Matt Niskanen

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.

It’s Washington Capitals Day at PHT

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. 

2018-19
48-26-8, 104 points (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference).
Playoffs: Eliminated in Round 1 by the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games.

IN
Radko Gudas
Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic

OUT
Brooks Orpik
Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin
Matt Niskanen

RE-SIGNED
Carl Hagelin
Jakub Vrana
Christian Djoos
Chandler Stephenson

2018-19 Season Summary

For the first time in franchise history, the Capitals came into a season as defending Stanley Cup Champions. Captain Alex Ovechkin had been waiting to hoist the cup over his head for years, and when he finally got to do it he made it count. He and the Caps partied and partied and partied throughout the summer. Did it affect them heading into training camp? Not really.

The Capitals still managed to come away with the Metropolitan Division crown and they finished third in the top three in the Eastern Conference standings. Unfortunately for them, their regular-season success didn’t transform into a long playoff run, as they went head-to-head with the Eastern Conference’s version of Cinderella, the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Capitals won the first two games of the series at home before dropping Games 3 and 4 in Carolina. When the series shifted back to Washington for Game 5, the Caps came out and dominated 6-0 to put the ‘Canes on the brink of elimination. What happened next was quite surprising. Carolina came out and won Game 6 at home and they finished the job by beating the Caps in their own building in double OT.

It was a stunning end to another relatively successful season for Washington.

“The core guys played well in the playoffs, I thought,” general manager Brian MacLellan said, per NHL.com. “It was the people around the core that could have been criticized a little bit. So we changed the people around the core. Hopefully, we addressed what we thought was the reason we lost to Carolina.”

[MORE: Three Questions | On Holtby’s future | Under Pressure]

It’s tough to argue with MacLellan’s logic here. Ovechkin had nine points in seven games, Nicklas Backstrom had eight points in seven games, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was a little quiet in the road games of the series, still finished with six points in seven games, while Tom Wilson and John Carlson each had five points in the series.

Brett Connolly, Andrei Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen all had just two points in the first round matchup. It’s probably not a coincidence that all three players weren’t brought back. In fairness to Connolly, he signed with Florida during free agency and the Caps didn’t have a ton of cap space to bring him back. Niskanen was shipped to Philadelphia in a trade and Burakovsky wasn’t extended a qualifying offer.

“We ended up having a good year,” MacLellan said. “But in the playoffs, it was inconsistent, for me, and I don’t know if it’s a fatigue thing or some other thing that we realized the battle that was ahead of us and weren’t up to the challenge. I’m not sure. I don’t have the exact thing pinpointed, but because of that, we felt we needed to change the group a little bit.”

With Brooks Orpik retiring, the Caps decided to add Radko Gudas from Philadelphia. He’ll add some sandpaper to the back end. They also brought in Richard Panik, who had 14 goals and 33 points in 75 games with the Arizona Coyotes last season. How much will these additions add to the core group?

There are other question marks surrounding this team heading into this year that we’ll tackle at PHT throughout the day.

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Flyers’ Fletcher continues to be the anti-Hextall

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When the Philadelphia Flyers fired Ron Hextall back in November it was pretty obvious the organization had become fed up with his patient approach to building the roster.

During his time as the team’s general manager, Hextall completed just 14 (mostly) insignificant trades and made only a handful of headline grabbing free agent signings (bringing back James van Riemsdyk).

Among the trades he made…

  • One of them involved nothing but draft picks as he moved down four spots in the 2016 first round.
  • Two of them were done for the purposes of dumping significant amounts of salary still owed to the likes of Chris Pronger, Luke Schenn, and Vincent Lecavalier.
  • There were a couple of minor trade deadline deals involving rentals and mid-round draft picks. Nothing that was ever going to move the needle. The most significant trade was probably moving Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera and two first-round draft picks.

This type of inaction was never going to sit well with a team like the Flyers whose entire existence is synonymous with chaos, whether it be on the ice or making bold moves to re-shape the roster.

When discussing the firing of Hextall, Paul Holmgren (who had his share of completely insane roster overhaul as the team’s general manager) said the front office and Hextall “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team,” while CEO Dave Scott literally said they were looking for a GM that had a “bias for action.”

Well, Chuck Fletcher has certainly been that, and he continued it on Monday afternoon when he traded restricted free agent Ryan Hartman to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Tyler Pitlick.

It is by no means an earth-shattering trade, and is really only noteworthy for two reasons.

The first being that it shows just how far Hartman’s stock has fallen in a short period of time. Keep in mind, he was traded (from Chicago to Nashville) for a first-round pick not even 18 months ago, and was then sent to the Flyers at this year’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Wayne Simmonds to the Predators.

Now he is off to Dallas for in a one-for-one swap for a fourth-liner that is three years older than him.

The second reason is that it is already the ninth trade that Fletcher has made since December when he was hired by the Flyers, and that number is not counting the two trades he made at the NHL draft over the weekend where he moved down from the 11th pick to the 14th pick in the first round, and then later completed a swap of seventh-round picks with the Montreal Canadiens.

There is your bias for action.

This is already Fletcher’s fourth trade this offseason involving NHL roster players after trading Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen, trading draft picks to the San Jose Sharks for Justin Braun, and giving up a draft pick for the rights to unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes and then signing him to a massive contract to keep him off the open market.

When it comes to roster moves and action he is already the anti-Ron Hextall.

But what does this mean for the results on the ice?

Until the offseason most of the trades Fletcher completed were lateral moves, like trading Anthony Stolarz for a few months of Cam Talbot, or dumping veterans at the deadline in what had quickly become a lost season.

But the summer trades have become a little more meaningful and costly.

Adding Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to your blue line would have probably been a good idea if it was still 2015. But it’s not still 2015. Neither player is what they were a few years ago, their additions added some pretty significant salary to the Flyers’ cap situation, while there is a pretty strong argument to be made that Gudas is better than both new players at this very moment in their respective careers.

As for Hayes, well, he is a pretty good player and would have probably received a similar contract on the open market had he reached free agency, but he is now the third-highest paid player on the roster and currently has one of the 45 biggest cap hits in the league … all for a 27-year-old that has topped 20 goals and 50 points in a single season exactly one time. It seems almost inevitable that within four years (maybe less) they are going to be eating salary in a trade when trying to move that contract to another team.

At the risk of overusing a tired sports cliche when it comes to roster construction, there is a “rearranging the deck chairs” kind of vibe to what is happening with the Flyers so far under Fletcher.

The names and faces are different, but the overall outlook is still pretty much the same.

It was clear that Hextall’s patient approach was not moving the Flyers forward because keeping the same roster in place was only maintaining the mediocrity the team had sunk into.

Fletcher has definitely been more aggressive and proactive in trying to improve the team, but it remains to be seen how much better they are after all of the dust settles.

They are a very different team, yes.

But are they a better team in any sort of meaningful way?

That answer will largely depend on how much Niskanen and Braun still have remaining in the tank and how much you like Kevin Hayes.

More from the Flyers
Flyers acquire Justin Braun as Sharks shed salary
Flyers trade Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen
Flyers, Hayes agree to seven-year, $50 million contract 

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.

Sanheim gets two-year bridge contract with Flyers

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The Philadelphia Flyers took care of one of their restricted free agents on Monday when they announced a two-year contract with defenseman Travis Sanheim.

It is a bridge deal for Sanheim that will still keep him as a restricted free agent when it expires at the end of the 2020-21 season and will pay him $3.25 million per season.

“We are very pleased with the progress Travis has made in his young career,” said general manager Chuck Fletcher in a team statement. “He is a skilled, two-way defenseman with excellent size and mobility. He is a big part of our present and our future.”

The 23-year-old Sanheim just completed his second season in the NHL, appearing in all 82 games and finishing with nine goals and 26 assists. His 35 total points were second among the team’s blue-liners, finishing behind only Shayne Gostisbehere‘s 37 points.

The Flyers still have some pretty significant restricted free agents to come to terms with, including Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.

Where Sanheim fits in the Flyers’ plans this season remains to be seen as Fletcher has spent the early part of the offseason reshaping his team’s defense by trading Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Matt Niskanen, and also acquiring Justin Braun from the San Jose Sharks. With Niskanen and Braun in the mix, the Flyers will have eight NHL defensemen under contract this season once Provorov gets signed.

More from the Flyers
Flyers acquire Justin Braun as Sharks shed salary
Flyers trade Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen
Flyers, Hayes agree to seven-year, $50 million contract 

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.

Trade: Caps shed salary by sending Niskanen to Flyers for Gudas

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A pair of division rivals have agreed to swap defensemen.

On Friday morning, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers agreed to a trade, as the Caps sent Matt Niskanen to the Flyers for Radko Gudas.

The Caps made this move with the salary cap in mind. Niskanen has two years remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $5.75 million per year. Gudas has just one year remaining on his deal at $3.35 million, but The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun is reporting that the Flyers will eat 30 percent of his remaining salary.

All in all, this trade will save Washington $3.405 million in cap space, which isn’t insignificant.

“We would like to thank Matt for all of his contributions to our organization for the past five seasons,” Caps general manager Brian MacLellan said in a release. “Matt is a consummate professional and was a big part of our success. We wish him and his family all the best moving forward.

“We feel this move provides us with financial flexibility as we look for additional ways to strengthen our team. In addition, we are pleased to welcome Radko to our organization. Radko is a good defensive defenseman that plays a competitive, physical game.”

As you can tell from the quote above, McLellan mentioned the cap relief before the addition of Gudas. That’s not to say that Gudas won’t contribute this season, but they clearly wanted to free up as much money as possible while getting rid of Niskanen, who struggled in 2018-19.

The 32-year-old immediately becomes the Flyers’ highest paid defenseman. Now that Gudas is gone, Niskanen is the only right-shooting defenseman on the team. It’s also important to note he had to agree to go to Philadelphia because he had a limited no-trade clause (he submitted a list of 10 teams he didn’t want to go to).

Niskanen’s tenure in Washington wasn’t a failure by any means though. As much as he struggled last year, he still helped the Caps win a Stanley Cup in 2018 and he logged some big minutes for them during his five seasons there.

So now that this move has been made, McLellan will have roughly $12.5 million in projected cap space this summer. The Caps only have eight forwards under contract right now, so you’d have to think that he’s going to need to find himself some depth up front. Whether he brings back Andre Burakovsky (restricted free agent), Carl Hagelin (unrestricted free agent), or Brett Connolly (unrestricted free agent) remains to be seen. But he’s going to have to build himself a fourth line at the very least.

If they decide to go with cost-efficient depth players, they may even be able to add a significant piece to their roster via trade or via free agency.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.