Lars Eller

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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.

Looking to make the leap: Michael McCarron

Michael McCarron will be playing professional hockey next year.

The question is where.

According to Habs GM Marc Bergevin, McCarron — Montreal’s first-round pick (25th overall) in 2013 — will likely start the season with the club’s AHL affiliate in St. John’s.

But in early July, he opened the door ever so slightly.

“There’s room for a young player [in Montreal] if they perform,” Bergevin explained, per the Gazette. “It’s up to them.”

There’s reason to believe McCarron could be that young player. At 20, he boasts tremendous size — 6-foot-6, 225 pounds — and is coming off a banner junior campaign, in which he scored 68 points in 56 games for OHL London and Oshawa, then another 18 in 21 playoff games, helping the Generals win the Memorial Cup while earning a spot on the tournament all-star team.

As for his NHL prospects… well, McCarron isn’t lacking confidence.

“The way I look at it is, nobody can stop me when I’m going full speed and nobody can take the puck off me. That’s the way I think,” he said, per NHL.com. “I don’t know if that’s being cocky or not, but I just want to hold the puck as long as I can and take pucks to the net and be strong on pucks.”

McCarron’s size, strength and skill set certainly makes him a candidate for an NHL gig this fall.

Also helping his cause? A position switch.

McCarron moved to center last season and proved to be a dynamic force, while also becoming a more well-rounded player. He prides himself on versatility — “I can play on the wing or at center,” he told the Globe and Mail back in May — but that ability to play down the middle could really be to his advantage.

Right now, Montreal has Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Torrey Mitchell at center — hardly a dynamic group, and not especially deep. What’s more, Bergevin has expressed doubt that Alex Galchenyuk — the No. 3 overall pick in 2012, once thought to be the top-line pivot of the future — will ever play there.

“[Galchenyuk] is not there yet,” Bergevin explained at Montreal’s end-of-year presser. “He might never be a centerman.”

So yeah, a few factors working in McCarron’s favor.

The reality, though, is that making the leap from junior to the NHL is a tall task, even for a tantalizing prospect. McCarron will have to show remarkably well in training camp and the preseason — probably at center and wing — just to crack the Canadiens’ opening-night roster.

Lars Eller was asked if he was happy with his role in Montreal, and gave a curious reply

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Lars Eller, who faced his fair share of scrutiny this season, took an interesting approach when answering a question about how happy he was with his role on the Canadiens this year.

Here’s the video from today’s end-of-year media availability.

And here’s the transcript:

Q: Were you happy with your role this year?

A: [Eight-second pause]

[Laugh]

As a player, you always want more. You’re never satisfied. You always want to play more, you always want to take another step, and I’m still hungry to improve.

Eller (27 points) was something of a disappointment in the first of a four-year, $14 million deal signed last July. There were big things expected following the lockout-shortened ’13 campaign in which he scored 30 points in 48 games and last year’s playoffs, in which he led all Montreal forwards with 13 points in 17 games.

Instead of progressing, though, his production plateaued. Eller also sat as a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year and missed time with an upper-body injury in December, and never really seemed to find his groove. His deployment also became a topic of conversation in Montreal, as he averaged less than 16 minutes per game in both the regular season and playoffs.

Looking ahead, this could be a situation worth monitoring. Eller’s been a lineup fixture in Montreal over the last five years but it’s unclear how he’ll fit under head coach Michel Therrien moving forward. Also unclear? The status of their relationship.

Report: No fine for Cameron after threatening retaliation on Habs

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Ottawa head coach Dave Cameron won’t be fined for his remarks following a contentious Game 1 of the Sens-Habs series, per Sportsnet.

Cameron, upset about the slash P.K. Subban delivered on Mark Stone during Montreal’s 4-3 win Wednesday night, ominously suggested that if Subban didn’t receive a suspension — which he didn’t — the Sens would have to take matters into their own hands.

“I think it’s an easy solution,” he said in his postgame remarks. “You either suspend him or one of their best players gets slashed and just give us five [major penalty].

“Not that complicated.”

Cameron, coaching in his first-ever playoff series, could’ve been subjected to a $25,000 fine for those remarks, per TSN. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety has protocol in place that forbids teams to lobby the league for supplemental discipline 48 hours following a game and/or hearing and, as Bob McKenzie tweeted last night, that prohibition “extends to include formal team statements to the media.”

Like a postgame press conference, for example.

Per Sportsnet and ESPN, warnings have been issued to both Montreal and Ottawa about their conduct moving forward. Just don’t expect those warnings to do much — these two teams have a nasty history, stemming from the ’13 playoff series that included Eric Gryba’s devastating hit on Lars Eller, and the subsequent Player 61/bug eyed fat walrus stuff between the habs and then-Sens head coach Paul MacLean.

Habs survive Subban ejection, hang on vs. Sens

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The Montreal Canadiens probably didn’t draw it up this way – who could, really? – but they got what they wanted with a 1-0 series lead, besting the Ottawa Senators 4-3 on Wednesday.

The most eyebrow-raising stuff happened in the first 40 minutes. To start things off, the Senators managed a 1-0 lead after Andrei Markov’s unfortunate own-goal.

All bets were off in the second period, though, really. The wildest moment came when P.K. Subban received a game misconduct and five-minute major slashing penalty, but it really set the stage for a manic run of traded blows.

To start things off, Torrey Mitchell and Tomas Plekanec scored two goals less than 30 seconds apart to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead.

Ottawa took advantage of the power-play opportunities afforded by the Subban call … to an extent. Kyle Turris tied it up a little more than two minutes into that PP, yet a wild Lars Eller shortie made it 3-2 again.

The Senators managed one more tie thanks to Mika Zibanejad, but Brian Flynn’s tally ended up being the game-winner.

To review, six of the game’s seven goals happened in about a 10-minute span in the second period. This box score view of that scoring run may help illustrate the point more clearly:

source:

Yeah, pretty crazy.

Ultimately, the Atlantic Division-winning Canadiens took a 1-0 series lead against the magical Senators, even with Max Pacioretty out of the lineup because of his injury issues and Subban only playing half the game.

In other words, clearly how Michel Therrien drew things up.