Richard Panik

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Capitals have shown a solid knack for spotting value to supplement their longstanding, impressive core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others. Sometimes that means waving goodbye to some of those diamonds in the rough, and this offseason served as an example, as they showed discipline in not overpaying Brett Connolly.

The Capitals have done well to zig and zag with salary cap realities, and in some cases, might have saved money and gotten the better end of the deal (if Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen perform at the same broad level as last season, Gudas would possibly be the better asset). Richard Panik could be the next bargain pickup like Connolly, though the two bring different benefits to the table.

Still, losing Andre Burakovsky puts the overall balance at “worse.” A lesser GM would have suffered greater losses, though.

Strengths: The Capitals showed in that 2018 Stanley Cup run that, when things boil down to best-on-best, they can come out on top. It didn’t work out quite as well this past year, but with Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov down the middle, some nice wingers beyond Ovechkin, and some solid defense led by John Carlson, the Caps check a lot of boxes.

Braden Holtby has also been one of the most dependable goalies in the NHL, and with contract year motivation, it wouldn’t be shocking if he chased another Vezina.

More often than not, the Capitals have boasted a dangerous power play to boot.

Weaknesses: The Capitals find ways to outscore opponents, but it’s worth noting that they haven’t been elite by certain underlying measures for quite some time. In fact, in 2018-19, the Capitals were under 50 percent by Corsi, Fenwick, expected goals, and so on.

Again, the Capitals have been able to overcome those five-on-five numbers, whether they’ve done so by superior skill or winning quality chance battles. With core players getting older, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals might fail that tightrope walk. Sometimes such declines are subtle; other times, the drop-off can be severe.

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It had to sting to see Barry Trotz win a Jack Adams Award during his first season with the Islanders, particularly since Trotz’s team advanced to Round 2, while the Capitals fell in Round 1. Things could heat up in a big way for Todd Reirden if the disappointments start to stack up, but for now, it feels a little early to worry. Let’s put Reirden around a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Holtby, Backstrom, and Gudas.

Three interesting players, three contract years.

Holtby could easily set himself up for a contract that ranges from Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million AAV) to Carey Price ($10.5M AAV), but that might hinge on his production in 2019-20. Some of this might depend on how badly he wants to stay in Washington; could he be convinced to take a bit of a discount to try to keep the band together?

Backstrom’s been in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow for some time, and is a big bargain at a $6.7M cap hit. This is his chance to get recognition, and get paid closer to what he’s actually worth.

Gudas has been one of those rare physical, hard-hitting defensemen who actually tends to stand out well from a “fancy stats” standpoint. That said, he didn’t always earn the trust to get much of a prominent role with Philly. Could Gudas prove that he’s a top-four guy, and maybe keep penalties under control? While Backstrom and Holtby are almost certain to get big raises, things could go either way for Gudas.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Capitals have won the Metro for four seasons in a row, and regularly took the Southeast crown when it still existed. They’re rarely fighting for a playoff spot late in years, and sometimes don’t even really need to worry much about seeding.

Maybe they’ll sink a little bit, but this team has what you need to comfortably secure a playoff spot.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Capitals Cup window remains open, though unknowns lie ahead

ARLINGTON, Va. — When the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, they did so after their championship window was supposed to be closed.

Unlike when a roster shake-up and infusion of youth actually augmented the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and John Carlson, the Capitals now face a more immediate challenge. With contracts for Backstrom and Holtby up after this season and Ovechkin after next year, it’s unclear how long this era of success will last.

”With the age of our team, every year is a sense of urgency in my mind,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. ”It took us a while to get to the point where we did win a championship, and I don’t know how long our window is here. We’re getting a little older, but we also have some good young guys coming up, so I think we can continue to compete at a high level.”

The Capitals still have a potential 50-goal scorer in Ovechkin , a perennial 70-point playmaker in Backstrom, an elite defenseman in Carlson and a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender in Holtby. And with the talent around them, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny, Washington is a threat to win the Cup again.

”We have a high expectation here,” second-year head coach Todd Reirden said. ”We expect to be extremely competitive. We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points. That’s the culture that we’ve established, and now we need to continue to build it.”

Ovechkin is 34, Backstrom 31 and Holtby 30. The same salary cap and aging questions that faced the champion Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins will soon confront the Capitals. MacLellan seems to know when to make free agency moves (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014), when to let key players go (Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Justin Williams in 2017) and when to dole out big contract extensions (Kuznetsov and Oshie in 2017 and Carlson and Wilson in 2018).

The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning and defending conference champion Boston Bruins remain formidable challengers in the East . Just in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins and New York Islanders aren’t going away and the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers all got better.

But the Capitals are still an established power to be reckoned with.

WHO’S HERE

Free agent signings Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Brendan Leipsic were brought in to revamp the bottom six forward spots. Rugged defenseman Radko Gudas, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia, is the Orpik replacement on defense because of the size and muscle he brings.

”Some of the players we added were not by accident,” Reirden said. ”That’s what you can look to see: some guys that aren’t necessarily all that fun to play against.”

WHO’S NOT

Niskanen was a salary-cap casualty sent to Philadelphia for Gudas, and forward Brett Connolly left in free agency to sign a $14 million, four-year deal with Florida. Reirden will coach a team without Orpik for the first time in his decade in the NHL after the 38-year-old retired and moved into Washington’s player development department.

”His strength as a person and as a leader will translate well into the role he’s in,” MacLellan said. ”Most of the young guys in our organization already know him. There’s a comfort there with him. He’s just fresh out of the gate, so he’s up to date on all our coaches, all of the guys in our room, so it’s a great fit for the organization.”

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the season after being suspended by the league for inappropriate conduct stemming from a positive cocaine test at the world championships and a meeting with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

KEY PLAYERS

This team is still led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, and also features Kuznetsov and backstopped by Holtby. The play6er to watch is Wilson, who is coming off a career year of 22 goals and 40 points in 63 games.

Wilson, 25, wants to be more consistent, and the sky’s the limit if he stays out of suspension trouble and plays close to 80 games.

”The offense obviously is everyone’s big thing over the years,” Wilson said. ”That’s got to continue to be there. If you’re playing (big) minutes and you’re playing on the first line you have to be able to chip in, and that’s what I plan to do.”

OUTLOOK

For the first time fans should get to see what Reirden hockey truly looks like. He took over for Barry Trotz after the Cup celebration and a short summer that didn’t give him much time to overhaul systems. The Capitals could look like a different team.

”You can expect us to be more aggressive in different areas of the ice,” Reirden said. ”You can expect us to play that type of style of game where our speed and skating is a really important factor for us.”

PREDICTION

Washington should win the Metropolitan Division for a fifth consecutive season and with better injury fortune make it out of the first round. In what could be Holtby’s final playoff run, his play in goal will go a long way to determining how far the Capitals go.

Salary cap economics squeezing out NHL’s middle class

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Stanley Cup-winning experience isn’t worth what it used to be. Neither is experience of any kind.

As NHL teams move toward paying their stars more money and relying on young players to fill the gaps, hockey’s middle class is being squeezed out. Veterans like 2018 Washington Capitals playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly are finding it increasingly difficult to land guaranteed contracts and are often forced to go to training camp on professional tryout agreements, which cover potential injuries at camp and not much else.

Hockey perhaps more than any other professional sport has put a premium on veteran players over the years. Guys who have been there before, have some grey in their beards and are valued at least as much for team chemistry in the locker room as they are for what they do on the ice.

Adding the salary cap in 2005 began the process of devaluing these so-called ”glue guys” because there is only so much money to go around. This year, that cap is $81.5 million for a team and there is no wiggle room – teams are not allowed to play if they are over the limit.

”It’s sad because these veteran players are monumental to the team,” St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Especially these guys that have won, too, like Devante Smith-Pelly. He’s been in every situation. He’s a guy that you’d want to have because he’s going to help and he’s been in these situations. When it comes around again, it’s not going to faze him.”

Smith-Pelly and Andrew MacDonald in Calgary, Troy Brouwer in Florida, Matt Read in Toronto and Drew Stafford in Minnesota are among the experienced NHL players on camp tryouts this year. Even more are settling for one-year, prove-it contracts like 2019 Cup winner Patrick Maroon (31 years old) and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (30) with Tampa Bay, Derick Brassard (31) with the New York Islanders, defenseman Ben Hutton (26) with Los Angeles and forward Riley Sheahan (27) with Edmonton.

Shattenkirk went from making $7 million last season with the Rangers to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million.

”There’s something for me to prove,” Shattenkirk said. ”I think I have a huge chip on my shoulder right now.”

This is all related to how the salary cap is managed.

Across the league, there are 32 players who chew up 10% or more of his team’s $81.5 million salary-cap space – with more potentially on the way when Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Winnipeg’s Patrick Laine sign deals. For example, Connor McDavid accounts for over 15% of Edmonton’s cap space.

It is a trend that shows the value of elite talent but it means there is less money to go around for complementary players who are not on entry-level contracts. A handful of players also have expressed concern that restricted free agents are making more out of their entry-level contracts than ever before, further scrambling available money for support players.

”Teams, they want to take a shot on a young guy that has got an upside they see,” O’Reilly said. ”It’s tough because there’s so many good players out there that aren’t getting jobs because of it.”

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, 31, and Patrick Kane, 30, eat up almost 26% of the Blackhawks’ cap space. They combined to win the Stanley Cup three times, but their deals and rich ones given to defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook tend to be blamed for a lack of depth in Chicago, which has missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Toews said he understands the economics of the league aren’t getting any easier for players as they get older.

”It’s tough,” Toews said. ”It just goes to show you can’t take anything for granted, even though you’ve been in the league or you’re a proven player at this level. You start getting into your 30s … you realize that the league’s only going to get younger, it’s only going to get stronger, it’s only going to get better.”

It’s not just older players, either. Smith-Pelly is 27, Joe Morrow is 26 and trying to make the Rangers and fellow defenseman Alex Petrovic is 27 as a long shot to get a contract with Boston.

Grinding forward Garnet Hathaway played the past two seasons on one-year deals in Calgary making under $1 million each year. He went into free agency a bit nervous but was able to land a four-year, $6 million contract and some security with the Capitals, who also signed Brendan Leipsic to a one-year deal and Richard Panik for four years after each player had bounced around the league.

”Contracts are hard to come by in this league,” Hathaway said. ”It’s such a competitive league. Guys I know personally that have gone through it, they’re some of the most competitive guys. It’s guys who have played in this league a long time and have great careers. You wish them the best of luck, but it’s competitive.”

Three key questions for Capitals in 2019-20

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

Let’s ponder three questions for the Capitals …

1. Will Evgeny Kuznetsov get on track?

It’s been a whirlwind year or so for Kuznetsov, as he’s gone from a key contributor during that memorable Stanley Cup run (eagle celebrations and all) to attracting a lot of negative attention off the ice, to the point that the IIHF suspended him for four years after he tested positive for cocaine during the 2019 World Championship.

One can only speculate about whether off-ice issues have affected Kuznetsov’s play, but either way, you could argue that he didn’t always perform up to his own (lofty) standards in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov hasn’t ever really resembled a Selke candidate, but his defensive numbers were a little troubling last season, as you can see from the mix of good (offense) and bad (defense) in his RAPM chart from Evolving Wild:

Kuznetsov has things to work on, even if the NHL doesn’t add any additional fines or suspensions stemming from that IIHF suspension.

Even with some flaws that magnified last season, Kuznetsov is a difference-maker for the Capitals on the ice, so it’s a pivotal situation for Washington.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

2. Can the Capitals’ core hang with the best of the best?

The Kuznetsov question spirals out to an even deeper one: does this team still have what it takes to hang with the absolute cream of the crop?

This isn’t meant as an insult to a Capitals team that has a strong chance to win another Metropolitan Division. Instead, it just speaks to the level of talent at the top of the NHL, especially in an Atlantic Division that’s downright foreboding at the top.

When you line up the Capitals’ biggest stars and strengths up alongside what the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins, and possibly a few other East standouts, how often do you expect Washington to prevail?

Much like with Boston, the Capitals have managed to find some nice players beyond their core, but they’re still driven by their core. And while that group is by no means “ancient,” you have to wonder if enough players will lose enough steps that they might not be favorites. Alex Ovechkin is 33, Nicklas Backstrom is 31, T.J. Oshie is somehow 32, and plenty of other players are close to 30.

For years, the Capitals have been a team who’ve generated some troubling possession stats, yet they’ve consistently beat expectations, whether that’s by manufacturing the higher-danger chances needed, or merely having the sheer skill to overcome often allowing more raw chances than they create (or at other times, barely keeping their heads above water). What if 2019-20 is the season where that skill edge starts to recede?

3. Will a tweaked supporting cast flourish?

GM Brian MacLellan did a masterful job navigating salary cap challenges, even if it forced him to say goodbye to Andre Burakovsky, Matt Niskanen, and Brett Connolly. More than a few wonder if bringing in Radko Gudas for Niskanen improved their defense, rather than merely opening up money. Richard Panik could end up being a savvy pickup like Connolly once was, even if the two bring value in different ways.

Yet, MacLellan maneuvering well given the circumstances doesn’t necessarily mean that the Capitals’ supporting cast will be better.

That could be key, too, if the aforementioned core group takes a step back. Along with getting the most out of newcomers, the Capitals have to hope that players like Jakub Vrana can take the next step forward.

***

One way or another, this Capitals team seems primed to be quite good. Answering those questions – and addressing the contract situations for Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom – will go a long way in answering how good the Capitals will end up being, though.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.