On February 18th, in an attempt to bolster the struggling Capitals roster, General Manager Brian MacLellan traded Colorado’s 2020 second round selection and a conditional 2021 third round selection to San Jose for Brenden Dillon. Five days later, MacLellan sent a 2020 third round selection to the Montreal Canadiens for Ilya Kovalchuk. The acquisition of Dillon was a move to help shore up a struggling defensive group, giving John Carlson a proven shut-down defensive partner, while the addition of Kovalchuk was a move to help add more scoring depth on the right wing for the bottom six forward group.
Let’s take a look at how the two players have fared in their time in Washington so far. The caveats here are that their sample sizes are very small compared to more extensive time with their precious teams, and they are adjusting to a new system which can be quite a learning curve. The key to this post is to establish an initial baseline of analysis for both players, to be utilized for follow-up analysis. All statistics are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.
MacLellan made a relatively surprising move the night before the deadline. The third line of Hagelin, Eller, and Panik had been an effective possession line (58.92% Corsi For, 55.22 Fenwick For), but had only scored 11 even-strength goals while on the ice together in 44 games played.
While Panik has been playing better as of late, he’s not adding the scoring touch that the Caps had relied on Brett Connolly to provide on the third line the past few seasons. Adding Kovalchuk and his offensive talents for a relatively low price was a shrewd move, since he can move around in the lineup and provide more help to an under-performing Caps power play group.
Below is a comparison of Kovalchuk’s first two games played with the Caps compared to his 22 games played as a Montreal Canadien:
Interestingly enough, both of Kovalchuk’s games played came against the Winnipeg Jets, who he so happens to be the franchise leader in goals scored from his time as an Atlanta Thrasher.
Unfortunately, he was unable to get on the score sheet in either tilt, but was able to post decent possession numbers in each game (50.00% Corsi For and Fenwick For in his first game and 51.61% Corsi For and 50.00% Fenwick For in game two).
One of the other things to keep in mind with Kovalchuk is that he’s playing a smaller role on the Capitals than he was with the Canadiens. He was getting nearly 19 minutes a game in ice time in Montreal, compared to an average of 15:48 with the Caps through two games.
He has generated six shots on goal through two games, and if he keeps that pace up, he should be able to pot some goals. The most memorable of his shots on goal came in the second match-up with Winnipeg, where he blasted a one-timer from Ovi’s Office on the power play, only to have Connor Hellebuyck make a masterful glove save.
Kovalchuk, 36, is a career 13.8% shooter, so his shots should start hitting the back of the net if his shot volume stays where it is.
Overall, Kovalchuk’s performance so far seems to be what’s expected of a player who’s adjusting to a new system and playing a slightly diminished offensive role. There’s still more to be seen of Kovalchuk, but adding a player of his quality to a third line is definitely a commodity.
Dillon was one of the hotter commodities on the market for rental defensemen, adding a very responsible defensive style and a high level of physicality to any team’s blue line. MacLellan met the Sharks’ asking price for Dillon after the Caps had been struggling with defensive zone assignments, especially in the low slot area immediately in front of the goal.
Dillon’s shot suppression in that area was a huge contributor as to why the Capitals acquired him, and he’s found chemistry on the top pairing with John Carlson. Dillon’s experience playing with other elite offensive-minded defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson also helped him cement his spot next to Carlson.
Let’s take a look at how he’s performed so far as a Capital, compared to his time with the Sharks this season:
During five on five play, Dillon has improved all of his advanced analytic metrics except for an extremely slight dip in Corsi For percentage. Overall, he’s been a great addition on the blue line, and further endeared himself to Caps fans after throwing some hay-makers at Evgeni Malkin on Sunday.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) February 23, 2020
Adding a player of Dillon’s caliber and style to the top pairing with Carlson has paid early dividends. Compared to the previous top pairing of Kempny and Carlson, the pairing of Dillon with Carlson has improved in Corsi For Percentage (48.28% to 52.38%), Fenwick For Percentage (48.40% to 54.31%), Scoring Chances For Percentage (47.30% to 55.07%), High Danger Chances For Percentage (50.90% to 65.63%), and High Danger Goals For Percentage (57.58% to 60.00%).
The sample size is also a consideration here. The Capitals are certainly looking for more of the same from that top pairing, as well as looking for some improvements from the second and third pairings. Todd Reirden and Reid Cashman will likely continue tinkering with the personnel on the second and third pairings to find the right fits as well.
Overall, the Dillon acquisition is paying immediate dividends. The top pairing is more than likely to be controlling the play while on the ice, according to their advanced analytical performance. The biggest question for the Caps’ blue line rests on finding the right personnel for the second and third pairings to ensure that the Caps don’t have to rely on Dillon and Carlson to skate extremely high and hard minutes down the stretch.
It’s still too early to call on the Kovalchuk acquisition. We have seen how long it has taken Richard Panik to adjust to the Caps’ system, so it’ll take a bit longer for Kovalchuk to gel with his new line mates. He’s shown promising signs so far, but the Caps ultimately want him to get on the score sheet.
By Justin Trudel