T.J. Oshie

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.

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.

Uncertainty with Kuznetsov threatens to hang over Capitals

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ARLINGTON, Va. — They’re no longer defending Stanley Cup champions, don’t know if one of their best players will be eligible for opening night, are over the salary cap ceiling and face expiring contracts for two franchise cornerstones after the season.

That parade feels like a long time ago.

No bigger question confronts the Washington Capitals at the start of training camp than the uncertain status of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who tested positive for cocaine at the world championships. Kuznetsov has already been suspended from international play for four years and could face further discipline from the NHL.

”Teammates, from what I’ve gathered, have been supportive,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday. ”Also, I think they’d like to hear from him at some point and he’ll address the team and just talk about his situation. I think that would be an important step for the whole team to move forward.”

Kuznetsov voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and met with Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday. The team did not make Kuznetsov available to reporters like other players on media day because the NHL has not decided whether to levy further punishment.

League officials are occupied with collective bargaining negotiations but should make a determination on Kuznetsov well before the regular season opens. Washington visits defending champion St. Louis in the season opener Oct. 2.

”He realizes he makes mistake,” captain and fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin said. ”Sometimes the best thing is just support him and be at his side.”

Kuznetsov has plenty of support from teammates but is far from the only unknown for the Capitals this season. They may need to make a move before camp ends to get under the $81.5 million salary cap and still need to work on getting extensions done with center Nicklas Backstrom and goaltender Braden Holtby.

MacLellan talked to Holtby’s agent a few days ago and plans to meet with Backstrom’s camp soon. Each player can be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

”We’re going to communicate with both players,” MacLellan said. ”Both guys have been a big part of our organization, big part of our success. We’d love to keep both. We’re going to play it out until the end here.”

Holtby said he watched fellow goalie Sergei Bobrovsky‘s situation with Columbus last season in the final year of his contract and wants to make sure everyone is on the same page. Bobrovsky signed a $70 million, seven-year deal with Florida that would seem to set the market for Holtby, who might be hard-pressed to fit under Washington’s cap.

”There’s always that area where you can work with, but at the same time you have a responsibility to the other players in the league, too,” Holtby said. ”When it comes down to something like that, you can figure out what’s best for all sides and go through that kind of thing.”

Holtby backstopped the Capitals to their first title in franchise history, but the presence of top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov and 2014 second-round pick Vitek Vanecek may make it easier for the team to move on. Samsonov and Vanecek will have the opportunity in camp to compete with Pheonix Copley for the backup job.

Backstrom has no such potential replacement coming. The 31-year-old Swede has been Ovechkin’s running mate for more than a decade and figures to play out the rest of his career in Washington – assuming a deal can be reached.

”We’ve been together since Day 1, and the chemistry that we have on the ice is tremendous,” Ovechkin said. ”I hope he’s going to stay.”

On the ice, the Capitals hope to have defenseman Michal Kempny back for the start of the season after surgery in April to repair a torn left hamstring. Winger T.J. Oshie‘s right shoulder is 100 percent after breaking his collarbone in the playoffs.

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.