Semyon Varlamov

Avalanche offseason presents big opportunities — and challenges

The Colorado Avalanche don’t want to hear this – not after falling painfully short against the Sharks in Game 7 – but to many observers, that agonizing ending feels like just the beginning.

Just consider the players who spearheaded their surprising five-game steamrolling of the Calgary Flames in Round 1, and the players who pushed San Jose to the limit in Round 2.

  • Nathan MacKinnon‘s the headliner, and at 23 with a ridiculous bargain $6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, he might be the best value in all of the NHL.
  • After a bumpy start to his Colorado stay, Philipp Grubauer sure looks like a legitimate No. 1 goalie. He’s 27 and cheap ($3.33M) though 2020-21, too.
  • Mikko Rantanen‘s not that far behind MacKinnon, and just 22.
  • It feels like Gabriel Landeskog has been around forever, but he’s just 26. His $5.571M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.
  • Cale Makar looked right at home in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, and he’s 20. Samuel Girard is another nice piece, and could improve since he’s just 20, too.
  • Tyson Barrie‘s like Landeskog in that he’s still young (27), and affordable ($5.5M through 2019-20).

Of course, it’s not just all that precocious youth that makes the Avalanche seem like a Team of Tomorrow.

Thanks to that brilliant Kyle TurrisMatt Duchene trade by GM Joe Sakic, the Avalanche didn’t just add Girard and other more immediate pieces; they also snagged what would become the Ottawa Senators’ first-rounder in 2019 (along with Ottawa’s third-rounder).

While Colorado didn’t enjoy the sexiest option of getting a shot at Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, you won’t see a ton of teams make two consecutive playoff appearances and land the fourth pick of the draft. That happened thanks to the Turris trade, and the Avalanche are also slated to pick 16th with their own selection, as confirmed by NHL.com.

[Sharks hold off Avs in Game 7]

Having two picks in the top half of the 2019 NHL Draft gives Sakic & Co. some fascinating options.

Most directly, they can stick with both picks. They could also move one or both of those selections for more immediate upgrades via trades.

Both options are tantalizing, but the latter scenario is fascinating because of the road ahead for the Avalanche. Let’s take a look at the decisions Sakic must make, both in the near and longer-term future. As always, Cap Friendly is a crucial resource for contract information and other details, and served as a great resource for this post.

Tons of cap space, but some big names to re-sign

Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche have about $46.9 million in cap space devoted to 13 players, with few problem contracts (aside from, I’d argue, Erik Johnson‘s deal).

There’s some significant money coming off the books as this season ends, and it remains to be seen if Colorado wants to bring back any of veterans Semyon Varlamov (31, $5.9M in 2018-19), Derick Brassard (31, $3M after retention), and Colin Wilson (29, just under $4M). Honestly, the Avs would probably be wise to let both Varlamov and Brassard walk, and maybe see if Wilson would take a little less cash for some term.

Either way, a ton of money will be allotted to RFAs. Rantanen figures to come in at a big clip, and it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if he landed in double digits. Honestly, even if he did, his trio with MacKinnon and Landeskog could probably still be underpaid as a group.

Rantanen isn’t the only noteworthy RFA. Alex Kerfoot, 24, and J.T. Compher, 24, both need new deals, and each player is somewhat tough to gauge value-wise. (Kerfoot is sneaky-effective from a two-way perspective.) Nikita Zadorov is another interesting situation as a 24-year-old RFA.

A window opens

Considering how young this Avalanche core is, the instinct might be to take a zen-like, slow approach.

Yet, if the Avalanche look at cap-crunched teams like the Maple Leafs, they should realize they have an unusual advantage to know that a window is opening, and that they should seize opportunities when they come along.

MacKinnon’s contract represents the outer limits (2022-23) of that window, but Colorado should also consider more immediate “deadlines.”

  • Landeskog and Grubauer are eligible to become UFAs after 2020-21, and should expect hearty raises.
  • Tyson Barrie’s deal runs out after 2019-20, and could be pricey considering his offensive production.
  • Girard’s slated to be an RFA after 2019-20, while Cale Makar’s rookie deal ranks as another competitive advantage for Colorado.
  • Granted, there will also be moments of cap relief. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M cap hit ends after 2019-20, so that should come in handy. The Brooks Orpik buyout ends after 2019-20, too.

With all of that in mind, the Avalanche should strongly consider ramping up their aggressiveness by either landing a free agent (maybe recent opponent Erik Karlsson, if he springs free? How does Artemi Panarin feel about skiing?) or by trading for a big ticket player. It’s tough to imagine the Predators trading P.K. Subban in general, yet especially to a division rival where they’d face Subban multiple times per year, yet Subban might be the type of gamebreaker Colorado should try to land.

Again, this is where that fourth or 16th pick could make things that much more interesting. Colorado could sell a trade partner on receiving cap space and/or a high draft pick in exchange for taking a known quantity, and a player who’s already x number of years into their development.

Imagine the Avalanche team that battered the Flames and challenged the Sharks adding an All-Star-level player, or even two? It’s a scary thought for opponents, and the Avalanche shouldn’t wait forever to try to make big strides. MacKinnon’s contract gives them a lengthy advantage, yet other bargains will evaporate soon. Why not get a surplus of talent while you still can?

***

Whether you believe the Avalanche should go bold or take a more measured approach, it sure seems obvious that this team has a lot of potential.

If management makes the right decisions – and, honestly, gets a few lucky breaks – then the Avs might just reach that potential.

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.

Game 7 history for Ovechkin, Capitals

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Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs ends on Wednesday with the Washington Capitals hosting the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Stream here).

This series has already been a study in contrasts, and the “old vs. new” storyline really pops when you consider the Game 7 experience of both teams.

While the Hurricanes employ “Mr. Game 7” Justin Williams (a nickname that makes him grit his teeth, apparently), the team as a whole is mostly new to this. It says a lot, really, that current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour was the team’s captain in 2008-09, which was the last time the Hurricanes a) made a playoff run and b) played in Game 7s.

While the Hurricanes recently broke a decade-long playoff drought, the Capitals have only missed the playoffs once (2013-14) since 2007-08, so if you want to get cute about it, this is almost the matchup of “Mr. Game 7 vs. Team Game 7s.”

Well, the Capitals are team Game 7s by volume, more than overall success. Now that we’ve acknowledged Justin Williams as Our Elimination Overlord, and recall that Jordan Staal‘s been here before – albeit a long time ago – let’s consider the Capitals’ recent history in these deciding games, with copious assistance from the all-around wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.com.

2008 

April 22, first round: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT) 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nicklas Backstrom was on one of his hotter sniping runs then, as he is now, as the Swede scored his fourth goal of that postseason in this defeat. Alex Ovechkin got a goal and a primary assist, authoring the first chapter in his anthology of being scapegoated despite strong playoff play. Ovechkin finished the 2008 run with four goals and five assists for nine points in seven playoff games; so far during this 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ovechkin has four goals and four assists for eight points in six contests.

Joffrey Lupul ended up scoring the overtime-clincher in that long-ago Game 7.

2009

April 28, first round: Capitals 2, Rangers 1

Some early evidence that Washington was able to grind out ugly, playoff-style wins, even then. While Backstrom nabbed an assist, this win was heavy on old names. Semyon Varlamov was only tasked with making 14 saves. Alexander Semin was a goal scorer and so was … Sergei Fedorov. Yes, in case you forgot, Fedorov briefly played for the Capitals.

May 13, second round: Penguins 6, Capitals 2

For some Caps fans, there are still scars from this loss.

After this series lived up to the hype for six games (remember dueling hat tricks between Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin?), the Game 7 match was mostly anticlimactic. Ovechkin had tormented Marc-Andre Fleury for much of that Round 2, yet MAF made a huge save early, and the Penguins scored the game’s first five goals to win handily. Ovechkin managed his 11th goal of that playoff run, but absorbed one of his earliest rounds of excessive playoff blame.

2010

April 28, first round: Canadiens 2, Capitals 1

Speaking of scarring moments …

The Capitals were a buzzsaw in 2009-10, until they ran into Jaroslav Halak, who enjoyed a spectacular run where he confounded both the Caps and the Penguins. Washington generated a gaudy 42-16 SOG advantage in this Game 7, yet the Habs completed their upset win thanks largely to Halak playing out of his mind.

It felt like Michael Cammalleri scored every Montreal goal during their run, but it was Marc-Andre Bergeron and Dominic Moore who scored in this Game 7. Ovechkin settled for an assist despite firing 10 of those 42 SOG.

This was the first Capitals Game 7 of the PHT era, so check out Ovechkin taking responsibility for his struggles.

2012

April 25, first round: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (OT)

The Dale Hunter era was brief in Washington, and honestly … mercifully so. Those Capitals series were tough to watch, what with Ovechkin receiving reduced ice time, although it helped Braden Holtby write the first bullet points in what’s becoming an impressive playoff resume.

May 12, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1

Henrik Lundqvist got the best of Holtby and the Capitals in a close, clogged-up Game 7. Luckily, Barry Trotz helped the Capitals find a better balance between playing snug defense and still accentuating their offensive strengths, because the Hunter era was not pretty.

2013

May 13, first round: Rangers 5, Capitals 0

The Penguins rank as the Capitals’ biggest historic nuisance, but Henrik Lundqvist must come in a respectable second place, right? Lundqvist pitched a Game 7 shutout, prompting Backstrom to play into narrative hands by discussing the Capitals “learning to win in the playoffs.”

2015

April 27, first round: Capitals 2, Islanders 1

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s had some time to perfect celebrations in big situations.

He’s really added that extra skilled player to the Capitals’ mix (along with T.J. Oshie), and Kuznetsov has a certain “ice water in his veins” tendency. It’s not his most famous goal, but Kuznetsov scored the game-winner in Game 7 against the Islanders here.

May 13, second round: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)

Ovechkin scored the first goal of Game 7, telling Lundqvist that it was going to be a long day. That was some fun trash talk, but it was Lundqvist who was laughing in the end, once again, after Derek Stepan scored the overtime game-winner. Holtby played admirably in defeat, as he’s been a reliable big-game performer for the Capitals for some time.

2017

May 10, second round: Penguins 2, Capitals 0

Remember when this was supposed to be the end of a window for Stanley Cup chances for Washington, or at least the Capitals’ best chances?

The Caps showed why they won a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy by gritting their way out of a 3-1 deficit against the Penguins, but that was forgotten once Washington lost this tight, heartbreaking game to Pittsburgh. This represented Fleury’s last moment of one-upping Ovechkin before he was Vegas-bound.

Trotz was shaken by the Game 7 loss and deflected questions about Ovechkin, etc. The next year became hockey history, but this sure seemed to put the wheels in motion for Trotz to leave, anyway, right?

2018

May 23, third round: Capitals 4, Lightning 0

Ovechkin scored what would stand as the game-winner just 62 seconds in, Tom Wilson collected two assists, and Andre Burakovsky‘s two second-period goals really iced this one (with Backstrom pitching in an empty-netter for good measure). Wilson also got into a fight, while Holtby managed a 29-save shutout. If there’s a BINGO board for the Capitals in Game 7 situations, then you’d probably win with that combination.

Who would have thought that the Lightning would suffer far greater heartache during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, by the way? (Too soon?)

***

As you can see, the Capitals’ big guns often show up in Game 7 contests, particularly Ovechkin and Holtby, yet they don’t always come away with those series wins. The Hurricanes might be wise to assume that they’ll only be able to contain, not stop, Ovechkin. The veteran star sure seems to begin his Game 7 performances with early goals, so that’s another situation to watch.

Overall, it should be a fun Game 7, even if it’s a familiar experience for the Capitals.

Hurricanes – Capitals Game 7 takes place at Capital One Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN; Stream here).

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.

Grubauer could carry Avs, if playoff history doesn’t repeat

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Philipp Grubauer is a Stanley Cup champion, but you can’t blame him if he doesn’t really feel that way.

Grubauer wrestled the Washington Capitals’ starting job away from Braden Holtby with a superior 2017-18 regular season, but things fell apart to start Washington’s Round 1 series. The Columbus Blue Jackets stormed off to a 2-0 series lead, and with Grubauer allowing four goals in each of those losses, the Capitals turned to Holtby. And the rest (including Grubauer’s time with the Capitals) is history.

Grubauer admitted that “last year was tough” to NHL.com’s Rick Sadowski, yet he also explained his resiliency to the Denver Post’s Kyle Frederickson, whether that boiled down to earlier career struggles, the mixed feelings of being left behind during that Capitals run, or his bumpy start as a goalie with the Avs.

“You can fall in a hole and get really miserable,” Grubauer said, “or be positive and wake yourself up.”

And, goodness, did Grubauer ever wake himself up down the stretch.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

After playing at a below-backup level in his first 21 games (a putrid .891 save percentage) of 2018-19, Grubauer was splendid after the All-Star break, sporting a tremendous .948 save percentage over those 16 games.

That was absolutely crucial, too, as Semyon Varlamov struggled with injuries and inconsistency, while the top line couldn’t drag the Avs to the same number of wins, what with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen both being hurt at times, and Nathan MacKinnon falling in frustration. Grubauer wasn’t the MVP for the Avalanche all season long, but they wouldn’t have barely outlasted the Coyotes for the West’s final playoff spot without him.

And his teammates know it.

“Gruby has been unreal,” MacKinnon said, via the Denver Post. “He’s been our best player the last 20 games. We’re very fortunate he’s been so good because you can’t ask that much of a goaltender.”

If you need visual evidence, feast your eyes upon this outstanding save against Blake Wheeler from late in that postseason push:

It’s fair to question if Landeskog and especially Rantanen will be their usual selves during Game 1 on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN; live stream), or during much of this Round 1 series, in general. Even if they are their usual dominant selves, the Flames boast two lines that could bring almost as much, if not more, to the table than Colorado’s top guns.

Yet, with Mike Smith serving as the Flames’ Game 1 starter despite struggling to the point that people wonder if he might torpedo Calgary’s chances, Colorado’s best hopes likely lie with Grubauer vastly outplaying Smith. That’s especially true if the two teams’ possession trends continue into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Still, Grubauer has only appeared in four playoff games during his career, suffering through an .835 save percentage and winning just one of those contests. That’s a tiny sample size, and one that’s spread out over three different postseason runs, but the bottom line is that people can be unforgiving when it comes to playoff stumbles, and the Flames could rank as a very unforgiving opponent.

Grubauer made the difference to the Avalanche squeezing into this postseason, and we should expect Colorado to lean on him just as heavily against the flammable Flames’ attack.

Avalanche – Flames Game 1 from the Scotiabank Saddledome will happen Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Here is the livestream link.

For more on these two teams, check out the series preview. Get a rundown of Thursday’s full slate of Game 1 action with The Wraparound.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Philipp Grubauer continues to be ‘hot goalie’ for Avs

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday night’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the Colorado Avalanche acquired Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals during the off-season, many assumed that he’d be the 1B to Semyon Varlamov‘s 1A. But when the Avs have needed victories, they’ve turned to the newcomer, instead.

“He’s the hot goalie. We’ll ride him as long as we have to,” head coach Jared Bednar said.

Thanks, in part, to Grubauer, the Avalanche have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They’re currently in a 6-0-1 stretch over their last seven games and the 27-year-old netminder has been between the pipes for each one of those contests. He’s also given up two goals or fewer in all but one of those games (he allowed three goals in a win over Vegas).

“He’s given us such security back there,” forward Sven Andrighetto said of Grubauer. “You play with so much more confidence if your goalie is doing well. He’s been great for us, and we feed off that, for sure.”

Even though things have been going really well for Colorado of late, they can’t afford to take their foot off the accelerator because they haven’t secured a playoff spot. Heading into tonight’s action, they hold just a one-point lead over the Arizona Coyotes, who are sitting in ninth spot in the Western Conference.

Tonight’s game against the Blues won’t be easy. St. Louis is fighting to move up the Central Division standings and they’ve been a tough out for Colorado this year. In the previous three matchups between these two teams this season, the Blues have won all three.

Interestingly enough, Blues goalie Jake Allen, who has taken a back seat to Jordan Binnington of late, has been in goal for each of those wins against the Avalanche. Allen has posted 1.64 goals-against-average and a .951 save percentage against Colorado in 2018-19.

Tonight’s game against the Blues will be the start of a very busy week for the Avs, who will play four games in six days to close out the schedule. After tonight’s clash, they’ll have home games against Edmonton and Winnipeg before heading to San Jose for the regular-season finale on Saturday night.

The fact that Gabriel Landeskog returned to lineup on Friday night was huge and it will continue to be huge. Now, if they could get Mikko Rantanen back, that would increase their odds of making it to the postseason.

“We’re doing different things on different nights to win hockey games,” Bednar said after Friday’s shootout win over the Coyotes. “We’re getting contributions from our whole lineup. Especially with the injuries, guys are stepping up and taking on bigger roles and excelling in those roles. It’s a team game and we’re playing like that right now. There’s no selfishness in our room, it’s all team first.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Grubauer’s hot streak makes Avs’ present (and future) much brighter

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Philipp Grubauer hasn’t exactly looked like the Colorado Avalanche’s goalie of the future (or present) very often this season, but that’s changed lately — and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

There were plenty of stretches lately where the Avalanche’s situation looked dire. With all apologies to sudden journeyman Derick Brassard, it’s not exactly as if the Avalanche approached the trade deadline like a team with high hopes.

Things looked dire at times, particularly when Nathan MacKinnon was getting so frustrated that he created this moment of unintentional comedy while getting heated with coach Jared Bednar in January:

MacKinnon seemed to yell “do your job” to Bednar, but perhaps the message was meant for a broader audience. Maybe MacKinnon was trying to say that, as great as his top line has been, he can’t do it alone.

So, with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen missing time, and the season on the line, it became that much clearer that MacKinnon really couldn’t carry the Avs on his back. Colorado could have faded from the playoff picture, but instead, Grubauer began a clutch hot streak.

Since February began, Grubauer’s gone 7-3-1 with a fantastic .949 save percentage. That save percentage only trails Ben Bishop‘s astounding work among goalies who’ve played in at least a few games during that span.

He’s been especially hot lately, going 5-0-1 in his last six starts, allowing just nine goals in those six appearances.

As the Denver Post’s Mike Chambers reported before Wednesday’s 4-3 win against the Golden Knights, both Bednar and defenseman Tyson Barrie used the phrase “in the zone” to describe Grubauer’s recent play.

“He’s in a zone,” Barrie said. “He’s feeling it. He’s playing unbelievable, giving us a chance every night.”

The plan was almost certainly for Grubauer to transition into becoming the full-fledged starter for the Avalanche, what with Semyon Varlamov in a contract year. Sometimes Varlamov ended up playing superior hockey (he appeared in more games than Grubauer before this February tear), sometimes Varlamov has been injured, and sometimes both goalies have struggled.

It was fair to worry if there’d be a time when Grubauer would really show why the Avalanche made such an investment in acquiring and signing him during the summer, but all of a sudden, things look good both now and going forward.

Now, none of this is to say that Grubauer is guaranteed to carry this hot streak over to an unwavering run as the No. 1. Plenty of goalies enjoy hot and cold streaks — something Grubauer can attest to from his memories of gaining and then losing the starting gig for the Capitals last season.

Frankly, if we’ve learned anything from situations like Jake Allen not quite justifying being handed the baton in St. Louis – and then Jordan Binnington saving the Blues’ season – most teams are wise in having backup plans (and backup-to-the-backup plans) in net. All things considered, the Avalanche should still be heavily scouting goalie options, whether that means pending free agents, prospects, or even goalies overseas.

Still, it has to be comforting for the organization to see Grubauer possibly muscling the Avs into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and thus joining the Matt Duchene trade as a moment where Joe Sakic & Co. ended up looking pretty smart.

Of course, the situation could look very different if the goaltending pendulum swings the other way again.

***

Grubauer’s fantastic work showed that, yes, actually, the Avalanche can win games where they aren’t just relying on MacKinnon’s top line to drag them to victory.

Asking a goalie to steal too many games is a risky proposition in a more scoring-happy 2018-19 season, though, so the other bit of sunshine from Colorado comes in the news that Landeskog might be able to return for Friday’s crucial game against the Arizona Coyotes, another team in the running for one of the West’s wild-card spots. If Landeskog returns, he’d beat even the lower end of his original window of recovery, as he was expected to miss four-to-six weeks after being injured on March 7.

As stellar as Grubauer has been, the Coyotes haven’t allowed many goals lately, so Landeskog could very well tip the scales in Colorado’s favor.

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.