Brett Connolly

Sharks re-signing Karlsson sets table for busy NHL offseason

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Erik Karlsson had no wanderlust to test the free agent market before re-signing in San Jose.

”I never thought outside that box,” Karlsson said. ”I’m happy that it didn’t get to that.”

A handful of other teams aren’t so happy because the two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman would have been the best unrestricted free agent available. Karlsson signing a $92 million, eight-year contract with the Sharks is the first big off-ice development since St. Louis won the Stanley Cup because of all the ramifications it could have on the NHL offseason.

With Karlsson off the board, any team looking for a No. 1 defenseman has to either hope veteran Alexander Edler doesn’t re-sign with the Canucks and win that bidding war or go the trade route. Salary-cap concerns for San Jose, Washington and a handful of other Cup contenders could open the door to some significant player movement even before free agency starts July 1.

”I think there’s been more conversation, more communication between the GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM,” San Jose’s Doug Wilson said Monday. ”There’s so much competition, especially for the high-end player. … There’s a lot of things going on.”

Less than 24 hours after Karlsson signed, the dominoes began to fall.

Karlsson was linked to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, and it took less than 24 hours for the first direct responses to him re-signing with the Sharks. New York on Monday night acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba from the Jets, and Tampa Bay on Tuesday re-signed veteran Braydon Coburn to a $3.4 million, two-year deal – cap space it likely would have needed for Karlsson if he was available.

San Jose needed to clear room and did some of that by trading defenseman Justin Braun and his $3.8 million cap hit to Philadelphia for a 2019 second- and 2020 third-round draft pick.

The trade talk is just heating up ahead of the draft Friday and Saturday in Vancouver. Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel, Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang and Nashville’s P.K. Subban are among the high-profile players who could be on the move.

”There’s lots of things on the go,” Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said. ”It’s probably an unprecedented time of conversation.”

Many of the moves that come from those conversations will set the table for free agency, where Columbus winger Artemi Panarin, center Matt Duchene and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky are the top three players available.

Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, Dallas winger Mats Zuccarello, Islanders winger Anders Lee, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, Bruins winger Marcus Johansson and Hurricanes winger Micheal Ferland are among the other possibilities. The salary cap is expected to increase by $3.5 million to roughly $83 million, and money will be spent.

”It’s a pretty good class this year,” Colorado GM Joe Sakic said. ”(We) already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’ll want to talk to about joining our club. We see positions of need, of what we’re looking to do. There’s a few guys we’re going to want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that, but if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to, we’re not just going to go spend on anybody.”

Sakic’s Avalanche have the most projected cap space in the league with $36 million, according to PuckPedia . The Flyers and rival New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Islanders will also have cap space to burn and a need for an elite defenseman or two.

”They’re not easy to find,” Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said. ”Certainly, if we can find a guy that can play in our top four that we’d have the ability to acquire, we’ll certainly look at it.”

BUT FIRST, THE DRAFT: New Jersey is widely expected to select American center Jack Hughes first overall, leaving Finnish winger Kaappo Kakko for the Rangers.

”Obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft,” Rangers GM Jeff Gorton said. ”I think we’re in a good spot. We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

Chicago picks third and will get a nice boost to aid its turnaround after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.

BITE OUT OF SHARKS: Committing $11.5 million a year to Karlsson cuts significantly into San Jose’s offseason maneuvering with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi set to be unrestricted free agents and emerging star Timo Meier needing a new contract as a restricted free agent.

”Under a cap system, choices and decisions need to be made,” Wilson said, not ruling out bringing back Pavelski and others. ”I don’t think anybody should rush to conclusions on anything. There’s many ways to accomplish different things.”

RUSSIAN PACKAGE DEAL: Panarin and Bobrovsky played together with the Blue Jackets for two seasons and are hitting free agency at the same time. When Panarin switched agents to be represented by Bobrovsky’s agent, Paul Theofanus, it raised eyebrows that the Russian countrymen might want to go to the same team.

With some creative roster work, the Florida Panthers could be the ideal landing spot for Panarin and Bobrovsky and go from close to the playoffs to real contenders.

CAPITALS CONCERNS: Even though Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are no longer reigning Cup champions, winger Carl Hagelin insisted he wouldn’t have signed an $11 million, four-year contract with them if he didn’t think they could win it again over that time. To do so, GM Brian MacLellan will have to navigate a difficult cap situation around pending free agent winger Brett Connolly and restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky and knowing deals with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby expire next summer.

”I hope (Connolly and Burakovsky are) still here,” Hagelin said. ”But at the end of the day, Conno, he’s a UFA so it’s up to him what he wants. You understand if a guy tests the market to see what’s out there. But I hope both of those guys come back.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham and Josh Dubow contributed to this report.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Capitals face tough salary cap questions after re-signing Hagelin

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The Washington Capitals made a shrewd move in trading away Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas, as the deal made Washington younger, cheaper, and possibly even better on defense. They used some of that newfound cap space to re-sign Carl Hagelin on Sunday, but the deal makes you wonder who might get lost in the salary cap shuffle.

First, the deal: the Capitals signed Hagelin, 30, to a four-year contract worth $11 million, which clocks in at a $2.75M cap hit.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings that costs Washington its 2019 third-rounder (89th overall, via Cap Friendly). There was a conditional sixth-rounder, but the conditions were not met.

Hagelin’s speed and possession game proved to be a very nice fit for the Capitals, although his already declining offense may only sag more if the Swede hits the aging curve hard.

Hagelin went from the Penguins to the Kings, and then the Kings to the Capitals this season. He generated five goals and 19 points over 58 regular-season games, with his best work coming in Washington (three goals, 11 points in 20 games). Hagelin only managed an assist during Washington’s seven-game Round 1 series against the Hurricanes.

At this point in his career, it’s not as much about the points. Instead, it’s about Hagelin’s foot speed and overall play, two factors that are clearly very appealing to the Caps.

Overall, this is a reasonable deal, albeit with some concern over term.

The other concern, again, is who might this push out of Washington? Even with the considerable money savings from getting rid of Niskanen’s $5.75M for Gudas ($2.345M after Philly retained some salary), the Capitals have some decisions to make.

According to Cap Friendly, the Capitals have about $10.736M in cap space remaining, at least if the ceiling ends up being $83M. (Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that there are at least some rumblings about it being closer to $82M, depending upon how escrow works out.)

The Capitals’ $72.264M in spending goes to 17 roster spots, and there are some substantial players who need new deals, or will hit the free agent market.

RFAs

UFAs

Things have been tumultuous with Burakovsky, but the 24-year-old is a nice talent. Would the Capitals lean toward moving his rights, or try to find a bridge deal?

The Capitals at least have Burakovsky as an RFA, although he is arbitration-eligible. The tougher situation might be with Connolly, who would be a UFA at 27. Connolly’s shown why he was a first-rounder (sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010), as he scored 22 goals and 46 points in 51 games last season. Those numbers are strong out of context, but they’re remarkable when you realize that Connolly only averaged 13:20 TOI per game in 2018-19.

For some context, Connolly generated 2.66 points per 60 minutes at even-strength this season, according to Natural Stat Trick. Connolly’s points-per-minute rate was the 18th-best in the NHL this past season for players who logged at least 100 minutes, better than Evgeny Kuznetsov (2.47) and Alex Ovechkin (2.39).

(Interestingly, Hagelin is the only Capitals player who generated a better rate, at least if you limit it to the 20 games he played with the Capitals, as Hagelin scored 2.72 points-per-60.)

So, more than worries about Hagelin aging – which will happen, but we’ll see how detrimental that process will be – the real misgiving would be wondering who can’t stay because Hagelin stayed put.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Hagelin means no Connolly, or no Burakovsky. It’s plausible that Connolly, in particular, was going to be a luxury Washington would need to say goodbye to, no matter what. Sometimes that’s just the painful reality of the salary cap era.

Still, Hagelin’s taking up $2.75M from 2019-20 through 2022-23, so it does cost Washington that much space.

Overall, the Capitals’ situation remains challenging, and it really solidifies the thought that they really needed to part ways with Niskanen. Not only did they go cheaper for 2019-20, but Gudas’ contract runs out after next season, while Washington would have been on the hook for Niskanen at $5.75M through 2020-21.

That’s highly important, because two prominent Capitals enter contract years in 2019-20: Braden Holtby (29, $6.1M) and Nicklas Backstrom (31, $6.7M).

Unless the Capitals have something bold planned, such as a rather severe leap from goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov, you’d think both Holtby and Backstrom would be getting big raises.

So that makes a difficult situation even more complicated, as the Capitals don’t want to tie up too much money when those bargain contracts are coming up. Heck, even Alex Ovechkin’s situation will be something to watch, as the 33-year-old’s seemingly eternal $9.54M cap hit runs out after 2020-21.

In other words, the Capitals provided an answer by re-signing Hagelin, but they have plenty of other, tougher questions lingering, and by opening that window, they might have closed a door for another would-be player.

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.

Trade: Caps shed salary by sending Niskanen to Flyers for Gudas

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A pair of division rivals have agreed to swap defensemen.

On Friday morning, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers agreed to a trade, as the Caps sent Matt Niskanen to the Flyers for Radko Gudas.

The Caps made this move with the salary cap in mind. Niskanen has two years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.75 million per year. Gudas has just one year remaining on his deal at $3.35 million, but The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun is reporting that the Flyers will eat 30 percent of his remaining salary.

All in all, this trade will save Washington $3.405 million in cap space, which isn’t insignificant.

“We would like to thank Matt for all of his contributions to our organization for the past five seasons,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said in a release. “Matt is a consummate professional and was a big part of our success. We wish him and his family all the best moving forward.

“We feel this move provides us with financial flexibility as we look for additional ways to strengthen our team. In addition, we are pleased to welcome Radko to our organization. Radko is a good defensive defenseman that plays a competitive, physical game.”

As you can tell from the quote above, McLellan mentioned the cap relief before the addition of Gudas. That’s not to say that Gudas won’t contribute this season, but they clearly wanted to free up as much money as possible while getting rid of Niskanen, who struggled in 2018-19.

The 32-year-old immediately becomes the Flyers’ highest paid defenseman. Now that Gudas is gone, Niskanen is the only right-shooting defenseman on the team. It’s also important to note he had to agree to go to Philadelphia because he had a limited no-trade clause (he submitted a list of 10 teams he didn’t want to go to).

Niskanen’s tenure in Washington wasn’t a failure by any means though. As much as he struggled last year, he still helped the Caps win a Stanley Cup in 2018 and he logged some big minutes for them during his five seasons there.

So now that this move has been made, McLellan will have roughly $12.5 million in projected cap space this summer. The Caps only have eight forwards under contract right now, so you’d have to think that he’s going to need to find himself some depth up front. Whether he brings back Andre Burakovsky (restricted free agent), Carl Hagelin (unrestricted free agent), or Brett Connolly (unrestricted free agent) remains to be seen. But he’s going to have to build himself a fourth line at the very least.

If they decide to go with cost-efficient depth players, they may even be able to add a significant piece to their roster via trade or via free agency.

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.

Capitals blow out Hurricanes in Game 5

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Much like earlier in this series, the Washington Capitals got off to a quick lead at home in Game 5. This time around, they never really let the Carolina Hurricanes back into the contest, and eventually turned the game into a blowout.

Washington won Game 5 by a lopsided score of 6-0, giving themselves a 3-2 series lead, and thus pushing the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination.

Nicklas Backstrom is best known for being one of the premier passers in the NHL, yet he continues to be one of the hottest shooters of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, pushing his postseason total to five goals. Backstrom finished with five goals in 20 games (but also 18 assists for 23 points) during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, and has never scored more than six goals during any single postseason run during his career … so yeah, this is an unusual sniping run for a Selke-level playmaker. Overall, Backstrom finished Game 5 with two goals and two assists.

Backstrom wasn’t the only big-name Capitals player who enjoyed a strong Game 5. Alex Ovechkin was a force, but physically and offensively, throwing his body around in a way that was reminiscent to his most boisterous, younger NHL days.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Ovechkin’s alertness and physicality factored into the 3-0 goal, which resulted in Ovechkin setting up a dagger Brett Connolly goal. Was Dougie Hamilton shying away from a potential Ovechkin hit before Ovechkin retrieved the puck? Was Hamilton just confused/pondering abstract art?

Whatever the case may be, that 3-0 goal sapped a lot of energy from the Hurricanes, as it made a third-period comeback go from difficult to nigh-impossible.

Tom Wilson‘s power-play goal 1:04 into the third moved the goalposts back even further, and then the Capitals really ran away with Game 5 thanks to additional goals by Alex Ovechkin and Nic Dowd, the latter scoring on a penalty shot.

Ovechkin ended up with a goal and two assists, while Braden Holtby pitched a 30-save shutout.

Overall, the defending champions looked very much like defending champions on Saturday. The Hurricanes have an opportunity to regain their composure when the series shifts back to Carolina for Game 6, but if Carolina wants to be the latest underdog to come through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll have to win two in a row — which means beating this Capitals team at home, where Washington seems to find yet another level. If Saturday is any indication, that won’t be an easy task, at all.

The Capitals aim to move on, while the Hurricanes hope to survive in Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The game’s airing on NBCSN. (livestream)

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 vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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As far as storylines go, Capitals vs. Hurricanes is up there for Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. At minimum, no two teams do the epilogue/final scene celebrating with ewoks better than these two teams.

First, you have Washington, the favorites. They didn’t just finally break their playoff curse last year; they also celebrated to the point that you basically need to fill in the blanks with “scene missing” screens.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, basically had an on-ice party after every home win via the “Storm Surge,” to the point that broadcasts would linger in Carolina to find out what they’d cook up (or reel in) next. Eventually, the storm built to the point where they had to eventually shut it down, for some combination of wanting to looking serious and maybe they also ran out of ideas.

Can the hockey of the Capitals and Hurricanes top those things? Tall task, but it will be fun to watch them try.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | USA, SN360, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 3 p.m.: Hurricanes @ Capitals | NBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Thursday, April 18, 7 p.m.: Capitals @ Hurricanes | SN360, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Capitals @ Hurricanes | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Hurricanes @ Capitals | TBD

FORWARDS

CAPITALS: If you paid attention to last year’s run … or, really, hockey in general, you probably know most of the deal.

Alex Ovechkin is the headliner, and he didn’t disappoint in 2018-19, winning his eight Maurice Richard Trophy with 51 goals. He’s joined by two stellar centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with T.J. Oshie and professional disturber Tom Wilson. (Wilson, by the way, justified that fat extension with 22 goals and 40 points despite being limited to 63 games.)

The scary thing is that you can argue this is a deeper group. Jakub Vrana‘s had a nice year, scoring 24 goals and 47 points. Brett Connolly might be the bargain to target in free agency this summer, as he scored 22 goals and 46 points despite averaging just 13:20 TOI per game. Even frequent doghouse resident Andre Burakovsky cannot be disregarded as a former first-rounder (23rd overall in 2013).

As a team, the Capitals are a group that tends to shoot at high percentages, making middling possession stats easy to stomach — and this isn’t a fluke, they’ve been doing this for years. Which brings us to …

HURRICANES: A group that, from forwards to defense, always made “fancy stats” people swoon, yet could never break through to the playoffs. While the Capitals made the most of every shot to a near-extreme, the Hurricanes have been posterchildren for quantity over quality. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Things have really started to come together lately, though.

Nino Niederreiter seemed to tie the Hurricanes’ offense together like The Dude’s rug. In 36 games since being traded to Carolina, Niederreiter generated an impressive 30 points. The Hurricanes boast a mix of guys with numbers impressive enough that they shouldn’t sneak up on people any longer (Sebastian Aho‘s 83 points; Teuvo Teravainen getting 76) along with players whose value shines greatest when you consider their all-around games, such as Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov‘s rise has been impressive as a rookie, too, and he should only become a bigger part of the mix as Rod Brind’Amour gains more trust in him.

Oh yeah, they also have “Mr. Game 7” and “Storm Surge” innovator Justin Williams.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. The Hurricanes are more potent in this area than many might realize, but the Caps are in the upper tier.

DEFENSE

CAPITALS: John Carlson probably deserves more Norris buzz than he is receiving.

Last season brought some red flags, as he generated 68 points, with his 53 assists nearly matching a previous career-high of 55. Well, he topped all of that in 2018-19, scoring 13 goals and 70 points, the fourth-best total among NHL blueliners. Oh yeah, he also skyrocketed from a possession stats standpoint, so this was a great all-around year.

The rest of the group is less inspiring.

After being an important duo during that magical Stanley Cup run, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have struggled this season, which is part of the reason the Capitals invested in Nick Jensen at the trade deadline.

All of this makes the loss of Michal Kempny tough to stomach. While the Capitals aren’t outright bad on defense, it could be an area of weakness.

HURRICANES: Carolina lost a similar understatedly-effective defenseman in Calvin de Haan to injury issues, but the difference is that they’re deep enough that they can handle the loss more gracefully.

Despite rarely getting the chance to be a top power play unit’s QB, Dougie Hamilton just keeps scoring, particularly goals. He generated 18 this season, and his 48 goals over the last three seasons ranks second to Brent Burns‘ 57 during that span.

Hamilton tends to be a strong play-driver, too, and he’s far from alone on Carolina’s stacked blueline. Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin can often dominate possession, and the duo of Justin FaulkBrett Pesce was effective this season, too. This group can move the puck up the ice, generally prospers in their own end, and can chip in offensively, too.

ADVANTAGE: Hurricanes. This could be a “coming out party” for one of the league’s better defensive groups. Carlson may be the best single blueliner among both teams, though.

GOALTENDING

CAPITALS: For the second straight season, Braden Holtby‘s stats have been modest — in the regular season.

That concludes about all the negative things I can muster about Holtby, and even his .911 save percentage is passable on a team that scores so proficiently, and doesn’t always win the possession battle. As you hopefully remember, Holtby was fantastic during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, and he deserved credit for being a postseason beast before that, as his career playoff save percentage of .929 is just bonkers, and 82 high-pressure games count as a healthy sample size, too.

There’s some concern if Holtby gets hurt or melts down, and not just because Pheonix Copley‘s name is spelled Pheonix, but Holtby’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the unpredictable realm of hockey goaltending.

HURRICANES: Curtis McElhinney‘s quietly built up a resume as a very very good backup over the years, making an argument to rise to the level of a platoon guy.

That’s exactly what’s happened lately, as Petr Mrazek went from a guy whose career was continuing to spiral out of relevance the first few months of this season (.894 save percentage in 23 games before the All-Star Break) to someone who generated a .938 save percentage in his last 17 games.

This unlikely duo has finally shown what Carolina can accomplish with good (or at least competent) goaltending: finally make the playoffs.

At the same time, McElhinney’s been a journeyman and Mrazek was trending in that direction, and a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup against a team full of sharpshooting scorers could really expose both of them.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals, by a healthy margin.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

Can the Capitals’ defense hold up?

Carolina’s defense and two-way forwards makes them a potentially tough matchup, and they’ve also been a strong penalty kill team. If these games end up being tight, low-scoring affairs, will Washington’s perceived weaknesses on defense get exposed?

Will Carolina’s goalies fall apart?

It’s fair to wonder if shabby netminding may dry out the “Storm Surge” before the thunder really gets cracking. There just aren’t a lot/any hockey humans who can shoot the puck like Ovechkin can, and the Capitals have other players who can make goalies look bad. Carolina’s goalies are as uncertain as Holtby is seasoned when it comes to postseason play (and playing the role of a No. 1 in general, really).

PREDICTION

Carolina in 6. Look, I know this is an aberrant pick, and most of the details above give me second, third, and 651st thoughts. But the Hurricanes’ playoff-friendly, two-way play make me feel better about going with my gut. Kinda.

MORE PREVIEWS:
• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
• Lightning vs. Blue Jackets
 Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Flames vs. Avalanche
• Predators vs. Stars
Jets vs. Blues
Islanders vs. Penguins

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.