Ovi's Olympic journey continues.
The Capitals have been busy this past week and more offseason moves are likely soon as the NHL convenes in Vancouver for its annual entry draft.
With forward Carl Hagelin re-signed and defenseman Matt Niskanen traded to Philadelphia for defenseman Radko Gudas to free salary-cap space, Washington general manager Brian MacLellan still has decisions to make in the long-term and the short.
The draft begins at 8 p.m. EST Friday with the first round on NBC Sports Network and on the NBC sports app. Rounds two through seven begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday. MacLellan will talk to reporters on Thursday afternoon. After talking to NHL sources to gauge some sense of the Capitals’ thinking heading into the draft, here is what to look for this weekend beyond the picks.
The restricted free agent frustrated coaches and executives alike for much of last season and improved play late in the year might not be enough to save him this time. The Capitals must at least offer Burakovsky a $3.25 million qualifying offer to keep his rights or he becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign with any team. That’s a steep price for a player who has scored 12 goals each of the past three seasons and has yet to reach 40 points.
Multiple NHL sources say Washington is listening to offers for Burakovsky again and that a trade this weekend is a distinct possibility. Whether that would be to simply to recoup draft picks or make a player-for-player deal is unclear.
No one likes to burn a first-round pick with obvious talent, especially not when scoring depth is still needed. In the final 28 games of the 2018-19 season, including the seven-game Stanley Cup playoff series against Carolina, Burakovsky had six goals and four assists. One of those goals was another Game 7 tally against the Hurricanes on top of the two he had in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final at Tampa Bay.
Again, exactly what kind of deal the Capitals would need to move Burakovsky isn’t known. Draft picks or prospects don’t make a ton of sense for a team that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently wrote was in “go for it” mode with its core group aging. But the thought is a fresh start would be good for the player if there’s a reasonable deal to be made.
TSN’s Darren Dreger reported Wednesday afternoon that Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi has demanded a trade and Sportsnet’s Mark Spector quoted his agent saying he won’t play for the club again. The fourth pick in the 2016 draft, Puljujarvi, too, has struggled to live up to expectations with 17 goals and 20 assists in three seasons (139 games) and had surgery on both hips in March. He’s still just 21, a big body at 6-foot-4, 201 pounds and a right wing.
Burakovsky is a far more accomplished player at this point and the Capitals might not want any part of a younger project who has stalled. But Puljujarvi is a decent example of the potential return if Washington does move on from Burakovsky. The Capitals are unlikely to get a player back free from questions. That decision, if made, has some serious risk for MacLellan and he knows it.
Burakovsky has long struggled with confidence issues and to his credit has never shied from that. He works with a sports psychologist. He answered questions about trade rumors near the deadline honestly. He also played better the final six weeks of the season and won’t turn 25 until Feb. 9. Burakovsky seems like a good in-house fit to replace unrestricted free agent Brett Connolly’s 22 goals - or at least get into that neighborhood. He had 17 goals in his second NHL season in 2015-16.
But the negatives are there, too: The seven goals, 10 assists (17 points) Burakovsky posted in the first 55 games this season. The six healthy scratches. That $3.25 million is hard to stomach if you don’t have confidence the necessary production will be there. Decisions like this give GMs heartburn. But the Capitals appear prepared to move on from a talented player who has left them exhilarated and exasperated.
Connolly will not return to Washington, according to an NHL source. That’s not a huge surprise. The No. 6 pick in the 2010 draft had a career year with those 22 goals and did it with virtually no power-play time. That did not go unnoticed by potential suitors.
Once RFA Jakub Vrana gets his new contract, as expected, the Capitals will have around $7 million to sign five more bottom-six forwards and a depth defenseman. Maybe less. NHL teams don’t actually know for sure what the salary cap for next year is yet. They should finally find out this weekend.
But that’s too little, too late for Connolly, who admitted on April 26 that he was intrigued by the idea of a bigger role than Washington can give him and said he owed it to himself to listen if one is out there. At 27, why wouldn’t he think he can make a run at 25-to-30 goals if given more ice time and a spot on someone’s power play? That’s not going to happen here.
Braden Holtby contract talks
Spoke with Holtby at the Capital Pride Parade on June 8 and he understandably didn’t want to get into any contract discussion. He would only say he hadn’t heard anything about talks between the Capitals and agent David Kaye starting. That’s not a big deal yet. Nothing could be signed until July anyway. They have all summer and beyond if Holtby is fine negotiating during the season.
But we’re also talking about a Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy-winning goalie entering a contract year. The Capitals are in a tough spot. Top prospect Ilya Samsonov is totally unproven at the NHL level. Pheonix Copley had a nice rookie season as the primary backup, but it’s a giant leap to reach Holtby’s level.
But Nicklas Backstrom is also up for a new deal and other than new defenseman Radko Gudas’ $2.345 million hit, there is no money coming off the books next season. Can they afford to give Backstrom, a bargain at $6.7 million for almost a decade now, AND Holtby big extensions?
Watch closely what Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky gets on the open market on July 1. Holtby will have a good argument for a similar deal and if that reaches eight figures per year then Washington is in trouble. Trading Holtby is a non-starter when the Capitals expect to contend again for a Stanley Cup and Samsonov, a first-round pick in 2015, remains an unknown at this level. Barring a trade of another big contract at some point, the cap space for both players just isn't there. That can change at any time, but Holtby could be in limbo for a while yet.
The writing has been on the wall with this one. Smith-Pelly will not return next season, according to an NHL source. The unrestricted free agent was a Stanley Cup hero with seven goals in the 2018 postseason. But Smith-Pelly appeared in just 54 games (4 goals, 4 assists) before being waived and assigned to AHL Hershey. A tight salary-cap following the Hagelin trade had something to do with that. So did his conditioning early in the season. Tough situation. Smith-Pelly eventually returned to the NHL roster for the final three games of the first-round playoff series against Carolina and played on the fourth line.
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WASHINGTON -- Everything outside the damage framing his right eye was standard when Max Scherzer walked toward right field around 6:40 p.m. Wednesday. He went through his usual running routine before graduating to long toss with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez then moving into the bullpen, where Kurt Suzuki waited.
As Scherzer warmed, fans lined up against the silver rail in section 127. The second bullpen catcher, Nelson Robledo, sat on a folding chair. Martinez stood and moved his head left to right as warmup pitches sizzled past. Pitching coach Paul Menhart flanked Scherzer with a towel over his right shoulder. When Scherzer took a water break during warmups, Menhart took his towel, wrapped it around Scherzer’s neck then scrubbed the sweat from his head and bruised eye while looking every bit the part of corner man. Only the Q-tip and vaseline were absent.
At question when the day began was if Scherzer would even make it this far. Scherzer was still asleep when manager Davey Martinez met with reporters in the morning before the doubleheader against Philadelphia began. Martinez was under the impression then Scherzer would pitch later in the evening, but did not know that for sure until Scherzer woke up, called trainer Paul Lessard and said he was ready to go. Not long after he confirmed himself ready, Scherzer arrived at the park where he practiced bunting in the batting cage. He finished his session with swings and a shout of “Let’s go!”
A final exultant spin and slap of the glove followed an 86-mph slider that closed Scherzer’s night -- forever the “Blackeye game” -- and sent it into lore three hours after he warmed up. A day after becoming national news, and being laughed at by his wife, Erica, for bloodying himself in BP, Scherzer threw seven scoreless innings for an ascending Nationals team which swept a doubleheader from Philadelphia. The opener was a 6-2 win. The nightcap a 2-0 victory anchored by Scherzer’s ornery performance while the swelling under his eye jiggled.
Before he arrived Wednesday, Martinez decided to dispatch fresh black T-shirts which said, “Stay in the fight” on the front and “162+” on the back -- a creation from him and director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell. “I thought it was perfect timing to get them out,” Martinez said.
Asked about the “plus” on the back, Martinez added, “That’s what you play for.”
Such swagger would prompt eye-rolls three weeks ago when the Nationals staggered home from New York. Martinez’s job was in jeopardy -- to a degree. The season was in severe jeopardy. They are 15-7 since, a run good enough to push them three games under .500 for the first time since April 29. The spiraling Mets lost, so Washington hopped them into third place. The Nationals had not held that position since April 19.
Pitch 117 from Scherzer is one of the reasons they arrived in such a spot. He was tiring, J.T. Realmuto was up, and the tying run was on second. It was at-bat number 40 for Realmuto against Scherzer. General familiarity is one thing. To have faced an astute catcher that many times was another, which is why the final strike provided Scherzer so much sizzle when he left the mound.
“When Realmuto gets in the box, we've had a ton of history and we've faced each other so much, I just know it comes down to execution,” Scherzer said. “I was able to get ahead in the count and execute a good slider. That's where [Kurt Suzuki] and I, that just shows you where Zuk and I are at. I was praying for him to throw down a 1-2 slider and he called it. I was on the mound, just hey, just execute this, execute this, stay through this, don’t' get too far ahead of yourself, and was able to throw the pitch exactly the way I wanted to and get out of a jam and keep that a 1-0 ballgame.”
Realmuto became Scherzer’s 10th strikeout. Jean Segura made it to third base in the first inning. No other Phillies runner made it past second against Scherzer. His ERA has dropped to 2.62. He leads the National League in strikeouts. He doesn’t miss starts -- makes his “posts” as he calls them in old-time fashion -- whenever they come up. “Competitiveness” is always referenced when speaking reverently of Scherzer. Perhaps “reliability” is a more rewarding word. The first, presumably, leads to the latter.
“It’s probably one of the most impressive things -- I can’t let him hear me, I can’t toot Max too much to his face,” Brian Dozier said when looking for clearance in the clubhouse. “It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in awhile. He’s probably the best pitcher in our generation and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, got a broken nose, you always want the ball.”
“I was kind of joking with him, ‘Oh you’re throwing today?’ He kind of gave me the go-to-hell look. ‘Of course, I’m throwing today, what do you mean?’ That’s Max. It showed up today. He had really good stuff. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen.“
It was a visceral drama. Scherzer said the pain was limited, which left his pride likely more damaged than his face. Years of needling circled back at him following his viral gaffe in batting practice. Jokes about his appearance following a broken nose were made in the clubhouse. An NC State football helmet Trea Turner typically keeps in his locker was on the floor in front of Scherzer’s chair. A hand-written note was taped to a corner wall next to Scherzer’s locker with advice: “If you try bunting tonight, please do us all a favor and wear this.” The line to razz an incessant needler filled deep and quick.
“My phone's been blowing up, everybody calling and giving me flak,” Scherzer said. “I love it. If you can't talk trash on me right now, you never will.”
With that, he smiled, and the blood-filled pocket under his eye was raised. He could laugh 36 hours later after becoming a national punchline because showing up and getting it done is always a way to have the final say. He did both Wednesday.
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