Photo: Scott Audette/Getty Images
It was no secret that the Washington Capitals were looking to improve their defensive play after last season. After limiting opponents to an average of 2.54 goals-against per game in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs en route to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, they were tied for 17th with an average of 3.02 goals-against during last year’s playoffs despite an arguably improved blueline from the previous season after they added Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings. It was clear that the Capitals needed more defensive buy-in from their forwards, so GM Brian MacLellan went out and signed forward Garnet Hathaway on the first day of free agency.
The Capitals were also looking to stabilize their fourth-line after it was a revolving door during the 2018-19 season when Devante Smith-Pelly was waived, Dmitrij Jaskin was claimed but played only 37 games, and Chandler Stephenson had a team-worst -13 rating and failed to build on a strong breakthrough season.
Hathaway was coming off of a strong season with the Calgary Flames in 2018-19 when he helped turn them from a team that finished 11 points out of a wild card spot the previous season to first in the Western Conference. Hathaway jumped from 59 games played in 2017-18 to 76 last season and he capitalized on his opportunity, finishing the season with 11 goals, 19 points, and a +14 rating. When Hathaway became an unrestricted free agent, MacLellan showed how much he respected his game by offering him a four-year contract.
So far, MacLellan’s gamble has paid off.
While playing in all but three Capitals’ games this year (suspension), Hathaway has averaged 11:20 of ice-time per game, including 1:25 per game on a penalty kill that has gone from 24th in the NHL with a 78.9% efficiency last season to third in the league with an 83.3% kill rate. Hathaway did receive a three-game suspension by the NHL on November 20 for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson during the heat of a fight.
His average of 2.7 hits-per-game is currently tied for third on the Capitals, while his 29 blocked shots are fourth among forwards. Hathaway’s 1.5 takeaways per game is third among skaters who have appeared in at least three games and his 11 giveaways are the fourth-fewest.
When former Capitals’ head coach Barry Trotz came to town with the New York Islanders last week, he compared the identity to what the Capitals have created to the fourth-line to the Islanders’, which has been one of the league’s best, if not the best, for years. Hathaway has played a major role in making the Capitals’ fourth-line one of the league’s most dangerous this season.
While the Capitals brought Hathaway, who has a 53.4% Corsi-for percentage (shots + blocks + misses for vs. against), to Washington to make the team harder to play against defensively, he has also been able to contribute offensively. Hathaway is on pace to score 12 goals and 24 points this season, which would set career-highs in each category for him. Though, he has a -1.4 goals above expected, according to MoneyPuck.
Another reason Hathaway was brought in was to take some of the weight off of forward Tom Wilson’s shoulders to play physically so he could focus on producing offensively after a career season last year. Hathaway has done that when needed. While Wilson still leads the Capitals with 65 penalty minutes this season, he is on pace for a career-low 127 penalty minutes. Offensively, Wilson is on pace for 27 goals and 53 points this season, which would set career-highs in both categories.
MacLellan signed Hathaway to make the Capitals’ fourth-line a pain to play against, something that has been lacking since Daniel Winnik left in 2017 and Wilson was promoted to the top line. He has exceeded expectations and has added the forward depth that the Capitals desperately needed over the summer. In addition, Hathaway has been able to pitch in offensively. It appears that giving him four years was a good move, especially given his cap hit of $1.5 million.
If the Capitals are going to go far in the playoffs, the fourth-line has to keep up their current play. As the heartbeat of that trio, it starts with Hathaway.
By Harrison Brown