In the first three seasons with Barry Trotz as head coach, the Washington Capitals’ special teams were good-to-great. The Capitals averaged as the second to third best in power play and eighth-ninth in penalty kill in that time frame. This season? They are ranked 15th on the power play, converting 19.2% of their chances, and 22nd on the penalty kill, stopping 79.4% of their penalties. That doesn’t add up when you see the roster the Capitals have.
Granted, the Capitals lost a lot of players in the offseason that helped both sides of the puck. Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams were power play staples. Daniel Winnik and Karl Alzner prevented a lot of power play goals against. But ultimately, the loss of that personnel shouldn’t cause such a drop in special team success.
Here are the results from the last 25 games special team unit. Their index should consistently be over 100 and honestly closer 110. There is no reason this team shouldn’t have a 25% power player and 80+% penalty kill.
When was the last time the Capitals scored a power play goal from the slot? It seems like the boys in red can’t even get an attempt from there anymore. Everything comes from Ovechkin’s office or a seeing eye shot from the point. There’s nothing wrong with those options but if it means the Capitals are only converting on 19.2% of their power play chances then it is a problem.
It seems it comes up every season but the Capitals need to start finding some new wrinkles to try on the power play. They do have one play they have that opens up space and it’s when Carlson and Ovechkin switch positions. And it works well but they don’t do it enough.
Something else that may work is splitting up Kuznetsov and Backstrom. They are both elite passers that can quarterback a powerplay, so it seems like a waste to put Kuznetsov below the goal-line where he’s usually just dishing a pass back to Backstrom on the wall. Andre Burakovsky or Jakub Vrana can do that. Let Kuznetsov take on the second unit as his own so they can create more chances.
A wrinkle that the Rangers and Penguins use a lot is the man in the slot will move north and south a lot looking for a tip. Imagine T.J. Oshie not being so stationary, but moving up and down the slot. This increases his chances of finding space for a tip or receiving a pass. It also forces nearby penalty killers to keep an eye on him at all times, which causes confusion, which opens up more lanes for Ovechkin.
Last season, Johansson did a good job below the goal-line on the left side of the goalie, but occasionally he would hook around to the right side of the goalie opening himself up for a tap-in goal. The Capitals utilize that sometimes, but should do it more.
Or maybe it could just use a personal switch. Why is Tom Wilson sitting on the bench when he has the big rig to plant himself right in front of the goalie for a screen? Maybe try more lefties at the point like Christian Djoos and Dmitry Orlov. Both have had some power play time but not a whole lot. There could be more opportunities there.
For the penalty kill, it’s a bit more difficult to fix because it’s hard to tell exactly what’s causing it to be so poor. Matt Niskanen and Oshie have missed a good chunk of time this season due to injury, which can be a reason. Winnik was the second-most used penalty killer last season behind Beagle so the penalty kill is certainly missing him.
Could a personnel change help? Alex Chiasson is the second-most used player on the PK and that even includes missing three games. Chandler Stephenson has penalty killing experience in Hershey, but has only played 16 minutes for the Capitals this season. He’s smart defensively and has speed to close up gaps.
For both the power play and penalty one thing is for sure: it isn’t as good as it should be. Something needs to happen because something needs to change.
When watching the World Juniors in December one of the announcers made a great point. He said all you need to succeed in the tournament is to have a great power play and get great goaltending. I think that same idea can be applied to the NHL playoffs, since it’s a tournament in itself. The Capitals have the goaltending, but their power play isn’t there yet. And if they are facing a team with a great power play in the playoffs, their penalty kill can doom them. If the Capitals want to increase their chance in the playoffs they need to fix their special teams now.
By Luke Adomanis