Nick Jensen

Golden Knights, Capitals quietly on another crash course for Stanley Cup Final

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Everyone is talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their record-pace. The Boston Bruins are riding high with an 18-game point streak. The St. Louis Blues started from the bottom and are now in third in the Central. The Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are all battling for their respective divisional supremacy.

Meanwhile, quietly in the nation’s capital, the Washington Capitals have won five consecutive games and are tied with the New York Islanders in points atop the Metropolitan Division. Even more quietly out in the desert, the Vegas Golden Knights have also won five straight. Does anybody remember that these were the last two teams standing last season? Because that’s what could very well happen again.

The Caps won back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2015-16 and 2016-17, only to lose in the second round of the playoffs both years to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. Last season, they won the Metropolitan again but finished third in the East before going on to win their first Cup in franchise history. They’re in a similar position this year, just two points behind Toronto for third in the conference. Perhaps being a bit under the radar is where they thrive.

Washington has also shown the ability to flip a switch and turn back into the defending champions at a moment’s notice. Take last week’s game against Ottawa for example. The Capitals found themselves down 2-0 before they could blink against the lowly Senators early in the first period. But by the time the period was over, the score was tied. By the final buzzer, Washington had won 7-2.

With a league-leading 46 goals, Alex Ovechkin is carrying the offensive load for Washington once again this season. But the Capitals’ recent 5-game winning streak has been a demonstration of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year, as 13 different players have scored a goal and 18 players have registered a point in that span. At the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan did well to bolster that depth by adding defenseman Nick Jensen and forward Carl Hagelin, who have both already made contributions during their brief time in D.C.

Of course, the biggest difference between this Washington team and the one that hoisted the Cup is behind the bench. At the moment, former Capitals coach Barry Trotz and his Islanders seem to be the only thing standing between Todd Reirden and the franchise winning a fourth straight division title.

Out west, while Calgary and San Jose jockey for first place in the Pacific, Vegas has a stranglehold on third in the division. That means they’ll play whichever team finishes second between the Flames and the Sharks in the First Round, a tough match up for whichever team comes up short. Vegas has not lost since the trade deadline, Mark Stone seems to be gelling nicely with the now-healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny, and Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like the Fleury of last postseason, stopping 109 of the 111 shots he faced during his four straight wins.

Very few expected last year’s expansion Vegas team to make a run to the Cup Final, if not for their lack of star power, then certainly for their lack of postseason experience. Well, they now have that star power and after coming three wins away from the Cup last season, there is no lack of playoff wisdom on this Golden Knights roster. Even their new pieces like Stone (2017 with Ottawa), Pacioretty (2014 with Montreal) and Stastny (2016 with St. Louis & 2018 with Winnipeg) have all played in a Conference Final.

Given the Capitals’ previous failures in the playoffs and the Golden Knights’ infancy as a franchise, it was a bit of a shock to see them both facing off for the Stanley Cup last season. Don’t be so surprised if it happens again this year.

Red Wings aim to fill void on blue line internally

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With their lone right shot defenseman, Marek Zidlicky, likely headed for unrestricted free agency next week, the Detroit Red Wings will attempt to fill the void internally.

Dion Phaneuf has been rumored to be headed to Detroit, and there are options on the open market come July 1 (i.e. Cody Franson and Mike Green), but PHT has learned the Wings would like to give their young blue liners a chance.

Detroit has two right shot defensemen under contract for next season in Ryan Sproul and Alexey Marchenko. Nick Jensen is also a right-handed shot, but the pending restricted free agent does not have a contract for next season.

Sproul spent the 2014-15 season in the American Hockey League with the Grand Rapids Griffins collecting five goals, 24 points and 26 penalty minutes in 66 games. The 22-year-old has one NHL game on his resume, but that came during the 2013-14 season. He is owed $620,000 next season before becoming a restricted free agent.

Marchenko appeared in 23 games with the Wings during the 2014-15 scoring a goal and adding an assist while averaging 15:26 in time on ice. The 23-year-old also appeared in 51 games with the Griffins scoring 20 points, a plus-22 rating and 26 penalty minutes. He is heading into the final year of his entry-level deal, which will pay him $666,666 in 2015-16.

Jensen scored six goals and 27 points to go along with 15 penalty minutes and a plus-30 rating in 75 games with Grand Rapids last season. The 24-year-old’s two-year, $1.8 million contract is set to expire next week.

The Wings have qualified Jensen and further contract talks are expected later this week.

“We’ll be talking with (Detroit) down at the draft,” Jensen’s agent, Chris McAlpine, told PHT. “Ken (Holland) has mentioned that he’ll have a good shot of battling for a chance at making the team. That’s what you hope for as a player and Nick’s extremely excited about that.”

Detroit currently has five blue liners under contract for the 2015-16 season – all of them are left shot.

Risk Factors: Detroit Red Wings edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you“Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Detroit Red Wings 

1. Who steps up if Daniel Alfredsson retires?

It hardly seems like a good idea to rest your goal-scoring hopes on a 41-year-old to begin with – Alfredsson was tied for the team-lead in points last season (49) along with defenseman Niklas Kronwall – then there’s the concern over the health of Alfredsson’s back, which has kept him out of camp and predominantly off the ice. If one had to guess, at this point, it seems as though the 18-year NHL veteran has played his final game. So where does the offence come from? Obvious choices are Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but Datsyuk will start the season injured reserve nursing his shoulder injury suffered in the preseason and Zetterberg is coming off an injury plagued 2013-14 campaign (more on that below).

Detroit finished the 2013-14 season second in the league with 421 man games lost due to injury. As a result, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening were all given significant looks by the Red Wings last season. Nyquist, Tatar and Sheahan finished in the Top 10 in Wings scoring. However, the five aforementioned players are all 24 years of age and younger. As is always the case with young players, growing pains occur.

Detroit finished 16th last season in both goals-for per-game (2.65) and total goals scored (217) – only the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens finished with less total goals scored and wound up in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference last season. With veteran players such as David Legwand, Todd Bertuzzi and Mikael Samuelsson not returning for 2014-15, it’ll be interesting to see whether the five youngsters can take another step forward. Otherwise Detroit’s streak of 23 consecutive seasons in the playoffs could be in serious jeopardy.

2. Finding a puck-moving defenseman

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock recently told MLive.com’s Ansar Khan, “I like when we move the puck. I like when the puck gets going in a hurry. I like guys who can make good decisions and move it. We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade our D, so is that the guys who’ve been here in the past? Is that someone new? I don’t know the answer for sure but I got two more opportunities to watch before we got to make decisions.”

The Wings still have Xavier Ouellet, Alexey Marchenko and Nick Jensen on their roster, but asking too much from, or relying on a young defenseman to make an immediate impact, is a recipe for disaster. The trio have a combined five NHL games played on their respective resumes.

As Khan points out in his piece, Ouellet, who leads all Red Wings in average ice time (over 24 minutes) in the preseason is the furthest along in his development.

“He’s just kind of an old-time player; he’s got great hockey sense,” Babcock said. “The sum of the parts add up greater than anything. He just thinks so good. You look at him, he’s not huge (6-1, 190), he’s not an elite skater, he’s just an elite thinker and plays right all the time.

“He just looks like a hockey player to me, looks like he’s played here 10 years.”

But before Red Wings fans go pondering the idea of placing someone like Brian Lashoff or Jakub Kindl, who despite putting up career-highs in assists (17) and points (19), was a minus-4 last season, on waivers consider that Ouellet has just four career NHL games under his belt.

Losing a veteran like Lashoff (106 NHL games) or Kindl (213 career NHL games) could be a disaster down the road should the injury bug hit. And if anyone knows how bad the injury bug can bite, it’s Detroit.

3. How will Henrik Zetterberg’s back hold up? 

One of the hardest hit by the injury bug was Zetterberg. The Wings captain was limited to just 45 games in 2013-14 due to an on-going back injury which finally needed surgery causing him to miss the final 24 regular season games and first three playoff games.

Zetterberg has had a slow start, albeit in preseason action, but even Babcock called out his top dogs this week.

“They’ve got to get going, just like everybody in exhibition. A lot of your veteran players, it takes them awhile to get going; the urgency isn’t quite there, even though they know they’ve got to be ready to go,” Babcock told the Detroit Free Press. “Our kids have won three, our big dogs 0-1. That’s all part of whether you’re engaged or not.”

Zetterberg turns 34 next week, is he on the decline? Its difficult to say that since he still managed 48 points in 45 games last season, but the key for Zetterberg will be to stay healthy. He’s only played 82 games once in his career (2011-12).

Despite being without both Zetterberg and Datsyuk for 16 of the final 24 regular season games last spring, the Red Wings still managed to cobble together a 13-8-3 record to snag the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

This season Detroit’s young stars won’t surprise anyone. If the Red Wings are going to make the playoffs, both Datsyuk and Zetterberg will need to stay healthy and contribute regularly. If not, like Babcock’s reign in Detroit, the Wings’ playoff streak could come to a screeching halt. Babcock of course is heading to the final year of his contract and says he’s not interested in negotiating once the season begins.

Interesting, or should we say concerning, times could be ahead in the Motor City.