Travis Boyd

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Cap crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that need moves

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Even though most of the NHL’s biggest roster transactions have already happened this summer, there are still some significant moves that will be coming over the next few weeks. Many of them will be out of necessity as it relates to getting under the salary cap for the 2019-20 season.

As of Saturday, there are four teams (New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins) that are still over the $81.5 million salary cap (teams can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent in the offseason) and a handful of teams that are close to the salary cap while still needing to re-sign some players.

Let’s take a look at some of the teams that will needing to make another move (or two) over the next few weeks to position themselves under the salary cap.

New York Rangers: After signing Pavel Buchnevich to a two-year contract on Saturday, the Rangers currently sit more than $4 million above the cap with a full roster of 23 players under contract. The offseason additions of Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba drastically altered the cap situation and have them in a position where a significant move is going to be necessary. Possible trade options: Chris Kreider should be at the top of the trade list given what he could bring back and his UFA status next summer, but they could also explore options with Ryan Strome and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Trading Phil Kessel was supposed to help the Penguins ease their salary cap crunch, but acquiring Alex Galchenyuk in that deal and signing Brandon Tanev to a long-term deal negated any savings that might have existed. They still have to re-sign defenseman Marcus Pettersson (they want to give him a long-term deal) and will need to move another contract to do so and remain under the cap. Possible trade options: Bryan Rust, Nick Bjugstad, Jack Johnson, and Erik Gudbranson are all depth players signed to long-term deals (never a good idea for Stanley Cup contenders). Rust and Bjugstad still have the most value and use to the team, while Johnson and Gudbranson are definitely expendable.

Calgary Flames: After re-signing David Rittich on Saturday to settle their goaltending duo for this season the Flames have between $4 and $5 million of salary cap space remaining for this season. They still have to re-sign Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Magiapane. Without another move they do not have enough salary cap space to re-sign Tkachuk alone as he is in line for a massive raise on his next deal. He is already one of the best young players in the league and will easily be a $6 million-plus player starting this season. Possible trade options: Michael Frolik is the obvious choice here, and his name has been in trade rumors for a while now. He counts more than $4 million against the salary cap this season, and while he is still a useful player he is probably not the most efficient use of the Flames’ limited salary cap space at the moment.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Vegas Golden Knights: Dumping Clarkson’s contract off on the Maple Leafs finally put the Golden Knights back under the cap, but they still have the Nikita Gusev situation looming. Based on his KHL production and skillset Gusev could be a top-six winger in the NHL and a welcome addition to any NHL team … including the Golden Knights. The problem is they do not have anywhere near the salary cap space to meet his demands. Their options are either trading Gusev and risk giving up an outstanding player, or moving someone like a Cody Eakin and/or Ryan Reaves to create enough salary cap space to keep him for themselves.

Toronto Maple Leafs: They are now about $3 million over the salary cap after acquiring David Clarkson‘s contract and still have to re-sign restricted free agent Mitch Marner. It looks bad, but they are going to get relief by placing Clarkson and Nathan Horton on the long-term injured list. They should be okay without having to make another significant move, but it will be close and Marner may not be under contract on the first day of the regular season.

Washington Capitals: They will have some major decisions to make over the next couple of seasons with core players. In a more short-term outlook they are, as of Saturday, a little more than $1 million over the league’s salary cap after re-signing Chandler Stephenson on Friday. The Capitals already traded Andre Burakovsky this summer and will probably need another cap-clearing move before October. It’s hard to imagine them shipping out a top-line player right now, so look for smaller moves that could involve the likes of Travis Boyd or Christian Djoos.

Related: Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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.

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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

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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.

Capitals extend Metro lead by beating Flyers

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The Washington Capitals can enjoy the rest of their Sunday knowing that they won’t have to be worried about being overtaken in the race for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

A 3-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on NBC ensured they’ll have at least a one-point lead on the division. For the time being, it’s a three-point advantage, with the New York Islanders facing the Arizona Coyotes later on Sunday.

Washington had lost two straight coming into this one, including a 5-4 overtime defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday Night Hockey. That game was one of the best of the season between two powerhouses and the Capitals showed they could still run with the dominant Lightning.

Washington then dropped a 2-1 decision to the Minnesota Wild on Friday.

So stopping the bleeding in Sunday’s matinee was paramount.

Tom Wilson‘s deflection put the Capitals ahead 1-0 in the first period, a lead that was padded in the second by Travis Boyd on another re-directed shot.

The Flyers, with their playoff hopes all but mathematically gone, battled back to 2-1 through Jakub Voracek on the power play to keep things interesting into the third. The Flyers put up 20 shots in the second period but Braden Holtby was up to the task, finishing with 35 saves in the game

A breakaway goal nearing the mid-way point of the third period by Jakub Vrana sealed it for Washington.

The pursuit of another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin will have to wait, meanwhile.

Ovi has hit a bit of a dry spell as of late, now having gone four games without a marker. With six games remaining, it’s unlikely The Great 8 will be held at bay for the rest of the regular season.

He nearly had an empty netter, but it was defended well by the Flyers and Ovechkin ultimately chose to pass the puck and the play never materialized into anything.

Washington now gears up for a home and home with the Carolina Hurricanes before another test against the Tampa Bay Lightning next Saturday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck