Monday, June 18, 2018

Revisiting eight closing Cup windows

Their window is closed.

That’s a phrase you hear a lot around the NHL, especially at this time of year. When a team’s window is closed, it means they’re no longer a real threat to win the Stanley Cup. Maybe they won a Cup or two, but now those days are gone for good, and it’s time to figure out what comes next.

It’s the sort of thing we say a lot. Probably too much. Over the last few years, there may not have been a team we said it about more than the Washington Capitals. Even as the team was winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies in 2016 and 2017, their constant playoff failures made it clear that something was wrong. After last year’s devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, we wondered what they would do next and struggled to find a good option. There was talk of trading Alexander Ovechkin, and the Caps didn’t exactly deny that they were thinking about it.

Ovechkin was well into his 30s. Nicklas Backstrom was almost there, and Braden Holtby wasn’t far off. The expensive core that had been so dominant in the regular season but always come up small in the playoffs was old enough that we knew what we were getting. They’d tried, they’ve come close, but they failed. And now some fans figured it might be time to burn it all down. The window was well and truly closed.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. As the Caps’ summer-long Stanley Cup celebration wears on, it’s fair to wonder if some of us are a little too eager to declare that a team’s window has slammed shut. Maybe they stay open longer than we thought. Maybe they can even be reopened.

And if that’s true, then what other NHL teams might we be wrong about? Today, let’s look at eight teams around the league that, to at least some extent, have received the “your window is closed” treatment from the hockey world. If we were wrong about the Caps, could we be wrong about these teams too?

Chicago Blackhawks

Why their window seems closed: The Blackhawks may be the best team of the salary cap era, winning three titles in six seasons. But the last of those came in 2015, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. Even worse, the trend in the wrong direction is hard to miss: They dropped a seventh game to the Blues in 2016, were swept in 2017, and didn’t even make the playoffs this year.

What’s worse, the three-year stumble coincides with the matching $10.5-million extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kicking in.

Combined with Duncan Keith and (especially) Brent Seabrook, that suggests that the Hawks just have too much money tied up in an aging core, and even Stan Bowman won’t be able to find enough cheap depth to get this team back into the title picture. Even getting back to the playoffs seems like a long road right now.

Why it might not be: As bad as this season was, this is still the same core that won three titles. They’re older, sure, and in today’s NHL that can matter a lot. But the veteran talent is there, and younger pieces like Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz are on hand to support and maybe even eventually supplant the old-timers.

And remember, the 2017-18 season really went off the rails when two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford was out of the lineup. If he’s back and healthy, this team doesn’t look all that different from the one that finished first in the Central in 2017.

Bottom line: The Blackhawks seem like they’ve got a long way to go, especially now that the Jets and Predators have emerged as Central juggernauts. But would anybody be surprised to see them rebound into the playoffs next year? And if so, are we sure we want to count them out as legitimate contenders?

Los Angeles Kings

Why their window seems closed: A lot of what we just said about the Blackhawks could apply to the Kings too. They won multiple titles, but the last of those came years ago, and they haven’t won a playoff round since. In fact, in four years since their 2014 championship, the Kings have only won a single playoff game. Their core is getting older and more expensive, including a Toews-like extension for Anze Kopitar. Oh, and there’s at least a chance that Drew Doughty could be leaving in 2019.

Why it might not be: Let’s assume that Doughty sticks around, since all signs point in that direction. His new deal will be expensive, and will tighten the screws on the Kings’ cap even more than it already is. But it will keep the core together, and unlike in Chicago, this team is at least coming off a decent season. They made the playoffs, Kopitar played at an MVP level, Dustin Brown rediscovered his game, and Jonathan Quick still looks like a guy who can steal a series or two.

Bottom line: Another advantage the Kings hold over the Blackhawks: the Pacific Division doesn’t seem all that scary, so a return trip to the playoffs seems like a good bet. Once they’re there, some of that old Quick magic could take them a long way. All the way to another Cup? That seems unlikely, but it seemed that way in Washington too.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to fix the NHL's broken offer sheet system

We’re closing in on the July 1 opening of the NHL free agent market, and while much of the attention is focused on big-name UFAs like John Tavares, Ilya Kovalchuk and John Carlson, there’s also the usual batch of excellent young players hitting RFA status. And that means it’s time for our annual round of “Will this be the year that somebody signs an offer sheet?”

We already know the answer. No, it probably won’t.

It should be. There are plenty of players who could be eligible that any team would love to add, including names like William Karlsson, Mark Stone, Jacob Trouba and William Nylander. In a league in which players (especially forwards) hit their prime in their early 20s, offer sheets remain one of the only ways to acquire a young star who can instantly slot into the top of your lineup. For most teams, short of winning the draft lottery in a year with a sure-thing franchise player or two available, it’s just about the only way.

And yet we never see them. The NHL hasn’t had an offer sheet signed in over five years, going back to Ryan O’Reilly’s two-year deal with the Flames back in 2013. There have been only eight in the salary cap era, five of which had already come by 2008. And only three cap-era offer sheets have been signed by players who could be considered stars at the time – O’Reilly, Shea Weber in 2012 and Thomas Vanek in 2007.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of impact players in the RFA pool for teams to target. In 2015, a GM could have made a play for Vladimir Tarasenko. In 2016, there was a chance to sign Nathan MacKinnon, Mark Scheifele, Johnny Gaudreau or Nikita Kucherov. Last year, the target could have been David Pastrnak, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Leon Draisaitl. These are franchise-altering players, many just entering their most productive years, all of them available to any team that was willing to extend an offer. And yet, nothing.

From a distance, none of this makes any sense. Every GM in the league has a tool in their toolbox that can be used to acquire a superstar in his prime, and virtually none of them ever bother to use it.

When hockey fans complain about the lack of offer sheets, they often settle on one culprit: the GMs. If they actually put winning first, the thinking goes, we’d see offer sheets every year. But if their priority was to stay chummy with their colleagues, and to make sure their status in the hockey management old boys club remained in good standing, then they’d think twice. Wouldn’t want to get uninvited from a round of golf at the next GM meetings.

There’s probably some truth to that. But there’s a bigger issue: offer sheets are broken.

Put differently, the problem here isn’t just the 31 men who don’t seem to want to use the system. It’s the system itself. Given the way the rules are currently set up, a lot of the GMs who keep passing on superstar talent are actually acting rationally.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Friday, June 15, 2018

Grab Bag: Pan the Parade

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- I have a terrible idea for improving Stanley Cup parades
- The important lesson we can learn from the Caps' emotional playoff run
- The week's three stars of Drunk Alexander Ovechkin
- An obscure player from the Capitals' first awful season
- And a musical look back at Washington's first ever (division) title

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Podcast: Capping it off

In this week's episode of Biscuits, the Vice Sports hockey podcast:
- Dave and I try to adjust to world where the Washington Capitals are champions
- Did Alexander Ovechkin celebrate too hard?
- Our thoughts on the Conn Smythe voting
- We turn to the offseason
- Oliver Ekman-Larsson gets a monster extension
- The return of Ilya Kovalchuk
- Can the Oilers actually trade Milan Lucic?
- Reader mail and lots more

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

The 2018 offseason pressure index

We’re several days into the off-season, and so far it’s been a slow start. That’s to be expected. After all, we’re 10 days away from the draft, which is when business tends to pick up. We’re still waiting on a final number for next year’s salary cap, which is important. Also, and we’re not naming any names here, certain teams are still drunk right now.

So as we wait for the action to start, let’s figure out which teams are facing the toughest decisions as we head into the off-season. Everybody has a lot on their to-do list at this time of year, and some GMs will need a strong showing over the next few weeks to ensure they still have a job this time next year. But some teams are facing more pressure than others, so let’s count down 10 that will be under a spotlight over the coming days.

10. Calgary Flames

Already done: They changed coaches, clearing out Glen Gulutzan to make room for former Hurricanes’ boss Bill Peters. The bench will also feature two new assistants, including Geoff Ward, who’ll be tasked with fixing the anemic power play. And the team parted ways with team president Brian Burke.

The job ahead: The Flames don’t need a massive overhaul. But something clearly isn’t clicking in Calgary, where a talented young roster hasn’t won a playoff game in three years. There have been rumbling that the effort level isn’t where it needs to be, which Peters will have to address. And Brad Treliving will be looking to add offence, ideally a top-line winger to slot in with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

GM hot-seat factor: Treliving signed an extension last year, so he’s relatively safe for now. But the team is underperforming and he’s just played his coaching card, so another underwhelming season will turn up the temperature. How high? He’d probably rather not find out.

Bottom line: Treliving will have to walk the line of worrying about right now while keeping an eye on the future; the Flames only have four picks in this year’s draft, none of which are in the first three rounds.

9. Washington Capitals

Already done: They drank the alcohol. All of it. It’s gone now; we have no more alcohol.

The job ahead: Once he’s done celebrating, Brian MacLellan is faced with the possibility of losing two of the league’s top free agents. The first is John Carlson, who’ll likely prove too rich for the Caps and land elsewhere. The second is Barry Trotz, which should be a fascinating situation to watch. MacLellan was apparently close to firing Trotz during the season, and it was only a few weeks ago that the coach himself seemed to think he was all but gone. But with a Cup win and an expiring contract, now it’s Trotz who holds the power. He’ll likely be back with a hefty raise, but there’s at least a chance he becomes the first coach since Mike Keenan to leave a Cup winner for work elsewhere. The question is how hard MacLellan wants to work to prevent that.

GM hot-seat factor: None.

Bottom line: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. MacLellan also needs to re-sign Tom Wilson and figure out what to do with Philipp Grubauer. This will be a challenging off-season in Washington, but it will be a lot more fun than the last few.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet