Alex Ovechkin

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Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

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 face tough salary cap questions after re-signing Hagelin

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The Washington Capitals made a shrewd move in trading away Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas, as the deal made Washington younger, cheaper, and possibly even better on defense. They used some of that newfound cap space to re-sign Carl Hagelin on Sunday, but the deal makes you wonder who might get lost in the salary cap shuffle.

First, the deal: the Capitals signed Hagelin, 30, to a four-year contract worth $11 million, which clocks in at a $2.75M cap hit.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings that costs Washington its 2019 third-rounder (89th overall, via Cap Friendly). There was a conditional sixth-rounder, but the conditions were not met.

Hagelin’s speed and possession game proved to be a very nice fit for the Capitals, although his already declining offense may only sag more if the Swede hits the aging curve hard.

Hagelin went from the Penguins to the Kings, and then the Kings to the Capitals this season. He generated five goals and 19 points over 58 regular-season games, with his best work coming in Washington (three goals, 11 points in 20 games). Hagelin only managed an assist during Washington’s seven-game Round 1 series against the Hurricanes.

At this point in his career, it’s not as much about the points. Instead, it’s about Hagelin’s foot speed and overall play, two factors that are clearly very appealing to the Caps.

Overall, this is a reasonable deal, albeit with some concern over term.

The other concern, again, is who might this push out of Washington? Even with the considerable money savings from getting rid of Niskanen’s $5.75M for Gudas ($2.345M after Philly retained some salary), the Capitals have some decisions to make.

According to Cap Friendly, the Capitals have about $10.736M in cap space remaining, at least if the ceiling ends up being $83M. (Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that there are at least some rumblings about it being closer to $82M, depending upon how escrow works out.)

The Capitals’ $72.264M in spending goes to 17 roster spots, and there are some substantial players who need new deals, or will hit the free agent market.

RFAs

UFAs

Things have been tumultuous with Burakovsky, but the 24-year-old is a nice talent. Would the Capitals lean toward moving his rights, or try to find a bridge deal?

The Capitals at least have Burakovsky as an RFA, although he is arbitration-eligible. The tougher situation might be with Connolly, who would be a UFA at 27. Connolly’s shown why he was a first-rounder (sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010), as he scored 22 goals and 46 points in 51 games last season. Those numbers are strong out of context, but they’re remarkable when you realize that Connolly only averaged 13:20 TOI per game in 2018-19.

For some context, Connolly generated 2.66 points per 60 minutes at even-strength this season, according to Natural Stat Trick. Connolly’s points-per-minute rate was the 18th-best in the NHL this past season for players who logged at least 100 minutes, better than Evgeny Kuznetsov (2.47) and Alex Ovechkin (2.39).

(Interestingly, Hagelin is the only Capitals player who generated a better rate, at least if you limit it to the 20 games he played with the Capitals, as Hagelin scored 2.72 points-per-60.)

So, more than worries about Hagelin aging – which will happen, but we’ll see how detrimental that process will be – the real misgiving would be wondering who can’t stay because Hagelin stayed put.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Hagelin means no Connolly, or no Burakovsky. It’s plausible that Connolly, in particular, was going to be a luxury Washington would need to say goodbye to, no matter what. Sometimes that’s just the painful reality of the salary cap era.

Still, Hagelin’s taking up $2.75M from 2019-20 through 2022-23, so it does cost Washington that much space.

Overall, the Capitals’ situation remains challenging, and it really solidifies the thought that they really needed to part ways with Niskanen. Not only did they go cheaper for 2019-20, but Gudas’ contract runs out after next season, while Washington would have been on the hook for Niskanen at $5.75M through 2020-21.

That’s highly important, because two prominent Capitals enter contract years in 2019-20: Braden Holtby (29, $6.1M) and Nicklas Backstrom (31, $6.7M).

Unless the Capitals have something bold planned, such as a rather severe leap from goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov, you’d think both Holtby and Backstrom would be getting big raises.

So that makes a difficult situation even more complicated, as the Capitals don’t want to tie up too much money when those bargain contracts are coming up. Heck, even Alex Ovechkin’s situation will be something to watch, as the 33-year-old’s seemingly eternal $9.54M cap hit runs out after 2020-21.

In other words, the Capitals provided an answer by re-signing Hagelin, but they have plenty of other, tougher questions lingering, and by opening that window, they might have closed a door for another would-be player.

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.

Blues’ Tarasenko is sniping at Ovechkin-like level during playoffs

The St. Louis Blues are breaking through in the playoffs like never before, but as hot as Vladimir Tarasenko is right now, he’s been clutch for some time now.

After scoring a goal in the Blues’ Game 2 win to extend his personal playoff point streak to eight games, Tarasenko now has a playoff career-high of 10 goals during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 15 points during this run matches a career-high from 2015-16, when he scored nine goals and 15 points in 20 games. Even if Tarasenko hits a Zdeno Chara-sized brick wall and slows down during the rest of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, there’s a strong chance that he’ll set a new career-high for points.

Impressive stuff, and Tarasenko isn’t just scoring pretty goals. His Game 2 tally was as gritty as it was pretty:

Tarasenko’s been a reliable 30+ goal scorer during the regular season, as his 33 in 2018-19 gives him five consecutive seasons with at least 30, with 40 from 2015-16 serving as his peak.

Overall, it’s not that shocking that Tarasenko has been a go-to guy for the Blues when they’ve needed playoff goals for years, yet it seems like he raises his game when the stakes get higher. If that’s off the mark, then Tarasenko seemingly doesn’t slow down in the playoffs in the same ways where others find their production stunted by an opponent throwing top defensemen and tough matchups at them every night.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 27-year-old winger has 32 goals in 65 career playoff games, just a hair under one every other game (.49 per contest).

To give some context, Sportsnet noted after Game 2 that Tarasenko’s .49 goal-per-playoff-game average is the second highest among active NHL players, with only Alex Ovechkin (.51) ranking higher. Perusing other stats really drives the point home that Tarasenko’s been quite the sniping machine in postseason contests.

If you zoom into the Tarasenko’s years, he rises even a bit more. Since 2013-14, Tarasenko’s 32 playoff goals only trails Ovechkin’s 34, and Tarasenko’s goals-per-game during that stretch is marginally higher (.50) than Ovechkin’s (.49). The only players who ranked higher during that time were Jake Guentzel and Mark Scheifele, who scored .59 playoff goals-per-game, via Hockey Reference. You can ding Tarasenko a bit for going without a goal in his lone 2012-13 playoff appearance, but even then, few matched his sniping rate.

An interesting spin-off for this discussion might be power play work.

Heading into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tarasenko only scored six of his 22 postseason goals on the power play. So far during this run, he’s exactly even: five goals at even-strength, and five on the power play.

Amusingly enough, I’ve repeatedly wondered if the Blues power play would be more effective if Tarasenko was deployed closer to the net, rather than his more frequent spot on the point, and maybe that’s still true. Even so, it’s interesting to see that his power play production has been more potent during this postseason versus previous years. Tarasenko’s already clearly been a menace at five-on-five, yet if he can supplement some of his scoring with work on the man advantage, he’ll be an even more miserable matchup for the Bruins and other opponents.

With greater Blues’ team success, the hockey world has become more aware of the many quality talents in St. Louis. Tarasenko was already a prominent star, yet this run could push him closer to becoming a hockey “household name,” and that’s wonderful, because his clutch play is far from a fluke.

More from the 2019 Stanley Cup Final

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Wild Card teams are 4-for-4

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  • The Washington Capitals blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads to drop Game 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. Former Capitals player and frequent Game 7 star Justin Williams played a big role in Carolina’s 2OT winning goal.
  • With Carolina’s victory, all four Wild Card teams have advanced to Round 2.

Hurricanes 4, Capitals 3 [2OT] (CAR wins 4-3)
The Capitals got off to a terrific start. Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson scored in the first 6:23 minutes of the contest, but rather than fall apart, the Hurricanes dug in. It wasn’t until 2:56 of the third period when the Hurricanes caught up thanks to a Jordan Staal goal. Washington battled hard for the rest of the third period, but once overtime started the game was all Carolina until finally they broke through when Brock McGinn tipped in a Jason Williams shot. With that, the defending Stanley Cup champions are done and a franchise that last made the playoffs in 2009 is going to Round 2.

Three Stars

1. Brock McGinn, Carolina Hurricanes.
He got the series-winning goal and registered an assist on Teuvo Teravainen‘s marker. This was the 25-year-old’s first playoff series and prior to it he had 36 goals in 240 career regular season games. Of those 36 goals, only two were game-winners.

2. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes.

Assisted on three of the Hurricanes’ four goals. He also led both teams with 38:27 minutes of ice time in the 2OT contest. He finished the series with nine assists in seven games.

3. Andre Burakovsky, Washington Capitals.

Got the scoring started just 2:13 minutes into the contest off a superb steal. It was his first goal of the series.

One goal Dougie Hamilton will be happy is forgotten

It didn’t end up defining the game, but Alex Ovechkin outplayed Hamilton on this goal. If Washington won this game, this goal might have been a big part of the story.

Factoids of the night

Thursday’s Games

Game 1: Blue Jackets at Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Game 1: Stars at Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.