Richard Panik

Previewing the 2019-20 Washington Capitals

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Capitals have shown a solid knack for spotting value to supplement their longstanding, impressive core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others. Sometimes that means waving goodbye to some of those diamonds in the rough, and this offseason served as an example, as they showed discipline in not overpaying Brett Connolly.

The Capitals have done well to zig and zag with salary cap realities, and in some cases, might have saved money and gotten the better end of the deal (if Radko Gudas and Matt Niskanen perform at the same broad level as last season, Gudas would possibly be the better asset). Richard Panik could be the next bargain pickup like Connolly, though the two bring different benefits to the table.

Still, losing Andre Burakovsky puts the overall balance at “worse.” A lesser GM would have suffered greater losses, though.

Strengths: The Capitals showed in that 2018 Stanley Cup run that, when things boil down to best-on-best, they can come out on top. It didn’t work out quite as well this past year, but with Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov down the middle, some nice wingers beyond Ovechkin, and some solid defense led by John Carlson, the Caps check a lot of boxes.

Braden Holtby has also been one of the most dependable goalies in the NHL, and with contract year motivation, it wouldn’t be shocking if he chased another Vezina.

More often than not, the Capitals have boasted a dangerous power play to boot.

Weaknesses: The Capitals find ways to outscore opponents, but it’s worth noting that they haven’t been elite by certain underlying measures for quite some time. In fact, in 2018-19, the Capitals were under 50 percent by Corsi, Fenwick, expected goals, and so on.

Again, the Capitals have been able to overcome those five-on-five numbers, whether they’ve done so by superior skill or winning quality chance battles. With core players getting older, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals might fail that tightrope walk. Sometimes such declines are subtle; other times, the drop-off can be severe.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It had to sting to see Barry Trotz win a Jack Adams Award during his first season with the Islanders, particularly since Trotz’s team advanced to Round 2, while the Capitals fell in Round 1. Things could heat up in a big way for Todd Reirden if the disappointments start to stack up, but for now, it feels a little early to worry. Let’s put Reirden around a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Holtby, Backstrom, and Gudas.

Three interesting players, three contract years.

Holtby could easily set himself up for a contract that ranges from Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5 million AAV) to Carey Price ($10.5M AAV), but that might hinge on his production in 2019-20. Some of this might depend on how badly he wants to stay in Washington; could he be convinced to take a bit of a discount to try to keep the band together?

Backstrom’s been in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow for some time, and is a big bargain at a $6.7M cap hit. This is his chance to get recognition, and get paid closer to what he’s actually worth.

Gudas has been one of those rare physical, hard-hitting defensemen who actually tends to stand out well from a “fancy stats” standpoint. That said, he didn’t always earn the trust to get much of a prominent role with Philly. Could Gudas prove that he’s a top-four guy, and maybe keep penalties under control? While Backstrom and Holtby are almost certain to get big raises, things could go either way for Gudas.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Capitals have won the Metro for four seasons in a row, and regularly took the Southeast crown when it still existed. They’re rarely fighting for a playoff spot late in years, and sometimes don’t even really need to worry much about seeding.

Maybe they’ll sink a little bit, but this team has what you need to comfortably secure a playoff spot.

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.

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 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.

PHT’s 2015 free agent frenzy tracker

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Throughout the day, we’ll be keeping tabs on all the signings across the NHL. Check back regularly for all the biggest signings, trades and other acquisitions from July 1:

Wednesday, July 1

• Washington signs Justin Williams: two years, $6.5 million (link)

• Arizona signs Antoine Vermette: two years, $7.5 million (link)

• Anaheim signs Shawn Horcoff: one year, $1.75 million (link)

• New Jersey signs Jim O’Brien to one-year, two-way deal

• Boston signs Matt Beleskey: five years, $19 million (link)

• Toronto signs Daniel Winnik: two years, $4.5 million (link)

• Columbus signs Gregory Campbell: two years, $3 million (link)

• Montreal signs Mark Barberio: one-year, two-way deal worth $600K at NHL level (link)

• Anaheim signs Matt Hackett to a two-year deal and Chris Mueller and Joe Piskula to one-year deals

• Detroit signs Brad Richards: one year, $3 million (link)

• Minnesota signs Zac Dalpe: one year, $ TBA

• Toronto signs Mark Arcobello: one year, $1.1 million

• Florida signs Cameron Gauce and Brett Regner: term and $ TBA

• Pittsburgh signs Steven Oleksy: one year, $575,000

• Pittsburgh signs Kevin Porter and Kael Mouillerat to matching one-year, $575,00 deals

• Detroit signs Mike Green: three years, $18 million (link)

• Boston extends Ryan Spooner: two years, $1.9 million (link)

• Pittsburgh signs Sergei Plotnikov: one year, $ TBA

• Ottawa signs Mike Kostka: one year, $800,000

• Minnesota signs Ruslan Fedotenko: one year, $ TBA

• Toronto extends  Richard Panik: one year, $975,000

• Vancouver signs Taylor Fedun: one year, $ TBA

• Ottawa signs Zack Stortini: two years, $ TBA

• Dallas extends Curtis McKenzie: two years, $1.35 million

• Buffalo signs Cal O’Reilly: two years, $1.4 million

• New York Rangers sign Viktor Stalberg: one year, $1.1 million (link)

• Toronto signs P.A. Parenteau: one year, $1.5 million (link)

• New Jersey signs John Moore: three years, $4.8 million (link)

• Nashville signs Cody Hodgson: one year, $1.05 million (link)

• New York Rangers sign Raphael Diaz: one year, $700,000

• Tampa Bay signs Eric Condra: three years, $3.75 million (link)

• Vancouver signs Richard Bachman: two years, $ TBA

• Pittsburgh signs David Warsofsky: one year, $600,000

• Minnesota extends Ryan Carter: one year, $625,000

• Chicago signs Viktor Tikhonov, one-year, $1.04 million (link)

• Winnipeg signs Alex Burmistrov: two years, $3.1 million (link)

• Nashville signs Barrett Jackman: two years, $2 million (link)

• Carolina extends Riley Nash: one year, $1.5 million

• St. Louis extends Chris Butler: one year, $675,000

• Minnesota extends Nate Prosser: two years, $1.25 million

• San Jose signs Paul Martin: four years, $19.4 million (link)

• Los Angeles signs Jhonas Enroth: one year, $1.25 million (link)

• Calgary signs Michael Frolik: five years, $21.5 million (link)

• Vancouver signs Matt Bartkowski: one year, $1.75 million (link)

• Arizona signs Zybnek Michalek: two years, $6.4 million (link)

• Arizona signs Dustin Jeffrey: one year, two-way deal

• Arizona signs Steve Downie: one year, $1.75 million (link)

• Arizona signs Anders Lindback: one year, $875,000 (link)

• Arizona signs Brad Richardson: three years, $6.24 million (link)

• Colorado signs Francois Beauchemin: three years, $13.5 million (link)

• Colorado signs Blake Comeau: three years, $7.2 million (link)

• Edmonton signs Mark Letestu: three years, $5.4 million (link)

• Edmonton signs Andrej Sekera: six years, $33 million (link)

• Winnipeg extends Matt Halischuk: one year, $750,000

• Philadelphia signs Michal Neuvirth: two years, $3.25 million (link)

• New York Islanders sign Thomas Greiss; two years, $3 million (link)

• Washington extends Stanislav Galiev: two years, $1.15 million

• Toronto signs Matt Hunwick: two years, $2.4 million (link)

• Winnipeg extends Adam Pardy: one year, $1 million (link)

• Vancouver extends Yannick Weber: one year, $1.5 million (link)

• Minnesota extends Mikael Granlund: two years, $6 million (link)

• Detroit extends Tom McCollum: one year, $ TBA

• Detroit extends Andy Miele: one year, $575,000 (link)

• Calgary extends Karri Ramo: one year, $3.9 million (link)

• Dallas extends Patrick Eaves: one year, $1.15 million (link)

• Nashville extends Mike Ribeiro: two years, $7 million (link)

• Chicago extends Artem Anisimov: five years, $22.75 million (link)

• Anaheim extends Kevin Bieksa: two years, $8 million (link)

Previous deals of note (post-draft)

• Brandon Saad, Michael Paliotta and Alex Broadhurst to Columbus for Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Jeremy Morin, Corey Tropp and a ’16 fourth-rounder (link)

• Detroit re-signs Brendan Smith: two years, $5.5 million (link)

• Kevin Bieksa to Anaheim for a ’16 second-rounder (link)

• Isles re-sign Anders Lee: four years, $15 million (link)

• Martin Jones to San Jose for a ’16 first-rounder and Sean Kuraly; Sharks sign Jones to three-year, $9 million deal (link)

• Jets re-sign Stafford: two years, $8.7 million (link)

• Calgary signs Dougie Hamilton: six years, $34.5 million (link)

Video: Blackhawks’ Shaw fined $2,000 for diving/embellishment

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Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw has been fined $2,000 by the NHL for diving/embellishment.

From the league:

Shaw was issued a Warning following an incident flagged by NHL Hockey Operations during NHL Game No. 228 against Tampa Bay on Nov. 11. His second Citation, which triggered the $2,000 fine, was issued for an incident during NHL Game No. 1138 against Los Angeles on March 30. Shaw drew a delayed penalty to Los Angeles forward Mike Richards on the play, at 5:24 of the first period. The penalty to Richards was nullified when Chicago scored seven seconds later.

Shaw becomes the ninth player to be fined for diving/embellishment this season, joining Washington’s Tom Wilson, Toronto’s Richard Panik, Islanders goalie Michal Neuvirth (fine occurred while with Buffalo), the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist, Florida’s Vincent Trocheck, Nashville’s James Neal and Montreal’s P.K. Subban, who has been fined twice.