Braden Holtby

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Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.

Caps’ Ovechkin leaner if not lighter going into 15th season

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CHICAGO (AP) – Alex Ovechkin doesn’t think he’s any lighter going into his 15th NHL training camp.

”The same 260,” he said.

That might be a slight exaggeration for a player listed at 235 pounds, though the Washington Capitals captain worked to be leaner and quicker. When the season starts, he’ll be 34.

He’s made a concerted effort with different summer training to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of the league while remaining undecided about his long-term future.

”The game is getting faster, so you have to get ready for more speed in the game and don’t try to lift too much weight and just be quicker,” Ovechkin said.

The Russian star who was named playoff MVP in 2018 for leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup plays more like a freight train than a Porsche. His physicality makes him stand out in the modern NHL trending toward speed and skill and has helped make him the best goal-scorer of this generation.

Ovechkin’s 658 goals put him 12th on the all-time list, and there’s still speculation he could catch Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 if he keeps producing at his now typical level. It could take Ovechkin playing until he’s 40 to even approach Gretzky, and he’s not ready to commit to anything beyond the two years left on his current contract.

”After two years, let’s talk,” Ovechkin said Friday at the annual NHL/NHLPA preseason player media tour. ”We’ll see what’s gonna happen in two years. Of course, I want to play till I can’t play.”

Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down. He scored 51 goals last season and was the oldest to eclipse the 50-goal mark since Phil Esposito in 1974-75.

He and the Capitals could agree to a contract extension as soon as July 1, the same situation they’re in with longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby. If that’s on his mind, Ovechkin isn’t showing it.

”I’m not close to that,” he said.

Ovechkin could go the way of countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk and go home to play in the KHL once this contract is up. Or he could be like San Jose’s Joe Thornton and go year to year based on how he’s feeling.

”I don’t want to be the guy who go out there and just like play (like) a joke,” Ovechkin said. ”If I’m gonna be in the same level, yeah.”

If Ovechkin maintains this level, 894 isn’t out of the question. If he keeps up his trademark durability, he’ll surpass 700 goals this season and isn’t ruling out taking a shot at Gretzky.

”It’s always a chance,” he said. ”I have to play the same way, I have to do the same thing, I have to use my chances and we will see.”

Three key questions for Capitals in 2019-20

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. 

Let’s ponder three questions for the Capitals …

1. Will Evgeny Kuznetsov get on track?

It’s been a whirlwind year or so for Kuznetsov, as he’s gone from a key contributor during that memorable Stanley Cup run (eagle celebrations and all) to attracting a lot of negative attention off the ice, to the point that the IIHF suspended him for four years after he tested positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship.

One can only speculate about whether off-ice issues have affected Kuznetsov’s play, but either way, you could argue that he didn’t always perform up to his own (lofty) standards in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov hasn’t ever really resembled a Selke candidate, but his defensive numbers were a little troubling last season, as you can see from the mix of good (offense) and bad (defense) in his RAPM chart from Evolving Wild:

Kuznetsov has things to work on, even if the NHL doesn’t add any additional fines or suspensions stemming from that IIHF suspension.

Even with some flaws that magnified last season, Kuznetsov is a difference-maker for the Capitals on the ice, so it’s a pivotal situation for Washington.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

2. Can the Capitals’ core hang with the best of the best?

The Kuznetsov question spirals out to an even deeper one: does this team still have what it takes to hang with the absolute cream of the crop?

This isn’t meant as an insult to a Capitals team that has a strong chance to win another Metropolitan Division. Instead, it just speaks to the level of talent at the top of the NHL, especially in an Atlantic Division that’s downright foreboding at the top.

When you line up the Capitals’ biggest stars and strengths up alongside what the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and possibly a few other East standouts, how often do you expect Washington to prevail?

Much like with Boston, the Capitals have managed to find some nice players beyond their core, but they’re still driven by their core. And while that group is by no means “ancient,” you have to wonder if enough players will lose enough steps that they might not be favorites. Alex Ovechkin is 33, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, T.J. Oshie is somehow 32, and plenty of other players are close to 30.

For years, the Capitals have been a team who’ve generated some troubling possession stats, yet they’ve consistently beat expectations, whether that’s by manufacturing the higher-danger chances needed, or merely having the sheer skill to overcome often allowing more raw chances than they create (or at other times, barely keeping their heads above water). What if 2019-20 is the season where that skill edge starts to recede?

3. Will a tweaked supporting cast flourish?

GM Brian MacLellan did a masterful job navigating salary cap challenges, even if it forced him to say goodbye to Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, and Brett Connolly. More than a few wonder if bringing in Radko Gudas for Niskanen improved their defense, rather than merely opening up money. Richard Panik could end up being a savvy pickup like Connolly once was, even if the two bring value in different ways.

Yet, MacLellan maneuvering well given the circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals’ supporting cast will be better.

That could be key, too, if the aforementioned core group takes a step back. Along with getting the most out of newcomers, the Capitals have to hope that players like Jakub Vrana can take the next step forward.

***

One way or another, this Capitals team seems primed to be quite good. Answering those questions – and addressing the contract situations for Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom – will go a long way in answering how good the Capitals will end up being, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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.

Holtby’s future uncertain heading into contract year

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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. 

A few years ago, if you would’ve suggested that Braden Holtby‘s future in Washington was in doubt, many hockey fans would’ve suggested you were crazy. After all, he has been one of the top goalies in the league for a while and he won a Vezina Trophy as recently as 2015-16. Oh, and he also helped the Caps win a Stanley Cup just last season.

Still, it’s interesting to note that the Capitals haven’t given him a contract extension heading into the final year of his current deal. He was eligible to sign an extension on July 1st, 2019, and teams with franchise players usually opt to get a new contract signed as soon as that player is eligible to do so.

Why haven’t the Caps extended Holtby yet?

Well, it might have something to do with the fact that they want to see how he performs at the start of this year. Although the Capitals have had a ton of success over the last two seasons, their starting netminder has had his issues with consistency. In 2018, the year they won the Stanley Cup, Holtby’s play dropped off so badly that backup netminder Philipp Grubauer took over between the pipes. Grubauer actually started the first two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs until they want back to Holtby in Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Last season, there was a stretch from Jan. 18 to Feb. 23 where Holtby won just four of his 13 appearances. In the end, he finished with a 2.82 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage in 59 games. It’s safe to say the Capitals are expecting more from their number one goalie.

The fact that Holtby doesn’t have a new contract yet probably doesn’t mean that the Caps want to get rid of him, but it indicates that the two sides likely don’t agree on his dollar value. Is the 29-year-old looking for a deal similar to the one Sergei Bobrovsky signed with Florida this summer (seven years, $70 million)? Would the Caps be willing to go anywhere close to that? Probably not.

It’ll be interesting to see where the two sides end up meeting (if at all) once the negotiations are concluded. Holtby made it pretty clear that he wants to come back.

“This is all I know here,” Holtby said of Washington, per NBC Sports Washington. “I’d love [to re-sign]. I think that’s pretty clear. But you don’t worry about that stuff. I’m lucky enough to be here for at least right now so happy for that.

“It’s just one of those things, you let the business side of it take care of it and you focus on your job. I’m lucky enough to be under contract for another year to play hockey here so it’s pretty fortunate and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity with a great team coming back.”

It’ll be fascinating to see how Holtby handles the uncertainty surrounding his contract status. This will probably be the top storyline for this team heading into the season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.