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Ovi nets career goal No. 493 to break 0-0 tie vs. Sabres

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Ovi nets career goal No. 493 to break 0-0 tie vs. Sabres

Alex Ovechkin netted career goal No. 493 to break a scoreless tie against Buffalo. Watch it here.

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Who will the Caps' protect in the expansion draft? Breaking down The Hockey News' projection

Who will the Caps' protect in the expansion draft? Breaking down The Hockey News' projection

Just like with Vegas, the Seattle expansion draft is fascinating. There are so many different factors to consider when thinking about who teams will want to protect and who Seattle could be interested in. I can’t get enough. So of course when The Hockey News publishes a projection of the Caps’ 2021 protection list, I’m all over it.

As a refresher, the Seattle expansion draft will have the same rules as in 2017. Seattle will select one player from each team, except Vegas which is exempt. Teams will have the option of protecting either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight total skaters and one goalie.

Making a protected list for 2021 requires a few projections to be made just with the Caps’ roster itself. For the purpose of this exercise, Steven Ellis, who wrote the projection, assumes all restricted free agents will remain with the team. Unrestricted free agents are either left off the list or kept with their current team. Nicklas Backstrom, for example, is considered a Capital based on the likely scenario that he is re-signed.

You can read the full projection and explanation here.

Ellis makes the correct assumption that the Caps will protect seven forwards and three defensemen over eight skaters. Protecting eight skaters only makes sense if you have a handful of star defensemen who must be protected. The vast majority of teams will elect the option of protecting 10 skaters instead of eight and the Caps should be no exception.

Keeping all that in mind, let's breakdown Ellis' list by position.

Goalie
Ilya Samsonov

Knowing that Father Time is undefeated and that the team’s top prospect is a goalie, Samsonov seems the likely choice here. The one quibble I have is the notion that Holtby is still with Washington and left exposed. Ellis acknowledges in his reasoning that keeping Holtby would be difficult, but he seems to assume that they will and keep him as the main starter before exposing him in 2021.

That is not going to happen.

Washington’s salary cap situation is going to make it nearly impossible to re-sign Holtby, but if he does re-sign it will be at the expense of Samsonov and not in tandem with him. You do not give the type of contract Holtby will command to a player you intend to replace in another year. If you are Holtby, you do not accept that contract without some sort of guarantee the team is committed to you long-term. For most teams that would result in a no-movement clause, but Holtby will not get one because MacLellan simply does not give them out. There is no player currently on the Capitals roster who has one and there were no players who had one in the 2017 expansion draft.

Also, if the Caps do somehow manage to convince Holtby to sign at a number the team can afford and without a no-movement clause, you do not simply leave him exposed and let him get taken for nothing. If he walks after this season as a free agent, fine, but there is no way he re-signs just to be exposed later. It makes no sense for the team or the player.

Defensemen
John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov
Michal Kempny

As per the rules, we are assuming Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are still with the team and Radko Gudas is not. Also, per my understanding, Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary should be exempt as second-year players.

Let's get two things out of the way. First, Carlson will and should be protected. He would have to decline to a precipitous degree for this even to be worth discussing and if he does, he won’t be taken anyway. He will be protected, end of story.

Second, let's relax with the Orlov hate.

I am not an Orlov hater. I know a lot of people reading this projection will say Orlov is not worth protecting and this will be a good way to get out from the last two years of his contract and his $5.1 million cap hit. Orlov absolutely has top-four skill and if you don’t believe that, there’s nothing more I can do to convince you. The sample size is large enough at this point that you either believe it or you don’t.

Given his cap hit, this is another player whose future will be decided before 2021. By that point, Orlov will either have shown that he is worth protecting or he will have been moved already. With how tight the team is against the cap, I do not think MacLellan will wait until the expansion draft and keep his fingers crossed Orlov gets taken. When I see Orlov still on the team in 2021, I have to agree with Ellis and protect him.

That leaves one more spot. I am taking Djoos out of it as he is under-sized and looks more and more like a third-pair NHL defenseman. Jensen has value as not only a top-four player but a right-shot one to boot. Given how he struggled last season after getting acquired by Washington, I think it is reasonable at this point to assume that Kempny or Siegenthaler may be more valuable to the team by 2021.

I am very high on Siegenthaler’s potential and he will only be 24 by the time of the expansion draft. Kempny will turn 31 before the start of the 2021-22 season. Add in the fact that he will be entering the final year of his contract, I would lean more towards protecting Seigenthaler over him.

Forwards
Nicklas Backstrom
Lars Eller
Carl Hagelin
Evgeny Kuznetsov
Alex Ovechkin
Jakub Vrana
Tom Wilson

It should first be noted that this projection was done before the unfortunate news of Kuznetsov’s IIHF suspension after testing positive for cocaine. There certainly is growing scrutiny around him, but I do not think it changes much. I have the same opinion of Kuznetsov as I do about Orlov. If the team wants to move on from him, they will have decided to do so long before 2021. If he remains with the Caps by the time of the expansion draft it will be because he has rebounded and put his troubles behind him. Since we are assuming he is still a Capital for this exercise, I am still protecting him.

Like Ellis, I believe MacLellan will be able to re-sign both Ovechkin and Backstrom and if he does, both will be protected. Even if both players are starting to show signs of decline, they will be big enough names to garner interest from Seattle and you have to protect them because of what they mean to the franchise.

I only have one quibble with Ellis’ forward list and that is Hagelin. Hagelin will be 33 by the start of the 2021-22 season. Protecting a bottom-six winger who is 33 is a tough sell for me, especially given that his greatest attribute is his speed. When he starts to decline, it is going to happen fast. Richard Panik may be entering his first season as a Cap, but he is three years younger than Hagelin so he would be my pick.

That means Oshie is left unprotected. Oshie will be 34 by that point, he'll still have a whopping four more years left on his contract at $5.75 million and, given the way he plays, he is going to have a heck of a lot of tread on those tires. He is not going to be top-six Oshie at that point in his career and unfortunately probably will not be living up to his cap hit either. You leave him exposed because he probably won't be taken and even if he is, it may save you from what will probably be some rough years at the end of that contract.

So there you have it. Overall, a pretty good job by Ellis and I would only add only some minor tweaks, namely replace Hagelin with Panik, Kempny with Siegenthaler and do not assume Holtby will be exposed because he will be gone by that point and the era of Samsonov will have already begun.

No doubt this projection is going to change multiple times before 2021, but that’s what makes the expansion draft so fun.

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International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

The Capitals have a problem. 

With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract. 

No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated. 

That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.

Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have. 

But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise. 

According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are. 

This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players. 

To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington. 

These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.   

His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.   

Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left. 

The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave. 

Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty. 

Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it. 

Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close. 

It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February. 

Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game. 

But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends. 

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