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Caps GM Brian MacLellan is not worried about any disadvantage from the bye week, says the Cup is 'up for grabs'

Caps GM Brian MacLellan is not worried about any disadvantage from the bye week, says the Cup is 'up for grabs'

With a round-robin tournament to determine the top four seeds in each conference heading into the playoffs, it is fair to wonder what was the point of the regular season? Considering those top teams will get a bye and then go on to play a team that just won a series in the play-in round, one could certainly argue that the 24-team format the NHL will use when it returns to play actually puts the top teams at a disadvantage.

But you're not going to hear any complaining from Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

"I don't think there's a perfect solution here on the playoff," MacLellan said Friday in a video conference. "I think the league has done a reasonable good job of just trying to include all of the issues they can, and make it as competitive and compelling as possible. And I think it's very interesting how it could play out. It could be great to watch on TV."

Over the course of an 82-game regular season, there is incentive to finish high in the standings. The system is set up to try to give the top seeds a clear advantage in the playoffs in order to add meaning to the regular season. But that's not the system we have in 2020.

Each of the top four seeds in each conference receives a bye through the play-in round. Considering we don't know what teams are going to look like or how difficult it will be to get back up to game speed, that is a definite advantage. Even in a normal year, we see several upsets in the playoffs so the fact a team like the Caps are exempt from that is a definite boon. The problem is what happens after.

When the Caps take the ice in the round of 16, they will have played some exhibition games, three round-robin games to determine seeding and that's it. Their opponent will be coming off a playoff series. We may be calling it a play-in round, but that's just semantics. It's a do-or-die playoff series. It does not seem likely that Washington will be at the same intensity level or game speed as their opponent in that first round after three round-robin games.

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While MacLellan acknowledged the set up may provide the lower seeds with an advantage entering the round of 16, he thought the idea that it was unfair to the top seeds was overblown.

"[It] could be a slight disadvantage," he said. "You're going to play a few exhibition games and then you play a round-robin tournament. But I still think those games are going to be competitive against good teams. I mean you're playing Tampa, you're playing Boston, you're playing Philly - all real good teams. I don't know that it's going to be that big a deal for the next round, and they'll be playing competitive games. So I think it's a fairly level playing field. It's not perfect, but I think reasonably it's good."

Even if MacLellan is not buying the play-in teams getting a competitive advantage, he did acknowledge that there is not nearly as much incentive to earn the top seed considering there will be no home-ice advantage.

While being the "home team" will still earn teams a few slight advantages like getting the second line change, obviously with all the games being played in hub cities with no fans, the round-robin series won't be for "home ice."

“I don’t know, you’re in a hub city, what is home-ice advantage," MacLellan said. "You get last shift, you get your last change. I’m assuming that is a competitive advantage so seeding could become important. You would want that advantage throughout the playoffs. You look at Boston and Boston has probably earned to be a home ice, last change team throughout the playoffs, but they have to go through a mini-series to determine their seed. It’s important to a certain extent, but the fact that you are playing in a hub city lessens it a little bit.”

MacLellan is not going to come out and say this system puts Washington at a disadvantage, but there is no question there is a lot less on the line in the round-robin tournament than there is in the play-in rounds considering there is no home ice. But that fact is that we don't know what any of this is going to look like. All of this is unprecedented and anything can happen. For MacLellan, he's not going to worry about what advantages the Caps do or do not have because to him, the Cup is on the line and that's all he's focused on.

"I think the championship's up for grabs with the format is the way it is right now," MacLellan said. "A lot of teams could upset other teams and anything could happen, basically. And I think it would be entertaining, it would be compelling, and it'd be fun to watch. If you're one of the teams that gets upset, it might not be as fun. But it could be wildly entertaining."

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Alex Ovechkin 'not even thinking' about an extension as Capitals training camp begins

Alex Ovechkin 'not even thinking' about an extension as Capitals training camp begins

In a normal year, July 1 is the start of the NHL's league year. That is when free agency begins because it is when all expiring contracts have officially expired. It is also the day when players with one year remaining on their contracts can sign an extension.

As we all know, 2020 is not a normal year. Alex Ovechkin is on the final year of his contract, but with the 2019-20 season on pause, July 1 came and went with no fanfare and no talk about an extension for the best player in franchise history. Like the season itself, all such business was paused. After a new CBA was ratified by the league and the players, however, July 13 became the new day when players could sign extensions. That possibility seems to be nowhere on the mind of Ovechkin who has his sights set clearly on a second Stanely Cup.

Training camps began across the league on Monday as the NHL transitioned to Phase 3 of its return to play plan. After his first practice back, Ovechkin spoke with the media via Zoom and dismissed a question about a contract extension.

"Not even talking, not even thinking about it because right now we have lots of stuff to do," he said.

A flat salary cap for at least next year and likely the next two or three seasons makes it difficult to offer a long-term, big-money contract. For a player like Ovechkin, an exception will almost certainly be made, but that does not mean the process has not suddenly become much more complicated. Trying to fit a cap hit of somewhere around $9 or 10 million in addition to the several contracts already on the books is a daunting task for a veteran-heavy team. A flat cap means that long-term deals for older players won't take up a smaller percentage of the cap with every passing year.

COACHES ROUNDTABLE: HOW DO COACHES EARN THE TRUST OF SUPERSTARS?

Considering this, it's not surprising that this is an issue Ovechkin does not want to think about right now. While there was no guarantee Ovechkin would have re-signed on July 1 in a normal year, it seems unlikely the month of July would have passed by without the captain and future Hall-of-Famer putting pen to paper on a new contract. But that process is now much more complicated and Ovechkin just wants to focus on the task of winning a Cup.

"For us, for every team, every player wants to play for a Cup, right?" Ovechkin said. "We have that opportunity right now to go back and hope we going to win. Obviously, if you look at our roster, we have very good group of guys, experienced guys and talented guys. I'm looking forward to it."

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Coaches' Roundtable: How do coaches earn the trust of superstar players?

Coaches' Roundtable: How do coaches earn the trust of superstar players?

NBC Sports Washington brought together local coaches Ron Rivera (Washington football), Todd Reirden (Capitals), Scott Brooks (Wizards) and Mike Thibault (Mystics) to discuss the intricacies of their craft in a free-wheeling discussion hosted by Julie Donaldson. We present six days highlighting different themes of their conversation - experiences, stories and lessons shared from careers in coaching.  

One of the most important jobs of a head coach of a professional sports team is to build trust with players. This isn’t the pee-wees where coaches are teaching you how to play the game. A head coach must bring several professional men or women together and convince them that he can make that team successful. It’s about selling yourself to the team as much as it is leading it.
 
This is a task coaches like Scott Brooks and Todd Reirden know all too well.
 
Brooks took over as head coach of the Washington Wizards in 2016. Reirden, meanwhile, was promoted from associate coach to head coach after Barry Trotz resigned in the wake of the Capitals' Stanley Cup championship in 2018. Both coaches joined host Julie Donaldson along with Washington football head coach Ron Rivera and Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault in NBC Sports Washington’s Coaches' Roundtable.
 
Brooks inherited a team with two superstars in John Wall and Bradley Beal and immediately went about the task of teaching them how good the Wizards could be if those premier talents worked within the team’s structure. But that took work. 
 
“When you have superstar players, you have to form a relationship with them and have them have a good understanding that you need your teammates to help you even become even better of a superstar,” Brooks said. “I’ve always believed in good role players. If you can make them superstars in their roles, and I think the star players and the coaches can do that and allow that to happen, that makes the star players even better. It makes your team better. ... When they understand that your team has a chance to be special."
 
Brooks has now been the head coach in Washington for four seasons, leading the team to the playoffs twice. The Wizards did manage to make the cut for the resumption of the 2020 NBA season on July 30, so Brooks still has a chance to make it three out of four.
 
Reirden also inherited a talented roster with players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals were coming off a Stanley Cup championship when he took over, of course, and he had been with those same players since 2014 so his task was unique. He already had established relationships. 
 
“I thought the real challenge for me coming in and taking over the defending champion was to be able to relate to that and find different strategies,” Reirden said.
 
Reirden was with the Capitals as an assistant coach for four years under Trotz coaching the team’s defensemen. Now in his second season as head coach, Reirden has led the Caps to two Metropolitan Division titles and the team will be among the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference when the NHL’s season pause ends on Aug. 1. 
 
As a member of Trotz’s staff, Reirden knew the players already. Building the same level of trust with those players that Trotz had while convincing them that he, too, could lead them to the NHL mountaintop, however, remains was an unenviable task.

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“It was going to be a tough act to follow,” Reirden said.
 
But in many ways, that relationship with Trotz helped Reirden. In fact, much of Reirden’s preparation in taking over was learning from his own coaches.
 
“I think trust from players, it comes from honesty and as a player, I was fortunate enough to play for a coach by the name of Joel Quenneville, who is the second-winningest coach in the NHL history,” Reirden said of the current Florida Panthers coach who led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups last decade. “What he taught me as a player, and I didn’t always like to hear it, but it was honest evaluation of my game. And some days were some pretty long drives back to my apartment. I may have even shed a tear after some of the things he said to me. But at least I knew where I stood, and it allowed me to focus on what I needed to do to improve.”
 
That is a philosophy Brooks shares with Reirden after a discussion he once had with legendary UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden.
 
“I remember middle of my career, like in the middle of the 90s, I knew I wanted to get into coaching, so I had a meeting with Coach Wooden and it was the most surreal experience I've ever had,” Brooks said. “It was like a biblical figure. It’s like John Wooden. You've heard so much about fundamentals, so much about pyramids, so much about the first thing he taught his players, how to tie his shoe and put the shoes on so it wouldn't cause blisters. And I just remember one thing, one word that really just stood out, and he said 'honesty'. You want to be a good coach? Be honest with your players. And some of the tough conversations that I had with players or some of the tough conversations that coaches had with me and honesty was so important.”
 
Brooks added, “Sometimes you kind of want a little bit of a half-truth and the reason why you didn't play was because you couldn't guard anybody and you couldn't pass in positions. But you want honesty, and I think that helps gain your players’ trust.”
 
On the one hand, what is Brooks going to be able to teach Wall or Beal about the game of basketball that they don’t already know? What could Reirden possibly have to tell Ovechkin about scoring goals? They most want to be put in a position to succeed. 
 
As great as those players are, however, they can’t have that success without the team and both coaches agreed it takes that honesty to build up a player’s trust enough that they are willing to listen and play how they are coached. But that is a goal more realistic with buy-in from the top players. If they believe, their teammates will follow, too. 
 
“You cannot fake genuineness to the players and passion and the desire,” Reirden said. “They know whether you're trying to make them better, trying to make our team better. They know whether you're all in or not. They see right through you and I think that it's best to wear your passion on your sleeve and show up with a great game plan that involves everybody, involves your full team. Because none of us are winning without having a team in our sport.”

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