Takeaways from the Caps' celebrations & another award for Elias Pettersson
I have spent the better part of the last 24 hours—most of the last week, really—glued to my Instagram stories. I can't get enough of the Washington Capitals' Stanley Cup celebration.
Yes, I was reluctant to see the Capitals leave the Canucks behind as they moved out of the No-Cups Club. But with every beer they crush and every chorus of "We Are the Champions" that they sing, I get a little vicarious image in my mind's eye of what it'll be like if the Canucks ever grab that brass ring.
Washington's cast of characters has been just amazing, too. We're all lucky that Ovi got married last summer, because his wife Nastya has been so diligent about documenting every moment of the celebration.
Then we've got TJ Oshie—the heart-and-soul guy who, at one point, asked fans to stop chanting his name and go with "Let's Go Caps" instead, but who also showed off a surreal ability to chug beer through his jersey at the rally after Tuesday's parade.
The breakout star has been Jakub Vrana, bringing the LOLs.
I love the way the players have taken the party to the fans—and the way the fans have responded with so much joy, and no bad behaviour.
After the incredible bonding experience of this past week, it's hard not to imagine the team finding a way to bring back Barry Trotz and John Carlson. The 2018-19 salary cap number is expected to be announced early next week and should jump pretty significantly, which will help, but Brian MacLellan will have some work to do while the Cup is making its tour to everywhere from Russia to Australia. The Caps currently have 16 players signed for next season at a total cap hit of just under $64 million. RFAs include Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly, while Jay Beagle and Michal Kempny are UFAs along with Carlson.
George McPhee may have drafted most of the Caps' current stars but wow—MacLellan's acquisitions of Smith-Pelly and Kempny sure paid off this year. Both players were precariously close to being out of the league.
• Smith-Pelly was bought out of the second year of a contract that paid him a mere $1.3 million by the New Jersey Devils last summer. He signed a two-way contract with the Caps for the league minimum but stuck with the big club all year, collecting 16 points in 75 games during the regular season before scoring seven goals in the playoffs. That tied him with Lars Eller for fourth on the Caps, and he got better as the playoffs went along. Two of his goals came in the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning, then he scored in three straight games in the last three games of the Final.
Smith-Pelly turns 26 tomorrow. I suspect one of his birthday presents will be a nice new one-way contract.
• Kempny may have turned out to be the best deal from the 2018 trade deadline. Acquired for a third-round pick from Chicago, where he had been a frequent healthy scratch, Kempny quickly settled into the regular rotation in Washington, usually with John Carlson.
With the Blackhawks in 2016-17, Kempny got into one playoff game in their first-round sweep against Nashville, playing 8:51. This season, he played 24 playoff games and averaged 17:51 of ice time for Washington, on a contract that paid him $900,000.
Kempny turns 28 in September. I'm sure the Caps would love to have him back but as a UFA, he may be able to command more than they can pay on the open market on July 1.
Smith-Pelly and Kempny show that you don't have to play for the Vegas Golden Knights to turn your career around as long as you're given the right situation and opportunity. Cap issues forced Washington to create some roster holes last summer but rather than destroying their depth, they came back stronger thanks to these role players and increased opportunity for younger players like Vrana, Tom Wilson and Chandler Stephenson.
Speaking of Tom Wilson—he's two years older than Jake Virtanen and was also a first-round draft pick, taken 16th overall in 2012. He's way ahead of Jake in penalty minutes—even when he was averaging 7:56 a game in his rookie season in 2013-14, he put up 151 minutes and has never been below 133 in a season in his career. And obviously, his recklessness has made him a lightning rod around the league. But he has gradually seen his responsibilities increase, year by year, and broke the 10-goal mark for the first time this season with 14 as he saw lots of top-line duties and his ice time spiked to an average of 15:59 in the regular season.
Wilson also scored twice in the Stanley Cup Final—and toned things down, relatively speaking, after he came back from his three-game suspension at the end of the Pittsburgh series. Barry Trotz continued to trust him enough to play him in his regular role, and he rewarded his coach's faith by playing his game without crossing the line.
I don't want to see Jake end up on the speed dial list at the Department of Player Safety like Wilson is, but if Virtanen can work to channel a similar mix of skill and physicality, the Canucks could have a very useful player on their hands in a couple of years.
While I'm on the topic of the Canucks' young players, Elias Pettersson picked up another trophy on Tuesday, winning Europe's "Young Player of the Year" award. Check out the competition he was up against:
You can hear Elias' thoughts on the award and his season at about the 3:30 mark here:
Word is, that cast is coming off his broken thumb next week.
And finally—start marking your calendar. Here's where we should see Pettersson get into NHL action for the first time, this September:
The full regular-season schedule is expected to be released next week.