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Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

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.

No surgery needed for Capitals’ Backstrom, Kuznetsov

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The Washington Capitals met the media for the final time this season during locker clean out day on Wednesday and we got to see a sober and clean shaven Alex Ovechkin, plus we learned about the various injuries some players dealt with during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

First, Nicklas Backstrom, who missed four games due to a hand injury, revealed that he suffered two fractures in his right index finger blocking a Justin Schultz shot in the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It got better after he returned in the Eastern Conference Final, but was still pretty swollen following the series. He won’t require surgery.

“I tried to play Game 6 [vs. Penguins], the hand was too swollen with the fracture,” Backstrom said via the Washington Post. “That was probably the worst finger to have, too. Any other finger it probably would’ve been fine. But this one is the one that I actually use. I got better and better every week. Which is good. They did a great job with all the treatments and stuff. It sucked at the time but we got it done. I got to play again.”

Forward Andre Burakovsky revealed he broke both thumbs during the season, including his right one during the first round.

Evgeny Kuznetsov left Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final late in the first period after taking a hit from Brayden McNabb of the Vegas Golden Knights. The forward did return for Game 3 and scored a goal and assisted on another during a 3-1 win. He will also not need surgery to repair the injured shoulder.

[Highlights from Capitals’ Stanley Cup parade]

In the grossest injury of the Final, defenseman Brooks Orpik, who had already suffered a hand injury in the first round, said that the tip of his left pinkie had to be reattached after being slashed by Erik Haula in Game 2. 

“It probably looked worse than it was, to be honest with you,” he said. “It was tough to look at, but the trainers did a really good job. It was never something I thought would keep me from playing.”

Marc Methot knows the feeling.

Most Capitals also noted that they’d be open to visiting the White House, a week after Devante Smith-Pelly said he would not attend any celebration with the U.S. president.

Finally, the most important question about this summer seems to moving towards getting an answer. Head coach Barry Trotz, who is not signed beyond July 1, said he and general manager Brian MacLellan have spoken about an extension and will work through “a few issues” to get a new deal done.

“[I]f he wants to be back, he’ll be back,” MacLellan said on the ice after the Capitals’ Cup victory last week.

MORE:
Ovechkin, Holtby get Jimmy Fallon to drink out of Stanley Cup
Don’t forget how great Kuznetsov, Backstrom were for Capitals

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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.

Capitals parade a welcome chance to cheer for DC sports fans

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Nicklas Backstrom dreamed about the road less traveled.

Driving down Constitution Avenue on his way to each home game since his NHL debut in 2007, he imagined the street lined with overjoyed Washington Capitals fans.

”It always popped up in my head that one time we’re going to have a parade here, and finally that day is here,” Backstrom said.

It all becomes reality Tuesday when Backstrom and the Stanley Cup-champion Capitals give the city its first parade for a major pro sports team since the NFL’s Redskins in 1992. The parade is 26 years in the making for Washington sports fans who endured long, lean years of heartbreak.

”I don’t think anyone doubted what this city would do,” longtime Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman said. ”It’s just a matter of getting there and having the ability to do it. They definitely held up their end of the bargain.”

Tens of thousands gathered for viewing parties of road playoff games on the way to the Capitals’ first championship since beginning play in 1974. They camped out on the streets to watch on giant video screens – the kinds of scenes more germane to presidential inaugurations in this town than sporting events.

”I thought it was really cool when we were even at home and everyone was outside and going nuts and they would show that right after we would score a goal,” defenseman John Carlson said. ”I think that was probably one of the coolest moments of the playoffs for me and just seeing the support. … I think we deserve it, and so do the fans.”

It has been a long time coming. Since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in January 1992, the 1998 Capitals were the only Washington team in the NHL, NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball to reach a league semifinal until this spring, a drought of 74 combined seasons without a championship.

When the Capitals took the Cup into the Nationals’ clubhouse on Saturday, coach Barry Trotz wanted players to know: ”There’s no curse or anything. It’s all gone.” All they had to do to know that was look around the past two months to see the doubt being chipped away.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez, who texted with Trotz throughout the run, got his first real taste of Washington sports in the playoffs with the Chicago Cubs last year when he came out of the dugout seeing 50,000 fans in red and couldn’t hear himself think because it was so loud.

”Right then and there I said, ‘Hey, these people, they’re in, they love it,”’ Martinez recalled. ”This is exciting. And the city then rallied this year around the Caps. I get it. It was awesome. It was good for the city. Good for us. I know our boys were all in, they were excited about everything. I told them yesterday, ‘Let’s just keep it rolling. The city’s all-in.”’

Washington isn’t a city accustomed to being all-in because of the scars of so many playoff failures over the years. Longtime Capitals season-ticket holder Jimmy Patterson said fans became reluctant to get together to watch games because the mood at the end of the night wasn’t something anyone wanted to endure in a group setting.

That’s part of what made the public gatherings for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final and throughout the Stanley Cup Final so remarkable. Exorcising franchise-long demons by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round seemed to free fans to actually enjoy themselves.

”It showed what they were capable of and shows if you get to that level, they’re going to match it or even step it up a little bit more than the actual players,” Zimmerman said.

Fans celebrating the Capitals beating the Penguins led ESPN’s Michael Wilbon – a former Washington Post columnist – to call D.C. a ”minor league sports town.” It’s not the first knock on Washington, though 14 years of playing baseball in the city has given Zimmerman some clarity on explaining that it’s not Boston, Chicago, New York or Philadelphia, and he doesn’t think it has to be.

”This is such an interesting city because not many people are from here, so it’s hard to be a Boston or a Chicago,” Zimmerman said. ”That’s a generational sports town. So it’s nothing against (Washington). They shouldn’t be like that. They have no reason to be like that.

”A lot of these people move here for work in their early to mid-20s or come here even later than that and they adopt a team. This is what happens nowadays: Everyone compares everything. Just let it be. Let it be what it is. We have great fans and obviously if you make the playoffs and get to a Stanley Cup finals, you have really great fans just like any city would.”

Thousands of fans are expected to watch the parade, from 17th to 7th on Constitution. Trotz has been thinking about something like this since he arrived in 2014.

”You start thinking about, ‘Well, what would it mean?’ and then you think about a possible parade on one of the most famous streets in all the world, really, and it’s sort of now coming into play,” Trotz said. ”It’s going to come true.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

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

Don’t forget how great Kuznetsov, Backstrom were for Capitals

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As obnoxious as any Internet debate can be, bickering about who should win the Conn Smythe can help cement the below-the-fold stars who didn’t land the playoff MVP.

For example: it will never not boggle my mind that Chris Pronger ended his career without that award. Sure, he was a fire-breathing monster on the ice at times, but that was the point.

From a big picture perspective, it’s fitting that Alex Ovechkin won it this year after sparking the Washington Capitals’ run to a first-ever Stanley Cup. His 15 goals and 27 points were crucial to that run, and his epic celebration is leaving us hungover.

But was he truly the right choice from an objective standpoint? To my eyes, and in the mind of many others, Evgeny Kuznetsov would have been the truest choice.

So, with Ovechkin hamming it up (rightfully so) and Braden Holtby enjoying a well-deserved victory lap for “The Save” and reclaiming his spot among the elite, let’s take this moment to shine a light on another key element of Washington’s run: their two star centers.

A postseason for the ages

Again, it’s tough to deny that Kuznetsov was the real Conn Smythe winner.

He wasn’t that far behind Ovechkin’s 15 goals, as Kuznetsov netted 12. They both were tied with two game-winners in that regard.

The pivot’s playmaking was a sight to behold, as he collected almost a helper per game (20 assists in 24 contests).

It would be refreshing to see voters take especially strong work during the Stanley Cup Final into account, too. Now, Ovechkin was no slouch against the Golden Knights, generating three goals and two assists in five games. During that same span, Kuznetsov was killer, though, producing a goal and seven assists for eight points.

Kuznetsov’s 32 points weren’t just a playoff record for the Capitals and the top mark for the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That mark also stands as the most points generated in a postseason since Evgeni Malkin collected a whopping 36 points during Pittsburgh’s 2008-09 surge. (Ovechkin’s 27 points leave him tied with Sidney Crosby‘s work last postseason for ninth best during that same period of time.)

Remarkably, Malkin’s 36 points and Kuznetsov’s 32 also stand as the two best outputs since the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season; you need to go as far back as Joe Sakic’s 34 points from 1995-96 before you’ll find a total that dislodges Kuznetsov for second place.

Praising Kuznetsov isn’t about denigrating Ovechkin, who enjoyed a run for the ages and deserves to soak in the limelight after a decade of absorbing an unfair portion of Capitals criticism.

Instead, it’s about doing our best to make sure that his magical run isn’t lost in time.

“He was unbelievable,” Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov after the series, via the Associated Press. “He makes the magic over there.”

Backstrom shows his might

Kuznetsov managed to generate point after point even though it seemed like he might miss a game or more of the series thanks to a hard hit by Brayden McNabb. That thought dovetails nicely into much-needed praise for Nicklas Backstrom.

While you only need to glance at the very top of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ points leaders to notice Kuznetsov’s presence, Backstrom’s work was diluted by being limited to 20 games.

Despite clearly playing at less than 100 percent, Backstrom managed more than a point per contest, generating 23 in those 20 games. His assist on this Ovechkin power-play goal stood as a healthy reminder that it’s easy to scream “Cover Ovechkin’s office,” but it’s also easy to forget that the Capitals simply have the passers to make that bread-and-butter play so difficult to stop.

Seriously, acting as though it’s “easy” to stop that is the ultimate in armchair quarterbacking/defending. There aren’t many humans capable of getting that pass through an entire penalty kill unit, but Backstrom is one of them (Kuznetsov, too).

Of course, points aren’t everything. Luckily, Backstrom remained his Selke-level self during the postseason, allowing Barry Trotz to pick and choose matchups how he pleased. The Kuznetsov – Backstrom combination was instrumental in allowing the Capitals to go toe-to-toe with the Penguins’ scoring depth, the Lightning’s dangerous weapons, and the Golden Knights’ impressive top line.

For a player who suffered his own torment during clutch moments, Backstrom showed his toughness and made a real argument for how great he can be.

***

Look, we can debate Ovechkin vs. Kuznetsov all day, but they were both fantastic. The point is to recall their efforts, not to mention great work by Holtby, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and others. Here’s hoping this post fights the fading of such memories.

Now, let’s get back to more important matters: bickering about Chris Pronger.

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.

Ovechkin’s Stanley Cup celebration is even better than you imagined

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Alex Ovechkin made his remarkable run to that elusive first Stanley Cup (and Conn Smythe Trophy) that much more entertaining by wearing his heart on his sleeve.

Who could forget his adorable, like-all-of-us reaction to Braden Holtby‘s incredible save on Alex Tuch? Along with silencing his doubters with a truly outstanding playoff run, Ovechkin was as boisterous as the young sniper who captivated the NHL just about from day one of his career. That boyish spirit was there tonight, even with gray hair visible in his mountain man beard.

For lovers and haters alike, it was surreal to see Ovechkin and the Capitals finally break through and win the Stanley Cup via a 4-3 Game 5 win against the equally unlikely Vegas Golden Knights, and that unreal feeling showed in Ovechkin’s giddy displays when the Stanley Cup was secured.

“I don’t know what to say, it’s unbelievable,” Ovechkin told Pierre McGuire not long after winning it all.

(Watch that interview in the video above this post’s headline.)

Naturally, this playoff run was about more than Ovechkin, although you could do worse than to scroll the NHL on NBC Twitter feed to leaf through other fantastic Ovi reactions.

Ovechkin’s embrace with Nicklas Backstrom was one of those often-dreamed-about moments for the franchise. T.J. Oshie was moved to tears discussing what this run means to him and his father. Barry Trotz enjoyed his moment in the sun, and much more.

If you want a quick summation of the key players (from starts to starting to goalie to grinders), the team picture isn’t a bad place to start. There’s something fitting about Devante Smith-Pelly timing his arrival just right to be in the thick of things, too.

Naturally, Capitals fans were ecstatic, particularly those who’ve been through thick and very thin.

This young fan captured their mood in glorious fashion:

It really doesn’t get much better than that. Normally, we’d say “just ask Ovechkin,” but he’s probably a little busy right now.

Actually, maybe Barry Trotz wins it:

Want to watch Game 5 in its entirety? Click here.

MORE:

Capitals break D.C. drought, win Stanley Cup.

Ovechkin takes home Conn Smythe.

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.