Karl Alzner

Capitals Cup window remains open, though unknowns lie ahead

ARLINGTON, Va. — When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they did so after their championship window was supposed to be closed.

Unlike when a roster shake-up and infusion of youth actually augmented the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and John Carlson, the Capitals now face a more immediate challenge. With contracts for Backstrom and Holtby up after this season and Ovechkin after next year, it’s unclear how long this era of success will last.

”With the age of our team, every year is a sense of urgency in my mind,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”It took us a while to get to the point where we did win a championship, and I don’t know how long our window is here. We’re getting a little older, but we also have some good young guys coming up, so I think we can continue to compete at a high level.”

The Capitals still have a potential 50-goal scorer in Ovechkin , a perennial 70-point playmaker in Backstrom, an elite defenseman in Carlson and a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender in Holtby. And with the talent around them, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny, Washington is a threat to win the Cup again.

”We have a high expectation here,” second-year head coach Todd Reirden said. ”We expect to be extremely competitive. We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points. That’s the culture that we’ve established, and now we need to continue to build it.”

Ovechkin is 34, Backstrom 31 and Holtby 30. The same salary cap and aging questions that faced the champion Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins will soon confront the Capitals. MacLellan seems to know when to make free agency moves (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014), when to let key players go (Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams in 2017) and when to dole out big contract extensions (Kuznetsov and Oshie in 2017 and Carlson and Wilson in 2018).

The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning and defending conference champion Boston Bruins remain formidable challengers in the East . Just in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins and New York Islanders aren’t going away and the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers all got better.

But the Capitals are still an established power to be reckoned with.

WHO’S HERE

Free agent signings Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were brought in to revamp the bottom six forward spots. Rugged defenseman Radko Gudas, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, is the Orpik replacement on defense because of the size and muscle he brings.

”Some of the players we added were not by accident,” Reirden said. ”That’s what you can look to see: some guys that aren’t necessarily all that fun to play against.”

WHO’S NOT

Niskanen was a salary-cap casualty sent to Philadelphia for Gudas, and forward Brett Connolly left in free agency to sign a $14 million, four-year deal with Florida. Reirden will coach a team without Orpik for the first time in his decade in the NHL after the 38-year-old retired and moved into Washington’s player development department.

”His strength as a person and as a leader will translate well into the role he’s in,” MacLellan said. ”Most of the young guys in our organization already know him. There’s a comfort there with him. He’s just fresh out of the gate, so he’s up to date on all our coaches, all of the guys in our room, so it’s a great fit for the organization.”

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the season after being suspended by the league for inappropriate conduct stemming from a positive cocaine test at the world championships and a meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

KEY PLAYERS

This team is still led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, and also features Kuznetsov and backstopped by Holtby. The play6er to watch is Wilson, who is coming off a career year of 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games.

Wilson, 25, wants to be more consistent, and the sky’s the limit if he stays out of suspension trouble and plays close to 80 games.

”The offense obviously is everyone’s big thing over the years,” Wilson said. ”That’s got to continue to be there. If you’re playing (big) minutes and you’re playing on the first line you have to be able to chip in, and that’s what I plan to do.”

OUTLOOK

For the first time fans should get to see what Reirden hockey truly looks like. He took over for Barry Trotz after the Cup celebration and a short summer that didn’t give him much time to overhaul systems. The Capitals could look like a different team.

”You can expect us to be more aggressive in different areas of the ice,” Reirden said. ”You can expect us to play that type of style of game where our speed and skating is a really important factor for us.”

PREDICTION

Washington should win the Metropolitan Division for a fifth consecutive season and with better injury fortune make it out of the first round. In what could be Holtby’s final playoff run, his play in goal will go a long way to determining how far the Capitals go.

Habs waive Alzner as rough season continues

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Last summer, Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin decided to open up the vault to sign free-agent defenseman Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.125 million contract. Alzner struggled mightily in his first year as a Hab and he’s had a hard time getting into the lineup in year two. Less than a year and a half into this contract, the Canadiens have finally admitted that it was a big mistake.

The club has decided to place the veteran on waivers. The 30-year-old has one assist and a plus-2 rating in eight games this season, but his $4.625 cap hit through 2021-22 basically means no team will be willing to touch him. The move was necessary because Shea Weber (lower body) is getting set to return to the lineup this week.

The Canadiens need Alzner’s roster spot, which means he’ll be heading to AHL Laval if he clears waivers. Even with Alzner off the roster, Montreal is still carrying eight defensemen.

Alzner was brought to Montreal to replace Andrei Markov, who signed with the KHL, but that obviously hasn’t worked out too well for him or the team. According to Cap Friendly, buying out Alzner after this season would cost the Canadiens some dead money on the cap. It would cost the Habs between $1,069,444 and $4,194, 444 in cap penalties over the next six seasons.

Things will become even more interesting once Paul Byron, Nikita Scherbak, Noah Juulsen and Joel Armia are ready to return from injury. The Canadiens will have to make a trade or they’ll have to expose someone on waivers that they don’t want to lose.

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.

What’s going on with Carey Price?

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The Montreal Canadiens were expected to be one of the bottom-dwellers in the Eastern Conference this season. Instead, they’ve proven everybody wrong by getting off to an 8-5-3 start. Nothing to complain about in Montreal then, right? Guess again!

After they traded away their two best scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, the expectation was that they’d have a hard time putting the puck in the net. That hasn’t been an issue. The Shea Weber injury was also supposed to derail their season, but the defense has sort of held up until now. So what’s the big issue that has fans up in arms? Apparently, it’s Carey Price.

Let’s make one thing clear: Price hasn’t been good enough this season. That has never been more evident than over the last few days, as he gave up bad goals in the third period against the New York Rangers on Tuesday night.

And he also gave up a couple of stinkers in Thursday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on home ice:

Canadiens using speed to overwhelm opponents

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Heading into the 2018-19 NHL season, the expectations weren’t very high for the Montreal Canadiens. After all, a team that has struggled to score goals five-on-five traded away Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk. But thanks to their newfound identity, they’ve managed to exceed all expectations  and boast a 5-2-2 through nine games.

The Canadiens don’t have a superstar up front or an elite player on defense (Shea Weber is still injured), and Carey Price hasn’t even been dominant yet, but they’ve managed to remain competitive thanks to their ability to move the puck quickly. Also, newcomers like Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Xavier Ouellet have fit in really nicely, and they’ve all contributed to the speed the team is playing with.

Not every player on the roster is fast, but Claude Julien and his staff have found a way to change their approach after a horrendous year in 2017-18. Coaching additions like Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson have also helped with that change.

When things are going well for the Canadiens, you can tell by the little time they spend in their own end. Last season, it seemed like they would get hemmed in the defensive zone all the time. Now, their defenders have found a way to move the puck quicker. The fact that the forwards have made themselves more available to receive those quick passes has helped the team get out of their own end with relative ease. Moving the puck allows the Canadiens to play a quick transition game, which eventually leads to some offensive output.

That’s why a veteran like Karl Alzner hasn’t been able to get into the lineup consistently. The Habs have favored skating defensemen like Jeff Petry, Victor Mete, Noah Juulsen, Mike Reilly and Ouellet, and it’s made all the difference.

The other interesting thing about Montreal, is that they can come at you with four lines. Some nights, Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault and Tatar will lead the way. Other times, it will be Jonathan Drouin, Domi and Artturi Lehkonen. The team has also used Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Paul Byron together, and they have fourth-line options that include Andrew Shaw, Matthew Peca, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“I wouldn’t say we’re superstars, but everybody is working hard,” Tatar said. “That’s the key. Without that, you’re not able to win a game. We have four lines rolling and everyone is chipping in. That’s a strength for sure.”

Even though they’re coming off a loss in Buffalo last night, no one predicted that they’d have just two regulation defeats in their first nine games, especially because they went up against Toronto and Pittsburgh (twice).

The biggest question mark surrounding the Canadiens is whether or not they can keep this up. Playing fast and being aggressive on the forecheck every night takes its toll on a team. Keeping that in mind, they’re not an overly big team, either, so they might wear down a little quicker, too.

When they hit the dog days of the season, they’ll need Price to be stellar. For now, they just have to find a way to keep this going for as long as they can.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.