Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

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It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

At the start of the season, no one in their right mind would have put the Caps’ forward depth and Golden Knights’ forward depth in the same galaxy, but nine months later, here we are.

So, which of these two teams has the better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

Washington is loaded with so much depth down the middle, it’s scary. Assuming Nicklas Backstrom is healthy, that would give them a dynamic one-two punch of Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is currently riding a 10-game point streak. Both players would clearly be number one centers on most of other teams in the NHL. They both have dynamic offensive ability and they have the ability to make their linemates better.

On the third line, the Caps have the luxury of having a complete player like Lars Eller at their disposal. The 29-year-old scored 18 times during the regular season and he’s amassed five goals and 13 points in 19 postseason games this year. For a third-line player, his touch in the offensive zone is pretty good and he’s fully capable of killing penalties, too.

Jay Beagle continues to serve as the Caps’ fourth line center. He’s not the flashiest player on the roster, but he’s a smart veteran that is capable of playing a sound defensive game. He can also chip in offensively every so often, but that’s not his speciality.

By comparison, the Golden Knights have used a couple of centers that were flying under the radar coming into the season. Not only have William Karlsson and Erik Haula been two of the biggest surprises on the team, they’ve arguably been the biggest surprises in the entire league.

Karlsson has been centering Vegas’ top line with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. That trio has established themselves as one of the best lines in hockey. The chemistry that they formed has been incredible. They were so good that Karlsson ended up scoring 43 goals and 78 points in 2017-18. He’s added six goals and 13 points in 15 playoff games.

As for Haula, he managed to put up 29 goals and 55 points during the regular season. No one saw that coming when he left Minnesota (it probably cost GM Chuck Fletcher his job). Things have been a little more quiet for him in the playoffs, as he’s racked up seven points in 15 games. For the Golden Knights to go all the way, they’ll need him and some of the other secondary scorers to step up.

Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare round out the centers on Vegas’ roster. Both players bring a physical element to the game and they’re both sound when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Advantage: Caps. As good as the Golden Knights have been, it seems pretty clear that Washington has the superior centers heading into the Stanley Cup Final. What does that mean? Maybe something, maybe nothing. After all, the Winnipeg Jets probably had a better group of centers and they still couldn’t take down Vegas.

WINGERS

Comparing the wingers on these two teams is pretty interesting.

Most people would agree that Alex Ovechkin is the best forward on either side (stop being friends with whoever disagrees). The 32-year-old is second on the team in points (22) behind Kuznetsov and he racked up 49 goals during the regular season. The Golden Knights don’t have anyone that can compare. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t win the series, it just means that they’ll likely have to do it by committee.

As you’d imagine, there’s a significant drop off on Washington’s depth chart after Ovechkin. They have everyone’s favorite player, Tom Wilson, and they have skilled wingers like T.J. Oshie, Jakub Vrana, Game 7 hero Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly. That’s far from a terrible group of forwards, but there’s an argument to be made that after Ovechkin, the Golden Knights have more quality wingers than the Caps.

Marchessault might just be the second best winger in the series after Ovechkin. After a disappointing performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the 27-year-old stepped up and led his team to a berth in the final. Through 15 playoff games, he’s racked up an impressive 18 points.

Smith has just two goals this postseason, but he’s been the set up guy for his team. The 27-year-old has piled up 14 helpers this postseason and he does a lot of the heavy-lifting defensively for his line.

David Perron has been in and out of the lineup because of injuries, so that could be one of the reasons why he has no goals this postseason. Maybe the extra time off before the start of the final will help him recover from whatever’s bothering him.

James Neal is another forward capable of putting up offensive numbers for Vegas. The pending unrestricted free agent nine points in 15 games while playing on his team’s second line.

Vegas also has Tomas Tatar, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alex Tuch and Ryan Carpenter that can also contribute to varying degrees.

On the wing, it’s advantage: Golden Knights.

OVERALL

When you look at both groups of forwards as a whole, there isn’t a huge gap between the two sides. But the fact that Washington arguably has the three best forwards in Backstrom, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin has to separate them from Vegas.

That’s not meant to disrespect the Golden Knights in any way, but giving them an advantage in this department just isn’t possible. Not only are the Capitals better down the middle, which is crucial, they also have the best winger in the series.

Advantage: Capitals. 

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort

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The Washington Capitals needed the best version of themselves to force a deciding game in the Eastern Conference Final, and that’s exactly what they got at home on Monday.

Hockey fans will be treated to a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to determine who will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, which will begin Monday, May 28.

And if that game is half as good as Game 6 was, a treat is exactly what fans will get.

Yes, Game 6 between the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning might have been the most exciting game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far — not bad for a 3-0 final score.

The scoreline was far from indicative of what happened on the ice. Washington was desperate, but not reckless. Calm and composed, they controlled much of the game and were finally rewarded in the second period via T.J. Oshie‘s power-play marker from the slot — Oshie’s first of two in the game as he added an empty-netter to seal the win late in the third.

The Capitals probably should have won by more, but Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the zone for most of the night.

Down 3-2 coming into Monday, and losers of three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Capitals needed a hero to avoid another humiliating exit from the playoffs.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7]

Oshie stepped up, for sure.

Braden Holtby looked determined, evidenced by his 24-save shutout with the stakes never higher.

And while Alex Ovechkin looked like a man-possessed in early on — finishing with five shots on goal, one of three Capitals players to do so — it was Devante Smith-Pelly who really shined.

Smith-Pelly put on a physical masterclass early — finishing the game with five hits, including the massacre above.

Then, Smith-Pelly helped the Caps out on the scoresheet.

Chandler Stephenson won a race to beat out the icing call. The puck made its way around the back of Tampa’s net, and Jay Beagle pushed it back to Stephenson, whose backhand pass from behind Vasilevskiy found a streaking Smith-Pelly for a 2-0 lead.

And man, did that goal mean something to DSP. Watch the celly:

It was a heroic effort from Smith-Pelly, Oshie and Holtby, and they’ll need one more before they can truly say they’ve exorcised their playoff demons.

They’ll have 48 hours from now to figure out their course of attack for Game 7, and Tampa will have the same amount of time to pick themselves back up again after the beating they took in the game.

Bring on Game 7, we’re all ready.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT’s Three Stars: Holtby, Smith-Pelly help Capitals force Game 7

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1st Star: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

The Capitals netminder played outstanding Monday night as they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 to force a Game 7. Holtby made 24 saves for his first shutout of the season and fifth career in the postseason.

2nd Star: Devante Smith-Pelly, Washington Capitals

Smith-Pelly had himself a game. First, he took out two players, including Jay Beagle, in a big hit behind the Tampa net. Later, he scored the Capitals’ second goal after Chandler Stephenson negated an icing and sent a sweet pass to the front of the net to find a charging DSP.

3rd Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

In keeping the game close, the Lightning netminder did all he could as his offense tried to find a way to beat Holtby. Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots in a losing effort.

[Capitals force Game 7 vs. Lightning with all-around effort]

Highlight of the Night: Like we said, Vasilevskiy did what he could:

Factoid of the Night: The 2018 Stanley Cup Final will begin Monday, May 28 in either Las Vegas or Tampa Bay. Here’s the full schedule as we await the matchup:

Game 1 Monday, May 28
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30
Game 3 Saturday, June 2
Game 4 Monday, June 4
Game 5* Thursday, June 7
Game 6* Sunday, June 10
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13
* = If necessary

Wednesday’s schedule: Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 3-3)

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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.

Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team

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Lightning

1. How will Tampa’s penalty kill neutralize the Washington power play? Only three teams had a worse penalty kill rate (76.1 percent) during the regular season than the Lightning. Those struggles disappeared in the first round against the New Jersey Devils (84.2 percent), but the Boston Bruins made mince meat out of the unit in the second round, with Tampa only killing off 58.3 percent of power plays.

The PK needs to figure itself out with the match-up against the Capitals ahead. As you’d expect, Washington’s power play has been strong all season. They were seventh in the regular season (22.5 percent) and boast the best success rate of any of the four remaining teams (30.9 percent). John Carlson netted two goals, but the Penguins managed to keep Ovechkin off the board and hold him to only one shot, mainly by attaching a forward to his hip as he tried to find space in his favorite spot in the face-off circle.

2. Can their success at even strength last? Only the Vegas Golden Knights have been better at keeping goals out of their net at 5-on-5. Through two rounds, just 12 of their 25 goals against have come at even strength. The Capitals, meanwhile, have seen 21 of their 32 goals against occur at 5-on-5. Tampa limited their two opponents to a combined 390 shot attempts at even strength, compared to the 612 that Washington has allowed, via Corsica.

3. Will Jon Cooper be able to spread out the forward minutes? Rest is a weapon, as Guy Boucher likes to say, and the Lightning have used rest to their advantage — both in-between series and in games. Cooper has been able to divvy out minutes to his forward group strategically and not going heavy with any one line. In fact, Tampa is the only team of the final four that doesn’t have a forward who’s played over 200 minutes through two rounds. Their four lines have done their jobs and that’s allowed for fresher bodies and more production. When you’re playing an extra month of hockey, that rest helps through the grind of the playoffs.

Capitals

1. Will the #Brademption continue? It wasn’t the best of regular seasons for Braden Holtby. His play earned him a spot on the bench for the first two games of the playoffs as Philipp Grubauer got the start against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. But Grubauer failed to take hold of the No. 1 job and head coach Barry Trotz decided to go back to Holtby, who proceeded to help the Capitals win four straight to advance. 

Against the Penguins, Holtby’s play did not diminished and he posted a .931 even strength save percentage over six games. Continuing the positivity, his high-danger save percentage is .857 through 11 games, which is the highest of his career in the regular season or playoffs (via Corsica). That’s up from .745 a year ago. Also improved are his stops on low-dangers chances, .982 this year compared to .979 in the 2017 playoffs. Tampa has had success creating high-danger scoring chances through two rounds and was much better at scoring in close against Boston than versus New Jersey at even strength.

2. Can the rookie production keep up? Against the Blue Jackets, it was Chandler Stephenson putting up four points. Against the Penguins, it was Jakub Vrana’s turn. He took advantage of a turn on the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence and succeeded. With a few minutes of power play time, he contributed a goal in their 4-1 victory in Game 2. Stephenson was also one of three Capitals forwards to play more than 10 minutes on the penalty kill in the second round.

With Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky missing games, the kids took on some extra responsibility and contributed. Depth will get you far in the playoffs, and the Capitals benefited from those not named Ovechkin, Kuznetsov or Backstrom, among a few others, to chip in when needed.

3. Was the series win over the Penguins enough? You could see the elation in the faces of the Capitals after Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-winning overtime goal in Game 6. They had finally slayed the dragon and killed two birds with one stone in eliminating the Penguins and advancing to the conference final. It was almost like their own Stanley Cup victory, which was a theme since Tuesday as talk about the series victory continued. But while many on this team have experienced the disappointments over the last decade, it will be hard to imagine them coming out flat against a better opponent in the Lightning. Ovechkin’s desire to win a Stanley Cup will not allow them to be complacent with just getting this far.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.