Defense should top Capitals’ trade deadline shopping list

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With losses in nine of their past 10 games the Washington Capitals have hit a wall. That is probably to be expected at some point during an 82-game season, and especially one that followed up a deep Stanley Cup run. But it is still somewhat jarring to see a consistently great team playing like … this. 

As long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby are on the roster and even somewhat reasonably close to their prime you know the Capitals are going to be all in on winning and maximizing what is left of their productive years. They have to, and this, of course, is still one of those years.

And as the Capitals try to gear up for their title defense and play their way out of this slump you know general manager Brian MacLellan is going to be shopping for help.

It’s just a matter of what help he is looking for. The biggest area of need should be pretty obvious — goal prevention.

When it comes to what the Capitals need to accomplish that the easy answer is, quite simply, better goaltending from the duo of Holtby and Pheonix Copley.

Neither way has been great this season, and it should be a bit of a concern that for the second regular season in a row Holtby’s save percentage has dipped below the .910 mark. That is well below what the Capitals have come to expect from their franchise goalie and a potential red flag for a goalie that is nearing his 30th birthday.

He was able to get it together at the right time a year ago and return to form in the playoffs, and that would certainly fix a lot of what currently ails the Capitals. But there is no guarantee that happens again, and even if does, they still have some issues they need to work out. Especially when it comes to their defense.

[Related: PHT’s 2019 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker]

Objectively speaking, the numbers are not good.

The only team in the league that gives up more shot attempts during 5-on-5 play is an Ottawa Senators team that has been stripped down to its bare bones. The team just ahead of them is an Anaheim Ducks team that is just … well … the less we say about the Ducks right now, the better it will be for everyone because they might be the worst team in the league at the moment.

So that is not an ideal position to be in defensively.

At the top of the defense John Carlson has been outstanding individually and his pairing, which usually involves Michal Kempny, has been pretty good. Not great, but certainly not hurting them and definitely good enough to win with at the top of your roster.

After that, things start to take a dive. A big dive.

The biggest problem pairing, just due to its importance and the minutes it gets, might be the Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov duo whose play has just fallen apart after last year’s Stanley Cup run.

The table below takes a quick look at the year-to-year tumble that duo has experienced in shot attempt percentage (CF%), goal differential, scoring chances against per 60 minutes and scoring chance differential, as well high-danger scoring chances against and high-danger scoring chance percentage.

 

All of that is bad. Very bad. Very, very, very bad.

The Capitals are creating fewer shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances with this duo on the ice and giving up way more than they were a year ago. And it is burning them. They have really struggled over the past 10 games where they have been outscored by a 9-2 margin and their high-danger scoring chance percentage drops all the way down to a ghastly 30.5 percent (11 high danger chances for, 25 against).

It is really difficult to win when your second defense pairing is getting dominated to that degree.

They have to find a fix because there really isn’t anybody else on the roster that can help fix this.

Brooks Orpik isn’t a player at this stage of his career that you want to rely on for top-four minutes, and the rest of the blue line after Carlson and Kempny is probably best suited for third-pairing duty on a championship team.

The obvious trade chip at this point is forward Andre Burakovsky, whose name has been in trade rumors for much of the season. But given how much his play has regressed this season and the fact he has seemingly taken up permanent residence in coach Todd Reirden’s doghouse his value is probably at its lowest possible point. That is always a risky sell, and it probably will not bring a significant return. At least not enough of a return that can fix the second-pairing on defense. There is always the option of flipping him for picks and then using those picks, in addition to the picks the Capitals already own, and trying to fill the need that way, but again, that carries some risk.

They are still a playoff team and with the talent they have at the top of the roster are always going to be capable of putting it all together at any moment. ut the more this season goes on the more it is becoming clear their defense is not playing up to the level it did a season ago.

The lack of assets to deal from and the fact they are already pushed against the salary cap doesn’t give MacLellan a lot of options at the moment.

If he can’t find a fix, the Capitals’ only hope for a repeat party on the National Mall is that Holtby goes on another one of his postseason superman runs.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

More trade deadline: From Anisimov to Seabrook, examining Blackhawks’ options

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Capitals sign goalie Pheonix Copley to $3.3M, 3-year deal

by Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — The Washington Capitals will soon have some decisions to make about their future at goaltender.

The Capitals signed backup Phoenix Copley to a $3.3 million, three-year extension Monday that keeps him under contract through the 2021-22 season at a salary-cap hit of $1.1 million. It’s a move that gives the defending Stanley Cup champions some stability in goal but raises questions about their plans.

Starter Braden Holtby is only signed through the end of next season, and Washington has top prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek in the system. With Copley in the fold, the decision is looming between committing long term to Holtby and turning the net over to Samsonov.

”It’ll work itself out, I think,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”We’ll see how Samsonov comes and what our situation is cap-wise and the signings we determine to make.”

Holtby won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2016 and rebounded from a rough stretch last season to backstop Washington to the first title in franchise history. But he stands to get a significant raise from $6.1 million per year and will be 31 when his next contract begins.

Given that the Capitals have already committed big dollars and term to center Evgeny Kuznetsov, wingers Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie and defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov and also have center Nicklas Backstrom‘s contract up after next season, there is no guarantee the room is there for Holtby.

”It’s human nature to think about it,” Holtby said. ”But outside of maybes, you have no idea. It’s a long ways away. A goaltender’s life can change pretty quickly, so you’ve got to stay in the moment and just play.”

Samsonov was the 22nd pick in 2015 and considered one of the best goalie prospects in hockey. He got off to a rough start in his first season in North America with Hershey of the American Hockey League but the 21-year-old Russian has played much better since. With Vanecek also in the mix, it could pave the way for a trade before the Feb. 25 deadline.

”I like Vitek, too. Samsonov is coming,” MacLellan said. ”Holtby is Holtby. He’s an All-Star goalie. And Copley is finding his way as a good No. 2, so I think it’s important for us to have depth as an organization, protect yourself on injuries.”

Copley has exceeded expectations in his first season as a full-time NHL backup, going 10-5-3 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. The 27-year-old from North Pole, Alaska, came into the year with a 4.32 GAA and .829 save percentage in two games with the St. Louis Blues.

The Capitals turned to Copley almost by default after trading Philipp Grubauer to Colorado. Coach Todd Reirden said Copley has earned extra starts.

”There are four different occasions that I can tell you about that we could’ve used Braden in that situation and we chose to use Pheonix and he produced right after it,” Reirden said. ”That’s how you earn the coach’s trust and the players’ trust and the player battle for him hard because they know the effort he puts in every day in practice.”

Teammates saluted Copley before practice when Reirden told them about the extension, which came after he made adjustments with goaltending coach Scott Murray since training camp.

”A lot of it’s adjusting to the speed, and the little changes from league to league,” Copley said. ”My plan is just to continue to get better every day, continue working with Scottie and just make sure my game is growing continually.”

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

WATCH LIVE: Bruins take on Capitals

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Washington has won 14 straight games against Boston. That represents four straight season sweeps (this game would make five), with the Bruins’ last win over the Capitals coming on March 29, 2014. Braden Holtby has been in net for 12 of the wins during the current streak, and is 16-2-0 in his regular season career vs. the B’s.

Without Alex Ovechkin (served 1-game suspension for skipping All-Star Game), the Capitals came up with a much-needed win on Friday, defeating the West-leading Flames 4-3 to snap their seven-game losing streak. It was their first win since beating Boston on Jan. 10.

On Thursday, the Bruins surrendered 1-0 and 2-1 leads before losing to the Flyers 3-2 in overtime. Boston has now lost both of its games since the All-Star break, three in a row, and five of its last six overall (1-2-3 record). Head coach Bruce Cassidy was critical of his defensive group, and his captain in particular, after the most recent defeat:

“Listen, he’s the captain of the hockey club. He won a Stanley Cup here by being a defensive stalwart, one of the best penalty killers in the league, so yes, he’s part of that group, and the biggest part of it. He’s a terrific leader. The next game, he [needs to] understand what makes us successful. We’ll have a conversation about it. But he is the leader back there. [Chara has] got to get Charlie [McAvoy] to buy in, got to get [Brandon] Carlo, he has, and that has to continue. Kevan Miller, I put him in that group too. They have to lead back there and understand what it takes to be successful right now for us. Right now for us [that] is team defense.”

This will be the 999th game of Patrice Bergeron’s career. Number 1,000 will come on Tuesday at home against the Islanders. At age 33, the four-time Selke Trophy winner is having the best offensive season of his career, averaging 1.26 points/game (44 points in 35 games). If Bergeron stays healthy (already missed 16 game so far), he could top his career high of 73 points, set in 2005-06 at age 20.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET – NBC]

What: Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Sunday, Feb. 3, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Peter Cehlarik – David KrejciJake DeBrusk
Joakim Nordstrom – Trent Frederic – David Backes
Sean KuralyNoel AcciariChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk – Kevan Miller

Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinTravis BoydBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyChandler StephensonDevante Smith-Pelly

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Forslund, Mike Milbury, and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Tappen will host studio coverage alongside Eddie Olczyk and Keith Jones.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals – Maple Leafs on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Yes, every team hopes to enter the All-Star break on a high note, but the Capitals rank among those with the most incentive to churn out another win.

They’ve lost six consecutive games, and since it looks like Alex Ovechkin‘s playing on Wednesday (thus meaning he’s suspended for a game on Feb. 1), falling to the Maple Leafs would really make for a dour way to begin a little hockey vacation.

With the Bruins and Canadiens not all that far behind the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic, don’t expect Toronto to take it easy on Wednesday. Considering all of these factors, it should be fascinating to watch these two teams duke it out.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Scotiabank Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Capitals – Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin — Nicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Dmitrij JaskinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Chandler StephensonTravis BoydAndre Burakovsky

Dmitry OrlovJohn Carlson
Michal KempnyMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikJonas Siegenthaler

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

MAPLE LEAFS

Patrick MarleauAuston MatthewsMitch Marner
Zach HymanJohn TavaresKasperi Kapanen
Connor BrownNazem KadriWilliam Nylander
Par LindholmFrederik Gauthier — Trevor Moore

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Travis DermottNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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.

Toews hat trick, five-point afternoon leads Blackhawks past Capitals

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Stout defense and solid goaltending, two traits that Sunday’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and visiting Washington Capitals had neither of.

But goal scoring? Yeah, there was a metric tonne of that in an 8-5 win for the Blackhawks on NBC.

Jonathan Toews scored a hat trick and added two assists for a five-point afternoon. Patrick Kane had a five-point game of his own, notching two goals and adding three helpers to push his point streak to eight games. Dylan Strome had a goal and two apples.

For the Capitals, they didn’t get one goal from their forwards. John Carlson led the way with two goals. All five of their goals came care of their defenseman — six if you include Dmitry Orlov’s own goal (he also scored one on the right net, too).

It was a game that reeked of two teams desperate to end their respective losing streaks. Chicago owned the longest of the two, coming into the game winless in five. The Capitals’ streak, meanwhile, extended to five, which extended their season-long drought.

The Caps came into the game outscored 14-4 in that time. You’d think scoring one more than they had in their previous four would be enough, but when Braden Holtby gets pulled after 22:30, allowing four goals on 11 shots, it’s probably not going to end well.

Goaltending wasn’t of particular importance in the game.

Collin Delia got the start for the Blackhawks and did enough in the end, despite allowing a few ugly ones. There weren’t a lot of notable saves in this one, but Delia made the save of the game with this effort in the second period.

Alex DeBrincat also found the back of the net, notable because he now has seven goals in his past seven games and 25 on the year.

DeBrincat is now three shy of the 28 he threw up in his rookie season last year and still has 32 games to get there. He’s likely going to crush that record in his sophomore season.

None of that is surprising given he can do things like this:

While Washington seems secure for the moment in terms of a playoff spot, their stock in Metropolitan Division is plummeting.

The New York Islanders leapfrogged them already with their four-game winning streak and could buy themselves some breathing room now with a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday.

The win for Chicago moves them out of the Western Conference basement, one point up on the lowly Los Angeles Kings. The Blackhawks are in a different battle down the stretch here, with the best lottery odds on the line for June’s NHL Draft.


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