Juuse Saros

Getty Images

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

14 Comments

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.

Preds hire Scuderi, Bordeleau, Rook as development coaches

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators have hired Rob Scuderi, Sebastien Bordeleau and Dave Rook as development coaches to help polish their prospects for the NHL.

General manager David Poile announced the hirings Tuesday. Scuderi will develop defensemen, with Bordeleau working with forwards and Rook with goaltenders. They will work with Scott Nichol, the Predators’ director of player development and general manager of their AHL franchise Milwaukee.

The 40-year-old Scuderi retired from the NHL in 2016 after 12 years and 783 career games with the Penguins, the Kings and Blackhawks, winning two Stanley Cups.

Bordeleau played three seasons with Predators from their start as an expansion franchise. He was skills coach for the Montreal Canadiens each of the last two seasons and this past season for the Canadiennes of the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Rook has been a goaltending consultant for Nashville the past five seasons, helping Predators goalies Juuse Saros and Troy Groseneck. He was goaltending coach for Columbus between 2009 and 2011.

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

Predators vs. Stars: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

3 Comments

If you want to get cute with it, you can deem Predators – Stars as the battle of the team with a coach who worse a horse mask versus the team whose CEO called his own players, uh, horse-blank. And, hey, considering the “nontraditional” roots of both franchises, this also features teams with fans most likely to ride actual horses. It’s all enough to leave you hoarse.

But beyond all of that horsin’ around, the Predators and Stars truly are remarkably similar teams.

While the combination of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin has been far hotter this season, each squad boasts two goalies (Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros) who could conceivably be ridden to strong performances during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Most other West teams wish they merely had one such goalie.

Unfortunately, the Stars and Predators also need that great goaltending the most among West teams, at least judging by this season.

The Stars and Predators needed to rank in the top four in fewest goals allowed this season, as they weren’t setting scoreboards on fire.

Dallas scored just 209 goals this season, tied for third-worst, joining the Islanders as the only other playoff team in the bottom 10. The Predators weren’t that much better (236 goals, 13th-worst), and they languished with the NHL’s least efficient power play at a still-rather-shocking 12.9 percent.

Strange things can happen during hockey’s postseason, and goalies are a strange breed beyond that, but this sure seems like it’s going to be a tight-checking nail-biter of a series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

SCHEDULE
Wednesday, April 10, 9:30 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | USA, SN1, TVA Sports
Saturday, April 13, 6 p.m.: Stars @ Predators | CNBC, SN, TVA Sports
Monday, April 15, 9:30 p.m.: Predators @ Stars | NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m. Predators @ Stars | USA, SN, TVA Sports
*Saturday, April 20, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD
*Monday, April 22, TBD: Predators @ Stars | TBD
*Wednesday, April 24, TBD: Stars @ Predators | TBD

FORWARDS

STARS: Despite Jim Lites’ criticisms, the Stars should thank the top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov for providing most of their scoring. Seguin (80 points) and Radulov (74 points) have the most points of any players in this series, and while Benn is no longer the player who once won the Art Ross Trophy, he ranked third among the Stars with 53 points, 27 of which were goals.

The drop off from the top forwards and everyone else is steep, as Radek Faksa is the fourth-highest scoring Stars forward with just 30 points. Faksa’s known for a strong defensive game more than anything else, so he’s not chopped liver, but the point is that this is a top-heavy bunch.

One interesting wild card is Mats Zuccarello, though. The poor soul got hurt blocking a shot in his first Stars appearance, but he’s slated to be in the lineup during Game 1, and the Stars are tinkering with a Zuccarello – Benn combination. Could a one-line team become a two-line team?

Of course, both Nashville and Dallas lean heavily on their defensemen to score, but that’s for the next section.

PREDATORS: At a quick glance, the Predators’ top line seems inferior, with Ryan Johansen‘s 64 points leading the way. Injuries cloud such judgments, though, as Viktor Arvidsson managed 34 goals in just 58 games (!) this season, while Filip Forsberg was his usual dynamic self with 28 goals and 50 points in 64 games. The gap between these two teams’ top line is small, if they aren’t outright even.

On paper, the Predators should boast better depth, but they really haven’t been able to click. Kyle Turris has suffered through a pretty miserable season, and Mikael Granlund‘s been mouse-quiet since being traded to Nashville. Meanwhile, Wayne Simmonds is struggling through an almost tragically rough contract year.

ADVANTAGE: Nashville, by a hair. While Faksa ranked fourth in Stars forward scoring with 30 points, the Predators had seven forwards who had 30+, and Turris almost certainly would have hit that mark if he wasn’t limited to 55 games. Granlund scored 54 points counting his superior totals with the Wild. Zuccarello makes the argument more fascinating, though.

DEFENSE

STARS: After Seguin, Radulov, and Benn, the Stars’ next three leading scorers were all defensemen: John Klingberg (10 goals, 45 points), Miro Heiskanen (12G, 33P), and Esa Lindell (11G, 32P). Klingberg managed to get that many points in 64 games, and as Stars fans will tell you until your ears are red, he’s very worthy of his hype as a future Norris hopeful.

Where the Stars’ top guys are grappling at least slightly with Father Time, the Stars’ trio is in their primes, with Klingberg at 26, Lindell 24, and Heiskanen somehow this great already at 19.

This is a modern group, and while they’re not as hyped or as well-compensated as the Predators’ blueliners, they’re gaining fast as far as on-ice effectiveness is concerned.

PREDATORS: For the standards of Nashville’s defensemen, you could count 2018-19 as a bit of an off-year, but they likely remain the deepest group in the NHL, or at least rank highly in that regard.

Much like Dallas, three of Nashville’s defensemen ranked in the top six in overall team scoring: Roman Josi (15 goals, 56 points), Mattias Ekholm (8G, 44P), and Ryan Ellis (7G, 41P). Despite being limited to 63 games played, P.K. Subban almost hit double digits in goals with nine, and finished with 31 points. Missing time likely exaggerated worries about Subban’s overall game, as he remains a strong two-way player.

It will also be interesting to monitor Dante Fabbro. He’s a fairly well-regarded prospect, but coaches are reluctant to trust rookies, especially late-arriving ones, and Laviolette is not really an exception. (See: Tolvanen, Eeli.) Fabbro could give Nashville’s third pairing a boost, and while that wouldn’t be a revolutionary change, it could matter in a series where the margin of error figures to be slim.

ADVANTAGE: Predators, but not by as much as some would think. Dallas’ defense is underrated, but Nashville’s group is among the most potent and polished in the NHL.

GOALTENDING

STARS: If Ben Bishop stayed healthy (an unfortunately common phrase for Bishop), he’d get some heavy Vezina hype. He generated a .934 save percentage this season, brilliant even compared to his very strong career average of .921. Bishop put together an absurd .969 save percentage over nine March games, with a league-best .959 save percentage since February (among anyone who played at least two games, sorry Christopher Gibson).

Anton Khudobin hasn’t been far behind, producing a strong .923 save percentage in 41 games.

Jim Montgomery’s system and some strong young defensemen helped, but this Stars team shut opponents down because of stellar goaltending.

PREDATORS: If you had to wager on the best goalie pairing heading into 2018-19, you could have done worse than the (“father – son”) combination of Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros.

Goalies are about as easy to predict as cats are to herd, so they haven’t been the best … but they’ve still been fine. Rinne sported a solid .918 save percentage this season, and after a rough start, Saros ended up with a respectable .915 mark.

Of course, Rinne’s had his playoff nightmares, so people will wonder if those demons will crop again. Maybe the more interesting question is: if they do, will Laviolette go to Saros if needed?

ADVANTAGE: Stars, with mild concerns that Bishop isn’t 100 percent. Of all the West series, this is the one where you could be reasonably confident about both tandems. Again, though: they’re goalies.

ONE BIG QUESTION FOR EACH TEAM

What if the Stars’ first line is horse manure?

One could imagine some Stars executive gloating about giving Seguin “tough love,” but this was really about Seguin finally getting the bounces that didn’t go his way, pre-horse-bleep. If that luck dries up once again, can other lines shovel in some goals?

(Note: yes, you could ask similar questions about the Predators’ depth, too.)

Can the Predators’ power play do something?

NHL officials are notorious for “putting away their whistles” during the playoffs, relative to the regular season, but special teams will still be prominent. Actually, considering how tight this series could be – and how much each team struggles to score goals – getting a few markers on the man advantage might just swing the series.

If nothing else, the Predators spent big to improve this weakness. Wayne Simmonds has slipped, but his resume as a PP specialist is robust. Brian Boyle‘s big body is useful in screening goalies, even a jumbo-sized one like Ben Bishop. Things have looked better at times recently, but overall, the power play looms as a potential problem for the Preds.

PREDICTION

NASHVILLE IN 6. These two teams are structured very similarly, so here’s betting that the Predators are just a little better at making this formula work.

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

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.

Predators clinch spot, deal major blow to Wild’s playoff hopes

1 Comment

The Minnesota Wild’s offense is starting to stink almost as much as Devan Dubnyk‘s teenaged throat guard.

The Nashville Predators only needed Ryan Johansen‘s shorthanded goal to beat the Wild 1-0 on Monday, as Juuse Saros collected a 29-save shutout. With that, the Predators clinched a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Wild’s postseason hopes look that much grimmer.

With Zach Parise and others out of the lineup of a team that’s already lacking in firepower, it’s easy to understand Bruce Boudreau going for a “clog everything up” strategy. It almost worked, too, as the Wild generated a 29-19 shots on goal advantage, giving the Predators very little room to work with. This wasn’t an easy win for the Predators.

Minnesota simply wasn’t able to generate any margin for error, however, so that Johansen shorthanded goal just 4:32 into the game ended up being the decisive tally.

With the game turning into a grind that felt like a more skilled version of a slugfest from “The Dead Puck Era,” there was time to focus on other things … such as Devan Dubnyk’s throat guard, which might qualify as a biological weapon at this point:

Yes, gross.

The Wild struggled so badly to create offense, Dubnyk seemed to go over his teammates’ heads by trying to earn the equivalent to a delayed penalty advantage … that resulted in Minnesota taking a late penalty.

The Predators failed to score on the ensuing power play, yet the Wild had to kill that penalty fairly late in the game, rather than continuing to push to the same level of aggression for that tying goal.

While the Predators gave themselves a better chance to earn home-ice advantage for the first round (and maybe a shot at the division title), the Wild are at a disadvantage in the West’s bubble races. Take a quick look at how things look as of this writing:

WC 2: Avalanche: 81 points in 76 games, 33 regulation/OT wins

9: Coyotes: 79 points in 76 games, 32 ROW
10: Wild: 79 points in 77 games, 34 ROW
11: Blackhawks: 76 points in 75 games, 31 ROW

Not good.

If Monday’s efforts serve as any indication, the Wild seem likely to keep putting forth a dogged effort to try to earn a playoff berth. They just have to hope they don’t fall painfully short in these races like they did during this 1-0 loss to the Predators.

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.

Predators’ top line is dominant when you look deeper

It’s never been a better time for those of us who want to know every little thing that we can about hockey. From in-depth features on the nuances of the game, to increasingly insightful “fancy stats,” you can go deep down that hockey rabbit hole.

Even with all of that information in mind, it’s still easy to miss things. Take, for example, how the Nashville Predators’ top line of Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, and Filip Forsberg really isn’t that far behind the best combinations in the NHL.

If you merely look at season totals, you’ll think reasonably highly of the trio, but maybe not fully absorb how dominant they’ve been.

Johansen has 58 points, and that’s reasonably reflective of his season, as he’s played in 71 of 73 games.

His wingers have been outstanding, especially since they’ve missed quite a bit of time with injuries.

Arvidsson on a 50-goal pace

Perennially underrated, constantly-moving Swedish scorer Arvidsson might be having the most impressive season. He’s also tied his career high of 31 goals … in just 49 games. If Arvidsson maintained that .63 goals-per-game pace through 73 games, he’d have about 46 goals right now. Over an 82-game season, he’d have between 51 and 52 (51.66).

Now, sure, the bounces would start to even out in a less positive way for Arvidsson, as his shooting percentage is by far at a career-high of 19.3 percent.

Yet, it still all points to career-best work. Arvidsson’s up to 19:16 TOI per game, a significant jump from last season’s career-high of 17:45 per contest.

Taking the ball and running with it

In general, the Predators realize that they need to lean on this trio for their offense, and it shows beyond ice time. After being closer to fifty-fifty with zone starts previously, the top line has been leveraged for offense more than ever, beginning 64.9 to 67 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

Speaking of those meatier numbers, one of the most promising developments is that Johansen is sure looking like a true top-line center. Johansen’s enjoying some of the best possession numbers of his career, and his .82 points-per-game average in 2018-19 ranks as the second-best of his career.

For a while, Johansen’s $8 million cap hit seemed like a mild problem for the Predators. Now it seems perfectly fine, and only really pales in comparison to the obscene discounts for Forsberg ($6M) and Arvidsson ($4.25M).

Forsberg is probably the player most widely acknowledged as a star, likely in part because of his penchant for scoring highlight-reel goals. He’s also the player who has probably been most shortchanged by injuries over the years. Forsberg has 25 goals in just 55 games this season, after managing 26 while being limited to 67 contests in 2017-18.

(Much like his linemates, Forsberg’s been more than opponents can handle possession-wise, too.)

Now, we can tussle about where the Predators’ top line ranks among the best of the best. But the point is that they’re really not that far behind the upper-most of the elite, making Nashville a team with an interesting ceiling.

Because, for the most part, the Preds have pieces that only a few other contenders also have.

Their defense is much-hyped, and rightfully so. They not only have a veteran starter in Pekka Rinne, but an increasingly proven backup/goalie of the future in Juuse Saros.

Still searching for scorers beyond the big three — and that defense

But, yes, there is an issue: are the Predators something of a one-line team?

It’s telling that a) the top line players lead all other forwards, despite Arvidsson and Forsberg missing so much time and b) three of the Predators other top-six scorers are defensemen, with Roman Josi‘s 55 points sitting not that far behind Johansen’s 58 for the team lead.

(Mattias Ekholm has 42 points, while Ryan Ellis is at 37.)

Craig Smith‘s the highest-scoring forward after that trio with 33 points. Being that 19 of those points are goals, Smith’s been a useful player – as usual – for the Predators.

The key, then, is to get his would-be linemates on track by the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Johansen’s been justifying his price tag, Kyle Turris hasn’t exactly looked like a $6M center this season. Turris’ already-rough season hit a new low with a recent healthy scratch, but maybe he can start to get things back on track, beginning with a likely return to the lineup during Thursday’s game against the Maple Leafs?

(Granted, he’s currently slated for fourth-line duty, so it might be an uphill battle.)

[More in the Morning Skate]

Mere ripples after from splashy moves

The Predators were aggressive during the trade deadline, but the returns haven’t been astronomical.

Mikael Granlund‘s four points in seven games can be considered acceptable, yet not exactly mind-blowing. Through eight games, Wayne Simmonds hasn’t scored a single goal, managing just an assist during that span.

Some of these results must be frustrating, no doubt. At least there’s time to find offense beyond that explosive top line, though.

Peter Laviolette could always at least tinker with seeing how it would work to spread the wealth, although too much movement might be messing with a good thing. Granlund could easily slide into a role as center, where he often played with the Wild.

The Predators haven’t enjoyed great results from forwards beyond Forsberg – Johansen – Arvidsson, but there are at least plenty of options. Hey, maybe this would be a good time to see if Eeli Tolvanen can finally stick in the lineup, too?

Even if none of those other options work out, the NHL’s shifted to being a league that’s heavy with teams who depend largely on their top lines, and the good news is that the Predators’ trio can hang with most of them.

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.