Lars Eller

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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

Capitals power play is difference in Game 1 win over Hurricanes

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If you are a Carolina Hurricanes fan there was a lot to like about the team’s Game 1 performance against the Washington Capitals, even if it all ended with a 4-2 loss and a 1-0 series deficit.

For one, the Hurricanes didn’t look overwhelmed against the defending Stanley Cup champions and actually carried the play at even-strength for much of the night. They started fast, had their chances, and mostly limited what the Capitals were able to do. It was a solid performance that showed they belong. Prized rookie Andre Svechnikov also had an incredible playoff debut by scoring a pair of goals in the third period to cut what had been a 3-0 deficit to just a single goal before Lars Eller‘s empty-net goal put the game away.

Because of those developments there is reason to believe the Hurricanes can not only give the Capitals a serious fight in this series, but that they are also perfectly capable of winning it.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

If that is going to happen, though, the Hurricanes are going to have to solve the one area that failed them on Thursday, and that of course is stopping the Capitals’ lethal power play. And also taking advantage of the opportunities they get.

The Capitals scored two power play goals in the first period — one from Nicklas Backstrom, another from Alex Ovechkin — to help jump out to a three-goal lead that was simply too much of a deficit for the Hurricanes to overcome.

While the Capitals power play converted on two of its four chances, the Hurricanes went 0-for-3 on their opportunities, including two chances in the final eight minutes when they had an opportunity to tie the game.

Simply put, the special teams were the difference in the game.

This is going to be the big issue for the Hurricanes in this series.

They can play a style that will give the Capitals issues. Their speed is an asset, they control the puck, and they will limit what the Capitals can do offensively at even-strength.

The problem is that for as good as the Hurricanes have been in the second half, and for as talented as their young roster is, the Capitals still have Hall of Fame players that can be difference-makers.

They may not get a lot of opportunities in this matchup, but they do not really need a lot of opportunities because of their skill.

We saw that on display on Thursday as Backstrom scored a pair of goals, Ovechkin scored yet another postseason power play goal, and John Carlson tallied three assists.

The Capitals still have the superstars in this series, and they shined when they needed to.

Hurricanes-Capitals Game 2 will be Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC

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.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Canadiens on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Montreal scored a huge win on Tuesday with a 4-2 victory over the Presidents’ Trophy winning Lightning. The Habs rebounded from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits before outscoring Tampa 2-0 in the third. Their previous win came against the Central-leading Jets. They face their third straight division leader tonight.

The Canadiens enter Thursday one point behind the Hurricanes for the first Wild Card and tied with the Blue Jackets in points for the second Wild Card, but still on the outside looking in due to the ROW tiebreaker. After their game against Washington, they’ll end the season at home against Toronto.

With two games to play, the Capitals lead the Metro by three points over the Islanders. Washington is vying for its fourth consecutive division title.

Three-time MVP and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin is aiming to break a tie with Bobby Hull (7x) to become the first player in NHL history to finish atop the goal-scoring race eight times. Ovechkin (33 years old) can also become the first player since Phil Esposito in 1975 to lead the league in goals at age 33 or older.

On Saturday against Tampa, Ovechkin found the net twice, registering his 50th and 51st goals of the season. Those 51 goals are the most in the league, four ahead of Toronto’s John Tavares and Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, who both have 47. Ovechkin joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy as the only players to record eight or more 50-plus goal seasons.

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

What: Montreal Canadiens at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Thursday, April 4, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Canadiens-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip Danault –  Brendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiAndrew Shaw
Jonathan DrouinJordan WealJoel Armia
Jesperi KotkaniemiNate ThompsonPaul Byron

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Jordie BennChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

CAPITALS
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

John CarlsonNick Jensen
Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Brooks OrpikChristian Djoos

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Walton (play-by-play) and Joe Micheletti (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

WATCH LIVE: Capitals host Hurricanes on NBCSN

Getty Images

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With six games to play, Washington leads the Metro by just one point over the Islanders. Washington is vying for its fourth consecutive division title. They are coming off a big 3-1 win at home against Philadelphia on Sunday, and now face a tough three-game stretch against two of the league’s top teams.

Since winning seven straight games from Feb. 24 – March 10, the Caps are just 3-3-1 in their last seven, including losses to Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Tampa twice. Sunday’s win snapped a two-game skid which saw Washington lose twice at home – to Tampa in OT on Wednesday and Minnesota on Friday.

Carolina has been one of the best teams in the NHL over the last two months. CAR is 18-6-1 since the All-Star Break and could potentially end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought this spring.

Sebastian Aho – in his third NHL season – is having a career-year with 30 goals, 50 assists and 80 points. The former 2015 second round pick leads Carolina in goals and points and has truly emerged as the team’s superstar this season (has most points. by Hurricanes player since Eric Staal’s 82 in 2007-08).

Carolina has won four of their last five games, including two straight. They last played on Sunday, defeating the Canadiens 2-1 in OT. Rookie Andrei Svechnikov (who turns 19 today) scored the OT winner – his 20th goal of the season. The 2018 No. 2 overall pick has five goals in the last seven games.

If the playoffs started today, Washington and Carolina would meet in the first round of the playoffs.

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

What: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals
Where: Capital One Arena
When: Tuesday, March 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Hurricanes-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

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HURRICANES
Nino Niederreiter – Sebastian Aho – Justin Williams
Andrei Svechnikov – Jordan StaalTeuvo Teravainen
Micheal FerlandLucas WallmarkJordan Martinook
Brock McGinnGreg McKeggSaku Maenalanen

Jaccob SlavinDougie Hamilton
Brett PesceJustin Faulk
Calvin de HaanTrevor van Riemsdyk

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromTom Wilson
Carl HagelinEvgeny KuznetsovT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaLars EllerBrett Connolly
Andre BurakovskyNic DowdTravis Boyd

Dmitry OrlovMatt Niskanen
Christian DjoosJohn Carlson
Brooks OrpikNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Braden Holtby

John Forslund (play-by-play) and AJ Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.