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It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

2017-18
49-26-7, 105 pts. (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights.

IN
Nic Dowd
Brooks Orpik (technically)

OUT
Alex Chaisson
Jay Beagle
Anthony Peluso
Tyler Graovac
Jakub Jerabek
Philipp Grubauer

RE-SIGNED
Tom Wilson
John Carlson
Travis Boyd
Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny
Madison Bowey

– – –

Stanley Cup champions.

Alex Ovechkin and others diving into the Georgetown fountain.

Two things that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital.

In reality, it’s the first one that will be etched in history forever. The Capitals, a team that had always come up short, always underperformed when they needed their best performance, finally broke through, sent all their demons back to where they came from and hoisted Lord Stanley in June.

And in true Capitals form, none of it came easy.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

From dropping the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to losing three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals had to work for the Cup.

Beating Pittsburgh in the second round was historical. Not since 1994 had the team bested the Penguins in the playoffs, and they’d been plagued by the Penguins ever since, including the previous two seasons where they were stopped in their tracks by Crosby and Co. in the second round.

Furthermore, the window appeared to be closed on the Capitals. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy two years running, but couldn’t figure it out when it mattered most. Their roster also appeared to be dealt a serious blow with key departures during last offseason, including Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt.

They still had their core, but good cores need good complements and Washington lost several.

The team endured Braden Holtby losing his starting job for a time late in the season, only to regain it in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never look back. Holtby appeared to be his elite self, especially in the final two games to close out the series against the Lightning, where he posted back-to-back shutouts against the regular season’s most potent offense.

In the Cup Final, Holtby bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to post four straight wins and a .938 save percentage during that span.

The Caps simply trudged along, taking every bump in stride and never wavering too far off course.

Ovi scored 49 to capture his one-millionth Rocket Richard Trophy and Evgeni Kuznetsov rebounded from his 59-point season (which followed a breakout campaign with 77 in 2015-16) to post career bests in both goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov’s form carried over into the playoffs where he paced the league with 32 points. Ovechkin finished second in scoring and first in goals with 15 and Nicklas Backstrom rounded out the top-three point producers.

There’s been a lot of partying this summer, nothing foreign to a team that’s won hockey’s greatest prize.

Keeping John Carlson is the most important thing the Capitals have done this offseason.

Signing Tom Wilson to a lengthy extension worth many millions of dollars is the most controversial decision they’ve made.

Not re-signing head coach Barry Trotz might be their biggest mistake. Assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reins while Trotz will be the bench boss in Long Island.

The Caps head into next season with much of the same team intact and a belief now that they can overcome anything. We know they’re going to score goals. We know their power play is going to be elite. A bounce-back regular season from Holtby should keep the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan once again.

A conversation involving the Caps and the Stanley Cup used to elicit laughter. Now, it emits chatter of a repeat.

How times have changed.

Prospect Pool

Ilya Samsonov, G, 21, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) – 2015 first-round pick

Three years of elite numbers in the KHL has the hype train carrying Samsonov moving at full force. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level deal after Metallurg was bounced from the Gagarin Cup and will play in North America this. The only question now is, where?

Samsonov is expected to be given a shot to be Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer now out of the picture. Samsonov will face competition from Pheonix Copley, who will also be vying for the bench job. Samsonov appears as ready as one can be to make the jump, but allowing him some time in the NHL to adjust and adapt to the American game wouldn’t hurt. He’s still going to see time with the Caps this year.

Alexander Alexeyev, D, 18, Red Deer (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The 31st and final pick in the first round this past June, Alexeyev had a breakout season with the Rebels with 37 points in 45 games.

He’s big, too, at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds and has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Alexeyev won’t be turning pro this year, and another season of development in the WHL will be good as he continues to adapt to the North American game. He’s got some good mentors in Washington, including fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

“He’s a really intelligent player, extremely patient with the puck, good shot, skates really well,” Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future with us.”

Lucas Johansen, D, 20, Hershey (AHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Johansen made a nice transition from junior with the Kelowna Rockets to professional with the Bears last season, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 74 games.

A second year in Hershey is in the cards for Johansen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen. Washington’s three defensive pairings aren’t going to change in training camp, but an injury could change all of that.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to play here,” Johansen told the NHL at the team’s developments camp in June. “But I know I have a lot of things to improve on and [for] the jump to the NHL you have to be strong, you have to be fast. But I’m looking forward to committing myself to getting better and I’m going to come to camp and do the best I can to make this team and whatever happens from there, I’ll be happy.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New York Rangers day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers. 

2017-18:

34-39-9, 77 pts. (8th Metropolitan Division; 12th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

IN:

Frederik Claesson

OUT:

David Desharnais
Paul Carey
Dan Catenacci
Ryan Sproul
Ondrej Pavelec
Peter Holland

RE-SIGNED:

Ryan Spooner
Vladislav Namestikov
Jimmy Vesey
Kevin Hayes
Brady Skjei
John Gilmour
Boo Nieves
Cody McLeod
Ryan O’Gara
Chris Bigras

– – –

You could kind of feel that the season the New York Rangers had last year was a long-time coming.

[Rangers Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions

The team was getting a little too stale, a little too over-reliant on the heroics of Henrik Lundqvist night-in and night-out, plagued by years invested in players whose names didn’t match their talent level anymore and a coach who couldn’t seem to find the next gear with the team he had.

When the burden atop Lundqvist’s shoulders became too much to bear after the ball dropped in Time Square to usher in 2018, the Rangers simply imploded with him.

And so the purge began, long before the 2017-18 season came to a close — on Feb. 8, when the team announced that it was game over and before any more coins could be dropped into the machine, a rebuild would have to take place.

In hindsight, it started to happen before the season began. They had already shipped out Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta prior to last year’s NHL Draft for the No. 7 pick, which they used to snag Lias Andersson.

At the trade deadline several months later, the Rangers swung the blockbuster of the season, sending Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning in return for Vladislav Namestikov, two prospects and a pick.

The move capped off a wild year in the Big Apple. The Rangers sold off Rick Nash, Nick Holden and Michael Grabner while amassing roster players, picks and prospects.

Here is the complete list (thanks to PHT’s Adam Gretz):

  • 2017 first-round pick (from Arizona — used to select Andersson)
  • 2018 first-round pick (Boston)
  • 2018 first-round pick (Tampa Bay)
  • 2018 second-round pick (New Jersey)
  • 2018 third-round pick (Boston)
  • 2019 conditional second-round pick (Tampa Bay — would become another first-round pick if Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup this season or next season)
  • 2019 seventh-round pick
  • Vladislav Namestnikov
  • Ryan Spooner
  • Matt Beleskey
  • Anthony DeAngelo
  • Ryan Lindgren
  • Libor Hajek
  • Brett Howden
  • Ygor Rykov
  • Rob O'Gara

They also said goodbye to their old coaching staff after firing Alain Vigneault and replacing him with David Quinn from Boston University fame. He takes the reins at a perfect time for the Rangers, given his apparent ability to develop young players.

A rebuild, then, from top to bottom.

It’s also meant a pretty uneventful summer in the import category, other than Quinn’s hiring.

Fredrik Claesson, signed on July 1, is the only player brought in that has played NHL games. But the Rangers made some good decisions in re-signing a swath of restricted free agents in Jimmy Vesey, Ryan Spooner, Kevin Hayes, Namestikov, Brady Skjei, John Gilmour, Boo Nieves and Rob O’Gara.

New York’s forward contingent this season doesn’t look half bad on paper, but it’s on defense where things get a bit hairy.

Kevin Shattenkirk had knee surgery in January, ending his first season in a blue shirt, and while he’s probable for the start of the season, you never know how those are going to turn out. The Rangers are certainly hoping a healthy Shattenkirk and return to the same form that they saw when they gave him a four-year extension with a full no-movement clause. The last thing the Rangers need during a rebuild is having to eat a contract that was supposed to be the defenseman that solidified their top-four.

The Rangers gave up the second most shots per game (35.3) and the fourth most goals-against per game (263), so those numbers certainly need to improve if the goal is not to have the aging Lundqvist put in a bad spot each night.

That said, the expectation that the Rangers compete for a playoff spot is probably a futile one. The team is rebuilding, and to do it right means to take it slow. They’ve trimmed a lot of fat in a short period of time, but youth needs time to develop and shouldn’t be rushed.

Prospect Pool:

  • Lias Andersson, C/LW, 19, Frolunda/Hartford (SHL/AHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Perhaps the readiest of all of New York’s prospects, Andersson blends a strong two-way game with impressive speed, skill and shooting abilities. He got seven games with the Rangers at the end of the season, scoring once and adding an assist, had 14 points in 22 games in the Swedish Elite League with Frolunda, and in 25 games with the Wolfpack in the American Hockey League, posting 14 points in 25 games. There’s a spot open for him on the opening day roster if he wants it.

  • Filip Chytil, C, 18, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2017 first-round pick

There’s an argument that Chytil is just as ready for the Show as Andersson, perhaps slightly more. Chytil got nine total games with the Rangers, including making the team out of training camp last season. He posted a goal and two assists combined in his time with the Rangers and played most of the season in Hartford where he had 11 goals and 31 points in 46 games. Chytil also had four points in seven games with the Czech Republic at the world juniors and then two additional points at the world championships. Like Andersson, there’s room for Chytil providing he can make an impression in training camp.

  • Vitali Kravtsov, RW, 18, Traktor Chelyabinsk (KHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Rangers have a lot of skilled first round picks, don’t they? Kravtsov is their latest, taken ninth overall this past June. The kid is big, too. He’s 6-foot-4 and 183 pounds with plenty of room to fill out. He won the Aleksei Cherepanov Award for the KHL’s best rookie and set a playoff record for a junior-aged player with 16 points. He was named rookie of the month twice and rookie of the week three times and will be back with Traktor to begin next season after signing an extension in July. Assuming all goes well, he could play with the Rangers by years’ end depending on how far Traktor makes it in the Gagarin Cup.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Three questions facing New Jersey Devils

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

1. Can youth lead the way?

We mentioned earlier that this team is going the young route as general manager Ray Shero continues to craft it around youthful exuberance.

The Devils will be led by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier next season, and it’s important the latter takes the next step in his game while the former continues the play that won him the Hart Trophy. But the supporting cast needs to progess as well. Jesper Bratt had a solid rookie outing and will be counted on to forge ahead.

Ditto for Will Butcher, who had a productive year on the back end and likewise for Pavel Zacha, who enters his third season in the NHL this year and could have a more prominent role if the Devils decide to split Hischier and Hall up.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Can Schneider bounce back from two poor seasons and offseason hip surgery?

It bears repeating that Schneider is the most important component to the success of the Devils.

With the strides the Devils have made outside of the crease, Schneider getting back to the numbers that garnered him his $42 million contract seems like a surefire way for the Devils to stick out in a talent Metropolitan Division.

His .908 and .907 in the past two years, respectively, won’t cut it if the team wants to ride him for 60 games.

It may not come early for New Jersey. Schneider’s arrival next season largely depends on how he’s healing from offseason hip surgery. Keith Kinkaid can handle the load until Schneider makes his return, so there’s no reason to rush Schneider back in just to have him end up back on injured reserve.

The Devils showed they could compete despite adversity this season. Void of that this season, and the Devils could be competing for more than just the final playoff spot in the East.

3. Will secondary scoring come? 

The line with Hall and Hischier combined for a good chunk of the Devils offensive production last season.

Even between those two, there was a 41-point gap. Between Hall and the next best producer, it was 49 points.

Hall can lead the way, as he showed this year, but others need to step up and reciprocate to close that gap. It’s possible Hischier hits 70 points this season. It’s possible that healthy Marcus Johansson can hit the 50-point mark once again.

There’s a lot of scenarios, including New Jersey’s young contingent improving on last season’s numbers.

The lack of scoring was exploiting in the playoffs at just 2.4 goals per game. That was never going to be enough to see off the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change this season.

Bonus round: What should Ray Shero do with the $18 million he has left floating around in cap space? The team needs to re-sign Miles Wood still, but what should be added and where? 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Statistically speaking, last season was Cory Schneider‘s worst as a professional hockey goaltender, usurping the previous year of his then-worst numbers as a netminder in the NHL.

That’s an unfortunate trend for a goalie with four years left on a seven-year, $42 million contract and someone who the Devils have placed a lot of faith in to be a rock behind a team that’s gone the youth direction in front of him..930

Schneider caught the injury bug in a bad way last season. After starting off the year posting good numbers, he plummeted after Christmas, forced to miss weeks with a lower-body injury.

In that time, Keith Kinkaid emerged as a capable replacement to Schneider. Kinkaid played so well, in fact, that he took the starter’s job from the $6 million man until relinquishing it in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kinkaid’s play was pivotal down the stretch and helped the Devils win a fierce battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Schneider didn’t win a regular season game in 2018, losing all 10 games he started with a 0-9-1 record. It was only after he took over from Kinkaid following the latter’s struggles in the playoffs that Schneider bounced back, posting a .950 save percentage in the games he played against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

To be fair to both goalies, the Devils offered no run support in the postseason, but Schneider showed well and perhaps looked as if he finally out his regular season in the rearview.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Offseason surgery could play a factor as well.

Schneider revealed that he had been playing with a bothersome hip injury for more than a year, one that got fixed after he went under the knife in May.

“It was something that had kind of cropped maybe a year and a half ago, a season and a half ago,” Schneider said on the Devils All-Access Podcast. “It’s just something that nags and it there, but you don’t ever feel like it’s bad enough that you need to sit out for six months, because there’s no real good time to do it, unfortunately.”

Schneider is questionable for training camp as well as the opening of the regular season with a five-month recovery timeframe.

A fully healthy Schneider is an elite goaltender in the NHL and worth every penny of his large contract. If Schneider can bounce back from a couple of bad years with injuries, the Devils could be in very good shape given what they were able to do last season despite not having him.

They need him to. The team is moving in the right direction, providing Schneider doesn’t continue to move backward.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Building off a breakthrough: Nico Hischier

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

There’s an unwritten wishlist that every team has when they select first overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

In no particular order, team’s hope their scouting work over the course of the year paid off in the case of a close decision, that something can be salvaged from the year that got them there (some of that was luck with the Devils, who went from 5th to 1st in the lottery) and then you hope that the player you just gave a new home doesn’t turn into the next Patrik Stefan.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The good news for the New Jersey Devils is that all worked out, it would seem.

Nico Hischier was dropped right into the laps of the Devils last season and made an immediate impact throughout the season, playing all 82 games while being second on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old in the National Hockey League.

Impressive stuff.

The wish now going forward is continued improvement. The bridge between Taylor Hall and the next leading scorer, Hischier, was 41 points last season. That’s a testament to Hall’s Hart Trophy season, but also the fact that the Devils are starving for another elite point producer.

The other good news is that an apparent wrist injury that nagged Hischier for much of last season seems to be squared away.

Hischier is the centerpiece of New Jersey’s youth resurgence, which also includes the likes of Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher and Steven Santini, to name a few. It’s a philosophy change that seems to have worked last season after the Devils erased six-year playoff drought.

“We set standards upon our management and coaching staff and we raised the expectations and projected an idea of what we wanted to be,” general manager Ray Shero told the Ottawa Sun last week. “We started competing on the first day of training camp. Maybe there were some younger players who were at their first camp and nervous, but we told them the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart. We also told the veterans that the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart.”

An interesting question heading into the new season is whether the Devils will break up the line of Hall and Hischier in an effort to diversify their scoring portfolio. Together, the duo had a 59 percent GF% and performed very well last season.

That move would require other pieces to come up and prove that they can handle top line duties next to Hall. Perhaps Zacha, who showed well with Hall when paired with him. In any scenario, more good than harm has to be the case on a team that can’t afford a dip in scoring.

There’s a lot of pressure on Hischier to take another step this coming season, whoever he plays with. So far, he’s lived up to expectation. That wrist injury likely only held him back from reaching his true potential last season, so seeing what a 100 percent healthy Hischier can do should have Devils fans salivating.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck