Brian MacLellan

Long-term outlook Washington Capitals Ovechkin Holtby
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Long-term outlook for Washington Capitals: Key cap questions coming

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Washington Capitals.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Barring two very big names (which we’ll discuss in the next section), the Capitals have a lot of their name-brand players signed long-term.

It remains to be seen if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how each integral player ages. Nicklas Backstrom is already 32, making a five-year extension with a $9.2M AAV pretty scary. Looking at other players with term, T.J. Oshie is 33, Lars Eller is 30, and John Carlson is 30.

Of course, Carlson looks like a steal at $8M so far, and those players have aged like fine wine — at least at this point.

If this group sustains reasonably well as they hit 30 and beyond, then the Capitals should be able to put puzzle pieces together to compete. At some point, you’d expect the run of division titles to end. Then again, like Alex Ovechkin scoring all of the goals, it just seems to keep happening.

Long-term needs for Capitals

I hesitated ever so slightly to put Ovechkin in the core section because, frankly, his future is a little bit unsettled.

The 34-year-old sees what felt like a lifetime contract end after 2020-21. Will the Capitals ask Ovechkin to take a pay cut from $9.54M? Would Ovechkin demand even more money? He’d certainly have options in the hard-to-imagine scenario where the situation gets sticky.

But there are certainly a number of scenarios where this plays out poorly for the Capitals and/or Ovechkin. Including if he stays, but steeply declines with an aging team.

The Capitals also need to settle their situation in net. It’s difficult to shake the impression that pending UFA Braden Holtby might be out. The 30-year-old’s best chance at a big payday likely lies somewhere other than D.C.

I mean … I think. The Capitals have shown an eagerness to keep key players together, sometimes producing some surprises. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with Backstrom, and I also was mildly surprised when they brought Oshie back. None of this is to say that the moves were foolish; it’s just sometimes difficult to tell when a team might make the painful, cap-forced decision to let a cherished player walk away.

Because the danger is that the Capitals might squeeze out a much-needed injection of youth if they try to wrangle everyone. At his current trajectory, 24-year-old Jakub Vrana sure looks like he’ll be in line for a massive raise from $3.35M after 2020-21.

Letting Holtby go — and maybe getting lucky to shake loose a problem contract to Seattle — might be key in replenishing the ranks.

The Capitals either need to get creative to stay younger, or they might need to search for the Fountain of Youth.

Long-term strengths for Capitals

No doubt about it, the aging curve worries me for Washington. That said, it might not be ominous at the “guillotine hanging over your head” level.

For one thing, players like Backstrom could conceivably age well. He distinguishes himself as much for his hockey IQ as he does for his talent, so maybe Backstrom will parallel, say, Patrice Bergeron over the years.

Ilya Samsonov also represents a possible solution. He could end up being better than Holtby going forward, and as a 23-year-old who would be an RFA after 2020-21, the Capitals may also be able to extend Samsonov for a team-friendly price.

OK, the Capitals might be forced into such a scenario by cap realities. But, when you look at, say, the Blue Jackets waving goodbye to Sergei Bobrovsky and getting a better deal with young, cheap netminders, it’s certainly not a given that Washington won’t come out of the situation as winners.

In all honesty, Capitals management has earned a solid level of trust.

Yes, the Capitals’ farm system isn’t the greatest, as Scott Wheeler ranked it 29th back in January (sub required).

But considering how infrequently they’ve picked even as high as the teens in drafts, they’ve been able to unearth some gems here and there. And Brian MacLellan isn’t even trading them away as perilously as the Capitals once did with Filip Forsberg.

My guess is that the “bill is coming” for years of win-now approaches, so maybe that shrewdness will only go so far. Still, this franchise has consistently found ways to stay in the picture, and there’s some reason to believe that the party might go a few years longer.

MORE ON THE CAPITALS:

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: Ovechkin just needs bounces to reach 700 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Alex Ovechkin‘s been stuck on 698 goals for five games now, with Thursday’s game against the Habs serving as his next crack at 700.

If it’s getting to Ovechkin, then he’s not admitting it. He denied his quest for 700 being a distraction for himself and his Capitals teammates.

“I don’t think somebody thinks about it,” Ovechkin said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “If it happens, it happens. It’s just a matter of time, tomorrow, after tomorrow, whatever. We’re focusing right now to get our game better, to secure a playoff spot, and then we’ll move on.”

Blaming Ovechkin solely for the Capitals’ recent struggles (four losses, all in regulation, over the past five games) is oversimplifying. Consider, for instance, that they just concluded a three-game road trip in Vegas, all against viable opponents.

Even so, when a player is chasing a big milestone, teammates sometimes feel obliged to try to force it. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan cautioned against that, as Gulitti reports.

“From observing, I would say I think everybody wants him to get it and are trying hard for him to get it and I think we would benefit from just let’s play our game and it’s going to happen organically,” MacLellan said. “It’s just going to take care of itself. But you’d have to ask him that specifically if it’s affecting him.”

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET]

Ovechkin shooting, not getting bounces yet to hit 700 goals

The gut reaction would be to say that Ovechkin has been terrible since trying to reach 700.

After all, Ovechkin hasn’t scored a goal. In fact, Ovechkin has been held pointless, suffering through a cumulative -6 rating.

Yet, if you dig a little deeper, Ovechkin’s drought is mainly a reminder that hockey is a game of bounces. Ovechkin’s been almost miraculously immune to sniping slumps during his already-illustrious career, but he does get snakebit from time to time.

The numbers certainly indicate that he’s trying.

Through those five games, Ovechkin fired a whopping 27 SOG. That’s even after starting slow with two SOG against the Flyers on Feb. 8. The NHL also credits him with nine missed shots. Ovechkin isn’t hesitating to shoot, he just needs a few bounces to reach 700 goals.

You wonder if Ovechkin might tweak his pregame superstitions, though.

Could Canadiens (unintentionally) provide the breakthrough?

Reviewing his play at all strengths at Natural Stat Trick, it seems like Ovechkin is honestly playing reasonably well. The results just haven’t been there lately, which happens in the bounce-heavy world of pucks.

The Canadiens could be a worthwhile target for Ovechkin, who fell short against the team he won a Stanley Cup against (and the franchise he scored “the goal” against). Through 49 career regular-season games against Montreal, Ovechkin’s scored an impressive 32 goals and 54 points. That translates to .65 goals per game, even better than Ovechkin’s remarkable overall career average of .61.

With a middle-of-the-pack 3.08 goals allowed per game and a middling 79.1% penalty kill success rate, the Habs could be just what the milestone-loving doctor ordered for Ovechkin.

Joe Beninati and analysts Craig Laughlin and Alan May will have the call from Capital One Arena.

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Blues get names engraved on Stanley Cup

St. Louis Blues
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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.