Brian MacLellan

St. Louis Blues

PHT Morning Skate: Blues get names engraved on Stanley Cup

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It is official, the Stanley Cup now includes the names of the St. Louis Blues for the first time. (St. Louis Blues)

• Speaking of the Blues, the party is now over as they get back to work. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• What is (and is not) distracting about Taylor Hall‘s contract situation for the New Jersey Devils. (All About The Jersey)

• Taking a look at some pre-season pre-draft rankings for the 2020 class. (TSN)

• Ten questions for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering training camp. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Golden Knights veterans share stories from their first NHL training camps. (Sin Bin Vegas)

• Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, but is that realistic? (NBC Washington)

• Inside Connor McDavid‘s NHL political awakening. (ESPN)

• Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich just wants to prove that he can be a starter in the NHL. (Flames Nation)

• Why Philadelphia Flyers defender Shayne Gostisbehere is saying sorry to Wayne Simmonds. (NBC Philadelphia)

• It is now or never for goalie Tristan Jarry with the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tribune-Review)

• What going to salary arbitration means for a player’s long-term outlook with a team. (Anaheim Calling)

MORE:
• 
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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.

Capitals GM under pressure to keep core together

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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. 

While Brian MacLellan certainly had a hand in putting together the Capitals’ core as an assistant, he also followed a path similar to Stan Bowman in Chicago: his job has been to maintain a supplement an established group, and deal with the salary cap headaches that arise from that juggling act.

In my opinion, MacLellan has done a mostly masterful job.

Sure, there were some gutters (*cough* Brooks Orpik *cough cough*) to go with the strikes, but MacLellan’s proven to be a strong hire after George McPhee’s extensive run ended. Saving money while possibly making the team better in certain areas isn’t the splashiest work, but he’s done well.

Yet, heading into next season and a bit beyond that, MacLellan will face probably his biggest pressure yet as Capitals GM.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Three Questions]

PHT has tackled this topic before, including in part today, but the Capitals face some truly monumental decisions about their future.

Most directly, both Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom enter contract years, and both stand to enjoy significant raises after being bargains for quite some time.

It’s fascinating enough if you oversimplify it to an either/or question: if the Capitals could only bring back one, which would make sense? Holtby’s been solid as a rock for the Capitals at the league’s most important (and unreliable) position, yet with Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price setting a $10M+ market for what a top goalie can make in unrestricted free agency, Holtby also stands to make a lot more money than his current $6.1M cap hit. It’s also difficult to put a price on Backstrom, but $6.7M is far too low, and while Holtby’s age (29) is a factor particularly considering the term Price and Bob received, Backstrom is 31 already.

If that wasn’t already complicated enough, Alex Ovechkin‘s seemingly eternal contract becomes mortal soon. His approx. $9.54M cap hit only runs through 2020-21, and his situation opens up a slew of questions, especially since he’s already 33.

This is all quite the riddle for MacLellan, and it’s not just about making objective hockey decisions. These are players who’ve meant a lot to the team and its fans, and have been instrumental in great successes. Merely having uncertainty surrounding Holtby and Backstrom could create headaches.

MacLellan faces some fascinating questions surrounding all of that:

  • How much should the Capitals work goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov into the mix? Might MacLellan be bold enough to roll the dice with far cheaper options in net? There’s evidence that the Capitals are reasonably analytics-leaning (see: Panik, and the continued employment of Tim “Vic Ferrari” Barnes), and some would argue that the savvy move is to go younger and cheaper in net. There’d be a lot of pressure on MacLellan either way: scorn if they move away from Holtby and the bottom falls out, and ridicule if they keep Holtby, Holtby falters, and the Capitals have to lose other key pieces because of the expense of re-signing Holtby. Tough stuff, right?
  • The Capitals are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but if there’s some breathing room around trade deadline time, is this a year to go all-in, even if it means coughing up a first-rounder or more? After all, you’re saying goodbye to some of your surplus of talent either in seeing one or more of Holtby/Backstrom leaving, or whoever must be moved out to accommodate new contracts. Maybe that’s your cue to swing for the fences?
  • Oh yeah, things could also get tricky with Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Overall, this is a Capitals team that still carries Stanley Cup expectations. MacLellan’s mostly wise decisions helped push them over the top for that elusive first ring, but the tests only seem to get harder from there.

How would you handle this pressure-packed predicament?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
• One deeper look at Holtby/Backstrom
• Adam Gretz’s take

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.

Laich: Missing playoffs ‘might’ve been greatest day going forward’ for Caps

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Last season, the Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07. That disappointment led to coach Adam Oates and longtime GM George McPhee being fired and turned the offseason into a bit of a tumultuous one.

If you ask Caps forward Brooks Laich about last season, he’s looking on the bright side of life as Dan Rosen of NHL.com shared.

“My honest opinion is not making the playoffs last year might have been the greatest day going forward for our organization, because I really think it made us all take a look in the mirror and at our failures and why we are failing,” Laich told NHL.com. “If we would have made the playoffs and lost in the first or second round it would have been the same old story, but you wouldn’t have had that hard, brutally honest look at yourselves to realize why you are failing.”

To say the Caps have been treading water in the postseason the past few years may sound cruel, but when you don’t get past the second round six straight seasons, maybe that’s the right way to put it.

Going through a season that saw virtually everyone’s production drop is a painful way to make change happen, but now the Caps will look forward to Barry Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan trying to get the team to their first Eastern Conference Final since 1998.

Ovechkin ‘upset’ at Grabovski departure, happy with defensive signings

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When Mikhail Grabovski signed with the New York Islanders, you had to wonder how Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin took the news.

Turns out it wasn’t a happy moment for him. In an interview with ITAR-TASS in Russia (translated by Russian Machine Never Breaks), Ovechkin gives his thoughts on Grabovski’s departure as well as the Capitals signing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.

On Grabovski leaving, Ovechkin kept it short saying, “Of course I am upset about Mikhail Grabovski. We had a close relationship.”

As for bringing on a pair of former Pittsburgh Penguins in Orpik and Niskanen to help the Caps with their defensive issues, he’s a bit happier.

“That our team signed such guys [as Niskanen and Orpik] – that’s a very strong move,” Ovechkin said. “Orpik, for example, is a very physical defenseman. If he plays on your team – it’s a positive for you. But the results will be at the end of the season, it hasn’t even started yet. Who knows what other changes are coming to the team– maybe there will be a trade or something else.”

Maybe there will be or maybe they won’t, but keeping Ovechkin feeling good helps the Caps out. Losing Grabovski certainly hurts, especially when they don’t have someone to take his place at the moment.

It should make for a fascinating camp with Ovechkin losing a friend and gaining a new GM in Brian MacLellan and coach Barry Trotz, the latter of whom may present the biggest test for him.