Ilya Kovalchuk

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

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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.

NHL Power Rankings: Looking at the top 2020 free agents

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are going look ahead to the 2020 free agent class and the top players that could be available.

This is a tough one at the moment because the remainder of the 2019-20 season — as well as the Stanley Cup Playoffs — is still uncertain on both if and when it will resume. That will obviously dictate the free agency timeline. Not only in terms of when it begins, but also what it will might like financially.

This year’s potential class of free agents is your typical group with a couple of big names at the top, some big-time risks, some bargains, and some wild cards.

We take a look at the top-15 names, as well as a few wild card options. Who makes the list?

To the rankings!

1. Alex Pietrangelo, St, Louis Blues. It is hard to imagine him playing anywhere other than St. Louis. He is the captain, he helped bring a Stanley Cup to the city, and he is still their top defenseman and one of their top overall players. In an ideal world he stays right where he is. But the salary cap complicates things and this is probably going to be Pietrangelo’s last chance to score another big contract from the highest bidder. Still a bonafide top-pairing defender.

2. Taylor Hall, Arizona Coyotes. The best forward that will be available on the open market. Hall can still be an impact player, should still have some big years ahead of him, and will no doubt be looking for a place where he can have a chance to win. He has played in just five playoff games in his entire NHL career. The Coyotes said from the beginning they would explore a new contract with him when the team is right — no numbers have been exchanged, but the two sides have talked — but that decision will ultimately come from Hall.

3. Torey Krug, Boston Bruins. Krug does not get as much recognition around the league as he should. He is one of the most productive blue-liners in the league and helps drives possession for what has been one of the league’s best teams. He could command a significant price tag on the open market. Can — or will — the Bruins match that?

4. Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights. He has been one of the league’s most productive goalies for two years now and should be able to get a multi-year deal after settling for one-year contracts the past two summers.

5. Evgenii Dadonov, Florida Panthers. He has done nothing but produce like a top-line player since returning to the NHL three years ago. He is a little older, and that will definitely carry some risk when it comes to a free agent contract, but he is a 25-goal, 60-point forward and there is no reason to expect him to drop off the cliff in the next year or two. Beyond that, it could get a little risky.

6. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks. Markstrom is not one of the league’s elite goalies, but he has become a rock in net for the Canucks since taking over the starting job. He may not steal you a lot of games, but he is not going to lose them for you, either. There is a lot to be said for that.

7. Tyson Barrie, Toronto Maple Leafs. Expectations were sky-high for him in Toronto at the start and it almost seemed as if his play was never going to be enough. He has had a better season than he gets credit for having and can still be a very good top-four defenseman on a contender.

8. Mike Hoffman, Florida Panthers. Not the best all-around player, but he can score. A lot.

9. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Unless he takes a huge discount it is hard to see him remaining with the Capitals. Ilya Samsonov is not only the future, he also might be their best goalie in the present. At his peak Holtby was one of the league’s best goalies and a game-changing talent. His play has rapidly declined the past couple of years, and when combined with his age there is a fairly significant risk there.

10. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks. Probably the most underrated player of the Blackhawks’ dynasty. Crawford can still be an outstanding goalie when healthy. There are some injury concerns over the past couple of years and he turns 36 next season. Still the potential for a short-term impact.

11. T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames. Brodie’s spent most of his career playing alongside Mark Giordano (and in his shadow) but has carved out an outstanding career for himself. Decent offensive production, solid defensive play, and a good all-around player.

12. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. After what can probably best be described as a frustrating tenure with the New York Rangers, Shattenkirk signed what amounted to a one-year “prove it” contract in Tampa Bay. He has been outstanding. Maybe he is not a No. 1 defender, but he showed this season with the Lightning that he can make an impact on a contender.

13. Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks. Never a big-time scorer, Toffoli is an intriguing player because his underlying numbers have always been sensational and has never really played on a team where his offense could shine. He has 10 points (including six goals) in his first 10 games with the Canucks and could shine in the right situation long-term.

14. Ilya Kovalchuk, Washington Capitals. His return to the NHL after his KHL stint did not start as he wanted. Los Angeles was a terrible fit for him given where they are in their development and the talent around him, and once he got out of there he started to play like he was expected when he came back to the league. Put him in the right spot where he can excel offensively and he still has something left in the tank.

15. Brenden Dillon, Washington Capitals. Do not expect much offense from him, but Dillon is as solid as you will find defensively. A stay-at-home, defensive defenseman for the modern era.

The Wild Cards

These players are free agents but their long-term future is in doubt. Retirement is on the table, and their potential destinations seem limited. 

Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks. Thornton was a little disappointed a trade did not work out at the deadline to give him a shot at the Stanley Cup. Technically he is a free agent and returning to San Jose seems like most logical, but there is always a chance he could make a move for one more great shot at the ring. Can still be a good third-or fourth-line center.

Patrick Marleau, Pittsburgh Penguins. Back to San Jose or retirement? Tough to say that given he has played in Toronto and Pittsburgh in recent years, but seems likely.

Justin Williams, Carolina Hurricanes. Williams can still play, and based on what we saw this past summer it seems like he is going to play in Carolina or nowhere.

Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins. The chances of him playing elsewhere seems remote at best. If he plays anywhere next season, it seems 99.9 percent positive it is in Boston.

Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild. The long-time Minnesota captain just turned 37 years old, and while he is not the offensive player he once was he can still play a strong two-way game. Is it Minnesota or bust?

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.

PHT remembers hockey video games: An ode to the NHL 2K series

Thornton NHL 2K cover
via 2K Sports

Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at the NHL 2K series, which served as great competition for EA’s NHL games, particularly during the Playstation 2 era.

This past weekend, ESPN’s feed gave Twitter addicts welcome reprieve from “pick three” lists with the question: “What is the peak of your personal athletic achievements?”

Naturally, I sat that out, as my peak athletic achievements lean toward “not being chosen last in a pickup game.” Now, if you ask about the peak of my fake video game athletic achievements, the NHL 2K series etched one moment in my memory.

A personal highlight from the NHL 2K series

Allow me to set the scene.

It was late in the summer of 2006, in my deeply crummy Texas apartment. If “Guitar Hero” wasn’t on the screen, chances are, it was “NHL 2K6.”

Facing off for the first time against someone who would become a lifelong friend, I was controlling Ilya Kovalchuk. And, folks, I made the move.

If you’ve ever gotten hooked on hockey video games, you know that there are some surefire ways to score goals. In that run of NHL 2K games, this cheesy behind the net plus backhand move was money. Especially with Kovalchuk.

Yet, instead of cash registers ringing from said money, there was … nothing. Was I mad? Perhaps, but I was undoubtedly perplexed.

Well, it turns out that the money move was indeed money. Maybe Kovalchuk doing the move broke the game. The puck actually hit the very top of the glass behind the net, bounced back off of the opposing goalie, hit the crossbar, and went in.

Speaking of being mad or not, if my friend was upset, he didn’t exactly show it. We were both perplexed, and frankly in awe.

During the latter years of the Playstation 2 era, the NHL 2K series captured my attention away from EA’s offerings. That turned out to be short-lived, as EA pulled away with the “skill stick” and jump to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

NHL 2K didn’t just fall behind in the race. It ended up falling out altogether.

But, like the Blackhawks and Kings … hey, we still have the memories. And a lot of the NHL 2K memories ended up being fond ones. For a while.

The birth of the NHL 2K series

As with 2K Sports’ other sports titles, including the still-running NBA 2K franchise, and the still-beloved NFL 2K games, the NHL 2K series got its start on the all-too-briefly realized Sega Dreamcast console.

(If you want to observe people getting weird about video game hardware, do some Dreamcast deep diving.)

  • NHL 2K launched the series with Brendan Shanahan on the cover.
  • The series took a year off, returning with Chris Drury-starring NHL 2K2. It might have been the final North American release for the Dreamcast.
  • NHL 2K3 and the following release ESPN NHL Hockey both featured Jeremy Roenick on their covers. (The 2K games did this around that era, as Allen Iverson basically had a monopoly on the NBA 2K games.)

ESPN NHL 2K5: darkest spot of the golden era

There was a lot to like about ESPN NHL 2K5. It was part of the run of 2K games that were only $20, and it didn’t backfire for the NHL 2K series like it did for NFL 2K.

(People also lionize ESPN NFL 2K5 to this day.)

But whenever I saw that cover with Martin St. Louis, I couldn’t avoid thoughts about the 2004-05 lockout.

2K Sports/Youtube

Dark times.

  • Personally speaking, NHL 2K6 and NHL 2K7 were the last titles in the series that truly hooked me (and friends).

NHL 2K7 wasn’t just a swan song to many. It also featured out of place songs by way of a soundtrack with acts like The Postal Service. It’s uncomfortable that the latter stages of the series were more worthy of emo.

EA Sports pulls away

Things drastically changed when EA made a more successful jump to the next consoles thanks to brilliant execution of “the skill stick.”

  • You could really start to see the strain to catch up with NHL 2K8, which wasn’t received particularly well. Things didn’t get much better for NHL 2K9, either.
  • Consider NHL 2K10 something of the end of an era, as it was the last in the series to appear on the more powerful consoles. It’s also an oddity that Alex Ovechkin was on the cover, being that he also appeared on the cover for EA’s NHL ’07.

NHL 2K10 did cater to fans in two specific ways: being the first to feature the Winter Classic, and also helped turn the tide for the Hartford Whalers’ jerseys to appear in games again.

  • Things really fizzled out from there with NHL 2K11 (Wii and iPhone) and simply NHL 2K (mobile game) years later in 2014. Curiously, Ryan Kesler was the cover star for the latter two games.

***

Basically, the NHL 2K series went out like … erm, Ryan Kesler, actually. But like a beloved star who stayed around too long, let’s try to remember the good times instead of the sadder moments.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

  • NHL Championship 2000, Fox’s rare foray into hockey video games, starring Mike Modano.
  • NHL Slapshot, a Wii video game with a small plastic hockey stick peripheral that even Wayne Gretzky found delightful.
  • EA’s NHL ’98, when the company hit its polygonal stride, and also featured a great soundtrack (ironically and unironically?).

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 Montreal Canadiens

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 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens.

2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

Record: 31-31-9 (71 points in 71 games), fifth in the Atlantic Division, 12th in East
Leading Scorer: Tomas Tatar – 61 points (22 goals and 39 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves

Season Overview

It’s tempting to summarize the Habs’ last two seasons by making a parallel with Max Domi‘s past two years.

Heading into 2018-19, people mocked Domi for his previous season’s goals total (nine) following the Alex Galchenyuk trade. They made fun of Marc Bergevin as his moves looked, at that moment, quite regrettable. Then Domi and the Canadiens played really well, and almost made the playoffs.

Of course, almost everything went right for Domi (easily career-highs in goals [28] and points [72]) and the Canadiens in 2018-19 … yet they didn’t make the playoffs.

Both Domi and the Habs performed reasonably well in 2019-20, but they also cooled off. Domi was fine, really (17 goals, 44 points falling in line with the strong start to his Coyotes career), yet people were likely let down after he set expectations higher.

Naturally, boiling things down to a Domi comparison simplifies things too much.

Really, if you’re going to gripe about any top Habs player, it might be Carey Price — or more accurately, the goaltending overall. Or maybe luck?

The Canadiens looked strong by just about every five-on-five measure, from sheer shot shares to controlling high-danger chances. They simply couldn’t finish (8.6 shooting percentage), get enough saves (.900 save percentage as a team), and continued to struggle on the power play (17.74 percent success rate).

This all leaves the Canadiens in a strange place. Bergevin isn’t quite as worthy of ridicule as before — even the Shea Weber/P.K. Subban trade looked better with time — but he also couldn’t capitalize on Price’s prime.

Now what? The Habs haven’t been tanking, making their long-term future look good (thanks to some smart picks and maneuvering) but maybe not great. In the short term, any path to postseasons seems bumpy as long as the Bruins, Lightning, and Maple Leafs already seem primed to hog the Atlantic’s top three spots most years.

(Honestly? As often as the Panthers shoot themselves in the foot, many would still take their foundation over Montreal’s thanks to Florida’s value-heavy, impressive forward group.)

Highlight of the Season for 2019-20 Canadiens

Is it too crass to argue that it was Bergevin turning a fourth-rounder into a second-rounder and conditional fourth-rounder via the Scandella trades?

Maybe zoom out and ponder the bucket of picks Montreal landed by moving out inessential parts in Cousins, Thompson, Reilly, and Kovalchuk? There was a lot of “something from nothing” in Bergevin’s work once it was clearer that Montreal’s 2019-20 ceiling was fairly low. Cap Friendly’s chart of Canadiens picks tells the story of a team that landed a lot of volume:

2019-20 Canadiens draft picks and beyond

Sure, you could argue that the Canadiens lack the “premium” picks of, say, their division rivals in Ottawa. But such a bulk of picks opens up options for Bergevin. He can try to trade up, or maybe shake loose some talent by moving his picks for roster players.

For all we know, not trading Tomas Tatar and Jeff Petry could end up being a highlight, too.

If you want a more hockey-related highlight, try the Canadiens’ early-season run.

After starting 1-1-2, the Canadiens rumbled their way to an 11-5-3 record by mid-November. Unfortunately for the Habs, it was not a sign of a larger rise, as they entered the pause at 31-31-9.

MORE ON THE CANADIENS:

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.