Examining The Shift In The Washington Capitals Team Persona

The Washington Capitals enter the 2019-20 NHL regular season with an intriguing shift in team characteristics, particularly for depth roles in the bottom six forward group and the bottom two defensive pairings. In this piece we take a look at the Capitals shift in team persona that has transpired since the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. 

After a disappointing end to last season, a double-overtime game 7 loss in the first round to the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s clear that Brian MacLellan saw flaws in the makeup of the roster.

As a result, there are a few key facets that the Capitals Set out to improve upon this off-season:

    • physicality,
    • shot suppression, and
    • defensive capability, especially in the forward ranks.

In order to better understand the shift in team characteristics, let’s first take a look at the players who weren’t retained for the 2019-20 season, and some of their related statistics (characteristics):

actual old stats

Interestingly enough, there’s only one player out of the five players who departed this off-season that would likely fit the newer makeup that MacLellan is trying to instill in Washington. It’s Dmitrij Jaskin.

Jaskin is physical, shown by his average of 2.35 hits per game. For comparison sake, Tom Wilson averaged 3.17 hits per game. Jaskin was also on the positive side of high danger chances for percentage, and was on the positive side of both possession metrics. However, It appeared as though Jaskin and Reirden were never on the same page, since Jaskin was probably a better option on the fourth line last season than Chandler Stephenson, but it was Stephenson whom routinely got the ice-time over Jaskin. Jaskin is now in the KHL playing for Dynamo Moscow.

There’s a common trend for the other four players that departed the Caps’ roster this off-season: poor high-danger chance suppression. Niskanen was victimized last season, and his high danger chance for percentage shows it.

Connolly and Burakovsky had essentially priced themselves out of DC. Connolly could have potentially stayed, but it looks like MacLellan wanted a third liner who could play special teams deployments. 

Now, let’s compare the numbers of the Capitals’ off-season acquisitions. Hagelin is going to be included here, since he’s going to be a large piece of the roster construction for the next four seasons, unless something changes.

old stats

There’s a few constants here: Panik, Hathaway, and Gudas are physical presences who tend to add multiple hits a game. Obviously, this is just a cursory stat to compare a measurable statistic for physicality on the ice, but based off of the Caps’ roster construction, more physical play means that the teams that are facing the Caps in a seven game playoff series are more likely to get worn down over the course of the series.

Additionally, the only player that is under 50% for high danger scoring chances against is Brendan Leipsic, and it seems like that has more to do with playing on two non-playoff teams than anything else. It’ll be interesting to see how (or if) his numbers change while playing for a Stanley Cup contending team.

It appears that Panik and Hagelin are the types of players that MacLellan is looking to have in depth roles on the roster. Panik has offensive touch, but can play in power play and penalty kill deployments. He’s defensively responsible, and supports the defensemen well in his end. After all, he did have over 50% high danger scoring chance for percentage on a team that didn’t make the playoffs last season.

Hagelin is in the same boat, but with a bit less of a scoring touch. Hagelin has elite possession metrics, which bodes well for the Capitals. If the expected third line (after Kuznetsov returns to the lineup) of Hagelin – Eller – Panik gets prime matchups against other teams’ top offensive lines, they’ll be able to keep those lines on the defensive most of the time. It’ll be even better if that third line can chip in offensively as well. Panik is effectively replacing Brett Connolly. It would be nice if he got closer to his 22 goal campaign in Chicago in 2016-17.

Also, one might guess that MacLellan wanted to add more physical presences to the lineup to help get Tom Wilson away from the fray. The Caps’ young power forward made huge strides offensively last season, and has cemented himself in the Caps’ top six. You’d have to expect that both Reirden and MacLellan want to see more offensive growth out of Wilson this season, which brings Gudas and Hathaway into the fray.

Not only are they both capable defensively and at suppressing shots and high danger chances against, they are both able to provide some enforcer qualities. The more Wilson can focus on being a top six scoring threat, the better. Gudas and Hathaway should help in that regard.

There’s a few things that Caps fans can expect this season. One is that the forwards are going to be much better in supporting the defense and doing their part to reduce the high danger scoring chances against.

The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league in that regard, and it certainly had a negative impact on the Caps last season. It looks like MacLellan is looking to build a shutdown bottom six, and the third line could be one of the better defensive forward lines in the league.

The Caps should also have a much improved penalty kill, mainly because MacLellan added quality players who can play in that deployment at a high level. Panik, Hathaway, and Gudas should be able to step into the PK and improve it considerably. This will also mean that there will be less reliance on Backstrom and Oshie on the penalty kill, which should help keep them healthy and fresh for more offensive opportunities. 

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager. Justin enjoys geeking out over advanced analytics, roster construction, and cap management.
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