It was expected that the Washington Capitals would have some shaking-up to do to their lineup once Evgeny Kuznetsov returned from his three-game suspension earlier this week, mainly with regards to freeing up salary cap space so that the Capitals could fit under the salary cap ceiling. After the relatively unsurprising moves of sending down Travis Boyd and Martin Fehervary, many likely expected that Chandler Stephenson would be the player healthy scratched for Kuznetsov’s 2019-20 NHL premiere. We know now that wasn’t the case.
Stephenson, fresh off an impressive training camp and preseason, was slotted-in as the teams’ fourth line center. Some people saw this as a surprise, considering Nic Dowd had solidified himself in that position last season, scoring eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 64 games played last season. Those are relatively strong numbers considering Dowd was only getting 10:18 in average ice time last season.
In this post, we’ll take a look at each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and who is best suited for a regular spot in the Caps’ lineup.
There’s a few things to be aware of here. Dowd has only played in three games so far this season, while Stephenson has played in five. The sample sizes are a bit different, and since Dowd’s sample size is smaller, his stats are likely to be a bit more skewed. In fact, Stephenson has nearly double the amount of ice time that Dowd has registered this season.
While Dowd has better ‘Corsi For’ and ‘Fenwick For’ percentages than Stephenson, the ‘shots for’ percentage helps substantiate the difference between the players. Dowd was on the ice for 11 shots on goal for, and 11 shots on goal against. Stephenson was on the ice for 21 shots for and 19 against. This isn’t a substantial difference by any means, but it shows that the ‘Corsi For’ and the ‘Fenwick For’ percentages for Dowd were likely inflated quite a bit, and would definitely come back to earth at some point.
Another thing to keep in mind was that Stephenson was getting more of the harder matchups while centering the third line during Kuznetsov’s suspension. He was playing with better linemates, but was also playing against better competition than on the fourth line. The difference in Stephenson’s stats since joining the fourth line are below:
The only aspect that’s improved for Stephenson on the fourth line is his possession metrics. His high danger chances for, faceoff, and shots for percentages have all dipped a bit. It’s reasonable to expect a slight drop-off in high danger chance for and shots for percentages dropping from a line with Richard Panik and Carl Hagelin to a line with Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway.
That being said, the main difference between Stephenson’s fourth line center numbers and Dowd’s is the faceoff percentage. Dowd had a 43.5 faceoff win percentage, and the last two games, Stephenson has had a 55.5% faceoff win percentage. That’s what Reirden and the coaching staff want from their fourth line: the ability to win defensive zone face-offs. Leipsic, Hathaway, and Stephenson have 5 on 5 offensive zone faceoff start rates of 20%, 18.18%, and 20% respectively. This line takes a vast majority of their zone starts in the defensive zone, which amplifies the importance of winning the draw.
Ultimately, the difference between Stephenson and Dowd comes down to skill set. They both are generally similar players offensively in terms of shot generation and shot attempts. Dowd had a career year in goal scoring last season, but also had a shooting percentage of 17% last season, way over his career average of 9.5%. They both are not shoot-first players, or really shoot-at-all players. Dowd has zero shots on goal this season. Stephenson has 1 shot on goal. The only point between the two is Stephenson’s assist on Tom Wilson’s shorthanded goal against Nashville. The main reason why Stephenson is in the lineup and Dowd isn’t comes down to what was mentioned before: faceoff win percentage.
By Justin Trudel