On February 22, 2019 the Capitals and General Manager Brian MacLellan acquired defenseman Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings at the trade deadline, and subsequently extended him on a 4 year, $2.5 million annual average value contract. After a disappointing first round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes, MacLellan and the Caps’ front office and coaching staff identified some holes in their roster construction, and sought to fill those gaps through free agency and trades entering the 2019-20 season.
With a strategy of improving shot suppression and overall penalty killing success, the Capitals signed wingers Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, and Brendan Leipsic, as well as sent Matt Niskanen to the Flyers in return for defenseman Radko Gudas. In this piece, we’ll evaluate the success of MacLellan’s acquisitions so far this season, and give them a letter grade.
All statistics in this post are thanks to Hockey-Reference.com.
Looking back at the pre-season evaluations of Richard Panik, the Capitals were adding a forward who ranked first on the Coyotes at five on five play for forwards with at least 50 games played in shot attempt percentage, goals for, shot attempts per 60 minutes, and goals for per 60 minutes. Panik was also coming off of a 2018-19 season where he scored 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists), and also had a 20-goal season on his resume. He seemed like a solid replacement for Brett Connolly on the third line, who departed the Caps after the 2018-19 season.
After suffering an injury earlier this season, Panik’s adjustment to the Capitals’ systems and style of play was disrupted. He’s scored 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in 39 games this season, scoring at a .256 points per game pace. That’s quite a bit behind his career points per game pace of .387 prior to joining the Capitals this season.
Looking at his possession metrics, he’s having a pretty strong year, amassing a 53.3% Corsi For percentage, and a 52.6% Fenwick For percentage. While those are higher than his possession metrics in Arizona last season (50.8% CF%, 50.4% FF%), he’s actually in the negative (-.2% CF relative, -.7% FF relative) to the rest of the Capitals in on-ice possession. Overall, he’s been on the ice for more goals for (19) than against (9) at five on five play this season.
Ultimately, Panik has cemented himself firmly in the “okay” performance level thus far this season. He’s started to improve offensively in the past ten games, posting 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists), which is more along the lines of what the Capitals expected when signing him to a 4 year, $2.75 million annual average value contract on July 1st.
As mentioned earlier in this post, the Capitals were looking to improve defensively, especially addressing shot attempts against. The Caps subsequently signed Garnet Hathaway, who was touted for his shot suppression abilities. The Calgary Flames saw a decrease in shot attempts against within 10 feet of their net relative to the NHL average. MacLellan then signed Hathaway to a four year deal, worth $1.5 million annually.
Overall, it’s easy to say that Hathaway has impressed thus far into his stint with the Capitals. Prior to signing with the Capitals, Hathaway amassed 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 175 games, good for a .228 points per game pace. So far this season, Hathaway has compiled 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) in 46 games played, which is a .260 points per game pace. The interesting piece here is that Hathaway’s ice time has not dramatically increased from last season, where he played on average 10:32 per game and scored 19 points (11 goals, 8 assists). This season, he’s averaging 11:15 of time on ice. The Capitals’ fourth line with Hathaway, Leipsic, and Nic Dowd have been able to contribute offensively, and are one of the most effective fourth lines in the NHL.
Additionally, Hathaway is currently having a career year in regards to his possession metrics (54.3% Corsi For, 55.0% Fenwick For), and is actually performing higher regarding possession than the Capitals’ overall possession metrics (+2.1% Corsi Relative, +2.8% Fenwick Relative). Overall, he’s been effective at five on five play, only being on the ice for 12 goals against, while being on the ice for 19 goals for this season. It looks like MacLellan really scored a diamond-in-the-rough bottom six forward in Hathaway.
Leipsic was a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Capitals and MacLellan. Coming in on a one year prove-it deal at an annual value of $700,000, it seems like the Capitals “gamble” on Leipsic has paid off. Not only did they get a player who can slot into a short-term role higher in the lineup, they got a player who also contributes on the second power play unit.
Prior to signing with the Capitals, Leipsic bounced around with four teams in five years. He never really found a long-term home in the NHL, but had some promising numbers with offensive upside. Leipsic scored 48 points (13 goals, 35 assists) in 126 games, good for a .38 points per game pace.
In 49 games with the Capitals this season, Leipsic has scored 10 points in 49 games, good for a .204 points per game pace. While this is a bit lower than his usual pace, his average time on ice is considerably lower, racking 9:15 in time on ice this season compared to an average of 14:09 last season in Los Angeles. Also, he was snake-bitten early this season, not registering a goal until November 1st against Buffalo, despite registering 15 shots on goal, and generating 20 high danger chances for and 55 scoring chances for.
Ultimately, the point for improvement for Leipsic is solely offensive output. He’s posting stellar possession metrics (54.2% Corsi For, 55% Fenwick For), so there’s nothing to really be supremely concerned about. He’s currently tied with Radko Gudas for 11th overall on the Caps in scoring at five on five play, and that’s with significantly less ice-time than the players ahead of him.
Going into the summer of 2019, the Capitals found themselves in a cap crunch, needing three more roster forwards, a new contract for Jakub Vrana, and not enough cash to make all those things happen. This resulted in MacLellan shipping out pending restricted free agent Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche, and trading Matt Niskanen to division rival Philadelphia for Radko Gudas.
While the move was mostly made for cap constraint reasons, Gudas has really impressed on the Caps this season. Known more for his penchant for physical play and accruing penalty minutes, many Caps fans were concerned about Gudas coming into the season. Gudas quickly rose to the occasion, solidifying himself as a presence on the right side of the Capitals’ defensive corps.
Coming into the 2019-20 regular season, Gudas wasn’t considered much of an offensive threat, accruing 105 points (24 goals, 81 assists) in 416 games. He’s been pretty decent offensively with the Capitals, putting up 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) in 49 games. His career high in points was 23 with the Flyers in 2016-17, and he’s currently on pace for just over 23 points this season. He’s also playing considerably less in average time on ice than his 2016-17 mark for his offensive career best, going from 19:18 to 17:07. Gudas has also been a mainstay on the Capitals’ penalty kill.
Gudas has also improved in possession metrics this season, up from a 49.1% Corsi For percentage and a 49.7 Fenwick For percentage with the Flyers last season to a 51.2% Corsi For and a 50.4% Fenwick For with the Caps. He’s been effective defensively, being on the ice for 29 five on five goals against while being on the ice for 44 goals for.
As mentioned in the introduction of this post, the Capitals landed Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings, sending out Madison Bowey and a second round pick. Jensen was then immediately extended to a contract identical to the one they signed Michal Kempny to, four years at an AAV of $2.5 million. Jensen was lauded as a solid pickup for any team needing a smooth skating right handed defenseman, and the Caps had a hole in their defensive corps there. Bowey was struggling at the NHL level, and the Caps had draft capital to spend to bolster their attempt at repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
Ultimately, we know how that turned out – the Caps didn’t go far in their campaign to repeat, and Jensen is appearing to be a borderline 2nd to 3rd pairing defenseman. He still fits in the Caps plans today, and isn’t a liability on the ice most nights.
Jensen does not add a lot offensively. Through his career so far, he’s scoring at a .196 points per game pace. Through 190 games with the Red Wings, he put up 43 points, or a .226 point per game pace. Comparatively, he has put up a .116 points per game pace with the Capitals. This is a bit concerning, considering the quality of offensive talents that the Capitals have on the roster. The drop-off in points per game could be due to lower ice time, going from an average ice time of 18:05 (a high of 20:48 in 2018-19) with the Red Wings to an average of 17:33 with the Caps. With the Capitals this season, he’s starting in the defensive zone 51.5% of the time. He actually had very similar deployment percentages in Detroit (51.8% starts coming in the defensive zone).
When looking at possession metrics, Jensen does have pretty decent numbers, all things considered. So far this season, he’s at a mark of 51.1% Corsi For and 50.9% Fenwick For, but they’re -1.7 and -2.0 respectfully when looking at possession rates relative to the team’s on-ice performance. He’s really improved on those marks from last year, where he had -9.3 Corsi relative and -8.4 Fenwick relative with possession metrics of 46.6% Corsi For and 47.1% Fenwick For.
The other concerning piece with Jensen is that he’s been on the ice for 38 goals against at even strength versus 29 goals for. His expected goals against (24.4) is quite a bit lower than his actual goals against (38), so there’s some low quality chances going in the Capitals’ net when he’s on the ice at even strength.
Ultimately, Jensen’s best asset is his puck-moving ability and his skating. He’s not very solid offensively or defensively, but can exit the zone proficiently and create rush chances with a quick pass out of the defensive zone. The problem here is, he’s probably best suited for a third pairing role, and MacLellan will have to make the call as to whether or not he’s worth the $2.5 million per year price tag to play in that type of role in the future.
By Justin Trudel