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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.

How Canadiens can exceed expectations this year

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PITTSBURGH — Maybe you looked at the Montreal Canadiens roster at the start of the season and had the same thoughts that I did. Among them: This just isn’t a very good team. Who is going to score the goals out of that group of forwards? What exactly is the long-term plan here? And that defense without Shea Weber to open the year … woof. 

But if there is one thing we should have learned by now when watching the NHL it’s that if there is one sport where seemingly improbable and unthinkable results can happen, this might be the one. Given where this team is coming from a year ago and the roster it is putting on the ice to start this season the Canadiens being a seriously competitive team would probably be a pretty big surprise.

It is important to point out that we are still in the first week of the NHL season, right in the thick of that time period on the schedule where it’s easy to jump to bad conclusions that can make you look like a doofus a few months later when we look back on it. But it’s still better to start the season with some success than it is to start the season without it, and through their first two games it would be fair to say that the Canadiens have done that.

Opening the year with games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, two of the best and most talented offensive teams in the league and a couple of Stanley Cup contenders, the Canadiens have managed to collect three out of a possible four points. They turned in their most impressive outing of the two on Saturday night in Pittsburgh when they absolutely demolished the Penguins by a 5-1 margin, leaving Mike Sullivan in a little disbelief as to where his team is in the early stages of the season.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the performance on Saturday is that the Canadiens entered the third period with a 4-1 lead, and instead of sitting back on their heels and nursing the lead, they took it to the Penguins, added another goal, and outshot them by a 14-3 margin over the final 20 minutes. It was exactly the way a team should want to close out a game on the road — and you almost never see it happen to that degree and executed with such perfection.

“Well that’s what I wanted from our team,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “It was important we didn’t play on our heels and let them come at us.”

So here we are, after two games, and the Canadiens sitting 1-0-1 and looking pretty decent in the process. What would it take for this team to build off of this start and actually exceed their expectations this season?

There are a few things that can help.

The simplest and easiest answer is simply, Carey Price.

We have seen the impact Price can make on the Canadiens when he is at his best and it can be season-altering. But his potential is obvious. It still has to be more than him.

The Canadiens raised some eyebrows early in the season by scratching veterans Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner for the first two games. The result has been a younger, faster team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi being one of the most intriguing young players. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft has been thrown right into the deep end of the pool and he has not yet looked out of place, even if he has been sheltered a bit (which he should be as an 18-year-old rookie). For a team that has been in desperate need of a big-time center, a promising rookie season from him would be a big development no matter what happens for the team in the standings.

They also need big seasons from the veteran forwards they have up front, including Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar. Pretty much all of them have something to prove this season.

Drouin, after being one of the team’s big acquisitions a year ago, had an okay debut season in Montreal but was not really the breakthrough season that many expected.

Domi came to Montreal in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, a trade that at the time seemed to be one-sided in Montreal’s favor given how much of a down year Domi had in Arizona, and how much has goal-scoring has dropped off the past two years.

Then there is Tatar, the main NHL asset acquired in this summer’s Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar has been a consistent 20-goal, 45-point player throughout his career and still has several years of term left on his contract. He is a better player than he showed during his brief time in Vegas, and could be one of the Canadiens’ best players.

But the veteran player that might do the most to help the Canadiens’ form some sort of an identity this season is Paul Byron, recently signed to a long-term contract extension to remain in Montreal after posting back-to-back 20-goal seasons. He was brilliant for the Canadiens on Saturday, scoring a pair of goals and setting up Joel Armias’ shorthanded goal late in the second period that was probably the knockout punch for the night.

He was one of the most talked about players in their locker room on Saturday night.

“He’s kind of like the coyote and the roadrunner, right?” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s a guy that disappears pretty quickly. He’s been a good player for quite a while. As I said a few weeks ago am so happy we got him re-signed, he’s a great addition to our team, and not only that he’s wearing a letter because he’s such a great leader. He’s an important part of our team.”

“He’s just consistent,” said teammate Brendan Gallagher. “You watch Paul, he’s going to be that way every game. He creates chances with his speed. You talk to anyone that plays with him, plays against him, you have to be aware of him. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and he definitely uses it. Game after game he’s an effective player for us.”

Again, this is just two games — the first two games of the season, no less — and we don’t want to make more out of this than it is at this point.

But you have to start someplace, and even though we don’t quite know what this team is yet the Canadiens probably couldn’t have had two tougher tests to open the year. So far they have passed them with flying colors.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Karl Alzner’s ironman streak will end with healthy scratch

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The big free agent addition for the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2017 was the signing of veteran defenseman Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.125 million contract. Given Alzner’s style of play, the way he seemed to dramatically decline toward the end of his time in Washington, and the direction the NHL is moving in terms of style of play from the blue line it was, to say the least, a curious move.

Just one year in things are not going as the Canadiens may have planned.

After a difficult debut season in Montreal, Canadiens coach Claude Julien announced on Wednesday that Alzner will be a healthy scratch for the team’s season opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“They’re never easy decisions,” Julien said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s two things happening there to those players, but I think at the end of the day we’re all mandated to do what’s best for the team first. That doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with certain things, but at the end of the day that’s what we’re all here for, including those players.”

This is a significant move because it will be the first time since the 2009-10 season that Alzner has missed a regular season game, putting an end to his 622-game ironman streak that is currently the 11th longest in NHL history.

It also has to be concerning for the Canadiens that Alzner — who still has four years and more than $19 million remaining on his contract — isn’t viewed as one of the six best defenders for the opening night lineup on a team that not only isn’t particularly good or deep defensively, but is already playing without its best defender in Shea Weber.

[Related: Shea Weber named 30th captain in Canadiens’ history]

Alzner isn’t the only veteran that will be a healthy scratch for the opener.

Long-time center Tomas Plekanec, who returned to Montreal on a one-year contract this summer after being traded to Toronto at the deadline, will also be a healthy scratch.

The Canadiens are going with Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Matthew Peca, and 2018 first-round pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi down the middle.

General manager Marc Bergevin refuses to utter the word “rebuild” when it comes to the 2018-19 team, but the opening night roster certainly seems to indicate the team might favor youth this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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’s 2018-19 Atlantic Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Metropolitan Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

In 2017-18, the Atlantic Division was the only one of the four divisions that had three teams pick up at least 105 points during the regular season. The Lightning (113), Bruins (112) and Maple Leafs (105) each managed to have pretty strong seasons. Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the Atlantic, those three organizations were the only three that made the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Panthers, who finished fourth in the division, missed out on the postseason by just one point. But in the end, five of the eight playoff teams in the East came from the Metropolitan Division.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

BOSTON BRUINS:

Better or Worse: The Bruins didn’t make a major splash during the offseason, but they’re better simply because a lot of their young players are one year older. Guys like David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato are all capable of improving their overall game. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league when you consider Boston already has Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Bruins have one of the best first lines in the NHL. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were unstoppable at different times last season, and there’s no reason to believe anyone will be able to slow them down this year. Yes, Bergeron is banged up right now, but the Bruins managed to overcome a stretch of games where he was injured last year, too. He managed to finish the year with 63 points in 64 games, while Marchand had 85 points in 65 games and Pastrnak accumulated 80 points over 82 contests.

Weaknesses: The Bruins have a great first line, but do they have enough scoring to match teams like Tampa Bay or Toronto? David Krejci has a hard time staying healthy and David Backes isn’t the same player he once was. They have some good youngsters on the roster, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick up the offensive slack enough to carry the Bruins to a division crown.

2017-18 Highlight: The team scored plenty of nice goals, but there’s no highlight that stands out more from 2017-18 than the one of Marchand licking opposing players. It’s gross, but it’s all anybody talked about when it happened.

MVP Candidate: It has to be Marchand. He led the team in scoring last year, and even though he’s the guy other team’s love to hate, there’s no denying that he’s an effective hockey player. Sure, he crosses the line a lot, but when he focuses on playing hockey, there aren’t too many in the league that are better. He’ll have to continue taking his game to another level if the Bruins are going to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Playoffs or Lottery: Definitely playoffs. Assuming they stay healthy, this team will compete for the division and conference crowns. They should stack up pretty well with the Maple Leafs and Lightning.

BUFFALO SABRES:

Better or Worse: The Sabres may have been one of the worst teams in the league last year, but they should be better. The simple fact that they were able to add Rasmus Dahlin because they won the NHL Draft Lottery last year makes them an improved squad. Even though they traded away Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, they still managed to add a veteran scorer like Jeff Skinner at a very reasonable price. The Sabres may not make the leap into the playoff picture this year, but they’re definitely better.

Strengths: Buffalo has one of the best young centers in the game in Jack Eichel. Even though they’ve yet to make the playoffs since he came into the league, every team in the league would kill to have a player like Eichel to build around. GM Jason Botterill still needs to work on getting his star forward some more help, but finding franchise centers is a lot harder than getting a good supporting cast. So the toughest part of the job is done.

Weaknesses: They’ll have their share of issues on defense, but the addition of Dahlin improves the unit right away. Rasmus Ristolainen is another important piece on the back end and Marco Scandella is a useful player, but the rest of the group needs some work. Also, they still don’t have a proven number one goalie on their roster. Carter Hutton is a veteran, but he’s never been asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. Linus Ullmark is an unproven commodity at the NHL level. Keeping the puck out of the net will be an issue this season.

2017-18 Highlight: A “Jack-Trick” isn’t really a creative name, but it’s still something that happened last season. The fact that he managed to score two goals in under 10 seconds is also pretty impressive.

MVP Candidate: As you’ve probably been able to figure out at this point, Eichel will be the one to carry this team if they’re going to make it to the postseason for the first time in years. His point total has increased from 56  to 57 (61 games) to 64 (in 67 games), so it’s only normal to expect his offensive numbers to increase assuming he can stay healthy.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Sabres are on the way up with players like Eichel and Dahlin at their disposal, but making the playoffs is a bit too big of an ask from this group right now. Expect them to be improved through.

DETROIT RED WINGS:

Better or Worse: The Wings brought back Thomas Vanek and they re-signed Mike Green, but the fact that they lost Henrik Zetterberg to a back injury definitely makes them worse. After years of being a model franchise, Detroit is going through a rebuild right now. They have some solid youth to build around, but they’ll suffer through a few more lean years before becoming competitive again.

Strengths: As we mentioned above, there are some good young forwards on this team. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are right at the top of that list. Michael Rasmussen, Filip Zadina and Evgeny Svechnikov are also coming through the pipeline.

Weaknesses: The Red Wings have one of the worst bluelines in the NHL. Four of their top six defensemen are over 32 years old (Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathon Ericsson and Trevor Daley). That group just isn’t good enough to make the Wings competitive. This roster needs a ton of work, especially on the back end.

2017-18 Highlight: There weren’t many memorable moments for the Red Wings during the 2017-18 season, but the opening of Little Caesars Arena was special.

MVP Candidate: Larkin will have to be great if the Red Wings are going to compete for a playoff spot. The 22-year-old posted a career-high 63 points in 82 contests last season. Those are impressive numbers, but he’ll have to be even better if Detroit has any chance of playing deeper into April.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery, again. The Red Wings just aren’t deep enough at any position to be pencilled into a playoff spot at this point. They don’t have enough scoring, they probably won’t be good enough on defense and there’s only so much Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier can do between the pipes.

FLORIDA PANTHERS:

Better or Worse: GM Dale Tallon did a good job of making his team better after they missed the playoffs by one point last year. They went out and acquired Mike Hoffman from San Jose (via Ottawa), which gives them another proven top-six forward. Some of their young players have gained experience and that should also make them a better team, overall.

Strengths: Have you seen Florida’s top two lines? They’ll likely open the season with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on their top line, and Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau on their second line. Those are two lines that are capable of creating offense on a nightly basis. The Panthers will be tough to stop.

Weaknesses: Their goaltending isn’t a weakness, but it can become one if Roberto Luongo fails to stay healthy, again, this season. The 39-year-old was solid when he played last year, but he only managed to suit up in 35 games. If he can play the majority of the games, he’ll be fine. If he can’t, the Panthers will have to turn to James Reimer, which is less than ideal.

2017-18 Highlight: Luongo delivered this incredibly emotional speech after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

MVP Candidate: Barkov has emerged as one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. The 23-year-old posted a career-high 78 points in 79 games last season. There’s no reason to think that he can’t get even better this season. The Panthers’ new captain will have more pressure on his shoulders, but he can handle it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They missed the postseason by a point last year, so they’ll use that to fuel their season this year. They have a solid blue line and some skilled forwards. If the goaltending cooperates, they’ll be just fine.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS:

Better or Worse: Things seem to be a little more positive around Canadiens camp right now compared to last year. But it’s hard to suggest this team is better though, especially because they won’t have Shea Weber until Christmas and because they traded away their top two goal scorers in Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk.

Strengths: Carey Price is still considered to be one of the best goaltenders in the league. Even though he struggled mightily last year, he still has the ability to bounce back in a big way. If Price plays up to his potential, the Canadiens might surprise the hockey world this season.

Weaknesses: GM Marc Bergervin still hasn’t addressed the defense. Losing Weber for months hurts, but they’re still lacking good puck-movers. Jeff Petry will serve as their number one defenseman until Weber comes back, but his defense partners this preseason have included Karl Alzner and Jordie Benn. Yikes.

2017-18 Highlight: This Price save against Tampa is just too pretty not to watch over and over again. Ridiculous.

MVP Candidate: There’s no doubt who the MVP is in Montreal. It’s Price. If he dominates between the pipes the Canadiens will have a chance. If he doesn’t, they’re toast. It’s as simple as that.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. They’re too thin on the defense, too thin down the middle and there’s too much pressure on the goalie. It feels like the Canadiens are heading in the right direction, but they aren’t ready to make the playoffs this year.

OTTAWA SENATORS:

Better or Worse: You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that the Senators are a better team this year than they were last year. Trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman will do that. Chris Tierney and Mikkel Boedker won’t be able to fill the voids left by the players that they were traded for.

Strengths: Even though they traded some of their best players away, they still have Mark Stone and Matt Duchene on the roster for now (they’re both free agents at the end of the season). Those two will have to drive the offense for the Senators this season. Will they finish 2018-19 in Ottawa? That’s a different question.

Weaknesses: Thomas Chabot has a bright future ahead of him, but there’s no number one defenseman on this roster now that Karlsson’s gone. They aren’t very deep up front. And if Craig Anderson struggles like he did last year, it’s going to be a very long year in Ottawa.

2017-18 Highlight: As bad as things were last season, at least the Senators took care of the Canadiens in that outdoor game in December.

MVP Candidate: Stone put up an impressive 62 points in 58 games last year, but he’s going to have to be a whole lot better in 2018-19 if the Senators are going to surprise. Of course, the better he plays, the more Eugene Melnyk will have to pay him next summer. So, is this a lose-lose for the Sens?

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. There’s so much drama around the Senators right now that it’s hard to imagine them going on any kind of run this year. Management has already come out publicly and said this is a rebuild (even though they have no first-rounder).

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:

Better or Worse: The Lightning didn’t make a major splash over the summer, but they’ll benefit from having J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh for a whole season (they acquired both players at the trade deadline). The Bolts didn’t have to make a major move to be considered one of the elite teams in the division. They’re better.

Strengths: The overall depth of this team is scary. They’re loaded on the defense with McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev. They also have Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson down the middle. And, of course, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde on the wings.

Weaknesses: Ummmmm this team doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses on paper. They’ve got scoring, they’ve got quality defenders and they have one of the best goalies in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

2017-18 Highlight: There’s no way Anze Kopitar didn’t have nightmares about this Vasilevskiy save.

MVP Candidate: There’s so many options, but Kucherov has to be the guy here. In the first half of last season, he was probably the favorite to win the Hart Trophy but players like Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon eventually emerged as options. The Russian winger cracked the 100-point mark for the first time in his career. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Too easy. This is a playoff team. They’re good enough to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final, but there’s going to be a ton of competition in this division.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: 

Better or Worse: Any team that’s able to add John Tavares in free agency is automatically better (no kidding).

Strengths: There aren’t many teams that could go head-to-head with the Leafs down the middle. Auston Matthews and Tavares are one of the top two center duos in the league along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

Weaknesses: Their defense is still a question mark. Sure, they have Morgan Reilly, who is a quality defender, but they’re still lacking another top pairing guy. Maybe this is the year they’ll sacrifice some of their forward depth to make sure they go out and address that need.

2017-18 Highlight: This one was pretty funny. Matthews had a goal called back after video review, so the next time he put the puck in the net, he made sure to signal that it was a good goal.

MVP Candidate: There’s options here, but Matthews still has to be the go-to guy in this category. The 21-year-old scored 40 goals in his rookie year and 34 goals in 62 games last year, so it’s scary to think what he’ll be able to do if he stays healthy in 2018-19. He’ll need to be great if he wants to claim the division and conference crowns.

Playoffs or Lottery: Whether or not they make the playoffs isn’t the question. What everyone wants to know is: Will they make it out of the first round of the playoffs? No matter how good they are during the regular season, another first-round exit would be a huge disappointment in Leaf Land.

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.

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

2017-18
49-26-7, 105 pts. (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights.

IN
Nic Dowd
Brooks Orpik (technically)

OUT
Alex Chaisson
Jay Beagle
Anthony Peluso
Tyler Graovac
Jakub Jerabek
Philipp Grubauer

RE-SIGNED
Tom Wilson
John Carlson
Travis Boyd
Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny
Madison Bowey

– – –

Stanley Cup champions.

Alex Ovechkin and others diving into the Georgetown fountain.

Two things that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital.

In reality, it’s the first one that will be etched in history forever. The Capitals, a team that had always come up short, always underperformed when they needed their best performance, finally broke through, sent all their demons back to where they came from and hoisted Lord Stanley in June.

And in true Capitals form, none of it came easy.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

From dropping the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to losing three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals had to work for the Cup.

Beating Pittsburgh in the second round was historical. Not since 1994 had the team bested the Penguins in the playoffs, and they’d been plagued by the Penguins ever since, including the previous two seasons where they were stopped in their tracks by Crosby and Co. in the second round.

Furthermore, the window appeared to be closed on the Capitals. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy two years running, but couldn’t figure it out when it mattered most. Their roster also appeared to be dealt a serious blow with key departures during last offseason, including Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt.

They still had their core, but good cores need good complements and Washington lost several.

The team endured Braden Holtby losing his starting job for a time late in the season, only to regain it in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never look back. Holtby appeared to be his elite self, especially in the final two games to close out the series against the Lightning, where he posted back-to-back shutouts against the regular season’s most potent offense.

In the Cup Final, Holtby bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to post four straight wins and a .938 save percentage during that span.

The Caps simply trudged along, taking every bump in stride and never wavering too far off course.

Ovi scored 49 to capture his one-millionth Rocket Richard Trophy and Evgeni Kuznetsov rebounded from his 59-point season (which followed a breakout campaign with 77 in 2015-16) to post career bests in both goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov’s form carried over into the playoffs where he paced the league with 32 points. Ovechkin finished second in scoring and first in goals with 15 and Nicklas Backstrom rounded out the top-three point producers.

There’s been a lot of partying this summer, nothing foreign to a team that’s won hockey’s greatest prize.

Keeping John Carlson is the most important thing the Capitals have done this offseason.

Signing Tom Wilson to a lengthy extension worth many millions of dollars is the most controversial decision they’ve made.

Not re-signing head coach Barry Trotz might be their biggest mistake. Assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reins while Trotz will be the bench boss in Long Island.

The Caps head into next season with much of the same team intact and a belief now that they can overcome anything. We know they’re going to score goals. We know their power play is going to be elite. A bounce-back regular season from Holtby should keep the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan once again.

A conversation involving the Caps and the Stanley Cup used to elicit laughter. Now, it emits chatter of a repeat.

How times have changed.

Prospect Pool

Ilya Samsonov, G, 21, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) – 2015 first-round pick

Three years of elite numbers in the KHL has the hype train carrying Samsonov moving at full force. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level deal after Metallurg was bounced from the Gagarin Cup and will play in North America this. The only question now is, where?

Samsonov is expected to be given a shot to be Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer now out of the picture. Samsonov will face competition from Pheonix Copley, who will also be vying for the bench job. Samsonov appears as ready as one can be to make the jump, but allowing him some time in the NHL to adjust and adapt to the American game wouldn’t hurt. He’s still going to see time with the Caps this year.

Alexander Alexeyev, D, 18, Red Deer (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The 31st and final pick in the first round this past June, Alexeyev had a breakout season with the Rebels with 37 points in 45 games.

He’s big, too, at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds and has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Alexeyev won’t be turning pro this year, and another season of development in the WHL will be good as he continues to adapt to the North American game. He’s got some good mentors in Washington, including fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

“He’s a really intelligent player, extremely patient with the puck, good shot, skates really well,” Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future with us.”

Lucas Johansen, D, 20, Hershey (AHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Johansen made a nice transition from junior with the Kelowna Rockets to professional with the Bears last season, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 74 games.

A second year in Hershey is in the cards for Johansen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen. Washington’s three defensive pairings aren’t going to change in training camp, but an injury could change all of that.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to play here,” Johansen told the NHL at the team’s developments camp in June. “But I know I have a lot of things to improve on and [for] the jump to the NHL you have to be strong, you have to be fast. But I’m looking forward to committing myself to getting better and I’m going to come to camp and do the best I can to make this team and whatever happens from there, I’ll be happy.”


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