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PHT Morning Skate: Jets building long-term contender; NHL yet to figure out how to pay goalies

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The dates for arbitration destiny (if they make it there) are set for a bevy of the NHL’s restricted free agents. (TSN.ca)

Connor Hellebuyck the first shoe to drop in Winnipeg, with several more waiting their turn. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Hellebuyck’s extension also proved once again that the Jets are building a long-term contender right away. (The Hockey News)

• The NHL has yet to figure out how to pay their goalies. (TSN.ca)

Kevin Shattenkirk is on track to be ready for Rangers training camp. (NHL.com)

• Vancouver Canucks seventh overall draft pick this year Quinn Hughes is set to benefit from wherever he plays this coming year. (Sportsnet)

• The salary cap in Edmonton is tight. Quite tight. So tight, that defenseman Darnell Nurse doesn’t want a long-term deal with the team right now. (Edmonton Sun)

Logan Couture, who signed an eight-year, $64 million extension with the San Jose Sharks on July 1, says it was an easy decision to make. (NHL.com)

• Who do the top 2018 NHL draft picks remind us of? Prospect expert Chris Peters explains. (ESPN)

• Sauce Hockey in hot water over crude t-shirts after Wal-Mart pulls them off store shelves in Canada. (CBC.ca)

• Mall celebrity upstages both Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon in viral photo. (The Star Halifax)

• Woman fighting ovarian cancer used playing hockey as therapy before she tragically passed away. (The Western Star)

• Tavares, Maple Leafs tough to match up with at center, opponents say. (NHL.com)

• Is St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong a master trader? (The Hockey Writers)

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

Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final run is Trotz’s masterpiece

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This Washington Capitals team is a testament to people taking things for granted.

Think of all of the the achievements that were met, ridiculously, with a shoulder shrug:

  • Yet another Maurice Richard Trophy for Alex Ovechkin thanks to 49 goals. It will be his seventh such title.
  • Yawn: another division title, marking the eighth of the Ovechkin era.
  • Sheesh, they didn’t even win the Presidents’ Trophy this time around.

Hockey fans and pundits are probably also guilty of far-too-easily dismissing the brilliant work of Barry Trotz. Such things tend to happen for a bench boss who, much like the Capitals, never advanced beyond the second round before this magical run to 3-1 series lead in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it’s too easy to forget the uncertainty Washington faced before Trotz took over.

Consider that, during the three seasons pre-Trotz, the Capitals missed the postseason once (in 2013-14) and failed to win a single playoff series. Perhaps it was easy to get lost in the “Pittsburgh Penguins curse” narrative and forget just how seamlessly they shot back up the ranks of the NHL. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy during Trotz’s first two seasons – only to fall to the eventual champions – and owned the Metropolitan Division crown during his reign.

With the benefit of hindsight, this playoff run might honestly be the perfect way for Trotz to receive at least some of the credit he so richly deserves.

Seamless transition

There might have been temptation to dismiss Trotz’s achievements because of all the talent on hand. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as the Washington’s two-year championship window, or at least its biggest window for breakthrough success, only to face heartbreak and a hangover.

But maybe those letdowns and fewer roster riches allowed for some focus, and the release of some of the tension of “Oh, but you have to win with this team.”

Despite losing Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals maintained a high level of postseason success. While this postseason run has been about Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, Evgeny Kuznetsov finding another gear, and Braden Holtby rekindling his Vezina form, it’s also spotlighted the structural genius of Trotz’s system.

Consider that:

  • The Capitals stood toe-to-toe with a strong possession team in Columbus to win that series.
  • Clearly outplayed the Penguins during that redemptive meeting in the semifinal round. Considering how lucky Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win felt, it’s fair to say that the right team – not just the fortunate one – advanced and justified it being called a “rivalry.”

  • Washington proved to be a riddle the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to solve, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to help Tampa Bay steal some games, yet the Bolts failed to score against Holtby during the final two games of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov generally lived off of the power play, as the Bolts had few answers for the Caps at five-on-five.

While the Vegas Golden Knights justifiably carry a “Cinderella” narrative with them, they also presented a fascinating stylistic challenge for the Capitals.

Through three rounds of the postseason, the Golden Knights have been able to create unyielding pressure on the opposition thanks to a ferocious forecheck and impressive team speed. Even the tight four-game sweep of the Kings was misleading, as Los Angeles was often hanging on for dear life, asking Jonathan Quick to carry a huge burden just to stay in games.

An experienced San Jose Sharks team was rattled early in their series via a 7-0 loss in Game 1, and Vegas kept rolling along. With all their waves of talent, the Winnipeg Jets never really found an answer for the Golden Knights’ gauntlet, falling in just five games.

Jonathan Marchessault and the rest of the Golden Knights’ top line made a strong argument that it was “for real” during the postseason.

The Capitals, in turn, made them feel a lot like Tampa’s top combo of Kucherov and Stamkos. Vegas had to feel a bit shackled and negated, not to mention frustrated. Some of that comes down to Washington’s talent, depth, and versatility. Still, it’s the Trotz blueprint that stands as the primary explanation for why the Golden Knights’ freight train approach screeched to a halt.

And, again, that unyielding structure is something people just came to expect from Trotz.

Beautiful hockey mind

Maybe we merely needed to see the game evolve to truly appreciate his work? The NHL is clearly (and from an entertainment standpoint, delightfully) turning to a more attacking, “modern” style. To some, it seems like coaches’ ability to kill all fun and offense hit a critical mass in recent years, and now it’s time for offenses to take over.

Trotz’s work stands as a counterpoint to that thought.

On the other hand, much of his genius is finding the right combination of offense and responsibility. Washington has shown an ability to be able to trade punches with the best of them when needed -Game 4 saw the adrenaline go through the roof, and the Caps were just fine, thank you – yet they’ve also thrived in the kind of grinding games people expect from the postseason.

Through some combination of design and necessity, Trotz has helped the Capitals transform into a hockey chameleon, and that versatility leaves them one win from the franchise’s – and coach’s – first Stanley Cup victory.

The beauty of it all is that Trotz is so widely loved and respected. His acumen and love of the sport can be seen in how he’d hold court with Nashville media, not unlike Herb Brooks going out of his way to teach sports reporters the finer points of hockey.

As you may remember, reporters including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Trotz said that he was on his way out of Washington during a handshake line chat with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.

That moment came as the Capitals were heading into the uncertainty that was another second-round series with the Penguins. There have been denials about that statement being made, but if there was a kernel of truth to such scuttlebutt, maybe the drive behind such feelings was that Trotz didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he felt taken for granted.

(And, sure, there also might be a succession plan involving assistant Todd Reirden.)

Maybe such feelings leave the door open ever so slightly that, even if the Capitals win it all, Trotz might be somewhere else. It’s tough to imagine that actually happening, but stranger things have happened in sports.

Whatever the case may be, Barry Trotz has now earned the right to call his shot, and reminded us all of how brilliant he truly is along the way.

Now he just needs to make sure the Capitals don’t take that next win for granted.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals’ ‘under the radar’ season lessened pressure entering playoffs

LAS VEGAS — The expectations from the outside were different this year. Playoffs, sure, but while the Washington Capitals went through another successful regular season, one capped off with yet another division title, they entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs not high on the list of favorites.

That hadn’t been the case for some time. With previous division titles and Presidents’ Trophies, the high expectations had been attached. This spring? Not so much.

“Flying under the radar is huge,” said Capitals forward Jay Beagle during Sunday’s Stanley Cup Final Media day. “I don’t think we’ve done that here in a while. We’ve always had a stacked team and Presidents’ Trophy winning team where you’re expected to go to the Final or win the Cup. We put those expectations on ourselves as well. But with the expectations of the media and other people, it’s hard to develop your game as a team because there’s so much scrutiny going on. 

“It felt different this year because we were under the radar, there wasn’t as much pressure. I don’t know if that’s pressure from us or pressure from the outside, but it felt different. I don’t know how to describe it. It really was weird. It felt different the whole year.”

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

A year ago, Beagle got in his car and started the long drive from Washington D.C. to his home in Calgary. The Capitals had just lost Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Another elimination at the hands of their longtime rivals. He said during the ride he felt “broken,” something he’d never experienced following a loss before. 

From another disappointment, however, came motivation.

“You grow a lot from a loss. That’s what I’ve learned,” Beagle said. “You grow more from a loss than from a win of a series. For the core group, that loss last year, I think we came back a lot stronger and you didn’t see it right away in the year, but you could tell the whole group knew that something was special and that this year was different. You could kind of feel that come January, February.”

Expectations from the outside may have been different, but internally the group had all the confidence that they could be playing into June. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan was confident that despite the losses of veterans like Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Williams, there were younger players who could step in and contribute. His feeling became a reality watching the likes of Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson take on bigger roles and produce.

With success brought comfort for those younger players and that helped to improve the Capitals overall and aid them during this run.

With expectations unable to be met every spring, that kind of disappointment could easily slip into the minds of a team and affect them going forward. The belief never wavered in the Capitals’ dressing room.

“That makes it a little more special. When you’re younger, you don’t understand, at least I didnt, how special it is, even just to be in the playoffs,” said Beagle. “I’ve been on this team and you almost always make the playoffs every year and you kind of take it for granted, and then you miss the playoffs one year and it’s a shock. It’s the worst feeling ever. I’ve been really blessed to be with this organization and to be with a group of guys that have been here because it’s always been a group that contends.

“Even though we’ve come up short in the past, we always had a feeling that this core group had what it takes to go deep.”

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?

• Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

————

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.

Master, then pupil: How Capitals were built

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights. 

If trades were bad hair metal singles, then the Filip Forsberg – Martin Erat trade was to George McPhee’s time with Washington as “Cherry Pie” was for Warrant.

(Click here for the relevant VH1 moment, but don’t play it out loud if you’re at work.)

Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.

It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.

Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)

The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.

Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.

Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.

Genuine drafts

Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.

From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.

  • Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
  • Nicklas Backstrom (4th in 2006). That draft also included two attempts at finding a goalie solution in Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault as the 177th pick.
  • The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
  • While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
  • They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
  • The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
  • McPhee’s last draft yielded Andre Burakovsky at pick 23, while Madison Bowey (53) is also notable.

Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.

As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.

The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.

MacLellan brings it to the next level

As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.

One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.

MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.

While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.

While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.

In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.

T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.

Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.

Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.

Now that the hangover passed

Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:

  • A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
  • Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
  • A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
  • The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
  • Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
  • That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.

Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.

***

It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.

MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.

Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.

If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.

Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW:
Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Hart to tell: Crowded NHL MVP race has a dozen candidates

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Taylor Hall had just scored two more goals in another big New Jersey Devils victory when his general manager asked him a simple question.

”I said, ‘Taylor, what’d you get tonight?”’ Ray Shero recalled. ”He goes, ‘We got two points is what we got.’ He had a smile on his face. And I knew he was not going to say two goals. I knew it. We got two points.”

That’s what Shero wanted to hear from the player most responsible for New Jersey’s turnaround from lottery afterthought to playoff contender. Hall is without a doubt the Devils’ most valuable player but he is one of about a dozen candidates for the overall NHL honor. The race for the Hart Trophy is one of the most crowded, convoluted and subjective in decades.

An MVP case can be made for Hall, Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, Boston’s Brad Marchand, Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The award is given to ”the player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Reigning Hart winner McDavid leads the league in points and should take home the player-voted Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player, but the Oilers have long been out of playoff race, hurting his candidacy to some extent and showing how valuable the other contenders are.

Shero said matter-of-factly the Devils ”wouldn’t be in the race” without Hall. The same can be said for the Avalanche without MacKinnon, the Capitals without Ovechkin and the Flyers without Giroux.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

”Offensively, he’s such a big part of how we generate goals,” Ovechkin teammate T.J. Oshie said. ”Whether he’s scoring them or not, when he’s on the ice, he’s a concern for the other team. Where we’d be at? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

Washington won the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive year thanks in large part to Ovechkin after losing Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk from a group that captured the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Ovechkin averages 20 minutes a night, has scored 18.7 percent of the Capitals’ goals and leads the league with 46 while not missing a single game.

Kopitar is another ironman who leads all NHL forwards in ice time, is fifth with 91 points and has the Kings on their way back to the playoffs. GM Rob Blake said Kopitar means ”pretty much everything” to Los Angeles, particularly because the two-way star has done it all most of the season without No. 2 center Jeff Carter.

”When I look at that MVP race and importance to a team, I think Kopi’s head and shoulders above everybody: to do what he’s had to do without the advantage of having Carter come back on the ice after,” Blake said. ”He had to go with Nick Shore and Adrian Kempe on the ice every shift after. He leads forwards in minutes. His defensive stats and some of the advanced stats show the commitment that he’s had, and it’s from day one.”

Two-way play extends to Giroux, who has put Philadelphia on his back at times. Giroux has a career-high 97 points – trailing only McDavid and Kucherov – has won 58.6 percent of faceoffs and run the power play and played the penalty kill for a team that has needed to get wins from four different goaltenders.

”When you talk about that type of an award there’s a lot more to it and G does a heck of a lot more for this hockey team than just score points,” coach Dave Hakstol said. ”And believe me it’s hard to score points in this league, so I’m not downplaying that. I’m telling you how important a lot of the other things he provides are to our hockey team.”

MacKinnon has provided a spark with 38 goals and 56 assists for the Avalanche, who are still fighting to make the playoffs.

”He’s a threat to shoot, threat to take pucks to the net, delay and find people,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s got a little bit more change of speed and change of gears on his attack this year.”

Given the success of the Lightning, Bruins, Penguins, Predators and Jets, it’s hard to discount Kucherov, Stamkos, Marchand, Rinne and Wheeler. Even Vegas’ William Karlsson or Columbus’ Artemi Panarin could get some consideration.

While Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff thinks Wheeler has shown his value beyond his league-tying 67 assists, he knows nothing about the Hart is a slam dunk.

”It speaks volumes to the league and to the importance these players have on their team,” Cheveldayoff said.