Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
After forwards Brett Connolly (signed four-year contract with Florida Panthers as unrestricted free agent) and Andre Burakovsky (traded to Colorado Avalanche) moved on last summer, the Washington Capitals have a new look to their third-line with forwards Carl Hagelin, who was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on February 21 and signed a four-year contract on June 16, and Richard Panik, who signed a four-year contract on July 1. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan was looking to improve defensive play after the team finished last season with an average of 3.02 goals-against per game, tied for 17th in the NHL and the third-worst among teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It took a while for center Lars Eller to get used to his new linemates after spending the majority of his first three seasons in Washington with Burakovsky and Connolly, both of whom he had great chemistry with. Panik only recorded two goals and three points in his first 25 games with his new club and missed 10 games due to an upper-body injury, while it took Hagelin, who missed 11 with an upper-body injury, 28 games to record his first goal of the season. Eller has been consistent as he has 11 goals, 29 points, and a +3 rating while playing in all of the Capitals’ 51 games.
Even when in the lineup earlier in the season, Panik struggled to adjust to the Capitals’ system as he did not play very well and posted just a -1 rating before getting hurt. Meanwhile, Hagelin kept getting opportunities but didn’t get any puck luck.
The Capitals’ focus on defensive play early in the season may have stifled the group’s offensive chemistry. Of the 14:16 per game Hagelin averages, 2:54 have come on the penalty kill leading all Capitals’ forwards, while Panik doesn’t average as much time but still plays around 40 seconds per game while shorthanded. Each of them sees at least 51% of their zone starts in the defensive zone.
Right before Christmas, things appeared to start clicking for the trio as Panik has five goals, nine points, and a +4 rating in his last 16 games after a two-goal performance in the Capitals’ 5-4 loss to the Nashville Predators on Wednesday and Hagelin is currently riding a four-game point streak, where he has amassed two goals and four points. Since returning from injury, Panik has a +10 rating.
Through 51 games this season, the third line regulars have combined for 21 goals and 33 assists for 54 points. At this point last season, the Connolly-Eller-Burakovsky line had produced 21 goals and 36 assists for 57 points.
With his strong play after a slow start, Panik has risen to 10th on the team with a 53% Corsi-for percentage (shots + blocks + misses for vs. against), just behind Hagelin (53.2%), meaning the Capitals control the play more times than not when the third-line is on the ice. Eller ranks sixth with a 55.7% Corsi-for percentage and third with a 55.8% Fenwick-for percentage (shots + misses for vs. against). Hagelin currently has a 52.4% Fenwick-for percentage while Panik has a 51.9%. When Eller is on the ice, the Capitals get scoring chances 53.68% more than they don’t. They get 51.37% more scoring chances when Hagelin is on the ice than not and 50.7% more than not when Panik is.
The third-line appears to have found their spark, which is exactly what the Capitals need if they are going to go deep into May and June this season as winning teams in the past have shown that they need four lines contributing. The good news for the Capitals is that the other three lines have been producing for the majority of the season. While it may have taken a little longer than everyone would have hoped, injuries did not help.
The trio’s early struggles led to some speculation that the Capitals would look to add forward depth at the deadline, but with the third-line contributing offensively, the Capitals have scored 19 goals in their last four games. All three players are playing well right now and if that trend continues, the Capitals should find themselves in very good shape heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By Harrison Brown