three questions

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.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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 San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

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.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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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 New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

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.

Golden questions for Nashville Predators

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 Nashville Predators. 

Let’s examine three key questions for the Predators next season …

1. Is this really a better winning formula?

The Predators could have a deeper offense by adding Matt Duchene, while still having one of the best defense corps in the NHL if Dante Fabbro can make up for enough of what Nashville lost in P.K. Subban. By subtracting from a strength in hopes of bolstering a weakness, maybe the Predators will find a perfect balance.

There’s an uncomfortable possibility that David Poile might have outsmarted himself here, though.

For one thing, what if the Predators sold low on Subban, whose struggles were a bit exaggerated in 2018-19, and was a Norris finalist as recently as 2017-18? It’s difficult to ignore that Subban’s still someone who wins the shot share battle, while Duchene’s possession numbers have regularly been negative/average.

It’s possible that Fabbro might stumble considerably, considering he’s only played in four regular season and six playoff games at the NHL level. It’s also possible that the Predators have overrated both Duchene as a difference-maker and Roman Josi as a defenseman.

One must also wonder if this team’s just made too many changes over the years. They’ve traded for Subban and traded him away, brought in Kyle Turris in a big trade, were fairly bold in trading Kevin Fiala for Mikael Granlund, and so on. If you’re a stickler for “chemistry,” aren’t you a touch worried?

Duchene hasn’t been on a ton of winning teams during his career, but this is the best roster he’s ever joined … so we’ll see if this works out. At least you can’t accuse the Predators of being too timid.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. What kind of goaltending will they get?

Pekka Rinne‘s had his critics over the years, yet he’s shut most of them up. But speaking of years … Rinne turns 37 on Nov. 3, so there’s a real threat for a decline.

If that drop-off comes in a dramatic way, will promising young goalie Juuse Saros be able to hold down the fort? The 24-year-old was fine in 2018-19 (.915 save percentage), but did stumble a bit at times. Where Rinne is a towering presence, Saros bucks the trend by being a smaller goalie. Might that get exposed with more reps?

If you forced me to choose a duo to roll with in 2019-20, this one would be one of the top options, but as we’ve seen with goalies, that doesn’t mean strong play is a guarantee. With Subban gone and Duchene not exactly a perennial Selke pick, the Predators goalie job could be tougher than ever, and there have been certain stretches where the Predators’ defense already depended upon their goalies more than some might think. (Example: they were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed in 2018-19.)

3. Did they fix their power play?

Duchene changes the Predators’ personnel options, and they changed to a new power play coach in Dan Lambert.

Ideally, those tweaks will modernize a Predators’ man advantage that relied far too much on point shots from defensemen, and sputtered to the tune of a league-worst 12.9 percent success rate.

With Subban gone, that’s one less force pressuring the Predators to play that way, and maybe lean more toward a three-forward, two-defensemen setup, compared to the wider league trend toward four forward, one defenseman setups.

Will those changes be enough to improve that woeful unit? Maybe positive regression would have taken care of some of that bad production, anyway?

The Predators might flat-out need a better power play if their new-look team isn’t as impressive at even-strength, so we’ll see.

***

There are a lot of questions swirling around Nashville, but the most fascinating one is: are they actually better than they were last season? The Predators certainly are gambling a lot on that being the case.

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.

Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20

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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 Montreal Canadiens. 

Let’s explore three questions for the Habs as 2019-20 approaches …

1. Which Carey Price will show up, and how often?

With that $10.5 million cap hit, Carey Price remains a questionable investment in the eyes of many (myself included).

Still, the 2018-19 season restored some hope that Price could at least be an above-average, if not occasionally elite, goalie for the Canadiens. He managed a .918 save percentage last season, which matches his career average. Considering the heights of Price’s career, that’s a remarkable achievement.

But you must also consider the low points of Price’s career, simply because the Habs have traveled through those valleys quite a bit lately. Price played poorly in 2017-18, and was limited to just 12 games played as recently as 2015-16, so it’s not a given that Montreal will receive great play from Price.

As a side note: it’s his birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, especially since Price earned about a million cool points for the touching moment he was a part of during the 2019 NHL Awards, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline.

He’s certainly someone who’s become easy to root for.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor | Under Pressure]

2. How many players already bumped against their ceilings?

The sheer number of Habs who enjoyed career years is remarkable, from Max Domi to Jeff Petry to Phillip Danault. Even traded-away forward Andrew Shaw often played over his head.

How many of those performances are repeatable?

The advice to tap the brakes is worthwhile with Domi, in particular. Contrast his brilliant 2018-19 season (28 goals, 72 points, 13.8 shooting percentage) with a rough final year in Arizona (nine goals [four empty-netters], 45 points, six shooting percentage in 2017-18) and you’ll realize that it’s dangerous to simply pencil in the same results from year to year.

It’s not all gloom and doom. While the “sophomore slump” is a threat, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could also take another big step forward. Shea Weber could be healthier, which may or may not lead to a healthier power play. And, if you’re hoping for anything to repeat, strong five-on-five play usually isn’t a fluke, at least when you keep most of the same players on a team, and most of them are pretty young.

Still, it’s possible that improved power play work might offset a slight drop-off, rather than supplementing a resounding team at even-strength … but we’ll see.

3. Will Marc Bergevin remain patient?

When it comes to judging the Habs’ GM’s work lately, it feels like people have been grading Bergevin on a curve: “Hey, this didn’t work out as badly as we thought.”

That friendly outlook might not last very long, and if Bergevin’s seat starts to heat up again — they’ve missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and three of four — then there’s the risk that he’ll make reckless moves to try to save his job.

As scrappy as this team is, forking over draft picks and/or prospects for quick fixes could really sting. Thankfully, Bergevin didn’t spend big during the past trade deadline or in free agency this summer (aside from a baffling Ben Chiarot signing), so he’s shown some discipline.

Bergevin’s one of the league’s most entertaining GMs because he’s willing to be bold, though, so we’ll see how long he can be stoic and not make a splashy move, beyond the occasional facetious offer sheet.

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.