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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Philadelphia Flyers - Can Carter Hart fix their goaltending woes?

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Philadelphia Flyers - Can Carter Hart fix their goaltending woes?

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.  

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Philadelphia Flyers. 

Few teams were as confusing last year as the Flyers. They began the year a lethargic and uninspired 12-15-4 and fired coach Dave Hakstol in mid-December. After a dead cat bounce under interim coach Scott Gordon, Philadelphia then went winless in eight games in early January. They gamely finished the year 22-15-2 and for a time were even on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race into early March. But it was too late. They finished a thoroughly mediocre 37-37-8 with 82 points and in sixth place in the Metro. 

The roster just wasn’t deep enough and help in goal from rookie Carter Hart came too late. It was all somewhat baffling given the talent on hand. This year, with an experienced new coach in Alain Vigneault, a full season expected from Hart and some offseason upgrades, Philadelphia should make a darkhorse run at an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

It all starts with Hart. An organization that has been inept in goal for well over 20 years, finally has a top prospect who looks like the real deal. Hart had a .917 save percentage in 31 games after his promotion from the AHL. He’s still just 21 so there’s no guarantee he won’t fall victim to the Flyers’ goalie curse. But Hart has the pedigree to be a top-tier NHL goalie. He’s in line, for now, to split the gig with veteran Brian Elliott, which should ease some of the pressure. 

If Hart is as good as advertised, though, there is talent to work with in front of him. A top line of Claude Giroux (22 goals, 63 assists), Sean Couturier (33 goals, 43 assists) and Travis Konecny (24 goals, 25 assists) should be one of the best in the league. Couturier, especially, has become a terror of a two-way player and was sixth in the Selke Trophy voting. Konecny is still just 22, the vanguard of young talent in the organization. 

The Flyers tried to upgrade the second line and did with center Kevin Hayes coming from Winnipeg as a free agent. The deal was a bit much with a cap hit at $7.14 million for seven years. Hayes is a good player, but has never had more than 55 points and has topped 25 goals just once. That’s a steep price. But it does make Philadelphia deeper. 

Jakub Voracek is still good to make a run at 70-to-80 points and maybe playing with Hayes helps get him back there. His career with the Flyers has been a yo-yo with point totals bouncing from the low 60s every other year to the low 80s. Last year Voracek was at 66. Notch that a little higher and Philadelphia will be a tough matchup with two powerhouse lines. At 23, Oskar Lindblom (17 goals, 16 assists) could make a big leap playing with Hayes and Voracek. 

Another key young player is Nolan Patrick, who figures to be the third-line center. At 21 just before the season starts, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft has taken his lumps in two full NHL seasons. But the talent is there. If he can make that jump then the Flyers will really be moving in the right direction. Patrick should have James van Riemsdyk on his line and while his numbers dipped last year (27 goals, 21 assists) in just 66 games, there’s no reason to think he can’t rebound to the 60-point level he’s reached before. 

It’s the blue line that’s in question. The Flyers traded Radko Gudas to the Capitals for Matt Niskanen, which 18 months earlier would have been an easy win. But Gudas got better last year at age 29 and Niskanen declined alarmingly before a brief rebound near the end of the season and will be 33 in December. And he’s projected on their top pair with Ivan Provorov, who seemed to take a step backward in his age 21/22 season. 

It’s a young group with Travis Sandheim, 23, on the second pair and the promising Phillippe Myers, 22, likely on the third pair after playing 21 games as a rookie. 

Maybe that’s why Philadelphia traded for Niskanen and San Jose’s Justin Braun, 32, who also seemed to lose a step last season with the Sharks despite playing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Shayne Gostisbehere, 26 now, is an offensive dynamo but has stagnated. This is a weird mix of players. It’s on Vigneault and his coaching staff to get them to gel. 

The Capitals and Penguins are beginning to show signs of age. The Devils and Rangers made splashy moves in free agency and the draft and via trade. The Islanders virtually stayed pat, but they finished second in the division and Barry Trotz won the Jack Adams Award. Carolina reached the Eastern Conference Final and probably has the youngest talent in the division. 

The Flyers are getting lost in the shuffle in this wide-open Metro. Only Columbus, which lost its two best players, has as many questions. But there is talent here and Philadelphia was a much better, more cohesive team in the final three months of the season. 

Can that carry over under a new coach who knows how to build teams? Vigneault took the Rangers to the Cup Final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2015. Making a run at the playoffs and seeing legitimate development from young players like Hart and Sandheim and Patrick and Lindblom would be a rousing success. Don’t discount them.   

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How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov means the Capitals will begin their brutal October schedule without one of their top centers for the first three games. There is a silver lining, however, in terms of the salary cap. Generally when a player is suspended, his cap hit continues to count against the team even though he is not playing. According to a team official, however, because the suspension is not a Department of Player Safety issue, his cap hit will not count during this suspension giving Washington a massive $7.8 million worth of cap room to work with for the first few days of the season.

For a team facing some serious cap issues heading into the season, that is a huge break.

Initially, it appeared a Capitals team that was already over the cap would have to find a way to shed enough salary to afford another player to replace Kuznetsov or go the first three games without an extra forward at all. Instead, the extra cap room essentially gives Washington another week to make the tough roster decisions it will ultimately need to make to get under the cap.

“This is something we have to deal with and react accordingly as a team and putting the best players on the ice in the best spots,” head coach Todd Reirden said Saturday. “We’ll start to get a look at some different combinations.”

It is important to note that the Caps will not be banking cap space. This will work in much the same way as long-term injured reserve. Kuznetsov will not count against the cap for the first three games, but Washington will not be recouping the cap space it will not be using in his absence.

Eventually the Caps will have to pick a fourth line and move Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd or Brendan Leipsic to Hershey. Djoos’ $1.25 million salary will force someone on defense to get traded or waived. Now, however, those decisions can be made based on actual regular-season games against NHL competition rather than based on training camp projections and preseason games.

This also could be an opportunity for Washington to get younger players into a game they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

“There’s going to be some opportunity potentially for some different guys,” Reirden said. “They should take advantage of an opportunity here that is going to be in front of them.”

The team has raved about Martin Fehervary since returning to camp, does he get one of the first three games? Does the team bring in a prospect forward to play center with Kuznetsov out? Getting Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek playing time this season is a goal for the team as well. This could give general manager Brian MacLellan an opportunity to get one of them a game without having to place Pheonix Copley on waivers to free up space.

One of the biggest storylines of the Caps’ training camp was the salary cap and how the team intended to get under the ceiling by Oct. 1. The Kuznetsov suspension is not good news for the team, but it does give MacLellan an extra week to make the really tough decisions.

“There’s a lot of things that can possibly happen,” MacLellan said on Thursday during media day. “We’re going to try to play it out until the end. If something makes sense in the meantime, I think we’d pursue it.”

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NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

The NHL will suspend Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov for three games for conduct detrimental to the league, according to a press release from the NHL. He is not expected to appeal. 

Kuznetsov, 27, tested positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May playing for Russia and was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation. 

That normally would not affect his NHL contract. Under the CBA, “drugs of abuse” like cocaine don’t require a suspension. Instead, the league steers players toward treatment. 

Kuznetsov agreed to take advantage of the NHL Players Association’s treatment programs and extra testing. He also arrived in Washington much earlier than normal for European players in August to take part in informal workouts.  

But Kuznetsov misled the NHL and the Capitals during an investigation of a video that surfaced on May 27 showing him in a Las Vegas hotel room with a white powdery substance on a table directly in front of him. Kuznetsov insisted he’d never used cocaine, which wasn’t true giving the timing of the failed drug test at Worlds. 

The failed IIHF drug test proved that false. Kuznetsov’s positive test came from a sample taken on May 26 the day Russia played the Czech Republic for the bronze medal at Worlds in Slovakia. That was the day before the video appeared on social media. 

“We’ve had discussions after, and I think for the most part, he’s been truthful,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said at media day on Thursday. “I think we want to get him in a spot where he’s going to make a different choice next time.”

Kuznetsov’s salary-cap hit is $7.8 million per season, but this year his base salary and bonuses amount to $8.4 million. He is expected to forfeit some salary for the suspension and his hit will still count against Washington for the time he is out. 

On May 31 the NHL released a statement by deputy commissioner Bill Daly saying the league had reviewed the video, interviewed Kuznetsov and cleared him. 

"While we certainly do not condone or endorse some of the decisions he made on the night in question, Mr. Kuznetsov's account of the events that transpired aligns with other information we have been able to gather, and we have found no basis to question his representations with respect to what did -- and what did not -- occur," Daly said. 

 The Capitals also met with Kuznetsov to hear his side of the story and released a statement attributed to him that same day. 

"While I have never taken illegal drugs in my life and career, I would like to publicly apologize to the Capitals, my teammates, our fans and everyone else, for putting myself in a bad situation," Kuznetsov said. "This was a hard lesson for me to learn."

Kuznetsov was provisionally suspended by the IIHF just two weeks later on June 13 after the failed test. That was upheld and made public on Aug. 23. That led to an in-person interview with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week and the subsequent suspension. 

The Capitals expressed both disappointment and support for Kuznetsov. MacLellan was asked if cocaine use affected Kuznetsov’s play during an up-and-down season where he still finished with 72 points. 

“I mean, that’s hard to say. You’d have to ask him that,” MacLellan said. “There’s no indication that those are correlated. It could’ve had an effect, or other stuff could’ve had an effect.”

No teammate said Thursday that Kuznetsov had to address the group about his cocaine use and the consequences. He is banned from international competition until June of 2023, which means Kuznetsov will miss the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing if NHL players are allowed to participate. 

“That’s ultimately up to him. Our job right now is we support him,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “There’s always consequences to actions. But main thing that we want to be there for (him) as teammates is to help him come through stronger, whether it’s off the ice, on the ice, to support him to make himself and make our team stronger.”

Kuznetsov will miss games against the defending champion St. Louis Blues on Oct. 2, the New York Islanders on Oct. 4 and the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 5.

“It’s very unfortunate what happened,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But at the same time for us as friends, I think it’s really important we support him no matter what and we’re going to fight this together as a family here.”

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