Photos: Tori Hartman
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 other defensemen after looking at the play of promising blueliner Christian Djoos in the first installment.
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 showed 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.
Previously we viewed Christian Djoos as he has the potential ability to replace Schmidt as the second-pairing left-handed defenseman. Now it’s time to look at the other Bears that show some potential as well. It’s important to also remember that there is a right side position available on the third-pairing, so not all of the defensive prospects mentioned need to be worthy of the second-pairing.
After Madison Bowey was drafted in the second-round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, he quickly proved that he was a steal. Over the following two seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL), he put up 120 points in 130 games played as a defenseman. He finally arrived in the AHL and had a great rookie year, racking up 29 points in 70 games played without power play time. Last season was shaping up to be a great sophomore year for the right-handed blueliner, but that dream was cut short with multiple injuries, one of which lasted almost three months. Without consistent time, Bowey put up only 14 points in 34 games played. This didn’t stop Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan from saying that if Bowey wasn’t hurt, Caps fans would have most likely seen him play throughout the year.
With two defensive positions opening up on the Capitals’ roster for this upcoming season, an opportunity is available for Bowey to make the team. Bowey is a big defenseman that plays physical, but can skate and has a bomb of a shot. He is often knocked on his defensive play, but he’s always been able to make up for it with offensive capabilities. When going back to watch him, I really looked for that defensive improvement, though it was certainly difficult with his injuries, as I could only record two and a half games, leaving me with few examples.
It’s no secret that Bowey is a physical force. He combines his skating ability to track a player along the wall, but is then able to use his body to finish the play into the ice and retrieve the puck. A skater that can hit is a force to be reckoned with.
Again, Bowey does a good job keeping with his man, but instead of boarding him he does a good job of using his stick to free the puck. He then gains control and gets it to a teammate to get it out of the zone.
This is just a really smart read by Bowey. Getting across the ice to cover his man, he recognizes the opponent is about to pass to his assigned man, so he steps up to knock the puck off his stick to stop a clean entry by the opposition. These are the kind of defensive plays you want to see a young player executing.
The reason I put those two examples together is because they show really good gapping skills by Bowey, probably the biggest hit on him. Because of his pacing in both examples, the Bears were able to get puck possession and the second one results in a good scoring chance due to Nathan’s Walker’s speed and skill.
Another instance of Bowey’s gapping control, he stays perfectly with a 2-on-1 against so that the opposition has no choice but to force a pass through which Bowey then easily intercepts. I personally would have preferred he picked his head up and had a more controlled pass out of the zone, but it’s understandable after a 2-on-1. He’ll learn.
Of course, like Djoos, Bowey’s bread and butter will always be his offense. Once he has the puck on his stick, moving the puck up ice is when he shines the brightest. Though, in the limited games I watched him in, he wasn’t able to score on his rocket of a slapper, he definitely showed it was NHL-worthy as it screamed across the ice.
I thought these were interesting examples because, both times, Bowey does a good job pinching and then goes straight to the net. He does this a lot. When he gets to the net he doesn’t retreat, he stays and puts up a wall. Not a bad idea for such a strong kid. In the first example, he actually gets two high danger scoring chances. If it wasn’t for a great save he would have scored.
When Djoos and Bowey were paired together, it was lot of fun to watch. Bowey even mimics Djoos here with that blueline deke, but a bit fancier. He’s able to bounce the puck off his skate to his stick, then dart to the net. If it wasn’t for a great defensive play, he would have had a shot 10 feet out.
Bowey’s skating doesn’t get enough attention as it’s overshadowed by his shot and passing. He often joins the rush and usually can make something of it. Again, he pulls a Djoos move here and performs a nice deke, gets to the slot, and gets off a sneaky backhand shot. The goalie saw it at the last second and was able to get a blocker on it. On a side note, that’s Nathan Walker entering the zone with the puck and with one hand passes it over to Bowey for the chance.
This is just out of this world. A backhand saucer pass that goes across the paint and lands on Paul Carey’s stick for a tap-in goal. I thought ending on the gif would be appropriate and summarizes Bowey’s skill set.
Like Djoos, I was impressed with Bowey’s overall game. Yes, he has kinks in his defensive play that will still need some smoothing out, but there’s nothing there where I think he will never learn. He’s only 22, still young for a defenseman, and can always shore up his defensive game. If he comes into training camp and preseason healthy, he should be ready to push for a spot. He has a future in the NHL, likely in the Top 4 if he keeps focused, stays healthy, and keeps working on his game.
Djoos, Bowey, Connor Hobbs, and Lucas Johansen are arguably, the faces of the Capitals’ defensive prospects. A player that has been quiet in the background since his selection in the seventh-round in 2013 is Tyler Lewington. Not flashy by any means, Lewington is almost purely defensive and has an edge (142 penalty minutes alone last season). I know what some may be thinking, isn’t the “defensive defenseman” prototype dying in the NHL? The answer is a hard yes. If a player is known as being just good in his own end, he will most likely be a guy that surrenders a ton of shots and scoring chances against, something that Alzner did towards the end of his Capitals’ career. There are some players that bump that trend like Christopher Tanev (Vancouver), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Arizona), and Radko Gudas (Phildelphia) among a couple others. Even Brooks Orpik has shown he can be helpful in a limited role when paired with a puck-moving defenseman. So when I started to watch Lewington, I was expecting to see a slower defensemen with little skill that gets hemmed into his own zone, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Unlike Bowey or Djoos, whom you can question their defensive capability, it’s Lewington’s strength. You will rarely find him out of position or losing a battle in front of the net or along the walls. He uses his strength to dictate what happens in his own zone.
This sums up Lewington perfectly. He goes into the wall with two opponents on him and still wins the battle. Of course, he gets some help from Aaron Ness towards the end, but it still looks like Lewington is the one that pokes it to his forward help. That’s the kind of strength Lewington brings.
And of course one can’t talk about Lewington without showing off his hits. Maybe he didn’t know the guy on his butt, but it was enough to shake the puck loose so that a Bear was able to get possession. Being physical for no reason can result in poor possession, but when it’s used like this, it’s very useful.
Obviously, what’s important to note here with these three examples is Lewington’s backcheck and hustle, which one always wants to see. What I think is more important is his skating. He is so much quicker than one might think. As stated above, when one thinks of a very defensive player, one may imagine someone slow, but that doesn’t apply to Lewington. He might not be leaving flames in his wake, but he is quick enough to stop three scoring chances, which is all a team needs.
It’s no secret that Lewington isn’t going to put up the big points. He recorded 17 points in 72 games played last year, nothing special. Before really studying him, I assumed he just didn’t do much in the offensive zone or help push the play, but I was pleasantly surprised, especially by his skating.
I know, I know, this seems really simple and stupid, but I think for a defensive defenseman it’s important. Here, Lewington doesn’t just hang out at the blueline, he presses to the top of the circles, waits for a pass and fires as soon as he gets it. It’s little things like this that one wants to see in a player to try to round out his game.
Again, this might seem like something super small, but Lewington dishes out two nice passes here. First, while under pressure, he hits the streaking Ness with a perfect pass so he can enter the zone and dish off the puck for a scoring chance for Walker. Second, while moving, Lewington fires a pass on the back hand of Walker who is also moving and then enters the offensive zone for a shot. Small, but good for a player trying to be helpful on both sides of the ice.
This is a good little offensive sequence for Lewington. He finds a loose puck and when he finds himself under pressure, he doesn’t just dump it around the boards, but he takes the puck for a ride. Then, when the puck comes back around to him at the blueline, he fires and finds Walker in front for a tip that nearly goes in. On a side note, watch Walker, the guy’s a wrecking ball. First he goes to the net, then goes behind the net and checks a guy bigger than him on his butt, and then heads back to the net for a tip-in try!
A good overall sequence here for Lewington. First, he gets back to the puck and dishes it behind the boards to a teammate, but watch him after. He starts from below his own goal-line, but then he enters the offensive zone first! Again, his skating was very impressive. Another side note, props to Djoos for laying his body into that guy along the boards to start the break out.
Not much to say here but “holy crap”! What a backhand goal! That does not look like a defensive defenseman to me. Hope we see more of this skill out of him this season.
I don’t think Lewington will ever be a Top 4 defenseman in the NHL by any means, but I believe he’s shown enough to be a defensively-reliable bottom-pairing defenseman at the NHL level. The issue with trying to prove that, is right now Orpik is on the bottom-pairing too. If Lewington gets a chance on the pairing, it might not be the best for him to be paired with Orpik. Having two defensive defensemen on the same pairing could be a blackhole. Either Orpik has to be moved or he would have to be hurt for Lewington to really show what he’s capable of at the NHL level. It will be really interesting if he gets more offensive opportunities with, most likely, two of his teammates moving up to the NHL. If he continues to play his smart, tough defensive game while pushing close to 30 points in the AHL this upcoming season, I think it would be huge for Lewington.
Probably the most surprising name that Brian MacLellan dropped as a possible Schmidt replacement was Aaron Ness. Specifically, he noted that Ness had similar skating ability to Schmidt, which is undeniable. When Ness was first recalled to the Capitals during the 2015-2016 season for eight games, I was pretty impressed with him. His smooth skating and the ability to join the rush really stuck out, just like Schmidt did so well. He only played two NHL games last season due to the Capitals’ overall health. His underlying numbers weren’t great, but both games were back-to-back, which are hard enough as it is, but it was also when Caps were suffering from multiple injuries – no Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie, or Matt Niskanen.
Ness, like Djoos, isn’t a big player. Coming in at 5’11” and less than 190 pounds, he relies on his speed and puck-moving ability. Something I noticed was that Ness was better defensively than I perceived, even physical for someone his size.
That’s Ness hanging on to the opposing player streaking towards the net and successfully bounces him away from getting close to the net. He then gets to the net to fend off the same player from getting close to the goalie. By the way, that player he was manhandling was Nicklas Jensen, a 6’3″ 217-pound forward and Ness had no problem with him.
Ness technically gets beat on this play in terms of letting the puck get behind him, but he does the correct thing to physically impede the player from doing any more damage. At the last second, he’s also able to get a stick on the puck. No player will win every battle, but one wants to see a player never give up.
This is a really good read by Ness here, albeit a high risk one. He’s able to quickly close on the puck carrier in the neutral zone, steal the puck, and skate it into the offensive zone cleanly before dishing a nice backhand to an open player for a shot.
For being known as a puck-mover, Ness doesn’t put up nearly as many points as I would have hoped. In the AHL season in the New York Islanders system prior to playing with the Bears, he put up 45 points in 74 games played. In 113 games played with the Bears he has a combined 44 points. In the games I watched, he was primarily partnered with Lewington, so perhaps a more offensive-minded defensive partner would help going forward, such as Connor Hobbs or Bowey. This doesn’t mean he’s a slouch at creating offense though.
This play technically starts in the defensive zone, but it’s a great stretch pass that nearly results in a partial breakaway. Want to see this more from the skilled defenseman.
It doesn’t seem like much, but Ness’ offensive IQ and hustle saves the puck from going out of the offensive zone. Because of his skating, Bourque is able to skate in and snipe a goal.
Taking a page out of Djoos’ book, Ness shows off his skating and hands here. He’s able to skate in, deke an opponent, and get a good backhand shot off. These are the kind of plays Ness needs to be doing more. He has the skill, he just needs to execute.
Though MacLellan suggested it, I just don’t see Ness as a second-pairing defenseman for the Caps. It’s highly doubtful a 27-year old in the AHL will suddenly be an impactful Top 4 defenseman at the NHL level. It won’t hurt for the Caps to try Ness out in camp and preseason with John Carlson to see if there is some chemistry there. I just doubt it is. This shouldn’t take away from Ness potentially being on the bottom-pairing with Orpik. He would have to go through waivers so he has that going for him, but he will really have to step up his game to carry Orpik.
The crazy thing about the Capitals’ defensive prospect depth is that they have options outside of the AHL for their NHL holes. Jonas Siegenthaler, Connor Hobbs, and Lucas Johansen all have promising futures and could very well jump in for the Caps if needed. Unfortunately, Hobbs and Johansen didn’t play for Hershey last year and Siegenthaler played in seven games towards the end of the year, so I don’t have physical proof of their play. I have watched them play in their respective leagues and closely at development camp to make an opinion.
Hobbs probably leads the group in terms of best odds of making the Caps this season. An astounding offensive defenseman with a physical edge, Hobbs was arguably the best player during development camp. Add to this he scored the most points by a WHL defenseman in the last 17 years last season and he has a pretty good shot at making the Caps’ Opening Night roster on that bottom-pairing. Johansen might be the best Capitals prospect in terms of bringing the whole package together. He’s a smooth skater with very high hockey IQ at both ends of the ice. He is only 19-years old and probably needs at least a year in the AHL to really get used to the professional game. Siegenthaler had a great year in both his season in Switzerland and the World Juniors U20 tournament. A big body that could use a bit more physicality, he’ll also probably need at least a year in the AHL to get used to North American ice. All three of those players have Top 4 NHL potential, but are still years away from fulfilling those positions, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help on the bottom-pairing with limited time.
After reviewing all of the defensemen on the Hershey roster, Djoos was a standout and should and will be highly considered for the vacant left side on the second pairing position. After that, Bowey and Hobbs are the most likely candidates but they are right handed, so it is uncertain if the Caps play them there, but both of them could land on the right side on the the bottom-pairing. Ness and Johansen are both left-handed, so they will also get a look with Carlson, but Ness doesn’t seem to be a Top 4 NHL defenseman and Johansen needs more seasoning. There’s a possibility that Ness plays on his off-side to fill that bottom-pairing with Orpik if Hobbs or Bowey can’t prove themselves. Either way, the Caps have a lot of options with their young defensemen to fill the two vacancies on the blueline.
By Luke Adomanis