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End of season review: Matt Niskanen

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End of season review: Matt Niskanen

Throughout the coming weeks, CSNWashington.com Capitals Insider Chuck Gormley will evaluate the 2014-15 performance of each player on the Caps roster. One breakdown will occur every day in alphabetical order. Today: Matt Niskanen

Position: Defense

Shoots: Right

Age: 28 [turns 29 Dec. 6]

Ht/Wt: 6-2, 200

Games: 82

Goals: 4

Assists: 27

Points: 31

Penalty minutes: 47

Plus-Minus: Plus-7

Average Ice Time: 22:21

Playoff games: 14

Goals: 0

Assists: 4

Points: 4

Penalty minutes: 0

Plus-Minus: Minus-2

Average Ice Time: 23:47

Contract Status: 6 years remaining on 7-year, $40.25 million contract [2015-16 salary: $5.75 million; cap hit: $5.75 million]

Strengths: Entering this season many wondered if Niskanen could duplicate the career-high numbers he put up in Pittsburgh the year before, especially with the Capitals investing seven years and more than $40 million in him. Niskanen fell short from a statistical standpoint [from 10 goals, 36 assists in 2013-14 to 4 goals, 27 assists this season] but under Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden he was used in a different capacity, logging more shorthanded minutes [187:37] than at any point in his career while logging fewer power-play minutes [87:17] than he received in Pittsburgh. That scenario could change next season if power-play specialist Mike Green does not return, but Niskanen made a significant impact on the Caps’ blue line this season, logging more minutes [1,833:01] than everyone on the club but John Carlson [1,891:58].  “My role was different this year than in the past,” Niskanen said. “A lot more responsibility playing against tougher opponents, more minutes. It was a real challenge [playing on the penalty kill] and I thought I grew a lot. I’m glad I paid attention to all those meetings the last seven years. It was nice to get some reps there.”

Room for improvement: Overall, Niskanen said he thought he had a “pretty successful” season, but acknowledged there are areas he can be better.  “Like always, I try to be realistic with myself with how things went,” he said. “There were moments where I thought I was really good and a few moments when I had some real blunders. That’s part of the growth, recognizing your mistakes and where to be better. It’s a constant process.” Niskanen said he had an ankle issue that “bugged” him for some time and had an X-ray on his hand, but said neither injury prevented him from playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career, along with all 14 playoff games. Niskanen’s defensive play seemed to dip in the post-season, reflected in his minus-2 rating. Interestingly, Niskanen said he lost 10 pounds from the start of the season to its end and noted the importance of beefing up this summer and maintaining his weight through an entire season. “I’d like to improve on everything I do, my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said. “Physically, this is a big summer for me. I’d like to get stronger. That’s always going to be a battle for me. I’m probably an average sized defenseman in the league now. If I can be a little bit stronger and be a little heavier in the corners and in front of the net that’s going to be beneficial to my overall game and handling bigger forwards. I lost quite a bit of muscle and I’m hoping with a good training routine and nutrition I can keep my strength up at end of the season.”

Memorable Moment: Niskanen’s clean but ferocious hit on Flyers rookie forward Scott Laughton on Jan. 14 was one of the best in the NHL this season. Niskanen saw Laughton with his head down and flattened him with a shoulder to the chest and chin of Laughton, who did not return for the third period. A few weeks later, on Feb. 8,  Niskanen honored the hockey code by agreeing to fight Laughton, who wanted a payback for the hit. “He got a chance to feel better about himself,” Niskanen said.

Quotable: “It hurts the way it ended. That sucks. There’s no sugar-coating that. But team-wide we got a lot better this year. We grew a lot. I think all of us truly believe this was maybe going to be our year. That’s what hurts. What really sucks is you gotta go through that whole 82-game process again before you get another crack at it. You have to wait a whole calendar year before you get another chance. That hurts.” – Niskanen on breakup day

2015-16 Expectations: With some work in the weight room this summer Niskanen should be better prepared to handle some of the NHL’s bigger forwards next season, when he likely will be reunited with Karl Alzner on the Caps’ second pairing. He said he’s encouraged by the growth he saw in the club this season and the potential of going farther next spring. “It was good to see a lot of guys really commit to being better,” he said. “I tried to come in here with a clean slate and fresh mind and not judge people before I really got to know them for myself. There were some perceptions about the group here with work habits and consistency and I thought as a group we really committed to getting better and I think we grew a lot in that department, just being better professionals. That’s a good base to have, that work ethic and commitment to finding ways to get better. More specifically, defensively it was the best year for this organization for a while and that’s more than just a player or two. Without the puck we had guys that were really, really committed and that’s good to see. … When things got really tough we played better. We had our moments when we weren’t sharp all the time, but when we really needed to win and we got challenged we seemed to  play our best game, That’s a good sign and a good trait for a team to have that kind of culture and attitude.”

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Caps GM Brian MacLellan addresses latest Andre Burakovsky trade rumors

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Caps GM Brian MacLellan addresses latest Andre Burakovsky trade rumors

Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky dodges trade rumors like Indiana Jones escaped giant rolling stones.

When Burakovsky made it through the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline still with Washington it appeared he was here to stay a while longer. He even played better down the stretch. But that might not have been enough to save him. 

Multiple NHL sources said Wednesday that Burakovsky would likely be dealt at this weekend’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. There is no question he is drawing interest from teams around the league.  

“We'd like to keep him around, but obviously his name is out there a little bit, so we do talk to some teams about him,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in a conference call on Thursday. “But we're not going to move him unless we get something we're comfortable with back.”

MacLellan, as blunt a general manager as there is in the NHL, might be employing semantics there. The Capitals are trying to get what they can and won’t undercut their own leverage by saying Burakovsky is out the door.

Burakovsky has frustrated coaches and executives alike in Washington. He flashes great potential and has the pedigree to be a solid middle-six forward. But he’s been stuck on 12 goals three years in a row and can’t seem to find a consistent role. Last year he was a healthy scratch six times. 

Injuries played some role in that in previous years. But Burakovsky hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunities, either. Yet he has also come up with some incredible goals. Three times he’s scored in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs. No one can forget his goals against Tampa Bay in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final that secured Washington’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final. He’s also entering his age-25 season and had 17 goals in his second season in the NHL. 

But with a $3.25 million qualifying offer due Monday and the salary cap possibly tighter than expected, Washington might not have a choice even if it has a last-second change of heart on trading Burakovsky. 

It’s not know exactly what kind of deal the Capitals are pursuing: A one-for-one deal with a player who has his own issues? A mix of draft picks and prospects who won’t contribute to a team in “win-now” mode? Washington could always pull back – as they did at the deadline. But without knowing what MacLellan feels he needs from a Burakovsky trade it’s hard to know what would give him another chance to stay.

MacLellan wouldn’t even commit to tendering Burakovsky that $3.25 million qualifying offer by Monday’s deadline. He said Washington will take a look at the salary cap once the NHL gets around to announcing it hopefully by Saturday at the draft. Then they’ll check back with the agents of all their RFAs – Jakub Vrana is safe - and decide how to proceed. 

But if they don’t qualify Burakovsky, the one other RFA they have the rights to who would draw interest around the league, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign anywhere. Hard to see how that benefits the Capitals to lose an asset they claim to value for nothing. Time is running short.

“Andre had a frustrating year this year, but I think he finished it up well,” MacLellan said. “I think from the trade deadline on, I thought he had a good playoffs. We like the player. There's been some inconsistencies there, but when he's on his game, he's a good player.”

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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

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Uncertainty over NHL salary cap has Caps GM Brian MacLellan frustrated

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had a number in his head. It is the most important one for any NHL executive heading into the offseason: $83 million. 

That was the expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season and – with some small margin for error – the amount MacLellan and his staff used to formulate their offseason plan. But it is June 20 and the number that was originally at $83 million could drop to as low as $81.5 million, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman. 

Given that Washington has some carryover for bonuses and overages from last season worth about $1.150 million, it could be working with a cap number as low as $80.35 million. That is not ideal for a team where every dollar could spell the difference between upgrading its middle-six forwards or adding a veteran fourth-line player. 

The NHL is expected to come to an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association soon and let teams know the number by Saturday, the second day of the entry draft in Vancouver. That’s a few days later than normal, however, and forces GMs to make decisions during the draft regarding trades and picking prospects they otherwise might not.   

"It's frustrating. We've been projecting using that 83 (million dollars) number for the last part of the year,” MacLellan told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “At some point, we switched back to the 82.5 because there was some rumblings there, and now it seems to be going back a little further. I know it seems like it's not a large amount of dollars, but it does impact teams that are right at the number as far as salary.”

On an $82 million cap, the Capitals have about $9.7 million in room according to the great web site CapFriendly.com. But they need to sign restricted free agent Jakub Vrana and add four other bottom-six forwards and a depth defenseman. That is an extremely tight fit and might rule out some free agent options MacLellan had interest in. 

The free-agent “interview” period begins Sunday when teams can talk to agents of pending free agents and gauge what their demands will be and if they are a fit when the market opens on July 1. 

That, in turn, effects negotiations with Vrana and any other RFAs (Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos) that Washington might want to bring back. Burakovsky is likely to be traded at the draft this weekend, according to multiple NHL sources with knowledge of Washington’s thinking. A further budget crunch would seem to seal his fate.  

MacLellan wouldn’t confirm that and even said “we like the player.” But Burakovsky is due a $3.25 million qualifying offer by Monday so the decision might have been made for them. If the cap is the worst-case scenario ($81.5 million) the Capitals are in a real bind. But they’d like to know for sure.   

“When you see it go down to maybe 81.5, I think there's a pause on our part,” MacLellan said. “We want to see the number before we move forward because it's going to affect our roster decisions even on the bottom end - on fourth line and what we have to do going forward because the margins are that slim for us."

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