Nicklas Backstrom

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

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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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Record: 41-20-8 (69 games), first in the Metropolitan Division, third in the Eastern Conference.
Leading Scorer: John Carlson – 75 points – (15 goals, 60 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves
• Traded Chandler Stephenson to Golden Knights for 2021 fifth-round pick.
• Acquired Brenden Dillon from Sharks for 2020 second-round pick, 2021 conditional third-round pick.
• Acquired Ilya Kovalchuk from Canadiens for 2020 third-round pick.
• Re-signed Nicklas Backstrom to five-year, $46 million extension.

Season Overview

After a surprising Round 1 exit ended their hopes for a Stanley Cup repeat, the Capitals didn’t allow that end to affect their start to 2019-20. By early in the new year they hit the 30-win mark and at the time of the NHL pause on March 12 they were atop the Metro and third in the conference. A lull in the final month — which saw them win only six out of 17 games — allowed for the division race to tighten up, with the Flyers and Penguins within four points after 69 games.

Two of the stories of the Capitals’ season so far are the play of John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin‘s 700th goal quest. Carlson has picked up points on a regular basis and leads the team with 75, a career high, along with 15 goals. The veteran defenseman is tops among all blue liners in scoring and is in the top 15 of overall skaters in points. His play has solidified himself in the Norris Trophy race as he will likely be one of the three finalists.

Ovechkin entered this season with 658 goals. In his 60th game of the season, the Capitals captain scored his 42nd to become the eighth NHL player to reach the 700-goal mark. It was quite the rollercoaster ride in the final games before he hit the mark. He went goalless in five straight games after previously scoring 14 in seven games, which included three hat tricks. He’s now part of an elite club with Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito, and Mike Gartner.

Another interesting storyline has been the situation in goal. Braden Holtby, who will be 31 in September, can be an unrestricted free agent in the off-season. Ilya Samsonov, 23, made his NHL debut this season, playing 26 games and posting a .927 save percentage at 5-on-5 vs. Holtby’s .905, per Natural Stat Trick. Head coach Todd Reirden, however, has continued to give the veteran the lion’s share of work of late, with Holtby starting 12 of the Capitals’ 17 games before the pause. With $71 million allocated for the 2020-21 season already, per CapFriendly, and the possibility of the cap remaining flat for at least one year, this could very well be Holtby’s last run with the team.

But that’s a question for the off-season. For now, general manager Brian MacLellan remains focused on regaining the Cup and bolstered his roster two moves at the trade deadline. First, he acquired a defenseman at the deadline for the fourth straight year, picking up Brenden Dillon from the Sharks. A few days later he added a reinvigorated Ilya Kovalchuk from the Canadiens. Both can be UFAs, but for now they’re two big pieces that strengthen a team that already had eyes on a deep playoff run.

Highlight of the Season

After a short slump, Ovechkin reached the 700-goal milestone on Feb. 22 in New Jersey:

 

MORE CAPITALS:
Biggest 2019-20 surprises, disappointments
Long-term outlook

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

A best on best mythical tournament: Players that missed the cut

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament. The first teams created were a 23-and-under, players in their prime and players 30-and-older.

While the other teams in this mythical competition secured the best players from each age bracket, there were still plenty of high-impact players available to form another super team. This roster was able to take a unique combination of characteristics from players of all ages and create a team that is very well-balanced. They have the star power to skate stride for stride with the other teams in the tournament, and the depth to not only survive a long series but potentially thrive.

Line Combinations

First line: J.T. MillerSteven StamkosVladimir Tarasenko

Thoughts: It was surprising to slide Miller onto the top line, but he has finally lived up to his potential playing with elite talent on the Vancouver Canucks. He is 17th in the league with 72 points this season and skating alongside two highly skilled players should only increase his offensive production. Tarasenko has missed most of the season with a shoulder injury but his body of work speaks for itself.

Second line: Anders LeeJohn TavaresPhil Kessel

Thoughts: Lee had his only 40-goal season playing alongside John Tavares two years ago with the New York Islanders and has remained one of the league’s best net-front presences since No. 91 signed with Toronto. Patrick Kane echoed Mathew Barzal’s suggestion that Lee was one of the best puck tippers in the entire NHL. Kessel should also add an element of speed and an ability to score to balance out this dangerous trio.

Third line: Elias PetterssonAleksander BarkovWilliam Nylander

Thoughts: All three of these players are on the cusp of being superstars and each one should have a sizeable chip on his shoulder. This tournament would be a perfect opportunity for these players to elevate their status from up-and-coming players to established stars. Barkov has the entire skillset to bring out the best in each of his linemates on both ends of the ice.

Fourth line: Ondrej PalatSean CouturierTom Wilson

Thoughts: Wilson was an interesting player to include in this tournament, but he has proven in the past that he possesses the offensive skill to go along with his tough style of play. Couturier has become one of the top shutdown centers in the league and will be a contender for the Selke trophy for years to come. All three individuals understand the commitment it takes to be sharp in their own end of the ice without diminishing their offensive abilities.

First D pairing: Quinn HughesShea Weber

Second D pairing: Ivan ProvorovErik Karlsson

Third D pairing: Miro HeiskanenBrent Burns

Thoughts: There is not much else you need on a blueline but the biggest question facing this collection of defensemen: is Hughes is ready to handle top line minutes against the high-scoring lines from the opposition? If not, Provorov and Heiskanen are more than capable of sliding up the lineup and the group has more than enough talent to compete against any combination of forwards.

Starting Goalie: Carey Price

Backup Goalie: John Gibson

Just Missed (again): Nicklas Backstrom, Brock Boeser, Tyler Seguin, Ryan Suter, Jonathan Toews

Captain: Shea Weber

Alternate captains: John Tavares, Steven Stamkos

Coach: We have not had this category for our other teams, but is there a better coach in the league to motivate players passed over than John Tortorella? He didn’t have much success with Team USA in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, but his performance behind the Blue Jackets’ bench this season has been superb after the departure of several key stars.

Analysis

Even though these players missed the cut for the initial rosters, this group of misfits is still a formidable team that could stand its ground against the competition. Whether its firepower, depth, size, speed, skill, toughness or any other critical characteristic a team needs to compete, this group of players is not lacking in any department. Without the restrictions of players fitting into a certain age bracket, this team has a strong mix of diverse skillsets.

One characteristic that stands out amongst this group is their size. Each line has a strong net-front presence and the ability to pin a team in their own zone for long stretches of time.

Despite the collection of prolific talent there are a few questions up front. Was Miller a one-hit wonder in Vancouver playing on the top line or can he replicate his production from this past season alongside Stamkos and Tarasenko? Will Tavares and Lee instantly find their chemistry?

Similarly to the 30-and-over team, can the third line win matchups against the top lines from the opposition? In addition, can the veterans on the blueline bring out the best in the three young lefties in the defensive group?

Even though there are plenty of questions and these players were pushed aside from the original rosters, this group has a legitimate shot to win the tournament.

Surprising omissions

Brock Boeser: It was a close call between him and Nylander for the third-line right-winger position, but the Canucks forward has not established himself as an elite winger just yet. In a few years this could be a very different discussion but at the current time, Nylander has been the more dynamic player.

Ryan Suter: A solid minutes-eating defenseman is an ingredient any roster could use during this tournament, but the other three left-handed shot defensemen were harder to omit. Suter’s veteran presence will be missed but Hughes, Provorov, and Heiskanen have developed into elite defenseman faster than anticipated.

Jonathan Toews: The captain of the Chicago Blackhawks has justifiably developed a reputation as one of the top two-way centermen in the NHL. He was within striking distance of crossing the 70-point mark for the second consecutive season. Toews was a very tough player to leave off the roster, but Couturier and Barkov are just a cut above.


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

A best on best mythical tournament: 30-and-over

Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of Washington Capitals
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold, Pro Hockey Talk will be creating full rosters for an imaginary best on best tournament. The first teams created were a 23-and-under and players in their prime.

Connor McDavid and other exciting young players have taken part of the spotlight, but Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin remain the most prominent faces in the NHL. The next roster to enter this mythical best on best tournament consists of players 30-years-of-age-and-over. It has several of the League’s most accomplished players, including numerous skaters with multiple Stanley Cup rings and Olympic gold medals.

Line Combinations

First line: Alex Ovechkin – Sidney Crosby – Patrick Kane

Thoughts: Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks have fallen out of the limelight in recent years after an era of dominance that included three championships. However, Kane has remained one of the most productive players in the NHL and the thought of his on-ice vision combined with Ovechkin’s blistering slapshot strikes fear into the heart of any opponent. Crosby has the wisdom and skill to balance this line to formulate a trio only used in a video game environment.

Second line: Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronBlake Wheeler

Thoughts: The Bruins have had the most complete line in hockey and two/thirds of that trio reside here. Blake Wheeler has the offensive punch coupled with strong defensive instincts to fill the void left by David Pastrnak. This line will be relied upon to matchup with skilled lines from opponents but also will need to contribute on the offensive side of the ice.

Third line: Claude GirouxEvgeni MalkinJakub Voracek

Thoughts: Malkin has been one of the top centermen since bursting onto the scene in 2006-07 and should bring out the best from his new linemates. Giroux and Voracek each took a step backwards in terms of offensive production this season, but the Flyers have emerged as legitimate Cup contenders in Alain Vigneault’s first season behind the bench in Philadelphia. The effectiveness of this line will determine how far this team could advance in the competition.

Fourth line: Jamie BennAnze KopitarT.J. Oshie

Thoughts: Is there anything else a coach could want in his fourth line? A two-time Selke Trophy winner flanked by a power forward and a skilled winger with defensive awareness? This line will start in the defensive zone majority of the time and be needed to flip momentum of the game within the game.

First D pairing: Mark GiordanoJohn Carlson
Second D pairing: Zdeno CharaDrew Doughty
Third D pairing: Ryan McDonaghAlex Pietrangelo

Thoughts: The absence of Shea Weber is jarring at first, but what attribute is missing from this defensive group? The biggest question facing this collection of rearguards is, do they have the foot speed to keep up with the quickness each team in this tournament possesses?

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask
Backup Goalie: Ben Bishop

Just Missed: Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, Shea Weber

Captain: Sidney Crosby

Alternate captains: Patrice Bergeron, Alex Ovechkin

Analysis

The biggest advantage this team has over the competition is experience. Over half of the roster has a Stanley Cup championship under their belt and several players earned multiple championship rings in their respective careers.

Leadership will not be an issue with nine current NHL captains to help this team manage the emotions through this highly competitive tournament.

One area of concern is the speed of the game throughout the competition. Can the defense move the puck up the ice in a timely manner? Can the veteran forwards play at this pace each shift without sacrificing production? This team will be expected to play smart situational hockey and take advantage of special teams opportunities, but can they win even-strength matchups on a consistent basis?

There is an abundance of talent and wisdom up and down the lineup, but will they be able to dictate the pace and play the style they choose, or will they be forced to adapt to the opponents’ preferred style?

The answer to that question will determine how successful this team will be in this imaginary Best on Best tournament.

Surprising omissions

Phil Kessel: He was originally slated to skate alongside Bergeron and Marchand on the second line, but he doesn’t play a strong two-way game that his linemates would have demanded on a consistent basis. It was tough to leave a pure goal scorer like Kessel off the list, but his effectiveness is diminished if not playing in an offensive oriented role.

Steven Stamkos: The captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning is probably the most prolific player left off any roster in this tournament to date, but it was tough to find a spot for the skilled center. Crosby and Bergeron were no-brainers for this team, but the debate was between him and Malkin for the third line slot. The size and strength of the Russian forward were the deciding factors as that toughness will be needed throughout the tournament.

Shea Weber: He could easily slide into any spot along the blueline and the team likely wouldn’t suffer but tough decisions had to be made. The roster is not lacking in the leadership department and the three right-handed shot defensemen selected have the speed needed to keep up with the blazing speed of the competition.


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