Photo: Hockey Troll
The Washington Capitals have been active during the 2019 NHL offseason after a seven-game exit in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the expense of the Carolina Hurricanes. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 with a physical edge and watching the St. Louis Blues win with a similar style this past year, Washington’s four additions added size and bite to their game.
While the Capitals already had some big hitters up front with forwards Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, and T.J. Oshie, the team finished 14th in the NHL last season with 1,885 hits.
With the additions of defenseman Radko Gudas and forward Garnet Hathaway, the Capitals have four of the top 35 leaders in hits-per-game from last season (Wilson: 3.2, Ovechkin: 2.8). Gudas’ average of 3.3 hits-per-game was tied for 10th in the NHL while Hathaway’s average of 2.6 was tied for 35th.
In addition, forward Richard Panik averaged 1.8 hits-per-game while forward Brendan Leipsic had a hits-per-game average of 0.9.
The Capitals finished the 2018-19 season with 12 players who averaged at least 1.4 hits per game and lost four of those players (defenseman Madison Bowey, forward Dmitrij Jaskin, forward Nathan Walker, and forward Devante Smith-Pelly) since the team acquired defenseman Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings on February 22.
While the Capitals and Blues showed that playing a physical style can win the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in each of the previous two seasons with youth and speed, a key reason why they beat the Capitals in the second-round both of those years. The New York Rangers also beat the Capitals with their speed game in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Tampa Bay Lightning got to the Stanley Cup Final that season while playing that kind of game.
The Capitals took a step back in terms of their speed game with the subtractions of forwards Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly this offseason but made up for it already with the acquisitions of forward Carl Hagelin, who has earned a reputation of one of the fastest skaters in the league throughout his NHL career, and Jensen, who gives the team more speed than physicality. While they did lose some offense (34 goals) with Burakovsky and Connolly leaving, they got some players who have shown they can score in Hathaway and Panik as the two combined for 25 goals last season.
With the losses of Niskanen and defenseman Brooks Orpik (retirement), the Capitals lost some leadership that helped during their Cup run in 2018. Retaining Hagelin should help as he has won the Stanley Cup twice and has been beyond the second-round five times in his career. The hope for the Caps is that forward Tom Wilson and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who have each played for five-plus seasons in the league, both play a role in helping fill that void.
With the additions, the Capitals also made some tweaks to their two-way play after they allowed an average of 3.02 goals-per-game during the regular season, the third-most among teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Gudas and Jensen were strong defensively with the Flyers and Red Wings, respectively, last season. Hagelin turned the team’s penalty-kill around after they acquired him at the trade deadline. Panik was a key part of the Arizona Coyotes’ defense that allowed an average of 2.68 goals-per-game (tied with the Blues for the sixth-lowest in the league). Hathaway played well defensively with the Calgary Flames last season while Leipsic brings a more physical element to the group. While Burakovsky and Connolly are both skilled offensively, neither of them are known for their defense.
The Capitals brought in Hathaway and Leipsic to improve the production, offensively and defensively, of the fourth-line after the trio was a non-factor against the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as they combined for just one goal (which came on a penalty shot) in the series.
The Capitals lost some of the players that played on the second power-play unit last season but they already have plenty of good options there with Panik, Leipsic, forward Jakub Vrana, and defenseman Christian Djoos being candidates to take that spot.
Washington’s penalty-killing unit, which finished the regular season with an efficiency of only 78.9% (24th in the NHL), also features some changes after Niskanen got traded and the new additions came in to help with that aspect of the team. Gudas will likely get Niskanen’s spot as he was trusted with shorthanded duties in Philadelphia throughout his career there. While center Nicklas Backstrom and forward T.J. Oshie are strong two-way players and played on the penalty-kill last year, GM Brian MacLellan expressed interest in easing their defensive load. Panik and Hathaway each played key roles on their respective team’s penalty-kill a season ago.
The Capitals made some changes after failing to meet expectations in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Those changes came with an emphasis on improving defensively and physically. The team is hoping to replace the offensive production that they lost this offseason by trimming their goals-against. While they wanted to improve physically, they hinted that they still want a strong balance of speed and physicality by re-signing Hagelin.
By Harrison Brown