Brenden Dillon

Pending free agents confront injury risk in NHL playoffs

Alex Pietrangelo and his wife had ongoing discussions about whether he should return to the ice when the NHL season resumes.

In addition to wanting to keep the couple’s infant triplets safe during the pandemic, the 30-year-old captain of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues is heading into free agency while in his prime. He decided to play.

”The focus right now is just kind of getting through this healthy and playing and we’ll see where things end up,” Pietrangelo said.

Staying healthy has added importance for Pietrangelo, Boston’s Torey Krug, Arizona’s Taylor Hall, Washington’s Braden Holtby and more than 100 other pending unrestricted free agents taking part in the 24-team playoffs. Instead of cashing in July 1 had this been a normal year, they face the risk of injury after several months off that could put big paydays in jeopardy.

”Being a free agent that goes into this situation, it’s definitely risky,” Krug said. ”I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not. Having three or four months off, and then going right into the most intense hockey you could possibly play at any level, there’s always risk for injury no matter when you play. But certainly in this moment you don’t have the normal training that you do, the preparation, all the work to make sure your body feels good and you can go in without any worries.”

The worries weren’t severe enough for most to opt out. Calgary’s Travis Hamonic and Edmonton’s Mike Green are pending free agents who decided not to play, but they cited family health concerns as the reason.

The thought of not playing never crossed Holtby’s mind. Two years removed from backstopping the Capitals to their first title, the 30-year-old goaltender is more focused on trying to win the Cup again than endangering his future earnings by doing so.

”My job right now is to win a championship with the Caps,” Holtby said. ”Everything else after that is completely irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve ever worried about injuries or anything like that. Any game that you get to play, you are pretty fortunate to get to play in this league.”

Florida teammates Evgenii Dadonov and Mark Pysyk are on that same page, too. Pysyk said he gave little to no thought about opting out, figuring this was no different from competing in the playoffs any other season. Dadonov said he’s ”not scared” about risking injury.

Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon doesn’t think he has it worse as a pending free agent than others around the league.

”There’s always a risk when you have a big layoff like this,” Dillon said. ”I think it just goes to the preparation for us as players in general, whether you are (a free agent) or a guy on a six-year deal.”

Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal with the Capitals in January, and had more than a few people tell him he’s lucky for getting that done. Under the collective bargaining extension the league and players’ union agreed to, the salary cap will remain flat at the current $81.5 million for at least next season and possibly beyond because of revenue lost during the pandemic.

That economic reality could mean Pietrangelo doesn’t get the kind of monster contract other elite defensemen such as Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Roman Josi signed. Holtby might have to settle for something less than the $70 million, seven-year deal fellow Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky got from the Panthers last summer.

They might have to choose between taking less money from a championship contender or more from a rebuilding team. But they insist that will be a worry for after the season when free agency opens in October.

”I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Krug said. ”I’m just trying to take it day by day and worry about the playoffs right now and then I’ll probably prepare for free agency and see what happens from there.”

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour schedule: June 1-4

NBC Sports

NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour features original shows, films and documentaries this week on NBCSN, headlined by Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson, The Joe: Joe Louis Arena Documentary and 2020 All-Star All Access.

Beginning Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET, NBC Sports will present two episodes of NHL’s Who Wore It Best? on NBCSN. The episodes will feature analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp taking part in debates over the best players to wear certain jersey numbers in NHL history.

NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban continues Monday at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Hosted by the Devils defenseman, the show features fans answering a trio of hockey trivia questions from their homes, along with appearances from NHL players and celebrities, for the chance to win NHL prizes. NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire will join the show, as well as Hockey Hall of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion Bryan Trottier, Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood and NHL referee Wes McCauley.

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

Monday, June 1 – NBCSN
• NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban (Episode 8) – 5 p.m. ET
• The Joe: Joe Louis Arena Documentary – 5:30 p.m. ET

Tuesday, June 2 – NBCSN
• NHL’s Who Wore It Best? (Episode 2) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL’s Who Wore It Best? (Episode 3) – 5:30 p.m. ET
• Distanced Training: Ready to Get Back in the Game – 6 p.m. ET
• Unveiled: Smashfest – 6:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday, June 3 – NBCSN
• #HockeyAtHome: He Skates, She Skates – 4 p.m. ET
• Our Line Starts – 4:30 p.m. ET
• Fort Neverlose – 5 p.m. ET

Thursday, June 4 – NBCSN
• 2020 All-Star All Access – 5 p.m. ET
• Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson – 6 p.m. ET

MONDAY, 6/1

NHL HAT TRICK TRIVIA HOSTED BY P.K. SUBBAN : NBC Sports’ ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Pierre McGuire will join the eighth episode of NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban. The show features fans answering a trio of hockey trivia questions from their homes, along with appearances from NHL players and celebrities, for the chance to win NHL prizes. Additional guests on the episode include Hockey Hall of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion Bryan Trottier, Devils goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood and NHL referee Wes McCauley.

THE JOE: JOE LOUIS ARENA DOCUMENTARY: The film highlights the construction of the arena and a number of the significant moments that took place there over the years, including the team’s Stanley Cup-clinching win in 1997 that ended a 42-year championship drought. The Joe includes interviews with former captain and current GM Steve Yzerman, as well as late Red Wings legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.

TUESDAY, 6/2

NHL’S WHO WORE IT BEST?: NHL’s Who Wore It Best? will feature hockey writers, broadcasters and insiders debating the best players to wear each jersey number in NHL history. The five-part series will air on NBCSN every Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET. The second episode features NBC Sports analyst Keith Jones, who takes part in debating the following jersey numbers: 55, 40, 34, 32 and 31. The third episode features NBC Sports analyst Patrick Sharp, who takes part in debating the following jersey numbers: 28, 27, 26, 25 and 21.

DISTANCED TRAINING: READY TO GET BACK IN THE GAME: NBC Sports’ Jac Collinsworth hosts a digital series, Distanced Training: Ready to Get Back in the Game, which showcases the home workouts and mental training of some of the world’s top professional, collegiate, and Olympic athletes. This 30-minute special from the digital series includes interview clips with:

• Sabres forward Jack Eichel
• Predators forward Matt Duchene
• 2018 Olympic women’s hockey team gold-medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield
• Panthers forward Noel Acciari
• Devils forward Joey Anderson and brother Mikey Anderson, a defenseman on the Kings
• Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon

UNVEILED: SMASHFEST: Former NHL player Dominic Moore hosts a 30-minute program with special guests Brad Marchand of the Bruins and Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs who work with a world-renowned street artist to design custom ping pong tables for charity.

WEDNESDAY, 6/3

#HOCKEYATHOME: HE SKATES, SHE SKATES: NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen co-hosts a 30-minute program that features three sets of NHL players and their family members who play the sport professionally or collegiately. The pairings are:

• Avalanche forward J.T. Compher and sister Jesse Compher, who plays for Boston University
• Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse and cousin Sarah Nurse, who plays professionally and for Team Canada
• Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson and wife Emily Pfalzer Matheson, who plays professionally and for Team USA

OUR LINE STARTS: The latest episode of NBC Sports’ weekly NHL podcast will be presented at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The show is hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, who analyze the league’s Return to Play format and potential matchups in the Qualifying Round.

FORT NEVERLOSE: Titled after the nickname of the Nassau Coliseum, this one-hour special examines the Islanders’ history and memorable moments on the ice in the storied arena.

THURSDAY, 6/4

2020 ALL-STAR ALL ACCESS: This behind-the-scenes special, narrated by actor Jon Hamm, looks at the 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend, which took place in St. Louis, Mo. in January. The program includes exclusive audio content from mic’d players and features on numerous All-Stars throughout the entire weekend, including the fan fest, skills competition and the three-on-three All-Star Game.

CENTER OF ATTENTION: THE UNREAL LIFE OF DEREK SANDERSON: This one-hour documentary chronicles NHL star and two-time Stanley Cup champion Derek Sanderson’s remarkable life on and off the ice. The film, narrated by actor John Slattery, features interviews with eight Hockey Hall of Famers, including Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.

NHL makes case to teams for early-June draft

The NHL laid out to all 31 teams on Friday its case to hold the 2020 draft in early June.

In the memo, which Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on, it notes that the league would need a month to prepare for the virtual draft, which could lead to a decision this week. The  Board of Governors will hold a Monday conference call to discuss.

The 2020 NHL Draft was originally scheduled to be held June 26-27 in Montreal, but those plans were postponed in late March.

“There are complications. There’s no perfect solution,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said on Edmonton’s 630 CHED radio. “We think there are benefits to having the draft in June, including the fact that it’s a necessary piece of league business that has to transpire at some point and time, and our clubs are as ready for it now as they would be at any other time — and probably better prepared than they would be in the fall.”

Part of the league’s pitch is that if the 2019-20 season is completed, it would leave a tight timeframe to get the off-season schedule (draft, free agency) done before the 2020-21 campaign would take place, which potentially could be in December.

“We don’t want to have a situation where we’re shoehorning a draft lottery or a draft into a very short window of time, which we may be faced with,” Daly said.

Three main areas

There are three key topics that the league focused on. First, points percentage as of the March 12 pause would determine the draft order. Second, the lottery would go back to the old system for this season only, meaning no lotteries for each of the top three selections — only one for the top pick with teams able to move up four places, at most. That would end up with the Red Wings, who have already clinched dead last, picking either No. 1 or No. 2 overall.

The third area, which will be tricky, is dealing with conditional draft picks. The league said it would propose solutions and the teams involved would have a week to come up with an acceptable alternative for both sides or take the NHL’s idea. For example, the Sharks acquired a 2021 third-round pick as part of the Brenden Dillon trade. If the Capitals win the Stanley Cup this season that third-rounder will move to this year’s draft. It would be up to Doug Wilson and Brian MacLellan to work out a suitable resolution.

It’s still unknown how the NHL will determine the playoff format for this unique season. Will it be the traditional eight from each conference or an expanded field? Imagine if a team wins the draft lottery and months later lifts the Cup?

What about trades? One of the highlights of draft weekend is Commissioner Bettman stepping to the podium and alerting the crowd, “We have a trade to announce!” after the chorus of boos.

Here’s what the league is thinking, via ESPN.com:

The memo also addresses a critical concern for teams: their ability to make trades during the draft. Typically, teams use the draft to begin “resetting” their rosters ahead of free agency and other offseason activities. That includes making trades that help alleviate salary-cap problems. By holding the draft before the season is completed, teams would be unable to trade players from their rosters due to trade-deadline and playoff-eligibility restrictions.

According to Daly, the NHL did an analysis of the past five seasons that indicated roughly one-half of the trades made at those drafts “would still have been permissible in the context of an ‘early Draft.'” The memo states that there were 106 draft-day trades conducted, and 64 of those deals still would have been able to happen had the draft been held before the completion of those seasons.

We’re coming up on two months without hockey and the league sees this as a marketing and financial opportunity.

“We think it’s a great opportunity for fan engagement. Fans have been missing NHL hockey for a month and a half. It’ll be three months when we get to June,” Daly said.

GM reaction

As for feedback? Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman said during a Fox Sports Detroit Facebook Live chat he’s no fan:

“My thought is why would you do that? Why would you need to do that?,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that are affected. Obviously, the draft position hasn’t been established. We don’t know who’s in the playoffs, who’s out of the playoffs in some cases. So there’s a lot of questions and ultimately, if [the draft] needs to be done prior to, we’ll figure it out but at this time my own opinion is I haven’t heard a good reason why we should do it prior to the end of the season, if we do conclude the season.”

Clarity is coming, but we still sit, wait and wonder when we’ll see the puck drop again.

MORE: Issues to resolve by keeping NHL draft in June

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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.

Long-term outlook for Washington Capitals: Key cap questions coming

Long-term outlook Washington Capitals Ovechkin Holtby
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Washington Capitals.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Barring two very big names (which we’ll discuss in the next section), the Capitals have a lot of their name-brand players signed long-term.

It remains to be seen if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how each integral player ages. Nicklas Backstrom is already 32, making a five-year extension with a $9.2M AAV pretty scary. Looking at other players with term, T.J. Oshie is 33, Lars Eller is 30, and John Carlson is 30.

Of course, Carlson looks like a steal at $8M so far, and those players have aged like fine wine — at least at this point.

If this group sustains reasonably well as they hit 30 and beyond, then the Capitals should be able to put puzzle pieces together to compete. At some point, you’d expect the run of division titles to end. Then again, like Alex Ovechkin scoring all of the goals, it just seems to keep happening.

Long-term needs for Capitals

I hesitated ever so slightly to put Ovechkin in the core section because, frankly, his future is a little bit unsettled.

The 34-year-old sees what felt like a lifetime contract end after 2020-21. Will the Capitals ask Ovechkin to take a pay cut from $9.54M? Would Ovechkin demand even more money? He’d certainly have options in the hard-to-imagine scenario where the situation gets sticky.

But there are certainly a number of scenarios where this plays out poorly for the Capitals and/or Ovechkin. Including if he stays, but steeply declines with an aging team.

The Capitals also need to settle their situation in net. It’s difficult to shake the impression that pending UFA Braden Holtby might be out. The 30-year-old’s best chance at a big payday likely lies somewhere other than D.C.

I mean … I think. The Capitals have shown an eagerness to keep key players together, sometimes producing some surprises. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with Backstrom, and I also was mildly surprised when they brought Oshie back. None of this is to say that the moves were foolish; it’s just sometimes difficult to tell when a team might make the painful, cap-forced decision to let a cherished player walk away.

Because the danger is that the Capitals might squeeze out a much-needed injection of youth if they try to wrangle everyone. At his current trajectory, 24-year-old Jakub Vrana sure looks like he’ll be in line for a massive raise from $3.35M after 2020-21.

Letting Holtby go — and maybe getting lucky to shake loose a problem contract to Seattle — might be key in replenishing the ranks.

The Capitals either need to get creative to stay younger, or they might need to search for the Fountain of Youth.

Long-term strengths for Capitals

No doubt about it, the aging curve worries me for Washington. That said, it might not be ominous at the “guillotine hanging over your head” level.

For one thing, players like Backstrom could conceivably age well. He distinguishes himself as much for his hockey IQ as he does for his talent, so maybe Backstrom will parallel, say, Patrice Bergeron over the years.

Ilya Samsonov also represents a possible solution. He could end up being better than Holtby going forward, and as a 23-year-old who would be an RFA after 2020-21, the Capitals may also be able to extend Samsonov for a team-friendly price.

OK, the Capitals might be forced into such a scenario by cap realities. But, when you look at, say, the Blue Jackets waving goodbye to Sergei Bobrovsky and getting a better deal with young, cheap netminders, it’s certainly not a given that Washington won’t come out of the situation as winners.

In all honesty, Capitals management has earned a solid level of trust.

Yes, the Capitals’ farm system isn’t the greatest, as Scott Wheeler ranked it 29th back in January (sub required).

But considering how infrequently they’ve picked even as high as the teens in drafts, they’ve been able to unearth some gems here and there. And Brian MacLellan isn’t even trading them away as perilously as the Capitals once did with Filip Forsberg.

My guess is that the “bill is coming” for years of win-now approaches, so maybe that shrewdness will only go so far. Still, this franchise has consistently found ways to stay in the picture, and there’s some reason to believe that the party might go a few years longer.

MORE ON THE CAPITALS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Record: 41-20-8 (69 games), first in the Metropolitan Division, third in the Eastern Conference.
Leading Scorer: John Carlson – 75 points – (15 goals, 60 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves
• Traded Chandler Stephenson to Golden Knights for 2021 fifth-round pick.
• Acquired Brenden Dillon from Sharks for 2020 second-round pick, 2021 conditional third-round pick.
• Acquired Ilya Kovalchuk from Canadiens for 2020 third-round pick.
• Re-signed Nicklas Backstrom to five-year, $46 million extension.

Season Overview

After a surprising Round 1 exit ended their hopes for a Stanley Cup repeat, the Capitals didn’t allow that end to affect their start to 2019-20. By early in the new year they hit the 30-win mark and at the time of the NHL pause on March 12 they were atop the Metro and third in the conference. A lull in the final month — which saw them win only six out of 17 games — allowed for the division race to tighten up, with the Flyers and Penguins within four points after 69 games.

Two of the stories of the Capitals’ season so far are the play of John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin‘s 700th goal quest. Carlson has picked up points on a regular basis and leads the team with 75, a career high, along with 15 goals. The veteran defenseman is tops among all blue liners in scoring and is in the top 15 of overall skaters in points. His play has solidified himself in the Norris Trophy race as he will likely be one of the three finalists.

Ovechkin entered this season with 658 goals. In his 60th game of the season, the Capitals captain scored his 42nd to become the eighth NHL player to reach the 700-goal mark. It was quite the rollercoaster ride in the final games before he hit the mark. He went goalless in five straight games after previously scoring 14 in seven games, which included three hat tricks. He’s now part of an elite club with Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito, and Mike Gartner.

Another interesting storyline has been the situation in goal. Braden Holtby, who will be 31 in September, can be an unrestricted free agent in the off-season. Ilya Samsonov, 23, made his NHL debut this season, playing 26 games and posting a .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 vs. Holtby’s .905, per Natural Stat Trick. Head coach Todd Reirden, however, has continued to give the veteran the lion’s share of work of late, with Holtby starting 12 of the Capitals’ 17 games before the pause. With $71 million allocated for the 2020-21 season already, per CapFriendly, and the possibility of the cap remaining flat for at least one year, this could very well be Holtby’s last run with the team.

But that’s a question for the off-season. For now, general manager Brian MacLellan remains focused on regaining the Cup and bolstered his roster two moves at the trade deadline. First, he acquired a defenseman at the deadline for the fourth straight year, picking up Brenden Dillon from the Sharks. A few days later he added a reinvigorated Ilya Kovalchuk from the Canadiens. Both can be UFAs, but for now they’re two big pieces that strengthen a team that already had eyes on a deep playoff run.

Highlight of the Season

After a short slump, Ovechkin reached the 700-goal milestone on Feb. 22 in New Jersey:

 

MORE CAPITALS:
Biggest 2019-20 surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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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.