Carl Hagelin

Predators’ investment in Bonino is paying off

Sometimes, when a player is on an unsustainable hot streak, it can lead to overreactions. Every now and then, though, such a run of good fortune can shine a spotlight on a good player who normally gets the job done in more subtle ways.

Nick Bonino is off to that sort of start for the Nashville Predators.

Consider that, with eight goals, Bonino is currently tied with the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Stone, and T.J. Oshie. Overall, Bonino has 12 points in his first 15 games to start 2019-20.

Circling back to that opening paragraph: yes, “Bones” has been undeniably lucky. His eight goals have come on a scant 31 shots on goal, good for a whopping 25.8 shooting percentage. Even for a player who has been a pretty lucky shooter since joining the Predators (no lower than a 14.4 shooting percentage in any campaign since signing before the 2017-18 season), that luck will cool off.

Again, though, that puck luck gives us an opportunity to appreciate just how effective Bonino has been, normally when you ignore the goals and assists.

The book on the Predators has been that, for all their bargains elsewhere on the roster — and getting premium defense, goaltenders, and wingers at high value is ultimately worth it — their centers haven’t been worth what Nashville has paid for. That risk continued when they signed Matt Duchene at $8 million per year, but you could argue the same for Ryan Johansen (also $8M AAV) and most troublingly Kyle Turris ($6M AAV, gulp, through 2023-24).

Bonino and his $4.1M AAV were lumped into that argument, but I’m not so sure how fair that ever was, and he’s been delivering some great play for some time now.

Hockey Viz’s aesthetically appealing heat maps show that Bonino’s had a knack for limiting opponents’ opportunities close to his net, while doing a decent job of creating positive opportunities on the flipside offensively:

Bonino did see a slight dip in 2017-18, his first season in Nashville and away from the glories of the “HBK Line” run with the Penguins, but overall he’s been a solid offensive contributor while seemingly making a considerable impact on defense.

We might explain Bonino’s redemption going under the radar because a) most of the time he’s not scoring like he’s done through the small sample of 2019-20 and b) the mood was generally sour in Nashville toward the end of last season. (It’s amusing that, for all the grief the Predators got for putting up banners, their last Central Division win was met with such indifference.)

Consider how much value Bonino brought to the table in 2018-19 in Goals Above Replacement value, as compiled by Sean Tierney using Evolving Hockey’s data:

Pretty impressive.

The Predators have leaned heavily on Bonino basically since day one, as he’s only begun 32.6 of his shifts in the offensive zone on average in Nashville, with this season so far representing the lowest at just 25 percent.

Such deployment makes it even more likely that Bonino’s offensive numbers will slide. After all, Bonino’s only passed 20 goals once (22), which happened in 2013-14, the only season he hit 40+ points with 49. He was limited to 35 points in 2018-19 and 25 in 2017-18, just to mention his Predators years.

This hot streak gives us a chance to really bask in the under-the-radar work he’s done. If you’ve ever wanted to argue for a player who brings more to the table than meets the eye, then make no “Bones” about Bonino being one of those guys.

If you need to throw out a bunch of Boninos in the process, then so be it.

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.

Capitals have some huge decisions to make with key players

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Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is going to have one of the more complex juggling acts in the NHL over the next year.

His team is just one year removed from its first ever Stanley Cup and is still, as currently constructed, a championship contender that should be one of the best teams in the league this season. They still have their core of stars in place, and they have worked to improve the depth around them with the recent additions of Carl Hagelin (before the trade deadline this past season), Richard Panik, and Garnet Hathaway.

For this season, everything is in place right for another run at a championship.

It is what happens after this season when things will get complicated as Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency, while Alex Ovechkin will be set to enter the final year of his contract.

Those are three of the most important players in the history of the Capitals franchise and the backbone of the team that finally brought the Stanley Cup to the district.

It is almost kind of hard to believe that Backstrom and Ovechkin are so close to the end of their deals given how long those contracts were. Ovechkin signed a 13-year, $124 million contract that began during the 2008-09 season, while Backstrom signed a 10-year, $67 million contract for the start of the 2010-11 season. Given how much the Capitals have received in return from those two they might be two of the best contracts signed during the salary cap era (honestly, the only other contenders are the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin duo in Pittsburgh).

Now they are starting to reach their end because father time is a relentless monster that is always chasing after each and everyone of us. Time really does fly.

MacLellan’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep them, and which one to let go if it should come to that.

Let’s start with the obvious one: As long as he wants to play in the NHL it is almost impossible to believe that Ovechkin will ever wear a sweater that is not the Capitals. He is one of the “one team” icons in the sport, and there is no way Ted Leonsis is going to let him chase Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (and perhaps even reach it) with another team. That is just not going to happen. He stays.

But there is nothing the Capitals can do with Ovechkin’s contract until next July. They can, however, sign Backstrom or Holtby at any point starting right now.

This is where the big decision might have to come in, because given the constraints of the salary cap it is hard to see how they can fit all three on the team beyond this season.

The Capitals have a lot of players signed to long-term contracts, and already have 15 players under contract for 2020-21 and 13 players under contract for the 2021-22 season. Trying to figure out what the salary cap is going to look like in either of those years is nearly impossible right now, but the Capitals already have $62 million committed to their 2020-21 roster and nearly $50 million for the year after.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is a lot, and they not only have to worry about re-signing their superstars, but also filling out the remainder of the roster around them.

When it comes to prioritizing between Backstrom and Holtby the most sensible investment would seem to be Backstrom. He is a No. 1 center, still one of the best players in the world, and should continue to be a top-line performer into his 30s.

Will he decline some? Almost certainly. But what he gives the Capitals will still be better than the alternatives they might realistically be able to acquire.

That leaves Holtby. The problem the Capitals will have with Holtby is you already saw what his next contract might look like this summer when Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers. That is going to be a massive contract to squeeze in under the cap when taking into account Backstrom’s next deal (which will probably be a raise, and maybe a significant one, from his current contract) and the eventual extension for Ovechkin (almost certainly $10 million-plus per season).

The only real to realistically do that is going to be shipping out another significant player in a trade.

Tom Wilson? T.J. Oshie? Dmitry Orlov? Or perhaps a combination depth players that are signed to term. The Lars Eller, Hagelin, and Panik trio will combine for $9 million against the cap in each of the next four seasons, all for depth players well into their 30s. Will that be the best use of salary cap space? (This is the risk with signing depth players to long-term contracts.)

But that is IF the Capitals want to make that sort of a commitment to Holtby.

He has been one of the best goalies in the league during his career and is still capable of shining in big moments and carrying the team when he is on top of his game. But over the past two seasons (and including the Stanley Cup year, when he did not even enter the playoffs as the starter) those moments have not been as frequent. He has started to shown signs of slowing down, and investing a seven-or eight-year contract into a goalie that will be 31 years old in the first year of his next deal could be too big of a risk.

If the Capitals have to move on from one of their big-three, Holtby is the most logical choice. He is the one that is probably least likely to retain most of his current value in future seasons, and even though he has been a top-tier goalie for so many years he is also probably the one they have the best chance of replacing.

The Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby era has been an incredible success in Washington, winning two Presidents’ Trophy and a Stanley Cup all in the past four years.

But with their current contracts coming to an end it is entirely possible that one of them — probably Holtby — will be finishing their career in a different uniform barring some other significant change elsewhere on the roster.

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.

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.

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

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.

Carl Hagelin is just what the Capitals needed

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Carl Hagelin was made for this time of year, and after spending the bulk of his career as a thorn in the side of the Washington Capitals at playoff time, they are now going to be the team benefitting from the unique brand of chaos he can create.

So far, he has been just what they needed in their quest to defend their title.

The Capitals acquired Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for two mid-round draft picks in a trade that was probably easy to miss because, at the time, Hagelin had recorded just two goals and eight total points in 38 games that he split between the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was not lighting up the scoreboard, he had missed time due to injury, and it simply wasn’t the type of trade that was going to steal headlines, especially as bigger name players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Wayne Simmonds were moving around the league.

Sometimes, though, it can be the smaller trade that ends up making the big difference.

The thing that gets tricky about evaluating Hagelin is that he is not always going to make a huge difference in ways that you easily notice, especially when it comes to his offense. If anything, his play with the puck on his stick will do more to frustrate you than impress you because he is the master of the “create a great scoring chance but never capitalize on it” play.

His speed will cause havoc for opposing defenders, he will find himself on at least one or two breakaways per week, and he will score the occasional goal. But you will always find yourself wanting more and wondering what sort of player he would be if he actually converted on more of the chances he always seems to create.

If he did convert on more of them he would probably be out of the Capitals’ price range under the salary cap because he does everything else so well. That “everything else” is what makes him such a valuable asset to his team this time of year.

There is always more of an emphasis on defensive play this time of year, and shoring up their own defensive play had to be a big priority for the Capitals leading up to the trade deadline. They did address that with the addition of Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings, but defensive play isn’t just about the players that play on the blue line.

Forwards also play a big role in that, and there are few in the NHL that are better without the puck than Hagelin.

He has always been an outstanding possession player and has never had a single season in his career where he finished with a Corsi Percentage lower than 50 percent. Only twice has he finished with a mark lower than 53 percent. He has also been one of the best in the NHL when it comes to shot-suppression and scoring chance differentials.

Some numbers for you to consider.

First, here is where Hagelin ranks among the 510 forwards that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time since the start of the 2016-17 season. He is among the top-10 percent of the league in shot attempt differential (CF%), fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), and scoring chance differential (SC%)…

This season alone he is among the top-50 in all three categories among 348 forwards.

Now let’s look at the penalty kill and his ranks among the 160 forwards that have logged at least 200 PK minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season when it comes to preventing shot attempts, shots on goal and scoring chances, which are all the biggest factors in killing penalties and the best predictor of future penalty killing success.

Again, he is among the most elite forwards in the league.

When you hear about shutdown forwards, this is what you should be envisioning.

His addition has also helped make the Capitals forward lineup far deeper than it was earlier in the season.

Since arriving he has spent a significant portion of his ice-time skating on the third line alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, a trio that has been fairly dominant since they have been assembled. Hagelin alone has already matched (or exceeded) his own individual production from what he did in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, and the line as a whole has been great. In more than 90 minutes the Capitals are controlling more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, while also outscoring teams by an 8-3 margin.

Compare that to what Eller and Connolly were doing without Hagelin on their wing.

Yes, those are two very different sample sizes in terms of ice-time with and without, and the former is only 90 minutes, so it might be understandable to have some skepticism with these numbers. But Hagelin has had this sort of impact on just about every line he has been a part of over the past few years. You see the impact he has had here, keep in mind that in Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have had the exact opposite situation play out since Hagelin was traded.

He may not ever finish plays for himself, but he gets to loose pucks, he wins battles, he is always the safe, responsible one that makes the right plays, he is excellent defensively, and his speed causes havoc and creates space for his linemates. All of this adds up.

With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuzetsov driving the first line, and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie dominating on the second line, the Capitals now have three lines that can hurt their opponents. That is a big part of why they have gone 9-2-1 since the trade deadline and played like one of the best teams in the league since his arrival.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season Hagelin has played in 14 more playoff games than any other player in the NHL, and has always played beyond at least the first round in those seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Final three times with two different teams. A lot of that is due to having the good fortune of playing on a lot of really good teams that have Hall of Famers. Obviously, he is not the only reason for that success. But it is also not just a coincidence and good fortune, either. He is definitely a part of it. Nearly a quarter of those playoff games he has played during that stretch have come against the Capitals, and he has been a big part of why his team has won three of the four series he has played against them.

Now he might be one of the reasons the Capitals have a chance to advance.

Maybe even against one of the teams he used to torment them with.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

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.