Evgeny Kuznetsov

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Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

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: Avalanche buy low on Burakovsky from Capitals

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The Colorado Avalanche are aggressively attempting to improve as a team on the rise. The Washington Capitals are trying to stay at a high level while navigating salary cap challenges. If that strikes you as a perfect combination for a trade, then you’re right.

The two teams made an interesting splash on Friday, as the Capitals sent the rights of intriguing forward Andre Burakovsky to the Avalanche for what amounts to a couple picks.

Here’s the exchange, confirmed by the Capitals:

Avalanche receive: Burakovsky, 24, who is an RFA. The Capitals extended a $3.25 million qualifying offer to Burakovsky earlier this week, so we’ll see where a final deal might land once Colorado gets cracking.

Capitals receive: 2020 second-round pick (Colorado’s pick), 2020 third-round pick (Arizona’s pick, which was part of the Carl Soderberg trade), and unsigned free agent forward Scott Kosmachuk.

Frustrations, and limitations, for Capitals

A bit more than a week ago, Capitals GM Brian McClellan discussed Burakovsky’s struggles in 2018-19, while also saying he’s a good player, as NBC Sports’ Brian McNally reported.

“Andre had a frustrating year this year, but I think he finished it up well,” MacLellan said. “I think from the trade deadline on, I thought he had a good playoffs. We like the player. There’s been some inconsistencies there, but when he’s on his game, he’s a good player.”

One could see where Washington was getting a little frustrated with Burakovsky.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

After generating 22 points in just 53 games as a teenage rookie in 2014-15, Burakovsky enjoyed his peak years in 2015-16 and 2016-17, scoring 38 and 35 points respectively.

Injuries have been an issue at times, making 2017-18’s 25 points easier to stomach, as Burakovsky was limited to 56 games played.

It must have been irritating to see his stats stagnate at 25 points in 76 games this past season, though. Most obviously, you could see the lost patience in Burakovsky in his ice time, as it slipped all the way down to just 11:08 per game in 2018-19 after he was a pretty steady 13+ minute per night guy before.

With the Capitals in a tight cap situation (Cap Friendly estimates $9.235M of room with 17 roster spots covered), and some big expenditures looming with Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom about to enter contract years, this ultimately might have been necessary surgery for Washington. Especially if, frankly, Burakovsky was never really going to get out of the doghouse.

Still, Caps fans have room to wonder: could they have gotten more for Burakovsky if they acknowledged the inevitable and moved him during the trade deadline? This is … not exactly the strongest return for a player with such potential and pedigree (23rd overall in 2013). Especially if you compare that to, um, other not-so-great trades.

Is it too simplistic to say that Burakovsky ultimately “lost out” to Jakub Vrana, another fine first-round find the Capitals managed despite being a regular contender? To some extent, it will feel that way, as there were only so many prominent spots to earn on a Capitals club with entrenched forwards like Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie already (justifiably) claiming big minutes.

Avalanche are rising, but will have a busy summer

In case it wasn’t clear, I love this trade for the Avalanche.

It reminds me of the New Jersey Devils exploiting the Capitals’ previous cap troubles to land Marcus Johansson, so here’s hoping that Burakovsky — someone who’s dealt with injury challenges — will enjoy better health luck than Johansson had in New Jersey.

One can picture Burakovsky really taking off if given the minutes and opportunities he struggled to gain with Washington.

Again, aside from 2018-19, Burakovsky generated strong possession numbers, and his scoring totals are quite good when you realize that his ice time was usually pretty modest. Could he take off if the Avalanche use him as a much-needed supporting scorer behind the mega-line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog? Perhaps Burakovsky could even ascend to the top line so the Avalanche can enjoy better lineup balance? The possibilities are pretty dazzling.

One way or another, the Avalanche aren’t done yet.

For one thing, they figure to have the cap space to land a much bigger fish. In a lot of ways, they’re the snazziest landing spot for superstar Artemi Panarin, although we’ll have to see if the stars align (particularly, if Panarin prefers skiing to suntanning in, say, Florida?).

Beyond that, the Avalanche have some contracts to hash out. Burakovsky is an RFA with arbitration rights, while Rantanen could cost Colorado eight figures, depending upon how his negotiations play out.

Getting those contracts right won’t be simple, yet it’s still easy to see the Avalanche making big strides this offseason. Considering how they dominated the West’s top seed in the Flames in Round 1, and pushed the Sharks to the limit in Round 2 even before making upgrades — and considering how they were one of the biggest winners of the 2019 NHL Draft — the sky seems to be the limit for this Avs team.

Consider smart deals like this one for Burakovsky as jet fuel for such a rise, then.

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 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.

NHL, Capitals accept Kuznetsov’s explanation of video

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The NHL and the Washington Capitals spent the past week investigating a now-deleted social media video that appeared to show forward Evgeny Kuznetsov in a hotel room with lines of white powder on a table in front of him.

After the video was shared on Monday, Kuznetsov told a Russian news agency that it was from Las Vegas in 2018 following the team’s Stanley Cup victory and that once he saw what was going on, he exited the room.

Kuznetsov is never shown touching or doing anything in the video.

On Friday, the NHL and the Capitals both released statements on the findings of their investigation. While they all share disappointment in Kuznetsov’s presence in the room, they all accept his explanation as to what happened on the night in question.

In the eyes of the league, the matter is now closed.

First, from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly:

“We have thoroughly reviewed the situation surrounding the video circulated on the internet this past Monday, May 27, and involving Capitals’ Player Evgeny Kuznetsov. Our review included, among other fact-finding steps, an in-person interview with Mr. Kuznetsov. While we certainly do not condone or endorse some of the decisions he made on the night in question, Mr. Kuznetsov’s account of the events that transpired aligns with other information we have been able to gather, and we have found no basis to question his representations with respect to what did — and what did not — occur. We consider the matter formally closed.”

From the Capitals…

“In addition to doing our own due diligence, we met with Evgeny to discuss the video circulated on social media. While we are disappointed by his presence in the video, we accept his explanation and apology for putting himself in an unfortunate situation. Evgeny has been a terrific player and an active member of our community, and we expect him to learn from this experience and uphold both the standards the organization has for him as well as his own.”

Finally, from Kuznetsov himself…

“I would like to address the video of me that appeared online on Monday. While I have never taken illegal drugs in my life and career, I would like to publicly apologize to the Capitals, my teammates, our fans and everyone else, for putting myself in a bad situation. This was a hard lesson for me to learn.”

The 27-year-old Kuznetsov has spent his entire NHL career with the Capitals. Following their Round 1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes this season, he represented Russia at the 2019 World Championships.

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 investigating Kuznetsov video showing white powder

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The Washington Capitals said Monday they have confirmed star Evgeny Kuznetsov is shown in a now-deleted video on social media that appears to show him in a hotel room with lines of white powder on a table in front of him.

In a statement sent to The Associated Press by spokesman Sergey Kocharov, the team says it is in the process of gathering facts and will have no further comment at this time.

The video posted on Twitter carried a message saying it was why Russia lost in the world hockey championship semifinals. It showed Kuznetsov talking to someone and lines of white powder and American dollar bills can be seen on the table. Kuznetsov does not touch anything on the table in the 22-second video.

In a statement to Russian news outlet Sport Express, Kuznetsov said the video is from 2018 in Las Vegas after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. In that statement, Kuznetsov said he went to a friend’s hotel room, saw drugs and an ”unknown women,” called a friend and left.

”I never took drugs, give me a drug test and I’ll pass it,” Kuznetsov told Sport Express.

The 27-year-old Kuznetsov was Washington’s leading scorer in the playoffs when it won the Stanley Cup a year ago. This season, the Russian center had 72 points in 76 games but just one goal during a first-round loss to Carolina.

Asked about the video before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL would not have any definitive comments Monday.

”We became aware of the video this afternoon,” Daly said in Boston. ”I know Evgeny has already commented on it, and I know the Capitals also released a statement. We need a little more fact-gathering to know what our next steps are.”

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth contributed.

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