Over the last few seasons there can be little argument that the Capitals power play has been the best in the NHL. How good? 25.3% last season, 23.4% the previous season and an eye-popping 26.8% in 2012-13! That’s first, tied for first and first in the NHL over the last three years. So what changes for this coming season?
The obvious big change is the departure of Mike Green. For all of the good and the sometimes bad of Mike Greens’ game, we knew he’d deliver on the power play. The second loss from the top unit is of course Troy Brouwer. So lets look at how we think the Caps might fill those holes and what other changes we might expect.
The Caps were already moving John Carlson into Green’s role on the power play and his time there dropped rapidly over the season. So we have a pretty good idea what Carlson brings to the table. I think most of us would agree that he’s not quite there yet with the feeds to Ovechkin (obviously our most potent weapon), but the drop off hasn’t been dramatic and we can expect he’ll put in the work to get better. The booming shot is already there and I think we probably underestimate the defensive upgrade we get with Carlson out there.
So who gets those minutes when Carlson isn’t out there? Niskanen is the most obvious answer. I think he’ll get his chances, but don’t overlook two other options who could not only see time in that role but might surprise in their ability to do the things Green did so well. Dmitry Orlov is the more obvious of the two but the offensive upside for Nate Schmidt shouldn’t be underestimated either. Both are solid defensively, arguably more so than Mike Green was! Both have big shots and puck handling skills that should only improve.
If we miss Green on the power play it should be because of nostalgia and not production!
Guessing at who steps into Brouwer’s role is a little trickier! First lets define the role: we need a big body who can play close in to the net, deflect shots, bury rebounds and is difficult to move. Looking at last years stats neither Williams or Oshie is an obviously better option in that role or big improvement over Brouwer.
Now if you go back to the 2014-15 season the picture changes dramatically! Justin Williams recorded 28 goals with 11 deflections and 18 tip ins! He also used his backhand significantly more than either Oshie or Brouwer. The one thing Oshie and Williams share in common, and in contrast with Brouwer, is where they score their goals. All three score most of their goals in front of the net, but Brouwer’s goals were heavily tilted to the center and right side while Oshie and William’s are both considerably more balanced across the front of the net. Some of that is likely because of how Brouwer was used on the Caps power play, but it also seems likely that a better backhand allows more opportunity across the entire front of the net. Without seeing enough of either player to really judge how hard they are to move we’re left with deflecting pucks and burying rebounds (both of which would seem predicated on getting to the front and staying there). By that criteria I think it’s highly likely we start the season with Justin Williams parked in front on the #1 power play and playing the Troy Brouwer role, with some new twists!
So now that we have some idea how we fill those two holes we could just leave it at that and assume a #1 unit of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson, Williams and Carlson. Not bad and given the success the core of that group has had, and the defined roles that already exist, we might see just that! It would be hard to really argue with that decision! But then if we weren’t going to argue a little bit, where would be the fun in that?
So what further changes might we see? You can stack a pretty decent #2 unit with Kuznetsov, Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie! You can also make a great case for any one of those to see time with the top unit! Kuznetsov has shown his ability to step into the Backstrom conductor role and we can’t underestimate the value that brings to the team! He can just as easily go into Johansson’s spot and he’s scary good below the goal line!
We haven’t seen as much of Burakovsky on the power play to know his best natural fit but I’d be comfortable with him in the Johansson slot as well as second line in Ovechkin’s spot perhaps. I have to see more to think he can fill Backstrom’s shoes but I have high hopes!
That leads us to T.J. Oshie who is a really good player to be bringing up the rear in this discussion! It’s just a sign of how many great options we have available! I see Oshie as an alternative to Williams in that spot but also in the Johansson role and in the Ovechkin role on the second unit.
The options to mix and match are many, but the most vulnerable holdover would have to be Johansson. We have at least 3 guys who could legitimately compete for that role, so I expect he’ll be challenged to keep that spot all season long.
So is there a wildcard to the whole thing? I actually think there is! We expect Tom Wilson to move up and see 3rd line minutes. He’s going to be asked to be a big rig in front of the net. That seems like a good fit for his style if he shows can turn the opportunity into points. If he responds like we’d all like, that would also mean he’d have to be considered an option in Brouwer’s old spot! Could he challenge there at some point and make it his own? I wouldn’t bet against it, and he’ll certainly have the chance to turn a little speculation into a prophecy if he does! Probably another year away but something to watch!
So what should we expect from the 2015-16 Washington Capitals power play? Everything we’ve seen over the last 3 years and more! We have the weapons to eclipse that 26.8% from 3 seasons ago! That is an insane number to shoot for, but this team has the legitimate chance to do it!
By Ernie Mudd