While the Washington Capitals have been very good at finding the back of the net so far this season (second in the NHL with an average of 3.8 goals per game and first with a 37.1% power play efficiency), keeping the puck out of their net has been an issue. Through 10 games, the Capitals have yielded 3.6 goals per game (seventh highest in the NHL) and have killed only 72.5% of their penalties taken (seventh worst in the NHL).
The Capitals have allowed at least one power-play goal in seven consecutive games and have only killed 19 of 28 penalties they have taken (67.8% efficiency) in that span. To put it in perspective, the last time the Capitals killed off all of the oppositions’ power plays in a game was October 10 in a 5-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Capitals may have had a tough time killing penalties lately, but it’s too early to worry about the penalty killing unit.
While the team didn’t undergo a lot of turnover in the offseason, they lost center Jay Beagle, the team’s most reliable penalty killer for years. In addition to his strong work on the penalty kill, Beagle was first on the Capitals with a faceoff winning percentage of 58.52% last season. Beagle, 33, was relied upon to do a lot of the dirty work for the Capitals, including taking big faceoffs. He averaged 2:31 of ice time per game for the Capitals last season. After 10 years with the franchise and being relied heavily on to kill penalties, it’s understandable that the Capitals penalty kill is adjusting without him at the start of the season.
In addition to missing Beagle, the Capitals are starting the season without another one of their top penalty killers in forward Tom Wilson, who is halfway through the 20-game suspension. Wilson, 24, was also relied on heavily on the penalty kill last year, averaging 1:44 worth of ice time per game on the penalty kill.
With Beagle gone and Wilson out, the team is giving more penalty killing responsibility to other players, some of whom are new to the penalty kill. Center Nicklas Backstrom averaged only 55 seconds of ice time per game on the penalty kill last year while averaging 1:29 per game this year. Forward Andre Burakovsky is being relied upon to kill penalties more this year after not getting a single second on the penalty kill last year. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov is averaging a minute of ice time per game on the penalty kill after averaging just three seconds of ice time last season. The second-highest ice time leader among forwards is center Nic Dowd (2:08), the team’s only free agent acquisition from this past summer, who is adjusting to a team who kept its roster almost entirely intact from a Stanley Cup Championship last season.
It also doesn’t help that the team is adjusting to a new head coach after Barry Trotz was unable to agree on a new contract extension. Even though current head coach Todd Reirden ran the special teams for the last two years of Trotz’s tenure in Washington, assistant coach Scott Arniel is now in charge of the special teams with Reirden’s promotion. The team finished second in 2015-16 with an 85.2% penalty killing efficiency and seventh in 2016-17 with an 83.8% penalty killing efficiency. The Capitals never had a penalty killing efficiency below 81.2% under Trotz.
The Capitals also have the second-lowest penalty kill save percentage in the league at 75.8%. If you’re best penalty killer is not your goalie, then you know you’re in trouble on the penalty kill.
While the penalty kill has not been a strong suit for the Capitals 10 games into the season, it will almost certainly get better as soon as Wilson returns from suspension and the team adjusts to their new head coach. The team will likely adjust to the changes sooner rather than later.
Once the team gets Wilson back and adjusts to the coaching and the new look unit, the Capitals should get back to having one of the league’s top penalty-killing groups.
By Harrison Brown