive thing that has been eaten out of the mug bit of the Stanley Cup — cereal, expensive booze, etc., has all made its way into the bowl — but we’ll assume filling it with caviar is right up there.
The Cup tour will take a much-needed break this week as it makes it’s way back to domestic soil. In two week’s time, Stanley will visit Minnesota and North Dakota, including time spent with Matt Niskanen and T.J. Oshie.