The Washington Capitals have had a lot of turnover since the end of last season. Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt are all gone. Though it may be sad to see some of them go, it’s an exciting time as the prospects that have been waiting on the sideline for years will finally have their chance to prove themselves. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ writer Luke Adomanis evaluates defenseman Christian Djoos.
There is no doubt that the Caps have a lot of good-to-great prospects, so I went back and watched several Hershey Bears games to really study the talent and see who could help the Capitals this season.
This series will be broken down into three parts: Christian Djoos, other defensive players, and forwards. Djoos earned his own article because he was just so dominant in the games that I watched. He had example after example of a player stepping up to the task.
It’s important to note, I did not watch the Bears’ entire season so take the sample size as it is. I believe all the prospects that I write about show what they are capable of due to their age and experience. So let’s get started.
Of all of the players that have moved on, Nate Schmidt will probably be the most missed. Johansson and Williams were second-line players, which it always hurts to lose, but Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana look like they can fill those voids. The issue is the Caps do not have an easy answer to their 2LHD (second-pairing left-handed defenseman) problems since Schmidt left. Such players as Aaron Ness, Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington, Lucas Johansen, and Connor Hobbs have been mentioned as Schmidt replacements, but there is no one probably more talked about than Christian Djoos.
A seventh-round pick in 2012, Djoos was an afterthought to most until last season, in which he exploded onto the scene, posting 58 points in 66 games played, good enough for third among all defensemen in the AHL. The two players ahead of him were only two points ahead and played four and 10 more games than Djoos, respectively. Those two were also players who have spent their entire career in the AHL, one being 27-years old and the other 29-years old. Djoos was also second among defensemen in primary assists (25) and third in primary points (38). Taking all of that into context, it’s easy to see just how dominant Djoos was last season among his peers when it came to putting up points.
Obviously his stats were impressive, but did his numbers match the way he played? In other words, was he on the lucky side of things or was he actually playing an all-around game that could translate into the NHL? When I watched him and was able to pause, rewind, and really examine his play, he really impressed me more than I thought he would. I broke it down into his defensive and offensive game.
When thinking of a defenseman that put up a lot of points, it’s usually the defensive play that takes the backseat. Djoos is no different in this respect. Still, even though offense is primarily his game, it doesn’t mean he’s useless on the defensive side. With Djoos, it’s the exact opposite.
Probably the best part of Djoos’ defensive game is his stick work. There were countless instances of him using his reach (though not the biggest at 6’0”) and smarts to either disrupt plays or block shots.
Djoos shows off his skating by keeping up with the shooter, but he is still able to get a stick on the shot. He did this dozens of times, but I decided to just give one example to save space for other parts of his game.
In the neutral zone, Djoos uses his speed and stick to disrupt an opponent from entering the defensive zone with possession, forcing them to dump it in. After that, Djoos chases down the puck and gets a bad pass from Tom Gilbert, but he is able to kick the puck to his skate, regain control of the puck, and pass it to a friendly who gets it out of the zone.
This is a great all-around play. Djoos jumps into the offensive zone to get his stick on the puck to knock it away. It still ends up on another opponent’s stick, but he still stays on the hunt pressing that player, who has to fling the puck away. That still doesn’t stop Djoos. He backchecks, hunting the puck down, settles it as it bounces, gets possession, and while skating backwards in his own zone fires a perfect outlet pass to a Bear exiting the zone. Incredible.
This is one way to break up a 2-on-1. Djoos acts like he’s playing between both, but at the last second he uses his speed to jump forward and knock the puck off the opposing stick. No scoring chance against.
Using His Body
Though his weight is an issue (165 pounds), Djoos doesn’t shy away from using his body to retrieve the puck. No, he doesn’t lay out huge body hits, but a player doesn’t have to do that all the time. Usually, a simple push to throw a guy off-balance is enough to free up the puck for retrieval.
Here goalie Pheonix Copley loses the puck, but Djoos gets on the forechecker quickly. Using his left arm to push the player and his right to move the puck, he’s able to buy time for a friendly to come in and take the puck away. Again, it isn’t a booming hit, but it’s enough to change possession.
Djoos does a good job here forcing the opponent to the outside with his stick, but then using his body he forces the player to make a pass to no one in particular. If he doesn’t get on the opposing player quickly like he did, then maybe a better pass happens and a scoring chance is created. Also, props to Tyler Lewington hustling back and clearing the crease.
Tying Up The Stick
Djoos’ weakest part of the game, because of his size, is clearing the front of the net. Truly, it was hard to find examples of this because he was rarely in the position to need to, which is a good sign. However, here is an example of him able to tie up an opponent’s stick, which is sometimes all you need to do.
Djoos does a good job of keeping his head on a swivel and targeting a player going to the net. Many would expect Djoos to check the player, but that would most likely result in a penalty. Instead, he ties off his stick preventing the player from getting a shot up close.
Now we get to the good stuff. Don’t think that’s all Djoos had to give defensively. In many of these offensive examples you will see his defensive game take over. Djoos proves he isn’t a one-trick pony. But, this is where he really thrives. He’s creative and so skilled with the puck. He combines his skating, hands, and IQ to do some amazing stuff.
First, I want to highlight his willingness to activate in the offensive zone. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but it’s something the Caps could use more of, especially now that Schmidt is gone and he was maybe the best at it.
It’s fun watching Djoos in this sequence. He was waiting for the puck to come to him, but as he saw Liam O’Brien go to the puck, he jets to an open area of the ice, in the circle, receives the pass, and backhands it out of the air it seems, right to Travis Boyd in front of the net and the goalie makes a great save.
Djoos’ activating here results in two great scoring chances. First he pinches in to receive a pass below the goal line for a one-timer. Then he finds some open space down low for a nice Boyd pass where he sets up for another chance, though it would be preferred he just shot there. That’s not the end of it, though. Watch him swing behind the net to get back to the blueline to make sure there isn’t a rush the other way. Offense and defense.
Here Djoos begins to pinch in, but he still stays conscious of where the puck is and where he needs to be. As soon as he realizes he can’t help in the scrum he backs off and when the puck is turned over he backtracks through the neutral zone, gathers the puck while skating backwards, and passes it to an ally for another entry into enemy territory. It seems so easy to him.
Deke to Pass
This is maybe Djoos’ go to move in the offensive zone. He’s so good at it. He could sell a pass or shot and, with his great hands and feet, just move around an opponent to set for a sweet goal.
With all three of those plays, all resulted in a scoring chance, one ended up in the back of the net. Two of those chances might have not been out of this world great chances, but it still shows Djoos basically created something out of nothing. The more he does this, the more his team will score.
Outside of maybe his size, Djoos’ biggest hit on his game is his reluctance to shoot, but when he does he can do some damage. Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz needs to encourage him to shoot way more than he does.
Keeping on subject with the deking, here Djoos does the same thing, but instead of dishing it off to someone else, he keeps it and snipes it top corner. What’s so great about this goal is he shoots it while skating, which is not an easy thing to do. Going forward, this is something Caps fans will want to see. Obviously, the goal-scoring is important, but the shooting is very important.
Djoos does a little bit of everything offensively here. After he moves his skates to get a better position, he throws a hard pass into the slot looking for a deflection. Sadly it doesn’t connect. Watch Djoos after the puck goes into the corner. He begins his retreat back to the blueline, but he sees an opportunity and decides to stay right in front of the net where he buries a goal. I don’t know if he was being yelled at to stay by the passer or if he just has those instincts, but either way it was smart to stay.
First props need to be given to Travis Boyd here, who I’ll talk about later. His hustle into the corner to force the turnover was crucial in this sequence. Obviously, the most impressive part is Djoos’ slapper to the top corner of the cage for the OT winner. Look where he shoots from, the left circle at a bad angle, but he still finds the corner to bury it.
In many previous examples you will find Djoos’ great passing ability, but these were some that really stood out.
What impresses me about this play is not just Djoos’ patience, but watch his eyesight and see what he’s thinking. Look where he puts the pass. He puts it higher in the slot anticipating O’Brien to break off his man in front of the net to go get the puck. Not only does Djoos have to perceive that, but he has to put the perfect speed on it. If it’s too slow, the man covering O’Brien gets on him in time to block the pass/shot and, if it’s too fast, the puck goes into the corner. Really interesting stuff that leads to a goal. Add to this that after he passes the puck, Djoos doesn’t stand still, he breaks for the net.
This might seem incredibly dull or unnoticeable, but it’s quite amazing what Djoos does here. Look closely. When the puck is passed back to him, Djoos just touches the puck perfectly through his legs to go right to the slot for a streaking Bears player. He should have shot the puck, but took too long to pull the trigger. That’s Nicklas Backstrom stuff right there.
Some of these didn’t fall in any of the categories but they are small things that Djoos does that really separate him from the others.
This is something I really love to see in defensemen and that’s not giving up the puck for no reason. One will see it a lot when teams are going on line changes, the defensemen dump in the puck. I never understood that, why give up possession? Here, Djoos takes the puck for a walk as a forechecker is on his tail. He spins off, finds space, and passes it to a teammate to start the play up ice.
Hard to see because of the boards, but an opposing player lifts the puck out of his zone, but Djoos gets creative and kicks it back into the zone where his teammates gain control for another chance at the net. Little, but useful.
Every player is going to make mistakes, usually at least one a game, but it’s how they make up for it that’s important. Here, Djoos makes an ill-advised pass creating a 2-on-1 for the other team, but his hustle completely negates a chance for them. First, he uses his stick to disrupt the pass, then he uses his body to stop the enemy from getting to the puck for a shot.
This example is along the lines as the first one in terms of patience. A lot of young defenders would just swat at the puck as they race against an opponent. That wouldn’t be a bad play at all, but they also don’t gain possession that way. Djoos stays patient with it, gains possession, and moves the puck forward for a teammate to get a clean entry. He doesn’t play like a young kid at all.
These are my favorite. As stated, a lot of these examples show Djoos’ ability at both ends of the ice, but these two examples really stood out to me. They demonstrate just how good the Swede can be all over the ice.
Djoos starts the play by passing the puck and then activating into the zone. As soon as he sees he’s useless down low, he kicks back out to the top and, thankfully he does, because the opposing player would have had a break away if he hadn’t. Djoos doesn’t just stop there. He gains possession of the puck and, as he is pursued through the neutral zone, instead of dumping it under pressure, he goes around the defender, makes a clean entry into the offensive zone, and makes a pass to a teammate.
This is my favorite example in the whole article. First, Djoos hustles back to win a race for the puck. Then he turns on his speed before dishing the puck up the ice perfectly to a fellow Bear. He doesn’t stop there thinking his job is finished. He jets up the ice to join the rush, receives the puck on a nice pass from Chandler Stephenson, goes to the slot, does a sweet backhand, and nearly scores. The net replay shows the puck squeeze through the goalies legs, slowly bouncing off his leg, and then slowly moving toward the net, but a defender stopped it. Djoos probably should have just wristed it, but that whole play shows everything, speed, passing, IQ, and confidence. Have to love that.
When Schmidt was first taken in the Expansion Draft everyone, including myself, was very worried. Schmidt left a big hole on the second-pairing, but I can now say confidently, after watching Djoos in action, I think he has the ability to step in and be impactful at the NHL level. Obviously, there are concerns with his size. It would be great if he gained another 15-plus pounds, but his two-way game is strong enough that his size might not be as debilitating as people think. Maybe shelter him and pair him with a more defensive player until he gets his NHL legs and weight. What he did last season in the AHL and the way he did it at his age is undeniable.
Think of it like this, Djoos has NHL skating, passing, and hockey IQ which all of the plays above involved. The examples didn’t revolve around hard hitting, taking hits, or relying heavily on physicality. So to me, I don’t see why Djoos can’t translate his game into the big league. Djoos still needs to prove he’s NHL-worthy, but from what I’ve seen, and hopefully you have too, he might be the answer the Caps are looking for.
By Luke Adomanis