Although he doesn’t go by this name, Mr. Assist for the Washington Capitals is Nicklas Backstrom; the Swedish-born center has done it more than any other Capital and at a rate that’s 15th best in NHL history, specifically .738 assists per game. Backstrom’s overall offensive and defensive game is so strong that just to focus on his assists would be reproachful, but he’s really good at them.
Then there’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose helpers have been so cheeky, unique and effective, they’re named after him; the kind of playmaking that’s so silky smooth, one wishes it could be patented. In fact, just last night, the talented Patrik Kane pulled off a “Kuztnesov,” a no-look backhand from behind the goal line. Kuzy, as the center from Russia is affectionately called, delivered the primary assist in the ever important first goal in yesterday’s 5-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche, sagely finding the trailing John Carlson.
Caps fans get giddy when trying to answer who’s better between Backstrom and Kuznetsov as a passer. Well, expect these fans to become completely unhinged with two teammates recently joining the prolific assist party and they’re not even named Carlson, Alex Ovechkin or Matt Niskanen, even though the three of them are worthy of consideration too.
FEW PLAYERS HAVE HOCKEY MOJO LIKE MARCUS JOHANSSON
Over the past six seasons, less than 5% of the NHL’s players have more points than Marcus Johansson; that’s a group of only 80 elite players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.
Left wing Johansson, who’s having a career year on Washington’s second line and first power play unit, has dished out seven assists in his last four games. Like his fellow countrymen, Backstrom, he’s even-keeled, demure when discussing his contributions and steadfast in “playing the right way” which are probably three key reasons why he is a strong team contributor and the Caps are well-positioned for the playoffs.
By not trying to do too much and identifying the best positioning and play to make at the time, often whether to shoot or make a pass to a teammate in a better position, Johansson has been making wise decisions and playing “in the zone.”
Already with career highs in points (54) and goals (23) this season, Johansson’s assist total is his career’s third highest, five off the 36 he delivered three seasons ago. However, the plus / minus statistic for Jojo, as his teammates call him, has inverted positively, from -21 then to +21 now.
Last night, it was Jojo who found Kuzy for the game winning goal. Just past the half-way point of the 2nd period, Jojo could have shot as he drove toward Avalanche netminder Calvin Pickard, but saw his unmarked linemate across the goal mouth and delivered a text-book backhand pass to him.
Jojo happened to score against the Avalanche as well, thanks to none other than the other assist maestro, Kevin Shattenkirk. Backstrom found Shattenkirk in his customary offensive zone spot near the right side of the blue line. Shattenkirk’s wrist shot deflected into the net like a ball off bumpers in a pinball machine, first Oshie’s stick and then Johansson. Jay Beagle scored in a similar fashion earlier thanks to Shattenkirk. Less than 40 seconds after Colorado had knotted the game 1-1, Shattenkirk delivered a prototype slap shot which Beagle deftly deflected into the net.
THE DEADLINE ACQUISITION DELIVERING IN SPADES
One never knows how a late season acquisition will affect team chemistry, but Shattenkirk has melded just fine. A small sample size, I know, but I’ll take 11 assists in 13 games. Credit needs to be given to the entire defensive corps — Carlson, Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik, Nate Schmidt, and Taylor Chorney — for putting the team first, as their time and roles have been cut down to fit Shattenkirk in.
If there’s one area of the game the Capitals have been working on, it’s to create more traffic in front of the opposition’s net. Since Shattenkirk joined the team, Caps forwards have lined up goal front for deflections faster than kids at an ice cream truck on a warm summer day. Of course, on power plays, Ovechkin waits in his customary spot, the office, for a pass of near perfect weight and placement. Defensemen Carlson, Niskanen and Orlov had been delivering fine passes to Ovechkin but this just looks to be the “next” level. I was unsure initially whether the Caps strong power play could get better with Shattenkirk being part of them but such silly doubts have long gone away.
Over the past seven seasons, only eight NHL defensemen have more points than Shattenkirk; this season, he ranks fourth among them reaching career highs in both points (53) and assists (42). It makes me wonder, dream and salivate at the prospects of several more years of an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Shattenkirk-Johansson-Oshie power play and to what extent it’s feasible.
The Capitals were able to acquire Shattenkirk when the Blues learned they could not work out a sign-and-trade deal for him and Brian MacLellan got the scare of a potential “injury” or “suspension” to a defensemen during the playoffs, particularly to Carlson or Niskanen. After prospective Blues deals fell through, first with the Oilers and then with the Lightning, MacLellan consumated the short-term deal.
It seems natural that Shattenkirk prefers the Northeast. He grew up in New Rochelle, a Westchester County suburb of New York City, played hockey at Brunswick Academy in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut before attending Boston University and playing for the Terriers. Let’s make Shattenkirk feel at home since Westchester and Fairfield are a relatively short train ride away and hope MacLellan can re-sign him and Oshie.
With the collection of four maestros of the primary assist, about the only thing the Caps need to worry about is if the Caps pass up good goal scoring opportunities to make one too many passes instead. While the team has gone through several periods like this during the season, I’m not expecting a relapse to occur in the playoffs. The offense is starting to click at just the right time and this is due in no small part to adept and smart contributions from Johansson and Shattenkirk.
Below: This is becoming a familiar scene that I really enjoy watching.
By Tim Foisie Follow @12th_man_Tifosi