Lars Eller

Takeaways from Capitals’ OT win over Blues

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The St. Louis Blues raised their 2019 Stanley Cup banner on Wednesday, but it was the Washington Capitals who ended up raising their hands in victory. The Capitals charged back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Blues 3-2 in OT to begin their season on Wednesday.

Here are a few quick observations from Washington’s 3-2 (OT) win over St. Louis:

Big season for Jakub Vrana?

As usual, the combination of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson provided big problems for the opposition.

The Capitals could be downright scarier if they find other lines that work almost as well, and Wednesday provided some optimism there. Via Natural Stat Trick, the line of Jakub Vrana, T.J. Oshie, and Lars Eller generated a dominant 73.33 Corsi For Percentage in that game. That puck possession translated to success on the scoreboard, as Vrana scored the OT game-winner (assisted by Oshie), while Eller generated two assists.

Ed Olczyk singled out Vrana multiple times during the NBCSN telecast, and it seems like he did so with good reason.

Alex Pietrangelo is going to be rich(er)

Pietrangelo didn’t begin the night as the defenseman on the Blues’ top power play unit — that honor went to Vince Dunn, rather than Justin Faulk or Colton Parayko — but that might be a look St. Louis would be wise to consider. He absolutely walloped the puck on the Blues’ second goal of the night:

Then again, with Ryan O'Reilly joining Pietrangelo on the second unit, maybe the Blues can just spread the wealth?

Alex Ovechkin: still a quick-strike threat

Ovechkin might be someone you can’t leave alone in the slot — or allow access to in the slot — when he’s 50. He remains that way at age 34, as he befuddled Jay Bouwmeester and others on his latest goal:

After the Blues generated a 7-5 shot advantage in the first period, the Capitals managed a 29-15 edge through the rest of the game. They looked like a hungry team, and possibly well-rested after that tough Round 1 loss to the Hurricanes last season.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.

WATCH LIVE: Blues raise Stanley Cup banner before meeting Capitals

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blues will raise their first-ever Stanley Cup banner 364 days after the Capitals did the same thing following their 2018 championship season. The only repeat champion over the past 2 decades is the Penguins, who won in 2016 and ‘17 before losing to Washington in their quest to three-peat.

“They’ve turned the page and moved forward,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong. “There are still remnants of last year’s success — the ring ceremony opening night, maybe a visit to the White House or the Hall of Fame presentation — there are still moments that are connected to last year’s team. But once the guys walked into the room this training camp, they don’t talk about it.”

Washington enters this season with teo of its key players, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom, entering the final year of their current contracts. With Alex Ovechkin two years away from free agency himself, and the Capitals tight against the salary cap already, it will be difficult for the team to retain every core piece from its championship group.

“I didn’t think we would be able to get enough money to sign Carlson, and we made it happen,” said Capitals GM Brian McLellan. “I am not ruling anything out. I mean, obviously it will be tough to do, especially if they both have good years. It is going to be hard to do, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Alex Ovechkin enters this season 13th on the all-time goals list with 658. He is 10 away from tying Luc Robitaille for 12th place, but it will take a while to move up beyond that. 30 goals would move him to 11th, 40 goals would move him to eighth, and if he can match his total from last season (51), he would take sole possession of seventh.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Washington Capitals at St. Louis Blues
WHERE: Enterprise Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Capitals-Blues stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Tom Wilson
Jakub VranaLars EllerT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinChandler StephensonRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Jonas SiegenthalerJohn Carlson
Dmitry OrlovNick Jensen
Martin Fehervary – Radko Gudas

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennVladimir Tarasenko
Sammy BlaisRyan O'ReillyDavid Perron
Robby FabbriTyler BozakRobert Thomas
Ivan BarbashevOskar SundqvistAlex Steen

Alex PietrangeloJustin Faulk
Jay BouwmeesterColton Parayko
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jordan Binnington

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with a special 90-minute edition of NHL Live, as host Kathryn Tappen, analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie preview the evening’s doubleheader and the upcoming 2019-20 season. Analyst Jeremy Roenick will be on-site in St. Louis to capture the scene outside Enterprise Center prior to the raising of the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship banner.

Mike Emrick, who returns for his 15th season as NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play commentator, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Blues from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Capitals have some huge decisions to make with key players

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have one of the more complex juggling acts in the NHL over the next year.

His team is just one year removed from its first ever Stanley Cup and is still, as currently constructed, a championship contender that should be one of the best teams in the league this season. They still have their core of stars in place, and they have worked to improve the depth around them with the recent additions of Carl Hagelin (before the trade deadline this past season), Richard Panik, and Garnet Hathaway.

For this season, everything is in place right for another run at a championship.

It is what happens after this season when things will get complicated as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Alex Ovechkin will be set to enter the final year of his contract.

Those are three of the most important players in the history of the Capitals franchise and the backbone of the team that finally brought the Stanley Cup to the district.

It is almost kind of hard to believe that Backstrom and Ovechkin are so close to the end of their deals given how long those contracts were. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that began during the 2008-09 season, while Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract for the start of the 2010-11 season. Given how much the Capitals have received in return from those two they might be two of the best contracts signed during the salary cap era (honestly, the only other contenders are the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo in Pittsburgh).

Now they are starting to reach their end because father time is a relentless monster that is always chasing after each and everyone of us. Time really does fly.

MacLellan’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep them, and which one to let go if it should come to that.

Let’s start with the obvious one: As long as he wants to play in the NHL it is almost impossible to believe that Ovechkin will ever wear a sweater that is not the Capitals. He is one of the “one team” icons in the sport, and there is no way Ted Leonsis is going to let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (and perhaps even reach it) with another team. That is just not going to happen. He stays.

But there is nothing the Capitals can do with Ovechkin’s contract until next July. They can, however, sign Backstrom or Holtby at any point starting right now.

This is where the big decision might have to come in, because given the constraints of the salary cap it is hard to see how they can fit all three on the team beyond this season.

The Capitals have a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, and already have 15 players under contract for 2020-21 and 13 players under contract for the 2021-22 season. Trying to figure out what the salary cap is going to look like in either of those years is nearly impossible right now, but the Capitals already have $62 million committed to their 2020-21 roster and nearly $50 million for the year after.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a lot, and they not only have to worry about re-signing their superstars, but also filling out the remainder of the roster around them.

When it comes to prioritizing between Backstrom and Holtby the most sensible investment would seem to be Backstrom. He is a No. 1 center, still one of the best players in the world, and should continue to be a top-line performer into his 30s.

Will he decline some? Almost certainly. But what he gives the Capitals will still be better than the alternatives they might realistically be able to acquire.

That leaves Holtby. The problem the Capitals will have with Holtby is you already saw what his next contract might look like this summer when Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers. That is going to be a massive contract to squeeze in under the cap when taking into account Backstrom’s next deal (which will probably be a raise, and maybe a significant one, from his current contract) and the eventual extension for Ovechkin (almost certainly $10 million-plus per season).

The only real to realistically do that is going to be shipping out another significant player in a trade.

Tom Wilson? T.J. Oshie? Dmitry Orlov? Or perhaps a combination depth players that are signed to term. The Lars Eller, Hagelin, and Panik trio will combine for $9 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons, all for depth players well into their 30s. Will that be the best use of salary cap space? (This is the risk with signing depth players to long-term contracts.)

But that is IF the Capitals want to make that sort of a commitment to Holtby.

He has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career and is still capable of shining in big moments and carrying the team when he is on top of his game. But over the past two seasons (and including the Stanley Cup year, when he did not even enter the playoffs as the starter) those moments have not been as frequent. He has started to shown signs of slowing down, and investing a seven-or eight-year contract into a goalie that will be 31 years old in the first year of his next deal could be too big of a risk.

If the Capitals have to move on from one of their big-three, Holtby is the most logical choice. He is the one that is probably least likely to retain most of his current value in future seasons, and even though he has been a top-tier goalie for so many years he is also probably the one they have the best chance of replacing.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby era has been an incredible success in Washington, winning two Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup all in the past four years.

But with their current contracts coming to an end it is entirely possible that one of them — probably Holtby — will be finishing their career in a different uniform barring some other significant change elsewhere on the roster.

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.

NHL players forget outside world during long playoff runs

Two minutes after wrapping up a conversation with his wife, Lars Eller couldn’t remember anything.

”She would be, like a half-hour later, ‘Remember what we just talked about?”’ Eller recalled. ”I’m like: ‘No, I’m sorry. I completely forgot.”’

A lot of things were forgotten during the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run that culminated with Eller’s clinching goal. This is the time of year when hockey crowds virtually everything else out for players who go on deep playoff runs. Travel, hotel rooms, practices, sleep, playoff beards and, above all, the next game are front and center. Things like cutting the grass and paying the bills fall by the wayside. They can wait, right?

”The whole world is put on hold,” said Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003. ”When I was playing in the playoffs, I wouldn’t pay bills back before I had automatic bill pays. Playoffs, if you go on a decent run, I have all these late payments because you just forget about everything. Nothing matters. You’re just so entrenched in it.”

Automatic bill payments have become Jordan Staal‘s friend growing up from a 20-year-old on Pittsburgh’s 2009 championship team to a husband and father a decade later with Carolina. As younger teammates like Teuvo Teravainen have no problem going all in on playoff hockey mode, Staal leans on loved ones to get him through the daily needs off the ice.

”There’s that small realm of what you’re focused on, and paying the bills may not be one of them,” Staal said. ”That’s when you’ve got a good family around you and good friends to kind of just take that stuff off your hands and let you focus on what you’ve got to do.”

Hurricanes captain Justin Williams loses track of what day it is: It’s either a game day or not a game day, though doing a daily newspaper crossword puzzle reminds him that it’s actually, say, Saturday. But after winning the Cup in 2006, 2012 and 2014 at different stages of his life and going on several other long runs, the grizzled veteran has it all figured out by now.

”It’s easy to do,” Williams said. ”You just deflect as much as you can and use the excuse of ‘I’ve got to focus on hockey’ for everything. When you’re home, it’s dad time. When you’re at the rink, it’s hockey.”

While Eller said his one-track hockey mind is always thinking about the last game or the next game during the playoffs, some players try to fight that instinct. Carl Hagelin, who won the Cup with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, tries to forget about hockey when he’s not at the rink.

Easier said than done.

”Obviously you go into your own bubble,” Hagelin said. ”You’ve got to spend time with your family and do all that stuff. I guess stuff that doesn’t concern your family isn’t as important.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to players, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ‘s family knows all about how the playoffs take over. Bettman said his wife, Shelli, knows she can’t make any plans during the postseason unless it’s a place he can watch games on a TV or his iPad.

Bettman said he typically talks to director of hockey operations Colin Campbell multiple times on any given game day, well past midnight. But he loves every bit of it.

”This is the best time of year. This is just awesome,” Bettman said. ”As (Shelli) says, going out to dinner with my iPad and watching a game has become an excuse for our social life. But, yeah, everything’s on hold for two months because I never know where I have to be, what I have to do.”

Players and Bettman agree the thrill of the playoffs makes everything worth it. Rupp, now an NHL Network analyst, said ”you’re eating, sleeping and breathing this.”

Yes, about that: Players do have to remember to eat properly and get enough sleep.

”You’ve got to focus, prepare, eat, sleep and do whatever you can to be the best on the ice,” said Teravainen, who won the Cup in 2015 with Chicago. ”The playoffs, it’s all about hockey and you just prepare yourself for the game.”

Eller said he focuses on what matters most. And much like Staal, he knows his wife will keep his head straight.

”If you live with someone long enough, they know your tendencies and know you’re maybe not always quite there and at the end of the day it’s always things that can wait,” Eller said. ”But it can be a challenge sometimes because you give 100 percent of yourself to it and it means everything, right? You just live a little bit in your own world.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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