Nicklas Backstrom

St. Louis Blues

PHT Morning Skate: Blues get names engraved on Stanley Cup

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• It is official, the Stanley Cup now includes the names of the St. Louis Blues for the first time. (St. Louis Blues)

• Speaking of the Blues, the party is now over as they get back to work. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• What is (and is not) distracting about Taylor Hall‘s contract situation for the New Jersey Devils. (All About The Jersey)

• Taking a look at some pre-season pre-draft rankings for the 2020 class. (TSN)

• Ten questions for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering training camp. (1st Ohio Battery)

• Golden Knights veterans share stories from their first NHL training camps. (Sin Bin Vegas)

• Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan wants to re-sign both Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby, but is that realistic? (NBC Washington)

• Inside Connor McDavid‘s NHL political awakening. (ESPN)

• Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich just wants to prove that he can be a starter in the NHL. (Flames Nation)

• Why Philadelphia Flyers defender Shayne Gostisbehere is saying sorry to Wayne Simmonds. (NBC Philadelphia)

• It is now or never for goalie Tristan Jarry with the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Tribune-Review)

• What going to salary arbitration means for a player’s long-term outlook with a team. (Anaheim Calling)

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

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.

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.

Capitals GM under pressure to keep core together

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals. 

While Brian MacLellan certainly had a hand in putting together the Capitals’ core as an assistant, he also followed a path similar to Stan Bowman in Chicago: his job has been to maintain a supplement an established group, and deal with the salary cap headaches that arise from that juggling act.

In my opinion, MacLellan has done a mostly masterful job.

Sure, there were some gutters (*cough* Brooks Orpik *cough cough*) to go with the strikes, but MacLellan’s proven to be a strong hire after George McPhee’s extensive run ended. Saving money while possibly making the team better in certain areas isn’t the splashiest work, but he’s done well.

Yet, heading into next season and a bit beyond that, MacLellan will face probably his biggest pressure yet as Capitals GM.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | On Holtby’s future | Three Questions]

PHT has tackled this topic before, including in part today, but the Capitals face some truly monumental decisions about their future.

Most directly, both Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom enter contract years, and both stand to enjoy significant raises after being bargains for quite some time.

It’s fascinating enough if you oversimplify it to an either/or question: if the Capitals could only bring back one, which would make sense? Holtby’s been solid as a rock for the Capitals at the league’s most important (and unreliable) position, yet with Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price setting a $10M+ market for what a top goalie can make in unrestricted free agency, Holtby also stands to make a lot more money than his current $6.1M cap hit. It’s also difficult to put a price on Backstrom, but $6.7M is far too low, and while Holtby’s age (29) is a factor particularly considering the term Price and Bob received, Backstrom is 31 already.

If that wasn’t already complicated enough, Alex Ovechkin‘s seemingly eternal contract becomes mortal soon. His approx. $9.54M cap hit only runs through 2020-21, and his situation opens up a slew of questions, especially since he’s already 33.

This is all quite the riddle for MacLellan, and it’s not just about making objective hockey decisions. These are players who’ve meant a lot to the team and its fans, and have been instrumental in great successes. Merely having uncertainty surrounding Holtby and Backstrom could create headaches.

MacLellan faces some fascinating questions surrounding all of that:

  • How much should the Capitals work goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov into the mix? Might MacLellan be bold enough to roll the dice with far cheaper options in net? There’s evidence that the Capitals are reasonably analytics-leaning (see: Panik, and the continued employment of Tim “Vic Ferrari” Barnes), and some would argue that the savvy move is to go younger and cheaper in net. There’d be a lot of pressure on MacLellan either way: scorn if they move away from Holtby and the bottom falls out, and ridicule if they keep Holtby, Holtby falters, and the Capitals have to lose other key pieces because of the expense of re-signing Holtby. Tough stuff, right?
  • The Capitals are right up against the salary cap ceiling, but if there’s some breathing room around trade deadline time, is this a year to go all-in, even if it means coughing up a first-rounder or more? After all, you’re saying goodbye to some of your surplus of talent either in seeing one or more of Holtby/Backstrom leaving, or whoever must be moved out to accommodate new contracts. Maybe that’s your cue to swing for the fences?
  • Oh yeah, things could also get tricky with Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Overall, this is a Capitals team that still carries Stanley Cup expectations. MacLellan’s mostly wise decisions helped push them over the top for that elusive first ring, but the tests only seem to get harder from there.

How would you handle this pressure-packed predicament?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
• One deeper look at Holtby/Backstrom
• Adam Gretz’s take

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
Bredan 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.

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.