Jakub Vrana

NHL Playoffs: How should top four East teams approach Round Robin?

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[UPDATE – JULY 10: NHL announces full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers]

While the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams fight to make it into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Round Robin is merely for seeding. Such a scenario presents the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding teams (four in each conference) with many conundrums, including the age-old rest vs. rust debate.

PHT will take a look at such dilemmas for all eight teams in the NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding, starting with the East. We’re going East first because the Bruins a) won the Presidents’ Trophy and b) addressed such debates recently.

We might as well go in order as they would be ranked, too.

Debates for East top four teams heading into NHL’s Round Robin for Seeding

Boston Bruins

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruce Cassidy said he’s open to the idea of resting players during the three-game Round Robin for Seeding.

“Would we like to win all three games? Of course, in a perfect world, but I think with all teams there’s going to be some sort of a preseason mentality worked in with how the lineups are constructed every game,” Cassidy said, via Haggerty. “But if the [veteran players] want to play every game then I’m going to listen to them. It’s their bodies and they would know best. Then in the last game in the third period we’re going to shut our eyes and hope nobody gets hurt in those situations.”

The Bruins are in a heightened situation. While it stings that they may lose the top seeding they earned with 2019-20’s only 100-point season, this is also a roster brimming with veterans.

Most obviously, Cassidy must manage Zdeno Chara (43) and Patrice Bergeron (34). Really, the list goes deeper even than Tuukka Rask, who’s 33.

Brad Marchand is 32, and stands as an example to other contenders. As you may recall, Marchand aggravated a previous hand injury before the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it was coincidental, but Marchand’s top line struggled during that seven-game slugfest with the Blues. If teams like the Bruins want to go deep, they should emphasize caution most of all.

So, beyond the obvious, there are players who’ve been banged up like Torey Krug. Charlie McAvoy‘s also dealt with bumps and bruises despite ranking as one of the younger Bruins.

Overall, the Bruins rank among the East Round Robin teams with the most incentive to rest key players.

[MORE: How should the West’s top four teams handle rest vs. rust?]

Tampa Bay Lightning

How should the team with the most to lose deal with the Round Robin for Seeding?

Imagine how badly things could play out for the Lightning. We all know that their historic 2018-19 season ended in a stunning first-round sweep. Kenan Thompson mocked it. Andrei Vasilevskiy looked really steamed.

What if the Lightning fall short under these strange circumstances?

It could cost Jon Cooper his job. And there’s the increased risk of scapegoating a lack of “preparedness” if the Lightning take a preseason approach to the Round Robin for Seeding.

You could definitely make the argument that the Lightning took a while to get back into their elite form in 2019-20, too.

But … the Lightning are smarter than to cave to bad takes, right?

Let’s not forget that the Lightning didn’t really take their feet off the gas during that 2018-19 regular season — not really. Rather than resting stars more aggressively, Nikita Kucherov and others chased history.

Personally, it really looked like Victor Hedman was far from 100 percent, even missing some of that first-round sweep.

This Lightning team boasts a fairly old defense beyond Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev. Hedman is 29 already. Steven Stamkos is 30 (ponders own mortality for a second).

Cooper needs to find the right balance. If there’s any hint of failure in that regard, the vultures may start circling.

Washington Capitals

Zooming out, the most logical choice would be for the Capitals to promote rest.

Almost every major Capitals player is 30 or older, with the rare exception of breakthrough winger Jakub Vrana (24). There’s also some incentive to see if Ilya Samsonov (23) is still sharper than Braden Holtby (30).

But 34-year-old Alex Ovechkin doesn’t sit out a whole lot of games. Maybe the unique circumstances (and lack of a Maurice Richard Trophy to chase) might change Ovechkin’s approach, yet it’s not a slam-dunk to sit him. As Cassidy said, coaches will at times defer to players. It wouldn’t be shocking if such an approach occasionally backfires.

All things considered, the Capitals joust with the Bruins for the East Round Robin team with the most to gain from resting aging stars.

Philadelphia Flyers

The knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the Flyers want to shake off rust.

For one thing, the Flyers boast several core players in the younger range. Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov are both 23, while Carter Hart is 21. The Flyers also are “playing with house money” as a team that could climb to the top spot if they end up hot during the Round Robin for Seeding.

But the Flyers have plenty of reason to be careful, too.

To start, the drop-off between Hart and Brian Elliott (or another goalie) looks pretty severe. You don’t necessarily want to increase injury risks with Hart, then.

Also, there are veterans to manage. Philly should aim to keep Claude Giroux (32) and Jakub Voracek (30) fresh, not to mention someone like Matt Niskanen (33). While Sean Couturier is only 27, he’s the sort of player you’ll lean on a ton in playoff situations. So you might want to tread lightly there.

Rather than overtaxing go-to guys, this could be an opportunity for others. Could Nolan Patrick crack the lineup if his migraine issues are behind him? Perhaps a prospect from Philly’s impressive farm system will make a jump?

The Flyers have a lot to like about this situation. Even so, they also need to avoid getting too greedy.

MORE ON NHL PLAYOFFS, ROUND ROBIN FOR SEEDING:

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.

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

Long-term outlook Washington Capitals Ovechkin Holtby
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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.

Ovechkin, Carlson, Holtby provided big surprises, disappointments for Capitals

Capitals surprises disappointments Ovechkin Carlson
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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 surprises and disappointments for the Washington Capitals.

Carlson surprises as Capitals, NHL defensemen scoring leader

John Carlson began 2019-20 on a downright dizzying scoring pace, and really only slightly cooled off down the stretch.

There were moments when Carlson topped the league in scoring outright, and the NHL named him the first star of October after a ridiculous seven-goal, 23-point output over 14 games. Carlson became the first defenseman to reach 50 points in 40 games or fewer since Paul Coffey did so in 1994-95.

It’s telling that, for all the strong offensive seasons the Capitals enjoyed, Carlson topped the team with 75 points.

Should he win the Norris Trophy? That’s a debate for another day.

To some extent, it almost feels beside the point. Carlson keeps raising the ceiling for what he can accomplish, and it’s really become a sight to behold.

Heading into the season, Carlson leading defensemen in scoring wouldn’t have been that huge of a surprise. The magnitude of his scoring dominance ranks as one of the biggest surprises for the Capitals, though. Carlson topped all blueliners by 10 points (75 to Roman Josi‘s 65), and Josi was 10 points ahead of third-ranking Victor Hedman (55).

Realizing that Carlson had about a month to tack on more points makes his accomplishments that much more astounding.

Ovechkin passes 700, in range of another Maurice Richard Trophy

Yes, yes, death, taxes, and Alex Ovechkin scoring lots of goals. I get that.

The “death” part of that is a reminder that Father Time eventually wins. With that in mind, Ovechkin tying David Pastrnak for the NHL lead with 48 goals at age 34 isn’t routine. It’s mind-blowing. Ovechkin’s .71 goals-per-game average this season represents his best rate since his matching .71 from 2008-09. When he was 23. Yeah.

Now, you can transition Ovechkin-related Capitals surprises to disappointments if you look away from the goals, all 700+ (706) of them.

A drop in playmaking explains how Ovechkin can score 48 goals and not lead the Capitals in scoring. He managed 19 assists for 67 points in 2019-20. That assist rate of .28 ranks as the second-worst of his illustrious career.

While his 2019-20 stands as a little cleaner, the points about Alex Ovechkin’s defense being shabby also ring true. Wince at this multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey, for example:

Capitals surprises disappointments Ovechkin evolving hockey

It makes you wonder: for all of Ovechkin’s gifts, might his flaws eventually outweigh what he brings to the table?

One way or another, such thoughts could lead to future surprises and disappointments for Ovechkin and the Capitals.

Holtby towers over other disappointments for Capitals

There are other positive surprises for the Capitals, including the ascent of winger Jakub Vrana.

But if there’s one issue that towers as a disappointment — one that could at times derail strengths for Capitals — it was a rough, rough season for Braden Holtby.

Holtby managed a 25-14-6 record in large part because of his team’s scoring ways. Holtby produced an ugly .897 save percentage, and Hockey Reference’s version of GSAA puts him at an ugly -16.76. For context, only Jimmy Howard (-22.12) ranked lower by that metric.

Zooming out on his entire career, I’d argue that Holtby’s probably been underrated at times. Yet, those past accomplishments might cloud future judgments for the pending UFA. He’s struggled quite a bit during the regular season for the past three years, really.

Could the Capitals produce surprises in going with younger goalie Ilya Samsonov, who was solid in 2019-20? Would Holtby leaving be a bigger disappointment, or would the Capitals be the ones suffering if they handed him an ill-advised contract? After extending Nicklas Backstrom, it was that much clearer that someone has to go eventually.

Might Holtby once again rebound in the playoffs, as he did so masterfully during that curse-breaking, Cup-winning run in 2017-18? Also … why does that run feel like it happened a decade ago?

We could see more twists and turns — so, yes, surprises and disappointments — involving Holtby and the Capitals before this is all over.

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.

Penguins vs. Capitals: Crosby vs. Ovechkin, but also much more

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Hockey fans sometimes bristle over the hype surrounding Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. It’s easy to see why. Not only are there other bright stars around the NHL, there’s also other great players on both teams.

There are, indeed, plenty of fun storylines as the Penguins and Capitals finally meet for the first time in 2019-20. But let’s not kid ourselves; Crosby vs. Ovechkin remains a lot of fun. And, hey, it’s even more fun when you throw Evgeni Malkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and other names into the mix.

Renewing the rivalries of Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Penguins – Capitals

Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said that the rivalry doesn’t “go away,” and that’s a great thing for the NHL.

” … But it clearly triggers upon Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the main stars,” Reirden said, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “There’s lots of stories beneath that, but the rivalry is outstanding and it’s amazing for hockey and I think will forever be remembered just like you talk about [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson in the NBA] or different rivalries that have gone on in sports.”

Sunday’s game marks the 50th regular-season meeting between Crosby and Ovechkin, and the 75th if you add in playoff skirmishes.

As you’d expect from two iconic superstars, some of the head-to-head numbers are staggering. Through 49 regular-season games against each other, Crosby has the edge in overall points (70 to 51) while Ovechkin scored more goals (30 to 24). Crosby’s Penguins won three of four playoff series, but Ovechkin had been more prolific (33 points to 30).

It’s almost too perfect that the winning team in all four Capitals – Penguins series of the Crosby – Ovechkin era went on to with that year’s Stanley Cup.

As John Carlson said, it’s great for the game.

And, again, you can’t deny some of the other stars involved.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

Take, for instance, the one-two punches of Crosby + Malkin and Ovechkin + Backstrom. Since 2005-06, when Crosby and Ovechkin got started, Crosby + Malkin boast the most combined points of any two teammates (2,299) while Ovechkin and Backstrom rank second (2,178).

(Imagine where Crosby + Malkin would be if they didn’t frequently deal with injuries that Ovechkin and Backstrom mostly found ways to avoid?)

With Ovechkin chasing 700 goals at 695, and both teams atop the Metropolitan Division, it’s just as easy to focus on the present as it is to marvel at the past.

[Look back at a big week, and really a big January, for Ovechkin.]

Plenty of other storylines

There are a lot of things to watch if you don’t want to adhere to Crosby – Ovechkin alone, or even if Backstrom and Malkin are too obvious for you.

“We’re fortunate to have a young up-and-coming goaltender that’s performed very well and a Stanley Cup, Vezina winner as well,” Reirden said, via NBC Sports Washington. “So we’re in a good situation.”

The Capitals have been there before, where an upstart goalie (first Philipp Grubauer, now Samsonov) outplays Holtby. If things shake out the same way again — with a Stanley Cup — they’d welcome this bit of turbulence.

Either way, there are a lot of storylines to watch on Sunday, so enjoy.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC will be hosted by Liam McHugh with analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

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 looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

NHL News
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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.

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

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.