The Washington Capitals have seen plenty of change since the end of last season. While Capitals’ fans have a pretty good idea of what the team’s lineup will look like on October 2, there are some holes in the special teams from the losses of forward Brett Connolly, forward Andre Burakovsky, and defenseman Matt Niskanen. NoVa Caps takes a look at how the Capitals’ special-teams lineups will take shape for the 2019-20 season.
First Power-Play Unit Set
The Capitals’ primary power-play lineup is locked and loaded with one of the best units in the NHL. While the group’s talent is undebatable, it will have to be better than the 20.8% efficiency they had this season for 12th in the league on the man advantage. A 20% conversion rate is unacceptable with stars like captain Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, center Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson, and forward T.J. Oshie on it. The unit is unlikely to change for the upcoming season but will have to get back to the top level it achieved during the team’s 2018 Stanley Cup run when they were 29.3% efficient on the man advantage.
Possibles For Power-Play #2 Ice Time
While the first power-play unit is set, the losses of Connolly, Niskanen, and Burakovsky, have depleted the second power-play unit. Last season, the Capitals used two defensemen and three forwards on the second power-play unit. Tom Wilson, Lars Eller, and Dmitry Orlov saw significant time with that unit.
Orlov manned the point on the second unit while Niskanen played the “Ovi spot” on the left side. Christian Djoos may be the most likely candidate to succeed Niskanen if the Capitals stick with the system of using two defensemen. The 24-year old needs to sign a new contract first as he is currently a restricted free agent, but he has shown some offensive potential during his playing career. Djoos had a big season in his last year with the AHL’s Hershey Bears as he recorded 13 goals and 58 points in 2016-17. He posted eight goals the year prior, his rookie season.
The Capitals will need to add a puck-moving scorer to join Eller and Wilson on the forward group. Candidates for the job include Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, and Brendan Leipsic.
Vrana: The 23-year old will likely get one of the jobs after he ranked third on the team with 24 goals during the regular season. He will need to sign a new contract first as he’s currently a restricted free agent but Vrana is one of the best scorers on the team. His youth, speed, and scoring ability make him a natural fit on the second unit. He averaged 1:08 on the power-play last season.
Panik: The Capitals’ biggest free agent signing averaged 1:59 of ice-time per game with the Arizona Coyotes last season, though only posted two points (both assists) on the power-play. The forward has scored at least 14 goals in each of the past three seasons, including a career-high 22 with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2016-17 when he scored nine power-play goals. Panik will likely get some time on the second unit even if he doesn’t win the job.
Leipsic: Of all candidates, Leipsic is the least likely to earn a job here but has some experience. The 25-year old averaged 1:47 of ice-time with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks a season ago and four of his seven goals in 2018-19 came on the man advantage. Though, both of the power-play units that he played on finished 22nd and 27th in the NHL, respectively. Don’t expect Leipsic to get a ton of power-play time this season but it is possible depending on injuries and if the unit will need a change at some point over the course of the year.
The penalty-kill is a lot clearer than the second power-play unit but there could be some competition as the Capitals currently have seven forwards who they could help out on the PK. It is likely that Carlson, Michal Kempny, acquisition Radko Gudas, and Nick Jensen will be the defensemen that the team leans on the most for penalty-killing duties.
Here is a look what the lineup for the Capitals’ penalty-kill unit as of right now:
1st: Eller-Carl Hagelin, Kempny-Carlson
2nd: Wilson-???, Gudas-Jensen
Eller and Hagelin led all Capitals forwards last year with 2:20 and 2:21 of short-handed ice time. Eller had three shorthanded points last year.
Wilson led the team with two shorthanded goals last year and averaged 2:14 on the PK last season.
Others who could fill a forward spot include Panik, Oshie, Garnet Hathaway, and Backstrom.
Panik: The forward averaged 1:12 per game on the penalty-kill with the Coyotes last season and excelled as he helped the team finish in a tie with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets for first in penalty-killing efficiency (85%). He also netted a short-handed goal in his first time playing PK in his seven-year NHL career.
Garnet Hathaway: The 27-year old averaged 1:42 worth of shorthanded ice-time on the Calgary Flames, who finished the year tied for 19th in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks in penalty-killing efficiency (79.7%). Hathaway would make the Capitals’ penalty-kill more aggressive after he led the Flames with 200 hits and 36 blocked shots during the regular season, which could lure head coach Todd Reirden towards giving him the job depending on his preference.
Oshie: The 32-year old has been a regular on the Capitals’ penalty-kill in his time with the team but the addition of Panik and Hathaway may allow the team to rest Oshie given his duties on the top power-play squad. Oshie averaged 35 seconds per game on the penalty-kill last season and is responsible defensively. Since he has a knack for scoring goals, Oshie could be used to generate some offense on the penalty-kill.
Backstrom: the 31-year old was tasked with a lot more responsibility on the penalty-kill last year after the team lost center Jay Beagle in free agency and Wilson missed 16 games due to suspension as he averaged a shade below a minute per game while shorthanded (0:55). The center is responsible defensively and excels as he is regularly assigned to play against other team’s top players at even strength. Like Oshie, Backstrom plays on the top power-play unit, so the team may prefer to rely on other forwards.
While many are hyping the battles between Djoos and Jonas Seigenthaler for the sixth defenseman spot and for spots on the fourth line, the battles for power-play and penalty-killing ice-time are likely to be more interesting as players showcase their offensive and/or defensive skills at training camp in September. With the talent that the Capitals’ roster has, these candidates will need to bring their best to camp to win these jobs.
By Harrison Brown