Harris: Capital improvement plan a hit with Kevin Shattenkirk

March 5, 2017 GMT

Already arguably the most talented team in the National Hockey League, the Washington Capitals topped the list of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline period, making an already loaded roster even better.

Now, the Caps have had great talent for years — yet always fallen short in the playoffs. That may happen again this season. But that’s a story for April, May and June. For now, the focus has to be on the team’s acquisition of St. Louis Blues offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

As Bruins general manager Don Sweeney put it, the Capitals pushed all their chips into the center of the table in the deal that delivered them the ex-Boston University blueliner — sending the Blues former Boston College star Zach Sanford, a first-round draft pick, a conditional second-rounder and two promising minor leaguers.

That’s a big price for a rental player, even one with Shattenkirk’s passing and shooting skills. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and could conceivably almost triple his $2.59 million salary.

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The Capitals know that their window for winning a Stanley Cup will not remain open forever, not with superstar Alex Ovechkin turning 32 during next fall’s training camp, and this is a move designed to win now.

If nothing else, Shattenkirk will give the Caps an even more potent power play. It was already very good, and probably should have been better with the likes of Ovechkin, the underrated Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie. Washington was clicking at 21.8 percent before the deal. After scoring one power-play goal in each of Shattenkirk’s first two games, it climbed to 22.0, No. 5 in the league.

“He looked good on the power play,” Caps GM Brian MacLellan said after Shattenkirk’s debut. “He set up Ovie a couple of times for good shots. He has a real good feel to him. He sees the ice well. it’s pretty exciting to see him play that way. He was a good fit for our team and what we we’re looking for.”

Shattenkirk sounds thrilled by the prospect of setting up those deadly Ovechkin one-timers.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of good weapons in St. Louis for along time, but he’s one of the greatest goal scorers of all time. For me, I’ve just got to learn how to make that pass and I think I’ll be all right.”

Shattenkirk will be paired with stay-at-home defenseman Brooks Orpik — he of the cheap shot that ruined Loui Eriksson’s first year as a Bruin.

“They can complement each other, because one is a physical defender and the other is a poised puck-moving defender who can defend as well,” said Washington coach Barry Trotz, who can send out the best blueliner pairings in the NHL: John Carlson with Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov with Karl Alzner and Shattenkirk-Orpik.

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“The three pairs have got really good balance,” Trotz said. “They’ve got a little bit of bite to them, a little hit of weight, a little bit of offense and a little bit of defense. All of them are well-schooled on both sides of the puck.”

The Capitals are equally well set with forwards and certainly in goal, where Braden Holtby led the NHL with a 1.91 goals-against average entering Friday’s games.

The Caps just have to survive what will be a very difficult first two rounds of the playoffs to make it out of the Metropolitan Division. Last season, despite leading the league by a wide margin with 120 points, the team bowed out against the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game second-round series.

Coming from the Blues, a team that perennially fell short of expectations, Shattenkirk knows there are no guarantees in the playoffs. But be also knows what is possible in Washington, which boasts one of the strongest NHL rosters in many years. He’s merely trying to fit in with this powerhouse of a team.

“In my mind, I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” Shattenkirk said. “I just want to make sure I’m doing what I do best. That’s why they brought me in. They didn’t bring me in to save anything. They’re the best team in the NHL right now.”

And, maybe, this will finally be their year.

This week’s B’s timeline

Tomorrow, at Ottawa, 7:35 p.m. — This is the first of three remaining games against the Senators — contests that could decide the playoff fate of each team and quite possibly be a first-round preview. They meet again twice at the Garden. The clubs have played just once previously this season, the B’s bowing 3-1 in Ottawa on Nov. 24.

Wednesday, vs. Detroit, 8:05 p.m. — Barring a miracle finish, the Red Wings’ 25-year streak of making the playoffs will come to an end. (The Bruins have the NHL record of 29 from 1968-96). The Wings entered the weekend in last place in the East. The B’s, 2-0-1 vs. Detroit this season, cannot allow these two points to escape them.

Saturday, vs. Philadelphia, 1:05 p.m. — Speaking of desperation, the Flyers will be feeling it. After an oddly uneven campaign, they have a shot at the East’s No. 2 wild card spot. The B’s are 1-0-1 vs. Philly, winning 6-3 in their last clash on Jan. 14, as Brad Marchand posted two goals and three assists.

HABS ADD PUNCH BUT NOT OF SCORING VARIETY

The natives are not happy in Montreal as the trade deadline passed with a size upgrade only. The Montreal Gazette’s Stu Cowen described the Habs as a team with three fourth lines. (Actually an improvement over last season, when Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur said the Canadiens had four fourth lines).

Cowen pointed out the remarkable factoid that in the month of February only four Canadiens forwards scored a goal: Max Pacioretty, Alex Radulov, Alex Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw. By way of contrast, the Bruins had 10 forwards net goals.

By now, old friend Claude Julien has had almost three weeks to assess the Canadiens and, we assume, give input on areas he’d like to see improved. So was it really the new coach’s idea for the team to get bigger, tougher, scrappier? That’s what was accomplished before the deadline. But better? Nope.

Local fans no doubt would have loved to see, oh, say, Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene land in Montreal. Instead, they got plodding 6-foot-4, 230-pound forward Dwight King from Los Angeles, ratty agitator Steve Ott from Detroit and big winger Andreas Martinsen from Colorado. That latter fellow at least sounds interesting: A 6-3, 220-pound Norwegian who produces not many goals (seven in 110 NHL games) but surprisingly high penalty minutes (79).

The good news for Bruins fans is that they may get to see some B’s-Habs games of the old-style that had gone away in recent years — with drama and fights and general mayhem.

But in a league so obviously stressing speed and skill these days, do these acquisitions really make the Canadiens better?

Consider, the Canadiens were 25-9-6 as of Jan. 7. And they entered play Friday at 36-21-8 — meaning they went 11-12-2 the last eight weeks. For the Bruins, the idea of facing Montreal in the first round — not too attractive earlier in the season — may just be the ideal matchup now.